They say courage is grace under pressure, and despite arriving in Dublin for their final, do-or-die bout of Six Nations action in the 2003 edition with the weight of the world on their shoulders, Clive Woodward’s England charges demonstrated true hearts of steel.
The Red Rose had claimed two of the previous three Championship titles, but were desperate to finally get the Grand Slam monkey off their backs, having fallen at the final hurdle against Wales at Wembley in 1999, Scotland at Murrayfield in 2000 and Ireland on their last visit to Lansdowne Road in 2001.
Having been touted as potential challengers for the Rugby World Cup taking place later the same year, England’s trip to the Irish capital was at the centre of the world’s attention, earmarked as a test of their global credentials.
To add to the burden of England’s task, they were pitted against an Ireland side also bidding for Grand Slam glory, with the men in green without a Championship title for 18 years, and without a clean sweep since 1948.
In a true case of winner-takes-all, the two sides played out a typically tense opening 40 minutes, before England emerged unstoppable from the interval, with Mike Tindall’s try spearheading a second-half onslaught.
A 42-6 win truly exorcised the demons of recent seasons, sealing England’s first Grand Slam since 1995 and sending a warning to the rest of the world that they were going to be tough to stop in Australia.
England head coach Woodward had famously put his team under huge amounts of pressure going into the game, suggesting a win in Dublin – and the subsequent Six Nations crown – was crucial to their hopes of going on to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
In the build-up to the match, he said: “A lot of the players have had a crack at this Grand Slam thing before and not won it yet, so I’m delighted they’ve got another chance.
“Whoever wins can go to the World Cup in good fettle. Every Grand Slam is big but in World Cup year it will set the winners up fantastically.”
The enormity of the occasion was epitomised ahead of kick-off as away skipper Martin Johnson caused a stir by lining his team up on Ireland’s lucky side of the red carpet, showcasing the mindset that they weren’t there to play by anyone else’s rules.
England had been in imperious form throughout the series – seeing off France 25-17, Wales 26-9, Italy 40-5 and Scotland 40-9 in their previous four games – but Ireland – who had snatched a last-gasp win over Wales in Cardiff in Round 4 thanks to Ronan O’Gara’s boot – were more than a match for them in the game’s gripping opening stages.
The hosts were the quickest out of the blocks, and six points from David Humphreys either side of a Lawrence Dallaglio try kept Ireland within one point of their opponents before Jonny Wilkinson kicked England to a slender, 13-6 half-time lead.
With around 20 minutes left on the clock and the match in the balance, both teams were desperate for a moment of magic that could swing the momentum in their favour, ultimately securing the Grand Slam.
Step up Tindall. With Wilkinson temporarily off injured, replacement No.10 Paul Grayson exchanged expertly with centre Will Greenwood, who fed to the-then 24-year-old cutting through the middle to score.
With the scoreline in their favour, England effectively killed the game moments later, as Greenwood bundled over, before Wilkinson added a penalty to make the closing stages academic.
But – with true champion mentality – England weren’t ready to lie down and Greenwood notched a second, before substitute Dan Luger went over down the right wing in the dying moments, cuing rapturous celebrations from all in English white.
With a 12th Grand Slam finally in the bag, Woodward couldn’t hide his pride having seen his team answer the questions posed about their mentality in the most emphatic way imaginable.
He said: “We have put a lot of pressure on ourselves all week. I can’t say how good these guys are. They are the toughest guys I have ever worked with, physically and mentally.
“I was confident we were going to win, if we held on to the ball. Ireland are a good team but I am delighted with the outcome. The players deserve this big time. I’m lucky to be leading them.”
Off the back of their third Six Nations success in four years, England made 2003 their own with their first-ever Rugby World Cup triumph, beating Australia in a dramatic final to prove their invincibility both on the Six Nations and global stages.
But while they threatened to reign for years to come, England had to wait eight years for their next Six Nations title, and until 2016 for another Grand Slam.