Twickenham: the best place to win, but worst place to lose
Ahead of today’s showdown, we look at Ireland’s nine Six Nations games at the stadium
Twickenham. The worst place to lose, but the best place to win. Come the full-time whistle this afternoon the ground will either be reverberating to Swing Low and the Irish fans will have started slinking away, or The Fields will be louder than it’s been all day and this corner of southwest London will be awash in green.
Today that assuredly applies more than ever. Ireland have been to Twickenham nine times in the Six Nations, winning three and losing six. And as if to highlight the scale of the challenge, some of the beatings were heavy, whereas all three wins were one-score nail-biters . . .
2000: England 50 Ireland 18
When Ireland went to Twickenham on the opening weekend, they had lost five on the trot against England – average scoreline 31-12 – including the record 46-6 defeat under Brian Ashton three years previously.
It was also Ireland’s first game since the 28-24 World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina in Lens, with Eddie O’Sullivan now assistant coach to Warren Gatland, who had retained faith with 11 of that starting line-up.
Among the four exceptions was the lock Bob Casey, who had been a replacement in Lens. “I remember Bob had damaged his ankle and was a big doubt all that week, but was very keen to win his first full cap,” recalls Malcolm O’Kelly. It would be Casey’s only Six Nations game, although he would play on tours of the Americas later that year and in 2009.
England led 32-3 shortly after half-time, with Mick Galwey, Trevor Brennan and Girvan Dempsey replacing Casey, Dion O’Cuinneagain and Conor O’Shea. O’Cuinneagain would only play once more for Ireland, while O’Shea never did.
Brian O’Driscoll produced a brilliant chip and chase which led to a try by Kevin Maggs, and Galwey also scored off a tap penalty/rolling maul, but Ireland conceded a record number of points in the championship.
“That represented a real low point,” says O’Kelly. “But I suppose when you hit rock bottom, you can only go up from there. What followed was certainly the start of something for us.”
2002: England 45 Ireland 11
A fortnight after thrashing Wales in O’Sullivan’s first game, Ireland were tonked again. In 35 minutes either side of half-time, England scored six tries and 42 points.
“I did my knee ligaments in the first 10 minutes,” recalls Geordan Murphy. He was replaced by Rob Henderson, himself forced off at half-time, with O’Gara coming on and David Humphreys shifting to fullback.
“I kicked the ball through on their 22 and Ben Cohen came across, dived on the ball and went through my knee. That was me for six or eight weeks. Not a great memory. I probably blocked out the rest of the game.”
As in 2000, a young English outhalf scored 20 points that day. “That was the Jonny Wilkinson show,” says O’Kelly. “They were flying, and although we’d come a long way, we still had a lot of issues. Defensively teams could be broken down a lot easier, and so there were more one-sided matches. They were a far more complete side then, plus the quality of the Premiership at that time was pretty incredible, and the French were good then too.”
Indeed, despite three handsome home wins, Ireland suffered a 44-5 defeat to France on the final Saturday as France sealed a Grand Chelem.
2004: England 13 Ireland 19
Although Gordon D’Arcy had made his debut four years previously, at 24 this was his first Six Nations. With O’Driscoll injured, he’d played his first game in the opening 35-17 defeat in Paris at ‘13’, shifted to ‘12’ to accommodate the great one’s return in the 36-15 win over Wales, when O’Driscoll scored two tries, and so played at Twickenham for the first time in round three.
England had won a Slam shoot-out by 42-6 in Lansdowne Road in 2003, and the newly crowned world champions, who’d had big away wins over Italy and Scotland, hadn’t lost at Twickenham in 22 games over seven years.
Yet O’Kelly recalls: “We were much more confident in ourselves, and felt we had some tools to do some damage.”
Ireland led 12-10 at the break before referee Paul Honiss disallowed a try by Mark Cueto for a double movement as D’Arcy clung on to his ankle. “We never lost an international with Paul Honiss as referee,” recalls O’Kelly. “He was our one number one ref, so much so I remember saying it to him once.”
The key score was a brilliantly worked try after a break by D’Arcy, before Ireland went wide right, where Shane Horgan and O’Kelly offloaded in turn for Foley to carry, and then after big passes from D’Arcy and O’Driscoll to Tyrone Howe, Girvan Dempsey slid in by the left corner flag.
“We’d done a couple of misses up until that and they just seemed to be over-pushing in defence,” says D’Arcy. “I thought ‘I may as well have a cut here.’ Obviously I picked the right moment when they weren’t defending very well and we capitalised on it.
