Peter Jackson: Ireland bid to take their place in history

When the Irish selectors invited Frank Hewitt to help them track down the perennially elusive Grand Slam, the Belfast schoolboy accepted subject to his headmaster’s approval.

When the Irish selectors invited Frank Hewitt to help them track down the perennially elusive Grand Slam, the Belfast schoolboy accepted subject to his headmaster’s approval.

Appearing against Wales at Cardiff Arms Park on the Saturday required taking a day off studies at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution to make the trip. The headmaster duly obliged and the 17-year-old novice ran out before a record crowd of 55,000 on a doubly royal occasion.

Click here for the complete 2018 NatWest 6 Nations fixture list   The spectators on that March day in 1924 included two future monarchs: the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII and the Duke of York who succeeded him to the throne as King George VI. The new fly-half, as if to the manor born, responded by orchestrating an Irish victory, aided and abetted by another teenaged Hewitt.   Just as Frank scored a try so, too, did his 18-year-old brother, Tom. Their joint success gave the whole of Ireland real hope that after slogging away for more than half a century without getting close to a Slam, they would eventually get themselves into position to play for one before much longer.   And so it came to pass. When Ireland returned to Cardiff two years later they did so as contenders, having beaten France (11-0), England (19-15) and Scotland (3-0). While Frank had made a try-scoring contribution to the home win over England, fate decreed that the prospective champions would have to manage without him at the Arms Park.   Ireland, three points down with the sands of time running out, had one last shot at turning the tide of history.     Tom Hewitt, moved inside from the left wing to fill the gap left by his younger sibling, lined himself up for a drop at goal, then worth four points, knowing that the cleanest of strikes would carry Ireland home 12-11.   According to eye-witnesses, the ball flew straight and true towards the Welsh posts only to curl away and miss by the proverbial whisker. It wouldn’t be the first time that Ireland went to within sight of a Grand Slam only for the rugby gods to make it seem like a mirage.   England at Twickenham on Saturday will be their seventh subsequent attempt. Only two have been successful, at Ravenhill in 1948 when Jack Daly of Cork Constitution and Munster famously scored the winning try against Wales and in Cardiff more than 60 years later when Ronan O’Gara, equally famously, dropped the winning goal.   That, at least, offered belated compensation for Ireland’s first Grand Slam decider since Italy joined the Championship, at Lansdowne Road in 2003. They had hammered Scotland in Edinburgh (36-6), Italy in Rome (37-13), squeezed past France at home (15-12) and Wales in Cardiff, (25-24).

England had matched Ireland win for win, making it a double Slam decider. That the visitors had lost three such finales in the four previous seasons – at Wembley against Wales in 1999, Scotland in Edinburgh in 2000 and Ireland in Dublin in 2001 – added to the tension of the occasion.   David Humphreys fired the opening shot and Ireland stayed in touch for more than an hour before England pulled away to win by a distance, 42-6. Then the world’s No.1 team, they were at the peak of their powers, a fact that enabled them to follow the majestic Grand Slam with an imperious win over the powerful Wallabies in Melbourne in June and again a few months later during the World Cup final in Sydney.   This time Ireland will start as the bookmakers’ favourites despite England having swept all before them at Twickenham in the three years since the last World Cup. The title may have been in the bag since last Saturday night but Joe Schmidt’s squad will settle for nothing less than the ultimate prize as due reward for their longest winning streak.   While the duel between the new champions and the old ones takes centre stage, Super Saturday starts in Rome and finishes in Cardiff with second, third, fourth and fifth places up for grabs.   After a punishing run of three successive matches on the road, Italy are home at last, back at the Stadio Olimpico where they secured the last of their five home wins over Scotland six years ago. On the day he is due to equal Brian O’Driscoll’s 65-match Championship record for the most appearances, Sergio Parisse will demand that the Azzurri put an end to their 16-match losing run since their 22-19 win at BT Murrayfield three years ago.

Should Ireland have cause for the perfect St. Patrick’s Day celebration, Wales and France in Cardiff will be a straight fight for second place. Had it not been for Johnny Sexton’s astounding drop goal in Paris at the very start of the tournament, Jacques Brunel’s squad would be competing for the title.   Wales could say the same, pointing to Sam Underhill’s defiance of gravity in producing the tackle of the Championship to prevent Scott Williams’ turning the tide with a late try. The one certainty is that should Wales finish as they began, another try-bonus win would guarantee the runners-up prize irrespective of the result at Twickenham.   Ireland’s record 11-Test run:   Mar 2017: beat England in Dublin        13-9 June 2017: beat USA at Harrison, NJ   55-19. June 2017: beat Japan at Shizouka      50-20 June 2017: beat Japan at Tokio            35-13 Nov 2017: beat South Africa in Dublin  38-3 Nov 2017: beat Fiji in Dublin                 23-20 Nov 2017: beat Argentina in Dublin      28-19 Feb 2018: beat France in Paris             15-13 Feb 2018: beat Italy in Dublin                56-19 Feb 2018: beat Wales in Dublin             37-27 Mar 2018: beat Scotland in Dublin         28-8   Ireland playing for the Grand Slam:   March 13, 1926 at St Helens, Swansea:    Wales 11, Ireland 8 March 13, 1948 at Ravenhill, Belfast:     Wales 3, IRELAND 6 March 10, 1951 at Cardiff Arms Park:        Wales 3, Ireland 3 March 8, 1969 at Cardiff Arms Park:          Wales 24, Ireland 11 March 20, 1982 at Parc des Princes:         France 22, Ireland 9 March 30, 2003 at Lansdowne Road:        Ireland 6, England 42 March 21, 2009 at Millennium Stadium: Wales 15, IRELAND 17   Grand Slam deciders at Twickenham:   March 16, 1991: England and France both on a Slam. England won 21-19. March 7, 1992: England second successive Slam, beat Wales 24-0 March 19, 1994: Wales on a Slam, lost to England 15-8 March 18, 1995: England and Scotland both on a Slam. England won 24-12.   England: M Catt; T Underwood, W Carling, capt., J Guscott, R Underwood; R Andrew, K Bracken; J Leonard, B Moore, V Ubogu; M Johnson, M Bayfield; T Rodber, B Clarke, D Richards. Penalties: Andrew 7. Drop goal: Andrew.   Scotland: G Hastings, capt; C Joiner, G Townsend, S Hastings, K Logan; C Chalmers, B Redpath; D Hilton, K Milne, P Wright; D Weir, S Campbell; R Wainwright, I Morrison, E Peters. Penalties: Hastings 2. Drop goals: Chalmers 2.