Search icon


18th Mar 2023

Ireland’s two best players on Grand Slam night sum up what this team is all about

Patrick McCarry

Ryan Baird

“We’ve had 31 lads play, but 48 guys in with us during the championship.”

As a Grand Slam triumph sank in, for many of the Ireland players, Ryan Baird showed an incredible, late burst that took the Aviva Stadium security staff by surprise.

Anyone that has seen the young Leinster forward in action, in recent years, will have recognised that rangy gait, though. That gallop speed you would not expect for a 6-foot-5 guy.

Baird, who started this Six Nations campaign as a squad player and a holder of tackle pads, was Ireland’s best forward on a night when they overcame a nervy, stuttering performance to clinch a Grand Slam at home for the first time in their history.

The likes of Craig Casey, Jamie Osborne, Roman Salanoa and Jordan Larmour were all standing nearby – taking in the scenes but not with that huge adrenaline high of their teammates that had sealed victory. Baird was beside them when, somehow amid the din, he caught yelps and calls from the far side of the stadium.

Baird’s friends beckoned him over and he set off like a Labrador chasing a tennis ball down a hill. He did not stop when he reached the advertising hoarding boards. He bounded over them and sank into a 10-man embrace that must have smelled of sheer joy and Guinness.

It was incredible to think he would still have the energy to go sideline to sideline in about five seconds, but that is what being 23 is all about. On nights like this, you feel nothing but invincible.

Ryan BairdIreland celebrate after their Grand Slam victory during the Six Nations Rugby match against England at Aviva Stadium. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Ryan Baird and Bundee Aki Ireland’s two best performers

It took injuries to Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson for Ryan Baird to get a start, but he had been building up to this night with two excellent turns off the bench in wins over Italy and Scotland.

Against England, he provided the energy and momentum that his team sop desperately needed, be it big carries, dominant tackles or breakdown turnovers. For the Dan Sheehan try that broke the game open for Ireland, he was the lineout jumper that caught and handed off so smoothly that it helped catch England on the hop.

“You’ve had me on record, over the last few weeks,” said Andy Farrell, “saying how he’s matured, within our group, and getting so much across his detail.

“You’ve seen there, especially in the second half, I thought he was immense there. Some of that stuff was him figuring out how top put his stamp on the game. The stuff at the breakdown and his efforts at the kick-chase, it is stuff that often goes unseen but it doesn’t go unseen by us, because it is constant, week-in, week-out now in training. I’m sure he’ll be on to bigger and better things.”

If Baird was the stand-out Ireland forward – albeit Jack Conan made some charge off the replacements bench – Bundee Aki was the best of their backline.

Another player that started off on the outside of the Ireland XV, the Connacht centre showed just how valuable an asset he remains to this side.

While others in green were struggling to get their act together, or punch in much impact, Aki was the reliable ball-carrying option and the man that was sticking his entire body in where others would hesitate dipping a shoulder.

Aki made 78 metres off 15 carries, did not miss a tackle, was a tough nut to shift out of rucks and held his try-assist pass to Henshaw superbly. It was all about timing and he made it look easy for Henshaw after Ireland had been pounding on the door.

Not long after that, he made a carry up the right flank that captured how tough a horse he is to rope and take down when he has the blood up.

He ended up carrying three England players on different parts of his body, with the men in white only spared when Jaco Peyper called play back for a penalty.

At the start of this tournament, most of us would not have had Ryan Baird or Bundee Aki in our starting XV. At that final whistle shrill, tonight, they were the best we had to offer from a Grand Slam bunch.

That, more than anything, sums up what this team are truly all about.

Related Articles:

WATCH: Liverpool BOTTLED the title race 🤬 | Who will win the Premier League?