As Six Nations’ Grand Slams go, the one Rory Best collected amid the snowflakes at Twickenham beats them all.
Gauged on a sliding scale of grandiosity, it tops the lot.
How fitting that hot on the heels of Cheltenham the Irish untouchables should turn rugby’s seven-week steeplechase into the longest procession since Arkle won the second and third of his Gold Cup hat-trick in the mid-60s by a combined distance of 50 lengths.
On Saturday nobody got that close, not even Wales and they finished second, staggering over the final hurdle thanks to French largesse on a scale that had to be seen to be believed. By then the riotous Irish coronation had rendered it all irrelevant.
No Grand Slam winner had ever adorned their achievement with as many as 20 tries over the five successive victories.
They have now and the genesis of this the most bountiful of Slams can be traced back to Easter week in 1996, to the birth of a Presbyterian minister’s son in Co. Antrim.
According to family folklore, Ivan Stockdale celebrated the arrival of a grandson by going out to the local sports store for a present in the shape of a brand new rugby ball. There was a tradition to be maintained, the old man and his son, the Reverend Graham Stockdale, having developed a passion for the game at Ballyclare High School.
Jacob appears to have taken the hint from an early age. Within four years he had enrolled at the local rugby club, Ballynahinch in Co Down where his father had been preaching. His seventh birthday in 2003 arrived four days after Ireland had first manouevred themselves into a position to play England at Lansdowne Road for the whole caboodle only to be given a slamming for their trouble. As befitting their status, the No. 1 ranked team won at a canter en route to claiming the World Cup a few months later, five tries in Dublin raising their total for the campaign to an unprecedented 18. Wales managed 17 two years later since when no Grand Slammer has gathered more than 13.
Brian O’Driscoll’s Ireland in 2009 made do with twelve 12 the formidable presence of their very own Ulster matchwinner on one wing. Tommy Bowe’s feats, not least in the Cardiff finale against Wales, pale into insignificance compared to Stockdale’s.
That the new champions have gone two tries better than England’s World Cup winners as the first Slammers to reach 20 for the campaign is as much a monumental tribute to the young colossus on the left wing as it is to the rest of the squad.
The feat needs to be put in a historical context. A whole host of revered Irish Lions from every decade of the second half of the 20th century – Tom Kiernan, Willie-John McBride, Noel Murphy, Mike Gibson, Moss Keane, Fergus Slattery, Ollie Campbell, Donal Lenihan, Tony Ward, Ciarán Fitzgerald, Keith Wood – spent their entire lives in pursuit of the Holy Grail and never got the sniff of one between them.
Stockdale could be forgiven for thinking that Grand Slams grow on the trees around Ballynahinch.
He wins it at the first attempt and scores more tries in one Six Nations season than anyone in the history of the tournament.
Having made the most of opponents bearing gifts during successive home wins over Wales and Scotland, he could hardly have imagined that England would go out of their way to present him with another.
Their decision to extend the in-goal areas at Twickenham closer to their 22-metre limit gave Ireland’s most ruthless finisher just the space to for his historic seventh try. More importantly, it finished England off.
It wasn’t as if they hadn’t been forewarned about Jacob’s ladder. What he began building against Argentina before Christmas soared to a towering level above Twickenham, high enough for the champions to raise the green ribboned trophy towards the heavens.
His father, a hospice and prison chaplain, ought to appreciate the Old Testament analogy.
Les Bleus authors of their own downfall
France will have ample reason to be kicking themselves this morning for what might have been. Had Anthony Belleau not missed a regulation penalty to put them 16-12 ahead on the opening weekend with two minutes left, Ireland would have needed something more miraculous than 41 phases and a long-distance drop goal.
The French will also cast a regretful look back at the next match at Murrayfield and ask why they twice squandered winning positions in a blizzard of penalties.
Worst of all, they finished in Cardiff as they started in Paris, losing again because another fly-half missed another routine penalty.
Francois Trinh-Duc’s failure raised an awkward question: why, in a match that was always liable to be settled off the tee, did Jacques Brunel see fit to withdraw the player best equipped to nail the winning goal, Maxime Machenaud?
Six minutes later, with the Racing scrum-half kicking his heels on the bench, France’s veteran head coach saw Trinh-Duc miss. He then replaced him with a more reliable place-kicker, Lionel Beauxis — a classic case of closing the stable door after the horse had bolted.
England’s loss has been Ireland’s gain again
Now that the ‘scummy’ lot from across the sea have cleaned up, Eddie Jones ought to have had time to reflect on the ultimate irony, of the roles played in Ireland’s renaissance by two of the England coaches sacked to make way for his appointment.
Stuart Lancaster has overseen the charge of the blue brigade from Test novices to Grand Slam winners: Jordan Larmour at 20, James Ryan at 21, Andrew Porter and Joey Carbery at 22, Dan Leavy and Garry Ringrose at 23. As Ireland’s defence coach, Andy Farrell has been an integral part of Joe Schmidt’s hierarchy for more than two years. A case of England’s loss being Ireland’s gain.
Romance lives on in Italy
Jake Polledri has made the quantum leap from Dings Crusaders in suburban Bristol to the Olympic Stadium in Rome, from making Italian BMT’s (Bigger, Meatier, Tastier) at his dad’s sandwich bar to playing a blinder for the Azzurri against Scotland. His grandparents made their separate way from Italy to the UK after the war, met at an ice-cream factory in Wales and opened a café business in Bristol.
Their son, Peter Polledri, played almost 500 times for Bristol and once for England U23s.
At 21, their grandson made such a thunderous entry into the Italian back row that he deserved the winning debut that was denied Italy by Greig Laidlaw’s unforgiving right boot. Proof that romance hasn’t been completely throttled by professionalism yet.
Steady Eddie wins the pundit slam
The two coaches involved in the 2003 Ireland-England double Grand Slam decider went head-to-head again pre-match in their role as pundits.
Clive Woodward on Ireland:
“So what with the added expectation of a St Patrick’s Day win, I can see it all being a bit fraught for Ireland.” Oh dear.
Eddie O’Sullivan on England:
“Their back row is a mess. Their midfield is worse. Their defence is ropey. And their confidence has been shattered.”
The Nostradamus verdict:
Ireland 1, ‘Scummy’ England 0.
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