Crowning Glory: Three pivotal Ireland games at Twickenham

 Keith Earls after  scoring his try against England in 2010. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

Ireland have travelled to Twickenham in the middle round of the Six Nations on three previous occasions and, in their own way, they have been landmark games.

The victory in 2004 marked possibly the most defining shift in the balance of the power between the two countries. The opportunist win in 2010 maintained the new found supremacy and although Ireland lost there at the same stage in 2014, it was a significant staging post on the road to the title.

Then, as tomorrow, the results beforehand in the opening two rounds went almost exactly the same way, as was the remaining itinerary, and the immediate prize at stake was also a Triple Crown.

Jamie Heaslip, who was part of the Grand Slam in 2009 and the Six Nations titles of 2014 and 2015, says: “Some people won’t like the sound of this, but the Triple Crown is from a time gone. We’re all about championships now. Triple Crowns are nice, but if it’s not a Grand Slam, winning the bloody tournament is what’s important.

“Our expectations have evolved. Just look at the World Cup. The expectation was to win the World Cup. It’s not a ‘take part’ any more. It’s not a ‘get out of your group any more’. It’s ‘win the thing’. We’ve won four of them (championships) since 2009. That’s our level now, and that’s the mindset of these lads now. The last time they were at Twickenham they were going for the Grand Slam.

“They won’t say that obviously, because they can’t. The minute they start talking about games down the line is the minute they’ll get crucified. They can’t do that. But they’ll know that’s the bigger picture.”

Saturday, March 6th 2004

England 13 Ireland 19

Shane Byrne celebrates Ireland’s win at Twickenham in 2004. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Shane Byrne celebrates Ireland’s win at Twickenham in 2004. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

England went into this game as the newly crowned world champions, on a 22-match winning streak at fortress Twickenham since New Zealand beat them in the 1999 World Cup and were unbeaten at home in the championship for seven years. They’d also beaten Ireland in eight of the previous nine meetings and were favourites by up to 25 points.

Ireland hadn’t won in Twickemham for a decade. Although Malcolm O’Kelly had been part of the team that had derailed England’s Grand Slam in 2001 in Dublin, he’d also been on the losing end of defeats at Twickenham by 35-27, 50-18 and 45-11. That’s what it was like back then.

“We had earned a Grand Slam shootout with England the year before but they hammered us to be honest,” recalls O’Kelly of the 46-6 defeat by England at Lansdowne Road. “That set us back and going to Twickenham, a year later we were still hurting from that game.

“We were also disappointed with the way we’d gone out to France in the World Cup, and then we’d been well beaten in Paris in our first game.”

Having beaten Italy (50-9) and Scotland (35-15) away, it was also England’s first game at Twickenham since winning the World Cup, although they were without the retired Martin Johnson and the injured Jonny Wilkinson. Brian O’Driscoll had also spoken provocatively about giving “the prawn sandwich brigade something to choke on.”

Four penalties by Ronan O’Gara earned a 12-10 interval lead before Ireland had a stroke of luck when the TMO went beyond his jurisdiction in decreeing that Ben Cohen had committed a double movement in touching down in the left corner when held in the tackle by Gordon D’Arcy. Technically correct, but the try would probably be awarded now.

Moments later, Ireland struck the decisive blow with Girvan Dempsey’s sliding finish in the 52nd minute.

“That was the product of Eddie O’Sullivan’s vision of how he wanted us to play and of hours of work on the training ground, with every player having a specific role to play. It was a real 15-man try,” explains O’Kelly.

Ireland had been stretching the English defence repeatedly out wide, whereupon D’Arcy danced up the middle of the pitch with a searing break off a lineout inside the Irish half. They went wide right to Shane Horgan, who offloaded to O’Kelly and he offloaded off the deck to Anthony Foley to gain another few metres.

Long passes from quick ruck ball by Stringer, D’Arcy and O’Driscoll enabled Tyrone Howe to give the final try-scoring pass to Dempsey.

“It’s been coming. It’s been coming. It’s been coming,” declared Brian Moore in commentary.

