Ireland still chasing home win over New Zealand after epic 1973 draw

Ex-players recall incidents from match that was played in troubled times 43 years ago

New Zealand scrumhalf Sid Going gets in his kick despite the attentions of Ireland’s Sean Lynch and Fergus Slattery during the 1973 game which ended  10-10. Photograph:   Dermot O’Shea

New Zealand scrumhalf Sid Going gets in his kick despite the attentions of Ireland’s Sean Lynch and Fergus Slattery during the 1973 game which ended 10-10. Photograph: Dermot O’Shea

 

So 1973 revisited, before it gets neatly filed away in history. Finally.  

Be it three Novembers or 43 winters past, victory over The All Blacks had been coming. A team captained by Tom Kiernan, armed with the greatest Irish players of the amateur era almost snatched it, much like the last throes of the Paul O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy era.

Both epic Lansdowne Road days when the wind took away victories. Johnny Sexton and Barry McGann are footnotes now.    Maybe Ireland can only finish New Zealand off on neutral soil. The women’s side, led by Fiona Coghlan, knocked the Black Ferns off their World Cup perch in Marcoussis on a heroic August day in 2014.

Only last June, James Ryan was the inspirational captain of the under-20s in Manchester as the Baby Blacks were felled.

And now Soldier Field, Chicago.

“Last Saturday there was no element of luck attached to the win,” said Kiernan, now 77, earlier this week. “Ireland were just better. Better organised and each player played well.

“New Zealand would have a right thinking they were going to win,” he continued, before adding: “I think they will be more difficult to beat the next time.” It has always been an enormous task but January 20th, 1973 – Ireland 10-10 New Zealand – was no ordinary day. Not at all.  

Rugby on this island has always strived to separate itself from politics and war, ignoring both where possible, but there is a dark history to go alongside that date.

Two major events occurred, one concerning the Troubles – a car bomb exploded on Sackville Place in Dublin city centre.

As the second Barron report, published in 2004, noted a CIÉ bus conductor, 21-year-old Thomas Douglas, originally from Stirling in Scotland, was passing the betting shop just as the bomb went off and the force of the blast hurled him through a shop front window where he died minutes later of shock and haemorrhage from the multiple injuries he received from the explosion. Fourteen other people were badly injured.

Another global occurrence, arguably causing more consternation than Donald Trump’s election as the 45th president of the United States, was Richard Nixon being sworn in for a second term despite an ongoing investigation into the Watergate break-in.

All on the same Saturday afternoon.

Impacted on Irish rugby

The All Blacks arrived in Ireland in the wake of Bloody Sunday in Derry and the burning of the British embassy in Dublin. These events had already impacted on Irish rugby, with Scotland then Wales deciding not to travel to Lansdowne Road for the Five Nations matches (described in The Irish Times as “the worst administrative error take by any rugby union this century”.)

“It was crazy the way they handled it,” said Willie John McBride in No Borders: Playing Rugby for Ireland by Tom English.

“Throughout the murder and mayhem in Northern Ireland there wasn’t a single game of rugby ever cancelled between a team from the North and a team from the South.

“We crossed over the Border all the time to play against each other and the game was a great unifier in tough times. It kept people together. It preached tolerance. So for the Scots and Welsh to stay away, that was disappointing.”

The All Blacks overcame Leinster at Lansdowne Road on November 15th, 1972 (19-9) before heading up to Belfast, under armed guard from British soldiers, to play Ulster at Ravenhill three days later (winning 19-6).

“I don’t think we really appreciated the politics of what we were getting into,” said New Zealand flyhalf Bob Burgess, who had refused to tour South Africa in 1970 due to the apartheid regime.

Burgess subsequently received a letter of warning from the Official IRA (which in English’s book was subsequently deemed a hoax by its alleged author): “It is unlikely that any of your members would be treated as hostages, although you play a foreign game,” the letter stated.

“By way of advice, we suggest that you should refrain from talking about politics.”

After a circuitous route through England, Scotland and Wales – winning all three Test matches – New Zealand returned to Ireland in January to draw with Munster (3-3) at Musgrave Park on the Tuesday before the Test match in Dublin.  

It was a blustery, biting afternoon. Ireland grabbing two late scores as the wind punctured Kiwi then Irish hopes in a rolling, ridiculously dramatic end game. A wind that still haunts Barry McGann.

“The standing joke after the match and on each occasion that I run into Barry McGann is his declaration that he had the chance to make me famous by converting that try, but missed,” Tom Grace remembered in these pages in 2005. “He apologises every time we meet.”

Nobody celebrated at the full-time whistle. The way it ended, nobody could. New Zealand lost the chance to “Grand Slam the home unions”, while Ireland lost a moment that took 43 years for green-clad jerseys to finally know. “After? Relief on the one hand,” Kiernan remembers, “because we had stood up to them.”

This they certainly did.

