Exclusive interview: James Ryan reflects on winning a historic Grand Slam with Ireland

Exclusive interview: James Ryan reflects on winning a historic Grand Slam with Ireland

LAST MONTH, the men's Irish Rugby team made history by becoming the first side to win a Six Nations Grand Slam on home soil. Andy Farrell's all-conquering Ireland side ended the Six Nations Championship unbeaten, scored half a dozen or more brilliant tries, and kept their status as the number one rugby side in the world intact.

After convincing wins against Wales, France, and Italy in the opening three weeks, Ireland had to overcome the challenge of Scotland and England in weeks 5 and 6.

After a dogged performance against Scotland, where Ireland won 7-22 in Murrayfield, it was the final game against England that mattered most to the Ireland team.

Ireland's final game was played against England on the day after St. Patrick's Day in front of a packed Aviva Stadium. Ireland had won Grand Slams before, but the caveat for the 2023 team was that it had never been done on home soil in front of home fans.

Three Grand Slams had been won before: in 1948 at Ravenhill, in 2009 in The Principality Stadium, and in 2018 at Twickenham, but Ireland's fourth to be played against England was set to be the most special due to the circumstances.

Not only was it the first chance for Ireland to win a home Grand Slam, but the other narrative surrounding the game centered around Ireland's captain, Johnny Sexton. Sexton (37) was set to play his last game at the Aviva Stadium in an Irish jersey and Sexton also had the chance to break Ronan O'Gara's Six Nations points record of 557.

Sexton's final outing at the Aviva and Ireland's quest for immortality as one of the best Irish sides ever raised the stakes even higher for Ireland that Paddy's weekend.

The game got underway, and Ireland struggled to gain any momentum early in the first half against England. Andy Farrell's men did score the opening try when hooker Dan Sheehan crashed over the line in the first half.

England were still in the game, but the contest turned on its head when England full-back Freddie Steward was sent off by the ref for a collision with Ireland's Hugo Keenan. Ireland went into the changing rooms 10-6 up with a man up in the contest.

The second half was a tight affair with England making it 10-9 at one stage, but Robbie Henshaw opened the floodgates for Ireland. Sheehan would get his second try moments later, and despite England getting their try, Ireland would score a fourth try after clever work from Ulster's Rob Herring late on.

The final whistle blew, and with it, Ireland's rugby made history as the only Irish team ever to win a Grand Slam on home soil. The final score was 29-16 in Ireland's favour.

One of the key people for Ireland and Andy Farrell during the whole campaign was Leinster and Ireland lock James Ryan. The 26-year-old has become a mainstay in the Ireland team in the second row and, at times, captained the side.

This week, Ryan sat down with the Irish Post to discuss Ireland's famous win last March. Ryan first explained what the feeling in the Irish camp was like before the game.

"It was a huge week all week because we knew we had only won three Grand Slams in our history at that point," claimed the Leinster lock.

"It was an opportunity to win the fourth Slam, and we had never won it at home in Dublin. The fact that it was England and it was Paddy's Day and everything that goes with that, being Johnny's last Six Nations game as well, so there was a huge amount at stake.

"The atmosphere all week would have been exciting, definitely, and a good bit of nerves and that's what you want, those big weeks, but for us, the big focus was playing the game, not the occasion and not getting side-tracked by everything associated with the game.

"It was about homing in and focusing on our performance and knowing what would get us a result, and that's the best way to approach those types of games."

James Ryan after the Grand Slam

Ireland's ruthless efficiency in the Six Nations was clear for all to see, and for many onlookers, the current Ireland side looks like a well-oiled machine that refuses to let obstacles stand in its way of success and titles.

After beating the likes of New Zealand, France, England, South Africa, and Australia, Ryan was asked if approaching games of this size was 'second nature' to this Irish team. He refuted claims that Ireland was used to big occasions and claimed that nerves always played a part in the spectacles.

"I wouldn't say they (games) have become second nature, to be honest, particularly the bigger games," added Ryan.

"The nerves and anxiety you get on match day are very hard to get used to. I don't think it will ever become second nature, but you can probably understand how you can manage it with experience and learn what can work for you.

"For me, if you have a game in the afternoon, it's just finding ways to take your mind off a game, so that might be just meeting family members or having a coffee for a chat.

"If you think of it too early in the day, that nervous energy is wasted energy. You learn how to deal with it better, but I don't think it ever goes away."

Ireland's victory and the first home Grand Slam will go down in history, and it is easy to think that the likes of Ryan, who was one of the key men who were instrumental in the feat, would allow the moment to pass him by, but that wasn't the case.

"It was unreal. We did a lap around the pitch, and like nobody left the stadium for like an hour after the game, and that was incredible. It was so cool. It was just trying to soak it in, if you know what I mean," admitted the two-time Grand Slam winner.

"In the changing room, there was a huge sense of relief because of what went into the last few weeks before the game.

"We were just delighted to go out there and get the result, really.

"I think the relief hits you straight away. You go, 'Jesus, we won that, it's brilliant,' but thank God it means a lot, and you know you're coming up against an England side that will always be very difficult to beat.

"It does take a few days for it to soak in and realize that was a pretty special few weeks."