“But the offload by Mal to Axel was the bit that killed them, because those extra yards and the speed of the ruck meant England couldn’t get back into position.
“We used to work constantly on that wide-wide pattern, getting in the outside channels and using switch plays,” says O’Kelly. “It just came together and it was probably the greatest try I was ever involved in. We were probably lucky as well. We had moments.”
One of them was O’Kelly tackling Mark Regan into touch just as he was grounding the ball from a blindside move off a lineout.
D’Arcy clearly recalls the away dressing-room afterwards. “This was a group of players who had been together for a while and I was quite new in the door, and that kind of threw everyone together. The feeling was quite hard to bottle, but it made you realise: ‘Actually, that’s quite addictive. That’s something I’d like to feel more of.’
“I remember Mal was wearing a beard because he was going on a stag which was pirate themed, and he had this horrible orange goatee.”
“Yeah, nasty,” admits O’Kelly. “I suppose, in hindsight, if I’d known it would get the attention that it did get I probably wouldn’t have bothered. It was so pathetic. Yeah, a dirty red goatee. Not worth further comment really.”
Thereafter the Irish mindset changed.
“Until 2003 [it was] fortress Twickenham,” says D’Arcy. “Post-2004, it was just playing any other team, and that’s the kind of head space you always want to get into it.”
Ireland went on to claim their first Triple Crown in 19 years, with D’Arcy the player of the tournament.
2006: England 24 Ireland 28
The game most akin to today’s. Four second-half tries in Paris had ignited Ireland’s campaign, despite the 43-31 defeat. After beating Wales and Scotland, they arrived in London on St Patrick’s weekend seeking their eighth Triple Crown in history and first at Twickenham.
“We were a better more rounded, stronger all-round side, and England weren’t as dominant as they’d been a few years earlier,” says O’Kelly. “Indeed after thrashing Wales and Italy, as now, England had just come off the back of defeats to Scotland and France.”
The lead exchanged hands four times, as tries by Shane Horgan and Denis Leamy cancelled out scores by Jamie Noon and Steve Borthwick, before an Andy Goode penalty put England 24-21 up with five minutes left.
With a scrum on their own 22, Ireland split their back line and O’Gara informed his backs he was going for a chip.
“That chip kick [decision] was on the field,” says D’Arcy. “That wasn’t rehearsed. We hadn’t been running that move. It was an incredible chip, and chase and collection [by O’Driscoll]. Defences were more unstructured back then. There wasn’t as much analysis.”
O’Driscoll gathered and fed Horgan for a gallop up the touchline.
“My good mate Lewis Moody made a strong tackle on Shaggy,” recalls Murphy, “but then we played a phase infield before Strings went right to Shaggy. It was an unbelievable finish to a hell of an occasion and a game.”
Only Horgan, with his height, could have reached the line. Critically, O’Gara extended the lead from two points to four with the touchline conversion, and despite twice conceding lineouts, Ireland kept England at arm’s length.
“Shaggy’s try in the corner deserved to win the match and the Triple Crown,” says O’Kelly, “given the level of individual skill, combinations and the position of the match”.
“Having only played eight minutes in the first one and as it was the first time I’d won in Twickenham, it was particularly sweet,” says Murphy. “It was for a Triple Crown as well, which is still only a fraction of what the boys can achieve this weekend.”
2008: England 33 Ireland 10
It started so well, Rob Kearney scoring in the corner after the Irish backs swept the ball from right to left where Murphy worked a switch with Kearney, O’Gara soon making it 10-0.
“I caught the ball on a miss-two from Rog and I put Rob over on a switch,” recalls Murphy. “That was actually a nice try, although I should have been tackled. [Paul] Sackey should have hit me. But I tore my hamstring near the end of the first half, so again not a great memory.”
D’Arcy, who’d broken his arm in the win over Italy, and O’Driscoll were sidelined. Ireland had also lost in Paris and at Croke Park to Wales, as the post-2007 World Cup hangover lingered. Ireland fell away, a 20-year-old Danny Cipriani kicking 18 points on debut.
“Danny Cipriani pulled the strings and Nick Easter had a couple of nice breaks. We had a decent side but after the disappointment of ‘07 there was a bit of a weight around our necks,” says Murphy, “and Eddie [O’Sullivan] was under a bit of pressure.”
It would indeed prove O’Sullivan’s last game in charge.
2010: England 16 Ireland 20
Ireland were defending Grand Slam champions but after being soundly beaten 33-10 in Paris a fortnight before, Declan Kidney promoted Johnny Sexton for his Six Nations debut. Within four minutes Sexton put through a perfectly weighted grubber on the run for Tommy Bowe to score.