Superb Irish side

But it was a superb Irish side, many of whom went on to dominate the decision-making at committee level after the game past on.

Kieran was the captain at fullback who became Ireland coach. Grace – still immensely powerful as IRFU honorary treasurer – was the heroic winger who won the sprint for that last-minute try. Pa Whelan was on the bench.

The thrilling pace of the wonderfully gifted Mike Gibson protected Ireland’s try line once and threatened to tear open the black defence a few other times. Willie John McBride was out there.

Ray McLoughlin was Ireland’s uncompromising loosehead prop and maintained his relationship from three years previous with Alex “Grizz” Wyllie. “That goes back to the Lions against Canterbury game at Lancaster Park in ’71,” remembers Fergus Slattery.

“I was the first to be taken out. After about 10 minutes. I wasn’t fighting with Alex, but he was threatening me because when he tried to go off the back of the lineout I’d run in his way. “After doing a few of those it became apparent it wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t a punch-up, he was just screaming at me, but yer man came up from the front of the lineout, I never saw him, and he whacked me in the face. Cracked my front teeth, up in the root and concussed me. “I would say partially concussed. I didn’t know where I was probably for a half an hour or so. I always remember looking at this great big terrace area behind the goal posts, with people standing on it, and wondering ‘where the f**k am I?’

“I hadn’t a clue where I was. I said to Peter Dixon, ‘Where are we?’ ‘What?!’ He just rattled it out. Ten minutes later I asked him the same question but he had just been hammered by somebody and couldn’t remember himself.

“He does remember me asking him. He probably had the same partial concussion as I had. “Ray damaged his scaphoid (thumb) punching Alex Wyllie in that game so Ray went home, tour over.”

New Zealand struck first. Sid Going, the great scrumhalf, snatched the ball and wriggled away for a try after a phenomenal side step beat the portly McGann and Kiernan. Magic.

“The best scrumhalf in the world for backs was Gareth Edwards but Sid Going was the best scrumhalf in the world for forwards. A terrific player. Full stop. He was a niggily guy. Feisty. Narky.”

Sounds like Aaron Smith, plays like PJ Perenara.

Thumping seemed certain

With Grant Batty (think Jason Robinson) dashing off his wing at every opportunity, a thumping seemed certain. Wyllie ran in their second try early in the second half following a breakdown in Irish back play which saw tighthead Kent Lambert bash past Ken Kennedy before Burgess put the future Clontarf and All Black coach in the clear. 10-3 was a big lead back then.

McGann clipped his second penalty with five minutes to play. This led to three young boys doing a mini-pitch invasion down the north terrace end. There was no barrier back then. The crowd was literally on the pitch whenever the mood took them. Joe Karam put the restart out on the full.

The mood took them all. Scrum Ireland on halfway. Johnny Moloney feeds. Going almost steals it again. It bobbles up to McGann, who grubbers.

Alan Sutherland, the huge number eight, covering the back field, is slowed by Kevin Flynn then floored by Slattery. The ball appears on Ireland’s side. Moloney attacks blind and feeds Tommy Grace, who chips on. A straight sprint: Grace versus five All Blacks and Moloney.

The great Cliff Morgan on commentary: “Can he get there? Can he get there? The ball is dead I think...It’s a try! It’s a try!”

The crowd didn’t just invade the pitch they rode the backs of Grace and Moloney. That January day, after the try, it was 10-10 with seconds to play. Morgan on commentary: “Everything then now resting on that boot of Barry McGann. Who’d be in his place?” Perhaps you, Cliff. Far right touchline. “Barry missed it, ah God,” said Kiernan. “We were glad to get out of it with a draw.” Grace 11 years ago: “It’s a bit embarrassing to still be getting calls about the match – I’d love to see Ireland win on Saturday and create their own bit of history.”

Unofficial extra Test match

A week later New Zealand lost to the 1971 British and Irish Lions, disguised as the Barbarians, in an unofficial extra Test match at Cardiff Arms Park.

You may have seen the Gareth Edwards try. Four Irish players – Slattery, Gibson, McLoughlin and McBride made the journey to feature in the 23-11 win. That and Munster’s win in 1978 was where an acceptable return ended. Until Soldier Field.

“It was a very clean victory, a deserving victory of quality and control,” adds Slattery about last Saturday. “The plaudits from New Zealand were extraordinary. Of the Irish!

“If we do beat New Zealand again it will be hard to match that showing from the forwards, from every one of them.” Maybe it will not stand alone for long.

“Can Ireland beat New Zealand next week? Course they can. But they’ll need to – and I know it sounds crazy – they’ll need to step up a gear.” Because that is what this opponent always manages to do.

A month later – after winning gruelling battles in Tarbes, Lyon and Clermont – France beat them 13-6 at Parc des Princes, sending the All Blacks home after a four-month odyssey that began on October 19th.

Beatable. If you wear them down. And score 40 points.

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