The day England won a Lansdowne ovation


Scotland and Wales refused to travel in 1972, but a year later England came to Dublin at the height of the Troubles, writes Johnny Watterson.

The cycle of violence, in Belfast particularly, and the anniversary of the Parachute regiment's killing of 14 civilians in Derry 12 months previously made January a bleak month following on from a savage year in 1972. Eighteen people died in the first four weeks of 1973 when the debate over England's participation in that year's Five Nations rugby match in Dublin was bubbling. Seven of those people were killed in the two weeks preceding the January 27th match. The mood was fraught and unpredictable.

In the fortnight running up to the game, three Protestant RUC men were killed in landmine and booby trap bomb attacks; a UDR soldier was abducted and shot dead; a Catholic was killed by the British army; a civilian was blown up in a car bomb in Sackville Place, Dublin and a magistrate died three months after being shot on the Falls Road in West Belfast.

The faint relationship between a sporting event and a province drifting towards violent chaos never seemed more clear. Yet in Dublin, where the British Embassy on Merrion Square still lay in ruins after it was set alight 12 months before, moves to ensure the game should go ahead became an imperative following Wales and Scotland's refusal to fulfill fixtures the season before.

In England, RFU officials met with a number of players to put forward their view that a team should travel, must travel to Dublin. There was little doubt in the mind of English captain John Pullin. The RFU, despite what the players felt or believed, was going to send a team to Lansdowne Road. In a highly unusual move, RFU officers called to the captain's house prior to making the decision to travel.

"I don't recall that we discussed what was going on in Ireland before we came, not officially anyway. Obviously we knew the other two teams hadn't been. We might have talked about it amongst ourselves but I can't recall having a team meeting about it or voting on it, nothing like that, nothing official," says Pullin.

"It was left up to each individual whether to come or not but I got the impression that they were going to take a team anyhow, whether I went or not. People often ask if pressure was put on me to travel but it was left down to everybody individually.

"On one hand I can say no, there was no pressure but on the other hand there was. I got the distinct feeling that the Rugby Union were going to take a team whether you were in it or not. It was that sort of pressure, indirect, like: 'do you want to play for England anymore?'

"I was visited at home by the chairman of selectors and, I recall, the president of the Rugby Union . . . I felt then that they wanted me to go as captain. Someone else would have gone anyway and they were going to bring a team to Dublin come what may."

The president of the RFU and chairman of selectors dropping in to the captain's house for afternoon tea was not a common practice in 1973. "Put it this way, the most I ever got was a phone call to tell me I was dropped. Absolutely the only time you got a call then was to tell you that you were gone," says Tom Grace, the Irish right wing on the day.

Grace saw the game as a chance to erase the disappointment of the previous season. Ireland had won the first two away matches against France and England and then, with the death toll in the North climbing towards 470, Scotland and Wales refused to travel. Ireland subsequently drew with the All Blacks but the season had drifted away.

"Yes, the situation in Northern Ireland at the time was grim," says Grace. "It was a very big thing for the English players to actually make the decision to come. The Rugby Union could make the decision but the players were the ones that had to turn up. The players were the ones that had to run out on the pitch. The players were the ones who had to stand there - and there is no arena in the world like Lansdowne Road when you are standing for the anthems. You've a lot of time to reflect on all of the troubles and everything. That is the loneliest time. It's not the Union standing there; it is you standing there.

"The security issue was not something that would have entered out heads. But from the England players' perspective, they were travelling into the unknown."

At least one player on the English team did not travel: second row Nigel Horton. Because Horton was working as a policeman in England, his position was seen as more sensitive.

Pullin, a livestock farmer, made his own decision philosophically but when the team arrived in Dublin, which was famous for its social dimension to the championship, it was unlike any visit they had previously encountered. The squad was billeted in the Shelbourne Hotel on Stephen's Green.

"You either believed you were safe or not," says Pullin. "My view was that you're never completely safe anyway. It wasn't until we got there and saw the security that it came home to us. There was a fair bit of it in the hotel, policemen on the staircase, everywhere really. That's when you became conscious of it. It was different, yes.

"Normally when we came to Ireland we'd go down to a little bar, wander around and have a few drinks. I don't think we did that. We were just stuck in the hotel. There were police all around the place. It was fairly high security. That was obvious."

It was Johnny Moloney, the Irish scrumhalf, who engineered the openings for both Grace and Dick Milliken's tries in the 18-9 Irish victory, one that was put into context by the doyen of rugby writing at the time, Paul MacWeeney of The Irish Times.

"The only satisfaction to be gained by England was the knowledge that their appearance in Dublin must be of incalculable benefit to Irish sport, as a whole, to which the crowd gave due recognition by the warmth of their welcome."

Moloney and Grace, more than anything, recall the old enemy being swept up into the bosom of Lansdowne Road as soon as they took to the pitch. Their decision to play had struck a nerve with the crowd.

"I remember vividly that we came out of the old Lansdowne Pavilion," says Moloney. "Before we got anywhere near the back pitch, we were held back by a man called Frank Whisker. I thought it was very clever of him because England were getting a standing ovation. It was seen as if they (crowd) were thanking them (England) rather than welcoming the Irish team onto the pitch. They received a considerably long standing ovation."

"My biggest recollection," says Grace "was being in the dressing room beforehand. Traditionally what happens is that the referee knocks on the door. Next thing we hear England running out so we move under what they called the old 'uncovered stand'. We must have been standing there for five minutes. It was an unbelievable feeling."

Dickie Kingswell, the RFU president who had paid a visit to the English captain's home not so long before, accepted Dublin's hospitality with typical English understatement. "We did no more than accept a kind invitation," said the Yorkshireman.

At the banquet he battle-weary farmer stood up to make his captain's speech. "We might not be the greatest team in the world," said the English front row. "But at least we turn up."