Gerry Thornley: Irish stars set to follow in footsteps of Mike Gibson

At Twickenham tomorrow Ireland could equal that run of five successive wins over the auld enemy

Sixty years ago in the corresponding fixture between England and Ireland at Twickenham, Mike Gibson launched his stellar international career when making what was a truly stunning Test debut. The highlight of Ireland’s 18-5 win, so ending England’s run of seven straight wins at their headquarters since Jack Kyle’s 1948 Grand Slam-winning vintage, was their third try, which was then worth three points.

From deep inside his own half off a scrum, playing at outhalf, Gibson sold the sweetest of dummies to break clear, before working with a scissors with centre Jerry Walsh, who also made ground before himself working a switch with winger Pat Casey, who finished close to the points. It stands up to repeated viewings and can be rewatched on YouTube as part of a documentary on the game.

There were some other stellar names on that Irish team as well, like Tom Kiernan, Kevin Flynn, Ronnie Dawson, Ray McLoughlin, Willie-John McBride, Bill Mulcahy and Noel Murphy.

Tomorrow’s game also marks the 50th anniversary of Ireland’s 26-21 victory at Twickenham in 1974, when Gibson played at outside centre and scored two tries as well as two conversions. They were unprecedented times. That was the third of five Irish wins in a row over England. Gibson played in all five of those games. It was a record run of Irish victories dating back over the course of 141 meetings since the first of them at the Oval in London in 1875.


At Twickenham tomorrow Ireland could equal that run of five successive wins over the auld enemy. But these are even more unprecedented times. One ventures that even beating England for the fifth time in a row at Twickenham, Ireland were not 12 or 13-point favourites.

Nor have Ireland ever been the standout best side in the tournament to quite like this extent, as evidence by them also seeking to eclipse the all-time Championship record of 11 wins in succession which was established by England between 2015 and 2017.

What’s more, even allowing for looking through all this with green-tinged glasses, it is not stretching things to suggest that Ireland breaking new ground at Twickenham to secure the title, and better still secure back-to-back Grand Slams, would be good for the Six Nations and rugby generally.

Take this Irish team out of this year’s Six Nations and this Championship really has not been a great advert for the sport. The Ireland-France games were by some distance the high points of the 2022 and 2023 Championships, and the entertainment value has slumped since that opening night when Ireland seriously wounded Les Bleus in Marseille.

Admittedly, Wales-Scotland had plenty of drama, and so did Italy-England to a lesser extent on that first weekend, albeit the standard was not great. Warren Gatland went so far as to suggest that Wales’ first-half performance was the worst 40 minutes they’d ever produced under his watch.

The Scotland-France game was blighted by a soporific bout of aerial ping-pong with even Finn Russell a prime architect, while England reverted to kicking-type in wearing down Wales with their superior bench in a match of low quality.

England did have one superb set-piece try before Scotland and Duhan van der Merwe struck thrice and stealthily but despite Ange Capuozzo’s try as well as the late and again unsatisfactory finale, the France-Italy game was largely boring.

The main change from the last two Championships is that France have regressed and without Antoine Dupont have reverted to even more of a restrictive, kicking-based game. Like Ireland, the Scots are settled and undoubtedly have attacking X factor. But England, Wales and Italy are evolving under new coaching tickets with remodelled teams, but despite attempts to broaden their attacking game, even more so than Fabien Galthié, the philosophy of his English counterpart, Steve Borthwick, is very much statistically driven.

There has to be a better way than data-based rugby. It has to showcase the sport in a better light if a nuanced, multifaceted, passing and running based game is successful.

Of course, these things are relative, or at any rate subjective. There may be those who think Ireland emphatically winning back-to-back Slams lacks jeopardy. What’s more, even English critics of their team’s rugby or the Championship itself will celebrate along with the home Twickenham crowd were Borthwick’s team to win, even by 9-7 or 15-14 and not scoring a try.

However, one ventures that fans in New Zealand who feel compelled to wake up in the middle of the night to watch any of this Six Nations, will be inspired to do so more by Ireland than any other team. Much like we used to watch All Blacks’ games in the Tri Nations in the early hours.

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