More than just another game

 

RUGBY RIVALRY/IRELAND V ENGLAND: Cillian O Conchubhairlooks at some of the momentous Ireland v England occasions at Lansdowne Road, and more recently Croke Park, during the past four decades.

1973 – Lansdowne Road/Ireland 18 England 9: England took to the field to a standing ovation at Lansdowne Road a year after Scotland and Wales both refused to travel to Dublin.

“It was probably our strongest year, ’72 and I put my house on it that we would have won the Grand Slam,” says Fergus Slattery who played 12 times against England. “Unfortunately, our cousins in Scotland and Wales decided not to honour the fixture and then ’73 was the huge welcome for England because they came.

“When the English team ran out the spontaneous standing ovation seemed to go on and on and on,” recalls Ollie Campbell an 18-year-old spectator at the time.

“I have goosebumps on the back of my neck and down my spine nearly 40 years later. 18-9 was a phenomenal score at the time which led to the famous John Pullin comment at the dinner afterwards, when he got his second standing ovation of the day when he said, ‘we may not be much good but at least we turn up’.

“I remember them coming over to Dublin in 1973 after ‘Bloody Sunday’ and we gave them a hiding,” says ’74 Championship winning captain Willie John McBride. “We had a superb team in ’72 and the chances of doing a grand Slam were there. Sadly, we will never know whether we were good enough or not. We had won our games against England in London and France in Paris and we were going well with great confidence.”

The ’73 season saw Ireland finished tied for the Championship with France, England, Scotland and Wales, with all having two wins and two defeats, but will forever be remembered for Pullin’s speech after the possible Grand Slam that could have been, but never was.

1983 – Lansdowne Road

Ireland 25 England 15

The 1983 game English game saw Irish outhalf Ollie Campbell score 21 points in the win over England.

“By winning it we shared the Championship,” says Campbell, “and by losing it England won the wooden spoon and the Woodenspoon Society was born as a result of that day.”

The defeat of England not only signalled back-to-back Championships, but was key as it came on the eve of the Lions team selection.

“It was a match we really should have won by more,” says Campbell. “At the scoring value of the time, 25-15 is quite a heavy victory, but it could have been more. I scored the only try of my international career that day, but the really defining thing of that day was the Lions team being selected to go to New Zealand.

“It copper-fastened Ciarán Fitzgerald as captain of that touring team, despite the best efforts of Fleet Street at the time who all wanted Peter Wheeler, the English hooker.”

The victory was on the back of a disastrous eight-game losing streak for coach Tommy Kiernan, and Campbell says it was his belief in the team that turned things around for a generation.

“If he said it once, he said it a hundredtimes, if a Lions team was selected throughout that losing sequence there would be more Irish in it than any other country. It was a remarkable thing to believe in. He was our Declan Kidney. He never got too excited when he won a match and he never got too deflated in defeat.”

1985 – Lansdowne Road

Ireland 13 England 10

“It was a Triple Crown decider. You would take particular satisfaction about beating England but you certainly wouldn’t use that in any way as an extra motivational way in the build up,” according to Michael Kiernan, whose drop goal in the last minute sealed a Triple Crown with a 13-10 victory over England.

“Winning a Triple Crown would have been a big deal for us as a country and the fact the drop goal was so late in the game made it much more special,” says Kiernan who believes the passion displayed by the supporters afterwards was unique to the amateur era.

“The supporters came onto the pitch after every match in those days. It made it significantly different and made it a lot longer going to the dressingroom, but we didn’t know any different,” adds Kiernan.

The previous year’s whitewash was forgotten with their second Triple Crown in four years, made all the sweeter as it came against England. Kiernan feels fortunate to be part of this achievement.

“They always carried an air of confidence about them. The first four times I played against England, we won three of them,” says Kiernan who scored 34 points against England, “and it gave us a lot of satisfaction to beat the old enemy.”

Kiernan believes the same aspects that made his team a force are in the current set-up.

“We had a good bunch of guys who were pretty talented. We had a fair bit of experience and youth. All the backline in the team were quite young and were prepared to give it more of a go than in previous years. It takes every now and again before you produce an exceptional team and they have that at the moment.”

1993 – Lansdowne Road

Ireland 17 England 3

England came to Dublin on the back of a Grand Slam in ’92, facing an Irish team who recorded their first win in 12 games two weeks previously, in Cardiff.

“We always felt we had a good chance of beating them,” says Gerry Murphy, Irish coach in ’93. “They were somewhat complacent. They had won a Grand Slam and they were going to have 17 on the Lions squad that was being picked.”

Management and players made considerable efforts to turn the team’s fortunes around, with players training in Dublin on weekends over a 2-3 month period. Willie Anderson was appointed assistant coach, and Murphy believes his work over the two months bolstered the pack.

“We hadn’t beaten England for ages. It’s always nice to beat England, but the fact was we absolutely murdered them. It was 17-3, but it should have been a fair bit more. I don’t think anyone thought we would beat them. They certainly didn’t,” says Murphy.

Any praise for the win he quickly bestows on the players that obtained it. “We were actually a very good team. Pat O’Hara, Denis McBride and Brian Robinson in the backrow just blew this much vaunted English team out of the water.

“The English in those days had a top-quality pack and in Lansdowne Road we absolutely ate them. Simon Geoghegan could beat anyone on a sixpence, and we had very good half backs, in Eric Elwood and captain Michael Bradley.”

The team completed back-to-back wins when Geoghegan scored a try, now part of Irish rugby legend. An Eric Elwood kick against Wales could have given Ireland victory in the opening game and would have set Ireland up for a Triple Crown game against a pointless Scotland.

As it happened he hit the post, Ireland lost by two points, beat England 12-13 and drew 6-6 with Scotland in Lansdowne Road.

2007 – Croke Park

Ireland 43 England 13

It was fitting that GAA headquarters should become temporary home for Irish rugby in 2007, as founding member Michael Cusack had set up Cusack’s Academy rugby club prior to being a founding member of the GAA.

It was a special Irish sporting occasion as England visited Croke Park. The game was Denis Hickie’s last against England and following the hype surrounding the game, the players responded.

“There was a lot of pressure on the team going into the game, but I don’t think we realised it until the morning of the game itself, of the expectation and the importance that we won that match,” says Hickie. “When the pressure is greater in a game, the satisfaction in winning is always greater.”

Ireland scored four tries, racking up 43 points and Hickie feels the run of five wins out of the last eight games changed the mentality in playing England.

“There was an aura of unbeatability about them. It was the mentality playing against England; you switched into the underdog, us against them mode. It’s probably there to a far lesser extent now because we’ve had a very good record against them in recent years. The sweetness in beating England is still there.”

The win was the basis on which Ireland won their third Triple Crown in four years, but both the teams and Hickie’s aspirations were higher.

“We had won a few Triple Crowns and everyone, including the team, was hoping we could win the Grand Slam. If the credit was muted, it was because our own expectations were not achieved.”