“We kept on making yards and kept our shape,” says O’Kelly, “a term used a lot now but not very often then. We worked hard for that, I tell ya. That was something that Eddie really believed in. I’d say he’s very proud of that game. It was probably one of his finest days, to be fair to him.”

England lost 11 of their 19 lineouts. “Ireland’s two jolly green giants, Paul O’Connell and Malcolm O’Kelly, gleefully compounded (Steve) Thompson’s misery,” the Guardian wrote of the English hooker’s day.

“Me and Paulie usually did well together,” says O’Kelly. “We were two pretty agile guys, good at reading it. We just had a good day that day.”

Ten minutes after Dempsey’s try, Lawrence Dallaglio peeled around the front of the lineout and replacement hooker Mark Regan dived for the corner but O’Kelly’s tackle did enough to force him over the touchline before grounding. Again it went to the TMO.

“I was confident,” says O’Kelly. “Regan, being the man that he is, celebrated but I was confident.”

Paul Honiss confirmed as much. The Aussie was Ireland’s lucky referee. Seven wins in seven games under his watch.

Ireland went on to win the Triple Crown and that was the first of seven wins in eight meetings with England, including victories at Twickenham in 2006, when adding another Triple Crown, and 2010, while O’Kelly would be part of the next two wins over them. All new territory.

“It was a massive step in our journey,” says O’Kelly.

England: Balshaw; Lewsey, Greenwood, Robinson, Cohen; Grayson, Dawson; Woodman, Thompson, Vickery; Borthwick, Kay; Worsley, Hill, Dallaglio (capt). Replacements: Simpson-Daniel for Balshaw, Jones for Worsley (both 52 mins), Regan for Thompson (58 mins).

Ireland: Dempsey; S Horgan, D’Arcy, O’Driscoll (capt), Howe; O’Gara, Stringer; Corrigan, Byrne, Hayes; O’Kelly, O’Connell; S Easterby, Gleeson, Foley. Replacements: Maggs for Dempsey (60 mins)

Referee: P Honiss (New Zealand).

Attendance: 75,000.

Saturday, February 27th 2010

England 16 Ireland 20

Tommy Bowe scores the winning try in 2010. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Tommy Bowe scores the winning try in 2010. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Ireland were the reigning Grand Slam champions but had been jolted by a 33-10 loss in Paris in round two which had ended a 12-match unbeaten run. England had beaten Wales at home and Italy away.

Declan Kidney brought Johnny Sexton into the team the previous November when giving him his debut against Fiji and starting him against South Africa. O’Gara was then restored for the opening two rounds before Kidney promoted Sexton at Twickenham for his first Six Nations start. It was a big call.

“We got off to the perfect start,” recalls Tommy Bowe, who scored a fourth minute try. “Wally (David Wallace) won a turnover in our half, and Rog and Jamie Heaslip shifted it out wide to Johnny Sexton who saw space in behind. He dummied and chipped it through for me. Thankfully I was up against Lewis Moody so I was able to canter past him. That France game was a big loss and a big shock, so to get off to a good start was important.”

Two Wilkinson penalties either side of one by Sexton left Ireland 8-6 ahead at the break and after a carry by Wallace, Sexton took Tomás O’Leary’s pass to put Keith Earls over in the corner to extend the lead to 13-6 in the 56th minute. But a converted Dan Cole try levelled matters, before a concussed O’Driscoll departed after being kneed in the head by O’Connell and O’Gara replaced Sexton. Then Wilkinson’s right-footed drop goal - reviving memories of his match-winner in the 2003 World Cup - inched England ahead in the 71st minute.

With O’Connell in one of his force-of-nature moods, Ireland went downfield to earn a lineout five minutes from time. Rory Best’s perfect throw led to O’Connell feeding off the top ball to O’Leary, who ran infield.

“We had a move which was always called ‘a Sligo’,” says Bowe. “We used to practice it and practice it and never got to run it. Tomás O’Leary attacks the guy at the back of the lineout and I have to run that line between Jonny Wilkinson and the tail gunner, Joe Worsley, and Mushy (Tony Buckley) did a great job blocking one of their players at the back of a lineout.”

