Lansdowne Road – the swirl of faces, flags
Gilbert and Sullivan music, emerald jerseys;
Spire and crane beyond remind the mind on furlough
Of Mersey’s code and Rome’s.
Louis MacNeice: Rugby Football Excursion, 1938.
Seventy-five years ago Louis MacNeice in his poem recounted a long weekend visit to Dublin for a rugby international between Ireland and England. Like other expatriate Irish supporters who had travelled by ferry and train, they hoped to see their country of birth defeat their country of adoption, at rugby. Tomorrow, the venue is the same, only its name has changed – Lansdowne Road has become Aviva stadium. But the friendly rivalry is no less intense, and the game in the professional era is no less enjoyable. This weekend, England supporters have travelled in huge numbers to enjoy a great sporting occasion that helps to lighten the seasonal gloom.
Tomorrow’s winner will be well placed either to complete the Grand Slam – by defeating all other teams in the Six Nations – or to win the championship. And that incentive adds an extra dimension to the game where, for 80 minutes, the skill and guile of the Irish XV will be pitted against the strength and resilience of their English rivals.
England’s rugby team has always received a special welcome in Dublin. In 1973, at the height of the Northern Troubles, England came and played in Dublin, when other international teams did not. Wales and Scotland, fearing for their safety, failed to travel. And in 2007, the historic Ireland England encounter at Croke Park made sporting and political history. Rugby football has shown how it can unite people in a common love of the game, and in mutual respect for national difference. Tomorrow those fine qualities will once again be displayed, by players and spectators alike, and a great sporting tradition upheld.