Ireland v England: Where history can be won or lost

Six Nations clashes with the ‘auld enemy’ are always epic battles where winner takes all

It's the big one, simple as. Ireland against England has a resonance, a sense of history and occasion which surpasses all other Irish fixtures. Be it rugby or tiddlywinks, it's the one which is the best to win and the worst to lose, although admittedly that is not a feeling unique to Irish supporters.

No doubt 800 years of history has something to do with it. Although a trek through history also shows that England has been Irish rugby's best friend – and never more so than in 1973. A year before, a 16-12 win at Twickenham had augmented an opening win in Paris by 14-9 to set Ireland up for a tilt at the Grand Slam, with Scotland and Wales to come to Dublin. But, of course, first the Scottish Union and then their Welsh counterparts pulled out of the fixture, citing the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The French, to their eternal credit, agreed to a friendly at Lansdowne Road that March, and had England not travelled over in 1973, we’ll never know how differently history might have panned out.

When their captain John Pullin led the English team out, they received a standing ovation for several minutes. Tom Grace, the IRFU treasurer who was on the rightwing that day, says: “I remember being in the old uncovered stand where we used to change, and we were waiting and waiting and waiting to come out, and the crowd just continued to clap the England team. It went on for ages. It went on in excess of five minutes, and we were being held back because of the applause. It was genuine and unbelievable.” Ireland’s 18-9 win prompted Pullin to famously remark: “We may not be very good but at least we turn up.”


England have generally had a discernible edge in this fixture, winning 74 to 46 with eight draws, and England’s current run of four successive wins is somewhat typical of an oddly streaky fixture. Indeed, prior to this sequence, Ireland had won seven of the previous eight.

That aforementioned win in 1972 sparked Ireland's longest winning run of five. Along with Mike Gibson, Grace is the only Irish player to have played in all of them, scoring his first try for Ireland in the win at Twickenham, when Kevin Flynn scored a classy winning try under the posts.

Fergus Slattery remains convinced that the class of 1972 were good enough to win the Grand Slam, and Grace says: “We had a great chance because the two remaining matches were at home so it was terribly disappointing that Scotland and Wales didn’t come to Dublin.”

Grace scored again in the 1973 win. “I didn’t get a lot of tries but any I did get were usually against England,” he jokes. Mick Quinn came into the team at outhalf for the 26-21 win at Twickenham in 1974, when Gibson scored two tries and two conversions. “A great player,” says Grace. “The best back I ever played with. He just had everything. He was very good with the ball in hand, and he was good defensively.”

Gibson was a try scorer again in the 12-9 win at Lansdowne Road in 1975, as was Grace at Twickenham in 1976, although by then the Irish side was on the wane, and that 13-12 win was Ireland’s sole success of the year, though it did help condemn England to a whitewash.

1985 – March 30th

Lansdowne Road

Ireland 13 England 10

“It’s the auld enemy and everybody wants to beat the auld enemy,” says

Willie Anderson

in explaining the unique flavour of an Ireland-England game. “It’s a no-brainer. It’s a special game, and in fairness to England we have respect for them. They came [in 1973] when the others didn’t come. So there’s that, along with the historical stuff, the country which trampled all over us for years. And all of that still stands. Even for me, from the North, the biggest games were always the England games.”

If it is particularly sweet to beat England, it is sweeter still when there is a Six Nations title and a Triple Crown to play for on the final weekend of the championship in Lansdowne Road. That was the case in 1985 after Ireland had sandwiched a 15-all draw at home to France with daring wins away to Scotland and Wales.

“You couldn’t have scripted any better,” says Anderson. “There must have been 150,000 at it. Health and safety didn’t actually matter much in those days. You could have lit a fag in the middle of the park without even having a lighter. It was one of the best atmospheres I’ve ever known.”

Ireland had been whitewashed in 1984 in Willie John McBride's sole year as head coach, whereupon he was controversially replaced by the late Mick Doyle. He introduced new players like Brendan Mullin and Michael Bradley, a new backrow of Philip Matthews, Nigel Carr and Brian Spillane, while relaunching the test career of Paul Dean (a centre in the 1982 team) as a running outhalf.

“We had no fear. We just went for it,” says Anderson. “But the England game was a nervy kind of a game. By that stage it was no longer about performance, it was purely about winning. End of story. But the occasion got to us a little bit. The pressure and the tension was just immense.”

