It may not have been a vintage display, but when it came down to it, Ireland got the job done against England. And when there’s a Grand Slam on the line, that’s all that really matters.
It was great to be in Dublin on Saturday to see Andy Farrell’s side put the finishing touches to a remarkable campaign that has cemented Ireland’s place as the world’s number one team.
There was a great atmosphere around the Aviva Stadium, and it’s days like that when you see how the nation has been lifted by this team. Johnny Sexton has been key to that, and the Irish captain thankfully got the Six Nations send-off he deserved.
But while Ireland will rightly soak up the plaudits, you have to give England credit. Steve Borthwick’s side were at a low ebb after a crushing defeat by France at Twickenham, but they showed plenty of fight and made it awkward for Ireland.
England were only four points down when Freddie Steward was sent off for colliding with Hugo Keenan.
By the letter of the law, it was probably the right call, but it’s another incident that shows the need for a 20-minute red card in rugby. Super Rugby has been trialling it, but World Rugby must consider a global trial.
In saying that, however, I would have been confident of an Ireland win against a 15-man England. There is something special about this Irish side. They always find a way to win. It’s what set them apart in the Six Nations. For them, the World Cup can’t come soon enough.
It’s tough to pick Ireland’s player of the tournament. I think James Ryan and Mack Hansen were both exceptional, while Caelan Doris may well end up getting the award for his outstanding form.
But for me, Hugo Keenan has been the standout Irish player. He was involved in so many vital moments. His try against France springs to mind, as do his try-saving tackles to deny Wales’ Rio Dyer and Scotland’s Duhan van der Merwe, the latter being a real turning point for Ireland at Murrayfield.
Crucial in both attack and defence, you can see why Farrell has so much faith in him.
Beyond Ireland, the most memorable moment of the championship for me was Damian Penaud’s try that took France past the 50-point mark against England. I’m not sure we’ll ever see anything like that match again and it showed me that France are back and mean business.
It’s important for northern hemisphere rugby to have both Ireland and France flying high heading into the World Cup.
As for the biggest disappointment, I’d have to go with Italy not being able to capitalise on their early form. They showed promise against France and Ireland but when push came to shove, they failed to make a statement against Scotland and Wales and didn’t play the kind of rugby we know they are capable of producing.
Ireland have now won three Grand Slams in the last 14 years, but this year’s was the most emphatic and impressive. The 2009 Slam was a special time because we hadn’t done it in 61 years. In 2018, the team were great but you remember Sexton digging them out of a hole with the drop-goal in Paris.
Sexton was so influential that year whereas this time round they just seem to be ticking every box and the whole squad appear to be operating at an entirely different level. Some may suggest Ireland have peaked too early, but I’m not sure about that.
What I am sure about is that we’re getting towards the point of calling this the greatest Irish rugby team of all time.
Winning the Grand Slam was important, but beating the All Blacks in a Test series in New Zealand is still this team’s biggest achievement, while the significance of defeating South Africa and Australia in the autumn should not be discounted.
There is, of course, one way to put the ‘greatest ever’ debate to bed and that chance will come in France later this year.
With the lunacy of the World Cup draw putting the top five sides in the same side of the draw, it will take a monumental push for Ireland to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
Scotland and South Africa will be formidable pool opponents and even if they overcome them, France or New Zealand could stand in the way of a first-ever semi-final appearance.
But Andy Farrell and his coaching staff have built a squad who are rarely fazed and who have achieved everything they set out to achieve over the last year.
It always felt like the Six Nations was a big step in this Ireland journey. But having passed the five-part test with flying colours, they move on to a tournament that will truly determine this team’s legacy.
Tommy Bowe was speaking to BBC Sport NI’s Matt Gault