Six Nations Grand Slams don’t come easily and that was certainly the case for Ireland in 2009.
It was 61 years and counting since Jackie Kyle had inspired Ireland to their last clean sweep, when the generation of Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara, Paul O’Connell and company stepped forward to try and write their names in the history books.
“We had a lot of good players that were coming together, we felt like we had a good coaching group and a lot of senior players that had been around the block longer than others. If there was a time we needed to step up, 2009 was one of the years we needed to do that,” said back-row enforcer Stephen Ferris who started every game, from the opening round win over France to the Grand Slam clincher in Cardiff.
A Grand Slam is a special achievement and something that has been achieved 11 times in the Guinness Six Nations. @WelshRugbyUnion— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) January 13, 2021
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France were a formidable team at the time, one year out from what would be the last of their Six Nations titles, but Ireland managed to beat them 30-21 at Croke Park to get off to a winning start.
“(Sébastien) Chabal was playing for France at that stage, he was someone I was very cautious of because he was such an athlete and was playing at the top of his game and it was a really good marker that France game (collectively and personally),” said the Ulsterman.
“I think it was a Gordon D’Arcy try that got us over the line. We didn’t play the best rugby but that’s what the Six Nations is all about. If you don’t play particularly well, you tried to grind out a result. There was a feeling in the dressing room that we’d need to up our game if we were to achieve our ultimate goal – the Grand Slam.”
A brace of tries from Luke Fitzgerald helped Ireland beat Italy 38-9 in Rome in round two, and Ferris says he could sense Ireland were starting to head in the right direction.
“We’d been practising this little, short ball off nine, where there was a bit of dummy, I think it was from Strings (Peter Stringer), he challenged the first defender and he popped it up to me and I steamed onto it and hit the deck and I popped the ball up to Luke Fitzgerald who raced onto it and scored under the sticks. That was a really good indication that what we were doing in training was translating into games.
“Before you know it, you are two out of two.”
England came close but not close enough
England were the next visitors to Croke Park but while there was only one point between the teams (14-13 to Ireland), Ferris says the final scoreline was not really reflective of the 80 minutes.
“There was this feeling in the game that we were always in control and we were never going to let it out of our grasp. It was a good mindset to be in. Even though it was a tight game and a bit edgy after England scored late on, we always felt we could win it.”
Scotland, Ferris says, was arguably Ireland’s best performance but even then there was still only a converted try separating the teams, with Ireland leaving Murrayfield as 22-15 winners thanks to a Jamie Heaslip try and the deadly boot of O’Gara.
“We played a lot better rugby in parts in that game. I remember in the first four or five minutes, the ball was kicked long, we had a good kick chase and Simon Taylor, the Scotland back-rower, received the ball and I put in one of my hardest-ever tackles on him. In fairness, he took it well, but when I hit him, I got straight back on my feet and counter rucked and a couple of boys came in behind me and the ball spilt out and we regathered it, and we went again. A couple of moments like that set the tone.”
Ireland went to Cardiff with everything on the line and, fittingly for a Championship of small margins, it was only when Stephen Jones’ last-second penalty attempt fell just under the bar instead of over it, that Ireland could celebrate and the long end for a Grand Slam was officially over.
At that stage, Ferris was in the stands at the Millennium Stadium after a compound fracture to his finger brought his involvement to a premature conclusion in the seventh minute.
“There was lots of emotion, a feeling of euphoria and accomplishment that I will never forget,” he said.
“Myself, Tommy Bowe, Besty (Rory Best), Paddy Wallace – the Ulster lads – went around the pitch and Maurice Field, who played for Ireland and Ulster, was in the front row of the stand balling his eyes out as if someone had died.
“It was a relief for him. You could see what it meant to him, it was amazing. I went over and gave him a hug. He helped me out in the Ulster academy for a few months and I knew him quite well and it was brilliant we were able to send fans like him away happy.”