“It just goes to show people might see the easy run-in through the hole but there are actually a load of different little jobs in the hidden areas, and this was before Joe’s attention to detail came in. That was the sort of stuff we were doing even back then, and that was down to (video analyst) Mervyn Murphy. He put that play together. Merv was kind of the Joe Schmidt back then, coming up with two or three power plays going into every game, and that was one before Joe came in and took them to a new level.”

Modesty forbids, as Bowe not only had to pick his line between Worsley and Wilkinson, he then changed direction to beat both James Haskell and Ugo Monye.

“I met Ugo just two weeks ago and we were chatting about it, and he said that was one of his last games for England,” reveals Bowe with a chuckle. “The crowd that day, even though it was in Twickenham there’s something about Irish fans. I’ve had some bad days in Twickenham but that day the Irish crowd came out in force and winning the game meant they could be a lot more vocal. But even the English supporters were very good.”

A 27-12 win over Wales set up a Triple Crown against Scotland but the Croke Park farewell ended in an exciting but anti-climactic 20-23 defeat thanks to Dan Parks’ fifth penalty of the day in the 78th minute.

“Unfortunately that Scottish game didn’t go too well,” says Bowe. “Dan Parks sank that hope. We kept forcing it and just fed them.”

Still, Bowe will always have Twickenham 2010.

England: D Armitage: Cueto, Tait, Flutey, Monye; Wilkinson, Care; Payne, Hartley, Cole; Shaw, Borthwick; Haskell, Moody, Easter. Replacements: Deacon for Shaw (4 mins), Foden for D Armitage (49 mins), Worsley for Moody (55 mins), Mears for Hartley (64 mins), Wilson for Cole (73 mins), P Hodgson for Care (73 mins).

Ireland: G Murphy; Bowe, B O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, Earls; Sexton, O’Leary; Healy, R Best, Hayes; O’Callaghan, O’Connell; Ferris, D Wallace, Heaslip. Replacements: Buckley for Hayes (63 mins), Trimble for B O’Driscoll (64 mins), O’Gara for Sexton, Cullen for O’Callaghan (both 69), Jennings for D Wallace (70).

Referee: Mark Lawrence (South Africa).

Attendance: 81,554.

Saturday, February 22nd 2014

England 13 Ireland 10

England scrumhalf Danny Care celebrates after scoring in 2014. Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images
England scrumhalf Danny Care celebrates after scoring in 2014. Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images

“It’s a tough place to go,” says Heaslip, “but then so is the Aviva. Home advantage shouldn’t really count for anything, but it does. The whole psychology element comes into, the familiarity and routine.

“When the bus pulls up at those gates, you have the English all around you as they form this alleyway of people as you walk into the dressing-room. You’re in the lions’ den and it’s tough to come away with a win. You’re always going to get a challenge there. That’s what you’re getting. But that’s what you have to rise to if you want to win a championship.”

Heaslip’s first visit there had been in 2008, and he was also there for the 2010 win. “Tommy Boooooowe, ” says Heaslip cheerily in immediately recalling that game, who also maintains that was a benchmark day - “a change in the mindset. Not ‘let’s go here and survive’, it’s actually ‘let’s go here and dominate, let’s go here and win’.”

But then he was at the back of that retreating and disintegrating Irish scrum in 2012.

“Not a great day, especially for the pack. We got dominated. The scrum is such a psychological weapon and on that day they deployed it with force, and it definitely wounded a lot of our players. We got beaten up that day.”

Cue 2014, and a pivotal game with uncanny similarities to tomorrow’s encounter. Back then Ireland had beaten Scotland 28-6 at home and then Wales 26-3, so went to Twickenham seeking the Triple Crown. England, meanwhile, had lost 26-24 in Paris on the opening weekend before winning 20-0 in Murrayfield. It was also the day O’Driscoll won his 139th cap, thus equaling George Gregan’s then world record.

