Malachy Clerkin: Ireland don’t quite reach greatness, but do enough to win Six Nations

Ireland deserved to win Six Nations, but would a great team butcher as many tries as they did here?

The crowd were on to it a little ahead of the players. As the last few phases of Ireland’s tournament played out and Ryan Baird dived into one more carry and recycle, the stands began to rumble to The Fields Of Athenry. Even as Bundee Aki and James Lowe were screaming and pointing and refusing to be champions yet, their supporters had seen enough. They were on their feet, cameras out, conclusions foregone.

Once Lowe kicked into Row Z, the Ireland team melted into the celebrations of their people. They looked exhausted and careworn, as well they might. They had just become back-to-back champions with a World Cup sandwiched in between, the first time any team has done that in the Six Nations era. It must feel like they’ve been playing eight days a week, 13 months a year, forever at their limit.

And now, though they finish it all as the undisputed best team in Europe, the questions still come. Everyone could see that this was a ragged display by Andy Farrell’s side, one riven with errors, a night when they made heavier weather of putting the Scots away than they needed to. As Jack Crowley kicked off after Huw Jones’s try, all it needed was one mistake and Scotland would have been on the front foot against 14 players. It shouldn’t have been that close.

But they are champions again. They got the Zombie and the stage and the fireworks. They’ll start 2025 as a team attempting the first three-in-a-row in the history of the tournament. All those Irish players listed in Saturday’s Irish Times who never won a championship – Keith Wood, Denis Hickie, Shane Horgan and countless more – must look at them and weep.

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So where does this leave us? Somewhere along the way during the week, it became the done thing to ask whether or not this is a great Ireland team. To argue the point either way seems a little pointless, of course, as if there’s a right and a wrong answer. But although this constant urge to be definitive takes all the good out of living in the moment, you can see why this Ireland team in particular would inspire the question.

The World Cup didn’t settle matters. This Six Nations hasn’t done it either. You probably can’t be considered a great team if you win some big games (South Africa, France) and lose some others (New Zealand, England). But then again, this is just the third ever Ireland side to win back-to-back championships. So if this isn’t a great Ireland team, what does it say about all the ones that went before them? Were they merely decent teams? Middling ones? It doesn’t take long for this sort of conversation to feel a bit silly.

More to the point, you never stand in the same river twice. There is actually no such thing as the Ireland team. There is the Ireland team that played here against Scotland and the one that played last week in Twickenham and the one that played in the World Cup and all the other ones too. Farrell talks all the time about his team in the present continuous. They are always a work in progress.

From the Ireland backline alone here, Ireland were without Mack Hansen, Hugo Keenan, Jimmy O’Brien and Ciarán Frawley. Keith Earls and Johnny Sexton have retired since the World Cup. In the final reckoning, Harry Byrne was at outhalf and Jack Crowley was at fullback. (Well, Byrne was in the sinbin, causing Crowley to have to move back to 10 but you get the picture). Is this a great Ireland team? Who are you talking about, exactly?

“We all know that things change year on year as far as personnel is concerned and injuries,” Farrell said afterwards. “Staff leaving, staff coming. I reckon the loss last week was the best thing for us. Some of these lads – unconsciously now, not of their own doing – they’ve been used to winning. But the special thing about the Six Nations and why the Grand Slam is so hard to do is that it changes week on week. People are fighting for their lives.

“For some of these lads who are not used to losing at all – I don’t know, I’ll have to ask them – but they could get to a point where they’re turning up for games thinking, ‘We’re doing it.’ But you’re not. You’re never doing it in the Six Nations because things change. Last week was a proper test match, as it should be. And tonight was a proper test match.”

It was and Ireland deserved to win it. But they made a pile of mistakes along the way, the sort of things that bring out the nitpickers. Would a great team butcher as many tries as Ireland did here. Would a great team drop as many balls or give away as many penalties? Would a great team spend so much of the second half in the opposition half and still be sweating on the last phases of the game?

Whatever way you want to define the indefinable, Ireland are probably not a great team. But with another Six Nations in the bag, they’re plenty good enough to do the job until great comes along.

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