The 2018 NatWest 6 Nations will never be forgotten by anyone with a persuasion towards Ireland, as they claimed just the third Grand Slam in their history.
The fact that it was clinched on St Patrick’s Day at Twickenham will have made it feel all the sweeter, as new faces like Jacob Stockdale and James Ryan blended brilliantly with experienced campaigns such as Conor Murray and Rob Kearney.
Click here for the final 2018 NatWest 6 Nations table
Here is the story of a memorable campaign for the Irish: Ireland finished second in the 2017 NatWest 6 Nations, but they finished it on a high by denying England a Grand Slam and becoming the first team to beat them in 19 matches.
That 13-9 victory in Dublin preceded a successful autumn series, when South Africa, Fiji and Argentina were all defeated at the Aviva Stadium, meaning confidence was high going into the Championship.
The Irish were actually made favourites by many to reclaim the trophy they last lifted in 2015, but captain Rory Best wasn’t looking too far ahead.
Best said: “When you think about winning it, you can’t take your eye off the ball for the first game. The Championship is so intense.”
How true those words turned out to be.
France 13-15 Ireland
If there was ever a ‘Sliding Doors moment’ in any NatWest 6 Nations campaign it has to be the manner in which Ireland snatched victory against France in their opening game.
A terrific individual try by Teddy Thomas with just eight minutes left gave the hosts a 13-12 lead at the Stade de France, but the Irish kept their heads magnificently with the clock well into the red.
After keeping the ball for a remarkable 41 phases, Ireland were still around 40 metres from the French try line.
But this was now or never and after being teed up by Murray, Johnny Sexton smashed through a perfectly-struck drop goal to spark wild celebrations by the men in green.
Sexton said after the game: “It was one of those moments – I’m just happy I got another chance as we have worked so hard over the last few weeks and all our goals would have crumbled today if we had lost.
“The management drill into us every day that it’s never over and we have got some good characters in the team.”
Ireland 56-19 Italy
In what was the first of several injury problems the Irish would have to contend with, flanker Josh van der Flier would have to miss the rest of the Championship with serious knee damage sustained in Paris.
The start of the match against Italy at the Aviva Stadium started in a similar vein, with tighthead prop Tadgh Furlong forced off after just four minutes, but it was an otherwise comfortable afternoon.
The only other negative being Robbie Henshaw having his NatWest 6 Nations ended by a shoulder injury in the act of scoring his second try – Ireland’s fourth of the eight they bagged.
It was the three they conceded, however, that concerned head coach Joe Schmidt, who said: “The negative is conceding those tries – that was the disappointing thing.
“In the context of the championship hopefully it won’t damage us too badly, perhaps on points differential.”
Ireland 37-27 Wales
For what turned out to be one of the most exciting games of this year’s NatWest 6 Nations, Ireland gave prop Andrew Porter and centre Chris Farrell their first Championship starts.
It was another of the new faces, openside Dan Leavy, who was among the try scorers as Ireland threatened to run away with it when Cian Healy’s score put them 27-13 in front.
Wales fought back superbly through tries from Aaron Shingler and Steff Evans, but the hosts finally closed out their third win in three games through an intercept score by winger Jacob Stockdale.
It had already been a breakthrough season for 21-year-old Stockdale and he was taking to international rugby like a duck to water, as he made it four tries in his last two games.
He was keeping his feet on the ground, though, saying: “It is about the team, not individuals. It was a great performance from one to 23.
“The ball keeps popping up in the right positions for me.”
It was to be a rollercoaster few days for Farrell, who was named Man of the Match in this victory before suffering an ACL injury in training that finished his Championship when it had just begun.
Ireland 28-8 Scotland
The depths of Ireland’s midfield resources were on show again when Garry Ringrose, the third different starting 13 fielded by Schmidt, played a starring role in the win over Scotland.
Stockdale picked up where he left off against the Welsh by opening the scoring with another intercept try before he went on to equal a 104-year-old Championship record by scoring multiple tries in three consecutive games.
Furlong also returned for what was the Irish’s 11th win in a row, a new national record, while their four tries laid down the gauntlet to England for later in the day.
To keep their Championship hopes alive, they had to beat France with a try bonus point, but they instead went down to a 22-16 defeat that confirmed Ireland’s third title in five years with a game to spare.
Thoughts now turned to sealed a potential Grand Slam at England, a reversal of roles from last year’s NatWest 6 Nations.
Sexton said: “It is a very strange feeling to win the Championship with a game to go. There is so much still to play for.
“The shoe is on the other foot now, after last year, and I’m sure they will be licking their lips.”
England 15-24 Ireland
Given the build-up to the game, you’d be forgiven for the Irish having some nerves in the early stages at Twickenham, but none showed as Ireland swept England aside in the first half.
Tries from Ringrose and CJ Stander put them 14-0 ahead within half an hour, with Elliot Daly pulling one back for the hosts before Stockdale won the race towards the dead ball line for Ireland’s third.
In doing so, he became the first player to score seven tries in a single NatWest 6 Nations campaign. Not bad for a newcomer.
Ireland’s 21-5 half-time lead was never really threatened, as the snow fell in London, meaning the sizeable Irish contingent in the stadium could start partying before the final whistle blew.
After the game, Best said: “Every kid grows up dreaming of playing for Ireland and when you do that the next thing you want to do is win something for Ireland.
“To win something as captain in that special green jersey, it’s something that dreams are made of.
“It’s up there as the biggest highlight of my career. To do it with this bunch of players and staff, it’s a really tight-knit group.
“I know a lot of teams say that if they do well or win games but it’s a special bunch.”