Mullin's first international try, when charging down a clearance by England fullback Chris Martin, was quickly cancelled out by a Rory Underwood try. Ireland were trailing 10-7 late on when Michael Kiernan kicked his second penalty. Cue Ciarán Fitzgerald walking amongst his troops, asking, "Where's your f**king pride?".

“Fitzie was unbelievable,” says Anderson. “Everybody recognised him as a person first of all. Everybody had trust in him and respect for him.”

After Kiernan’s equalising penalty, Rob Andrew missed a very kickable chance. Cue Donal Lenihan’s charge into the English outhalf channel off a Spillane lineout take, Bradley’s dive pass and Kiernan’s drop goal. “We were a bit shaky for a while but thanks be to God Mick Kiernan stuck the ball between the posts, even though he had a four-to-two overlap,” says Anderson, chuckling. The gods were with Ireland that day alright.

1993: March 20th

Lansdowne Road

Ireland 17 England 3

By the time England came calling on the final weekend of the 1993 Five Nations, Anderson was Ireland’s forwards coach under Gerry Murphy. England had won the previous six meetings and were looking for their third title in succession, the Will Carling-led side having won back-to-back Grand Slams in 1991 and 1992.

By stark contrast, Ireland had suffered whitewashes in 1991 and 1992, and had only arrested a 10-game losing streak in the championship with a 19-14 win in Cardiff a fortnight beforehand.

However, the win in Cardiff had seen Eric Elwood kick 11 points in a free-spirited debut which helped to liberate the team. "We had shown what we could do against Wales two weeks previously," says Mick Galwey, "and Ernie, Eric Elwood, was playing his first test in Lansdowne Road; there was just a good feeling about the whole day.

"We had a good honest team, with players like Pat O'Hara – just a tough bastard. That's what we needed on the day. Poppy [Nick Popplewell] had a huge game, Terry Kingston led from the front, Paddy Johns in the secondrow, and that was Claw's [Peter Clohessy] first season so first time against England, good backs like Simon Geoghegan and Richie Wallace, and a good captain in Michael Bradley, who had a huge influence on that year and that game.

“They were coming for their third title in a row and it wasn’t a case of whether they were going to beat us, but how much they were going to beat us by, and that certainly got us going and particularly back then. The best way to get a Paddy going is to write him off.

“Willie [Anderson] had us well drilled and we played a lot of continuity. Even though it was 22 years ago we were able to keep the ball alive. What we didn’t want that day was to get into a slow, mauling and rucking game against bigger English forwards. We played a high tempo and to use the Jack Charlton phrase, put them under pressure.”

Elwood kicked four penalties and the game was sealed by Galwey’s late try. “It wasn’t a big move we had practiced in training. They won a line-out, [Stuart] Barnes was trying to move the ball because they were down 12-3 and Danaher came up and hit Will Carling. Three of the backs kept it alive and next thing there was a ruck, Bradley picked it up and I was coming from the last line-out – I was in the right place at the right time.”

Galwey carried Tony Underwood over the line to spark a mini pitch invasion and as he is walking back from the in-goal area, a lady in a yellow top and brown coat comes up to give him a hug. Famously, it was his sister Mary.

“She flew home from New York, where she still lives, that day. I had left a ticket for her in the Berkeley Court, the ticket went missing, she went back out and met a genuine person who sold her a ticket right down in the very corner where I scored. ’Twas meant to be because the original players’ ticket would have been up in the west stand.

"She still gets a slagging about it but it was lovely to see her on the day. I said, 'See you after the match' but funnily enough I didn't. The Irish sevens squad were heading to Hong Kong on the Monday and she went back to New York and I didn't see her again for a few months."

Only in Ireland? Well, only in the old Lansdowne Road anyway.

Galwey was picked on the Lions tour along with Nick Popplewell, with Richard Wallace and Vinny Cunningham to follow. Galwey reckons that was a huge source of motivation for his teammates in Twickenham in 1994.

That day, perhaps even more remarkably, after an opening 35-15 defeat in Paris and a 17-15 loss at home to Wales, Ireland won 13-12 – a result that would effectively deny England another Grand Slam as well as the title.