England’s half-time lead of 3-0 scarcely told the tale as both sides created genuine try-scoring chances. Within two minutes of the restart, Heaslip was a key figure in Ireland’s try.

“We always let Faz know about that try every time we did an England review,” says Heaslip, laughing, “because they knew it was coming. That move wasn’t anything new, but it’s just the way you sell it and set it up. But yeah, they bought that hook, line and sinker.”

Heaslip first trucked up lineout ball and then, two phases later, when Conor Murray came back to him the Irish eight delayed his pass to put Rob Kearney through the ensuing gap, helped by O’Connell’s little tug off the ball.

“I think Paulie just rucked very well,” says Heaslip dryly. “It’s funny, there were definitely games when, if there’d been a video ref, that tries might have been disallowed, and in many other games as well. Nowadays, you can’t get away with it.”

Sexton soon added a penalty, but after one by Owen Farrell, nearing the hour Chris Robshaw offloaded back inside for Mike Brown to cut through and then put the supporting Danny Care over for the match-winning try.

“That typifies England,” says Heaslip. “They can punish you very quickly. They have players to turn a game but if their shirts are clean and they don’t make any mistakes, they can play that pressure game themselves.

“I remember it being disappointing because it felt like one that got away, but at the same time we knew it (the title) was still in our control. We knew that we still had a lot to play for, and that would have been the narrative under Joe. It was a game - well, depending on your optics - that we lost, not a game that they won. But there wasn’t much between the sides, and we kicked on.”

Indeed, the defeat would deny Ireland a shot at the Grand Slam as well as the Triple Crown, but after beating Italy 46-7 at home, Ireland claimed the title on the last night in Paris courtesy of that 22-20 win over France, so finishing on the same points as England but with a superior points differential of 10.

Ireland lost the battle, but won the war.

England: Brown; Nowell, Burrell, Twelvetrees, May; Farrell, Care; Marler, Hartley, Wilson; Launchbury, Lawes; Wood, Robshaw (captain), B Vunipola. Replacements: Morgan for B Vunipola (36 mins), M Vunipola for Marler (64 mins), Thomas for Wilson, Attwood for Wood (both 70 mins), T Youngs for Hartley (75 mins).

Ireland: Kearney; Trimble, O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, Kearney; Sexton, Murray; Healy, Best, Ross; Toner, O’Connell (captain); O’Mahony, Henry, Heaslip. Replacements: Moore for Ross (62 mins), McFadden for Trimble (66 mins), Henderson for O’Mahony (70 mins), McGrath for Healy (72 mins), Cronin for Best, Murphy for Henry (both 74 mins), Boss for Murray, Jackson for O’Driscoll (both 80 mins).

Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa).

Attendance: 81,835.

How have Ireland gone so far in the 2020 Six Nations?

Malcolm O’Kelly

“We had a lovely start in terms of two home matches. The bar has been raised so high that people weren’t inclined to celebrate the win over Scotland, but that’s disrespectful to both Scotland and the Six Nations. Ireland showed some new things against Wales. I’m a big fan of this Irish team, and the group of players that they have, and the youth that’s coming through. I think they have great coaches and they have potential to grow.”

Robbie Henshaw in action against Wales. Photo: Donall Farmer/PA Wire.
Robbie Henshaw in action against Wales. Photo: Donall Farmer/PA Wire.

Tommy Bowe

“I think they’ve been pretty good. I’m not getting too carried away. Scotland was the first game out for the new coaches, they were trying a few new things and actually Scotland’s defence caught them on the hop but I liked seeing the little changes against Wales. There’s still a few things to work on but it was great to see form players like Jordan Larmour and players who’ve done so well for Ireland over the years answering some of the critics, like Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Robbie Henshaw and even Conor Murray, who I thought had a strong game.”

Jamie Heaslip

“We won a game we should have lost against Scotland, who were aggressive defensively and made us play quite narrowly. They also stretched us defensively but lacked a return. We got the warning and against Wales, who were narrow defensively, we were really clinical. Robbie Henshaw was my man-of-the-match. He gave an education in how to attack and defend at ‘13’, he kept really good width in our defensive line and in attack he ran through them and around them. Our ‘9’ and ‘10’ controlled the game really well and Conor Murray could have been man-of-the-match as well. But we’ll need to be better against England, a lot better.