“I remember being really impressed by a young ‘Sexto’,” says Murphy. “He also put in a great pass for [Keith] Earlsy’s try after 20 minutes. It was a real toe-to-toe game. Tomas [O’Leary] played ‘9’ and had a great game.”
D’Arcy adds: “Johnny had a fabulous game that day. He switched the point of attack really well. Tommy Bowe’s influence on games was becoming much more stark. He’d been on the ‘09 Lions and was really starting to thrive.”
John Hayes also became the first Irish player to reach 100 caps. The game appeared to be slipping away from Ireland as a Dan Cole try drew the sides level before O’Driscoll went off and Wilkinson nudged England 16-13 in front.
Six minutes from time Ireland forced a lineout on the English 22. From Paul O’Connell’s take, O’Leary ran infield, feinted to pass long, but slipped a short ball to Bowe, ghosting in off his wing, to slice through for his second try. O’Gara, on for Sexton, landed a good conversion.
“It was off the back of a lineout, and Tommy just straightened through an inside shoulder and ran inside Ugo Monye as well,” says Murphy. “The crowd were really trying to roar them on but we held out and then at the end we won the ball at the breakdown and I ran in and said to Jamie: ‘Get it off the field. Get if off. Get if off. Get it ****ing off!’”
And he did.
Murphy and Bowe, then with Leicester and the Ospreys, did not fly home with the rest of the squad. “Myself and Tommy went to a couple of establishments, and had a nice day out on the Sunday,” says Murphy. “That was my last outing at Twickenham as a player, and a good one.”
Alas, after hammering Wales, Ireland messed up a Triple Crown on their Croke Park farewell against Scotland.
2012: England 30 Ireland 9
Ireland began with a 23-21 home loss against Wales thanks to a last-minute penalty by Leigh Halfpenny after Wayne Barnes penalised and yellow carded Stephen Ferris for a tip tackle. Ireland’s second-round match in Paris was cancelled minutes before kick-off, and after beating Italy at home, drew in Paris, beat Scotland and pitched up in London on the final weekend.
Thirteen campaigns in which the Irish scrum hinged on Hayes and Mike Ross were underlined when Ross departed in the first half. Thereafter, it backpedalled or buckled, contributing to 27 of England’s 30 points.
“We were absolutely demolished that day,” admits D’Arcy. “It wasn’t a good day for the scrum. That wasn’t a good day for anybody. It also marked the emergence of Owen Farrell. I remember having my hands full trying to keep Manu Tuilagi in check. That was the day I got the shepherd’s hook,” he adds, in reference to being replaced after 48 minutes.
2014: England 13 Ireland 10
Ireland’s first campaign under Joe Schmidt began with handsome home wins over Scotland and Wales. They met an English side which had lost narrowly in Paris before winning 20-0 in Murrayfield.
Trailing 3-0 at the break, Ireland reworked an old Leinster move whereby Kearney sliced through under the posts from Heaslip’s inside pass. Sexton then made it 10-3, but after a second Farrell penalty, Mike Brown pierced the Irish defence to put Danny Care over.
“That’s the one which probably stings the most in hindsight,” says D’Arcy. “We played really well but just couldn’t get over the line. I felt we had done enough to win it, and one or two moments decided it. That’s the reality of what we’re facing today. That shows how hard it is.”
A thrilling 22-20 win over France on the final Saturday did seal the title in O’Driscoll’s last Test.
2016: England 21 Ireland 10
Ireland drew at home to Wales and lost 10-9 in Paris before facing an England side which had won away to Scotland and Italy under new coach Eddie Jones.
Akin to two years previously, Ireland led 10-6 early in the second half after Murray burrowed over within a minute of James Haskell being yellow carded for a high hit on him. But England got their big carriers rumbling and outflanked the Irish defence for tries by Anthony Watson and Mike Brown.
Ireland rallied, and Sexton broke to put Robbie Henshaw away, but Jack Nowell made a superb tackle. Ultan Dillane barrelled through and took a return pass from Josh van der Flier, who was then prevented from grounding the ball over the line by Elliot Daly.
“You could see those players who Stuart Lancaster brought through delivering for England,” says D’Arcy, “and Eddie Jones is getting the results and the plaudits now”.
As for today, D’Arcy finds it too hard to call.
“England are going to come out firing. They have to. If Ireland can prevent them not scoring a try and keep their discipline, and then get a foothold in the game, then there’s an opportunity there. But that’s a lot of things that need to happen. I’m excited, but it’s going to be a tough one.”
As it always is.