Says Anderson: “We identified the scrumhalf Kyran Bracken, who was from Ireland, and we just said, ‘Pour through and put the biggest pressure on him’ and every guy did that. That’s where we won the match. We identified a weakness and exploited it, and that was a sensational game.”

Bracken, whose mother played hockey for Ireland, was originally from Skerries, and Galwey agrees with Anderson. “Kyran Bracken was a big factor that day. Born in Dublin, he played his under-age rugby with Skerries. I’ve met him since and I always slag him about that. But that was a driving force on the day. That’s the way it was.

“We did nothing illegal but we certainly put him under pressure and let him know he was having his first cap against Ireland and it wasn’t going to be an easy match for him.”

Geoghegan's try was the game's defining moment. The forwards set up ruck ball off a Rob Andrew 22-metre restart and Eric Elwood used the decoy runs of Maurice Field and Conor O'Shea for Philip Danaher to link with Richie Wallace, who had come across from the right wing, and give Geoghegan the chance to beat Tony Underwood and Jonathan Callard on the outside. Elwood added what proved a vital conversion to his two penalties.

“Seldom did we score a try off second or third phase but we scored a great try that day. It was a great move and no better man. And he was one of those overlooked for the Lions the previous year. A lot of fellas hadn’t forgotten they were overlooked and they wanted to prove a point. And it wasn’t just Simon’s try, it was his chasing and everything else. He was a tearaway. Phenomenal.

“Those games stick in the memory particularly when it’s against England, because everybody wanted to beat them,” says Anderson. Indeed, in a 19-game sequence in the championship from 1991 to 1995, Ireland won only three games – and two of those were against the dominant English side of its day. Go figure.

2001: October 20th Lansdowne Road

Ireland 20 England 14

“Traditionally games against England are the biggest matches,” says Galwey. “There’s no doubt there that the history between the two countries is a factor, and never more so than in 2007 at Croke Park, and a sense of us versus them which meant that Ireland had to win that game, but there’s also a mutual respect there.”

Coming into the deferred 2001 clash, England had again won six in a row.

The foot-and-mouth outbreak meant Ireland's games against Scotland, Wales and England were put back to, technically, the autumn of the following season (2001-2002). Ireland had beaten France and Italy, before Warren Gatland rejigged the team against Scotland in their rearranged September meeting.

Galwey, Peter Stringer and David Wallace were restored for the win away to Wales a week before hosting another brilliant English team which had blitzed Scotland (44-15), Italy (80-23), Scotland (43-3) and France (48-19) and, as in 1993, had beaten Ireland six times in succession.

Galwey, who was back in the fold having been dropped about 14 times (a record he reckons Geordan Murphy might have eclipsed), says: “We were well up for it. We felt that we had a good side. A lot of us weren’t lucky enough to win any Grand Slams or championships or Triple Crowns, but stopping England was a small consolation.

“I’m not saying they overlooked us, but they had hammered everybody else; absolutely hammered them. But we knew if we got them into a dogfight, that would put a bit of doubt in their heads, and that’s exactly what we did. Nobody had asked questions of them. We knew that if we didn’t turn up these fellas would hammer us. But if we did ask questions we had a chance. As a team we were well prepared.”

Similarly to 1993, three penalties by David Humphreys and two by Ronan O'Gara were supplemented by a cleverly executed lineout move off the tail where Anthony Foley transferred Galwey's take to a charging Keith Wood.

“It was a great score. Nobody would have stopped him. It lifted the crowd and the team, but sometimes you think you’ve a game won and all of a sudden Dan Luger was going through to score but for a hand trip by Peter Stringer. That was a match-winning tackle because Luger was heading under the posts. I remember it well. It was game over. We would have been beaten by a point.”

Two years subsequently, with Martin Johnson fit and playing, England beat Ireland 46-6 in a winner-takes-all Grand Slam shoot-out at Lansdowne Road as a precursor to the core of that side winning the World Cup later that year.

“There’s always been a respect between the two,” Galwey says. “You hate losing to England, that’s the bottom line. Maybe beating France in 2000 was more of a watershed, because we had so many hidings there.

“But personally my best wins in an Irish jersey were against England. We enjoyed them the most but having said that some of the biggest hidings we took were also from England. It’s been a mixed bag.”

And it’s usually been memorable.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times