England so far in the 2020 Six Nations?

Malcolm O’Kelly

“It’s always tough to play away in France and, again, it’s about respecting the tournament and respecting France as a rugby nation, and how much it means to them to win. England managed to gather themselves and get a bonus point. Against Scotland those conditions are a great leveller, so I wouldn’t doubt what England will bring. They are going to be hurting, which is probably not what you want when you’re playing England.”

Tommy Bowe

“I don’t think the Saracens spine that’s been so strong for them over the years are on the money at the minute. Maybe the week off will do them good, but I don’t think Jamie George, Maro Itoje and even Owen Farrell are quite at the level they were at in the World Cup semi-final. Every question at every press conference has been asking them if they’re staying at Saracens. Subconsciously it may be having an effect on them and England are not quite the same side without those games being at full steam.”

Jamie Heaslip

“I think Tom Curry is an amazing player but if they’re without Billy Vunipola, they need a Nathan Hughes or Alex Dombrandt in my opinion. However, around the field, with Curry at eight they have more lineout options and players who get through an enormous amount of work on both sides of the ball. Without Manu Tuilagi as well they just haven’t had a consistent gain line winner. Their front five need to step to the level they’ve had before, but if they do we could be in trouble because they have a very dynamic pack with a lot of ball players who can play a very fast, expansive game that we could potentially struggle with.”

Manu Tuilagi will be back in the England side. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Manu Tuilagi will be back in the England side. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

What might be the key battlegrounds?

Malcolm O’Kelly

“It will be interesting to see if we can get a gain line, and how we deal with the gain line, if we bring anything to it and that desire to offload through the tackle. Defensively, how will we deal with Tuilagi? That’s down to getting around him and making good reads. Henshaw looks like he’s back to very good form and it would be great to see him continue that. And how James Ryan deals with Itoje and provides that leadership he brings.”

Tommy Bowe

“It will definitely come down to the backrow. Can they live with the English backrow? Against France, they weren’t quite on the money and against Scotland the conditions were so terrible that they just did the job. Ireland need to get off to a good start and the backrow and around the breakdown is going to be so important.”

Jamie Heaslip

“The midfield is one, because Manu is going to get a lot of attention, and if one player gets a lot of attention that could, potentially, free up other players. And if their tight five come alive that will give England the type of fast ball that will release their backline. They’ll play with a lot of width so if we get narrow - which we have done in the past - they will cause us problems. And if we lose that battle around the ruck, those carries both with the ball and without the ball, we will be in a lot of trouble. Sometimes we can get a bit predictable with our ball carries, and that will feed into England if they’re up for it.”

Who will win?

Malcolm O’Kelly

“I’d imagine it will be a pretty tight game. I think it might be a step too far right now for this Irish team. Back at Twickenham for the first time since before the World Cup, England will be really up for it and with Tuilagi back, I think England might come through.”

Tommy Bowe

“I’d love to see Ireland go over there and do the job. But it’s England’s first game at home since the World Cup, there’ll be a big homecoming and they’ll be up for this game. I think if Ireland can get within seven points I’d be pretty happy. Then Ireland would have every chance of winning the title. That bonus point against Wales could be huge, and another one this weekend would tee them up really well for it.”

Jamie Heaslip

“We won’t fear going to Twickenham. We won there two years ago, but they’re a different animal now. They have to win to keep the title in scope. We win this and the conversation becomes about a Grand Slam then. It’s a huge test for us mentally. I’m always going to back Ireland. Talking to the English guys on Channel 4 and on BBC, England are favourites in their eyes.

“Ireland suffocate sides and punish them for their mistakes. If we can get that type of territory and possession England might struggle, as they did against South Africa. But if England get into this game it’s going to be tough for us. Ireland were rightly under heavy criticism, but they showed up against Wales. They did what they do very well and if England don’t negate what they do, Ireland have chance of getting out of there with a win.”