By Ed Elliot, PA, Dublin
Former Test star Tommy Bowe believes Andy Farrell’s Grand Slam champions are on a “whole different level” to previous Ireland teams and could already claim to be the country’s greatest ever.
Farrell’s men substantiated their status as the world’s number one side by romping to a flawless Guinness Six Nations title triumph following Saturday’s 29-16 St Patrick’s weekend win over England in Dublin.
Bowe, a two-time British and Irish Lion, was part of his nation’s 2009 Grand Slam success alongside some of Ireland’s finest talents, such as Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell, while current captain Johnny Sexton was just emerging.
The 39-year-old has been amazed by the performances of the present generation, who have won 22 of their last 24 matches, including beating each of their major rivals and a historic first series success in New Zealand last summer.
“I’ve been blown away by this team,” he told the PA news agency. “I’ve been a part of what I thought was meant to be the golden generation, with the likes of the O’Driscolls, the O’Connells, the O’Garas, Johnny was coming through.
“But I think the way the team is performing at the minute is at a whole different level.
“They just don’t seem to get fazed by any setbacks. They’ve such a clear path of where they want to be and how they want to be there and I think Andy Farrell is a huge part of that.
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“I think that this team could rightfully say that they are the greatest team. If not the greatest, it’s well on it’s way to be there.”
Ireland’s latest Grand Slam success was their fourth in total following similar feats in 1948, 2009 and 2018.
The last of the previous three achievements came between landmark wins over the All Blacks in Chicago and Dublin when the Irish were also flying high at the top of the world rankings under Joe Schmidt.
But performances dipped in 2019, leading to a familiar World Cup quarter-final exit in Japan as New Zealand were victorious when it really mattered.
“The team in 2018 were a team that had been together for a long time and had done great things together,” said Bowe, who represented his country 69 times between 2004 and 2017.
“I just think they are a cut above this time. They just seem to be building that depth, which I think is a lesson we would have learnt in 2018 and 2019. I would have dreamed to play in that (current) team.”
Ireland will swiftly turn their attention to this year’s autumn World Cup in France.
Bowe, his country’s third highest try scorer behind O’Driscoll and Keith Earls with 30 scores, dismissed the notion of peaking too soon.
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The former Ulster and Ospreys wing also branded the World Cup draw, which was made in December 2020 and has placed the sport’s present top five nations in the same half, a “joke”.
Hosts France or the All Blacks are likely last-eight opponents, if Farrell’s side progress from a pool containing Scotland and reigning champions South Africa.
“Three, four months away is where the real test is going to be,” said Bowe.
“It’s just such a joke really of a draw, to think the top five teams are on one side of the draw. It really is a poor set-up by World Rugby and it’s a problem.
“It’s probably the hardest lead in to a World Cup they could have wanted. But, at the same time, they’ve shown that any barriers put in front of them they’ve been able to knock them down.
“People talk about Ireland peaking too early, you can’t really choose when you peak. Andy Farrell has been given a lot of different challenges and he’s ticked them all off and what better can you do?
“You can’t ask to have beaten all the southern hemisphere teams in the autumn, you can’t ask to have beaten New Zealand in the summer, you can’t ask to have won a Grand Slam.
“If that’s not good enough to get to a new level than we’ve ever been before in a World Cup then I don’t know what is.”
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