The 2007 Croke Park clash and a legendary match 50 years ago have ensured that fixtures against the Auld Enemy transcend sport
It was a comment that raised eyebrows from Donnybrook to Dooradoyle. Mack Hansen, the Australian star of Irish rugby — who qualifies for the national team thanks to his Cork mother — lit a spark at a press conference this week when he announced that “everybody hates England”.
The pacy winger — who has been named man of the match three times out of the past eight Six Nations games — may not have read the room and seems to have momentarily forgotten that Ireland’s head coach, Andy Farrell, is a proud son of England. “There is,” Hansen insisted, “a fair bit of hatred.”
Beating the ‘Auld Enemy’ is a tantalising prospect for all sports fans and the opportunity to clinch Ireland’s fourth Grand Slam with victory over England on Saturday could hardly be better scripted.
But Canberra native Hansen — who grew up in the ‘sledging’ culture so beloved of Australian sports stars — was likely unaware of the special relationship that exists between Irish rugby lovers of a certain vintage and the England team.
Rather than hatred, the overriding sentiment is one of respect, and it was first burnished half a century ago.
With the Troubles raging in the North and trouble flaring in the south, the Welsh and Scottish rugby unions decided, for security reasons, not to travel to Dublin to play in the 1972 Five Nations championship. It was the first time since World War II that matches in the tournament had not been fulfilled.
Tensions were running high. Bloody Sunday, in which 14 innocent civilians were shot dead by British soldiers in Derry, had happened just a few weeks before. Many understood the fears, but Irish sports lovers were saddened by the prospect of home games being played in Manchester or Liverpool rather than Lansdowne Road. So volatile was the situation on this island that that was the talk in the run-up to the 1973 tournament.
The future of the Five Nations and Ireland’s home participation hinged on England. Would the side captained by John Pullin make the trip to Dublin? Would English fans be seen in the stands at Lansdowne Road?
England duly arrived and received a rapturous welcome from the packed crowd at the rickety old stadium in Dublin 4. Ireland rose to the challenge and won 18-9. Afterwards, at the post-match dinner, Pullin uttered words that have become the stuff of lore: “We may not be any good, but at least we turned up.” He received a standing ovation.
“It was overwhelming,” Pullin, who died in 2021, later said, “and I’m not an emotional type of bloke, certainly not openly. I didn’t think it was that good a quote. It just seemed the obvious thing to say, didn’t it?
“I didn’t feel in any danger as a sportsman,” he added. “Deep down, I never thought we would be a target as a sporting team. In the hotel, there was a policeman outside every door and two or three at the bottom of the staircase. You couldn’t move for them.”
The rugby journalist Tom English has frequently written about the events of 1973 and several interviewees in his book No Borders: Playing Rugby for Ireland recalled the momentousness of the occasion. “England coming here that year was seismic,” he says. “You couldn’t overestimate it. I spoke to Fergus Slattery, Willie John McBride — all these guys — and to a man, they said that if England had not come, the Five Nations could have ceased to exist.
“England weren’t very good at the time, but that didn’t matter. They were still a huge rugby union. The fact that they had the courage to come over calmed everybody down and gave the reassurance to everybody else that, ‘Look, it’s fine.’”
Tony Ward, Ireland’s gifted fly-half, who made his international debut five years after Pullin’s team came to Dublin, was at Lansdowne Road on that day in February 1973. “I had been coming out of school around that time and some of my boyhood heroes were playing that day,” he says. “Just to be present in the ground and to witness what happened was quite extraordinary — especially as Scotland and Wales hadn’t travelled (the year before).
“I think it sums up what is a very special relationship between Ireland and England when it comes to rugby. I know it can become very clichéd when you talk about the camaraderie of rugby, but it is a unique game. Even when you look at the role that rugby has played in keeping us united on this island, as a 32-county team. The English have always recognised that and have been very supportive.”
Despite the good relationship off the field, friendships are forgotten on it. “Once you cross those white lines, it’s a very different story. It’s all about winning — the perception, or misperception, is that they’ve got the best of everything, that they run the show!” Beating England, he says, is especially sweet.
There have been several remarkable Irish victories, including a 17-0 demolition job at Lansdowne Road in 1987. England’s Stuart Barnes later recalled the beating: “You run out into a wonderful party atmosphere. Then someone kicks off and BANG! a sort of whirlwind gathers you up and you’re on your arse and thinking, ‘What the bloody hell’s happening?’”
The rivalry has had its controversial moments, not least in 2003 when England captain Martin Johnson refused to bow to diplomatic protocol. He had been asked to move his team to the designated area to be greeted by Mary McAleese, but he stood his ground. Consequently, the president was forced to leave the red carpet and walk along the turf to shake hands with his players.
Years later, he said his actions helped heighten the already febrile atmosphere at Lansdowne Road. “As soon as we kicked off, the crowd sang Fields of Athenry. I’ve only had the hairs stand up on the back of my neck once in my life and that was it.” Johnson had the last laugh, though. England romped to a 36-point victory and secured the Grand Slam.
All Ireland-England matches, however, pale when compared to the emphatic Irish win at Croke Park in 2007. With Lansdowne Road being rebuilt, the country’s largest stadium, and spiritual home of the GAA, was temporarily employed. It was a fixture that went way beyond sport because it was in this patch of Drumcondra that British soldiers had shot and killed several people during a 1920 football challenge match between Tipperary and Dublin. One of the Bloody Sunday victims was Tipperary’s Michael Hogan. His name adorns a stand in today’s modern arena.
Despite fears that the anthem would be heckled, God Save the Queen was impeccably respected, and when Amhrán na bhFiann was played, hardened warriors such as John Hayes openly wept.
Ireland went on to win 43-13, roared on by 82,000 people. It was the most-watched TV sporting event in Ireland that entire decade. Alongside the football team’s penalty shoot-out success to reach the 1990 World Cup quarter-final and victory over Italy in the 1994 World Cup, it remains one of the country’s proudest sporting moments.
It has frequently been cited as a high point in Anglo-Irish relations, one that would reach an apex four years later during Queen Elizabeth’s state visit here.
“There’s a beautiful story from that day,” Tom English says. “One of the players, Marcus Horan, who’s from Clare, got a present from the Clare hurling team of a signed jersey and he brought it with him to Croke Park that day in his kit-bag. When he was togging out to go out and play against England, he had a little look at the Clare hurling jersey — there’s amazing symbolism in that.
“Jerry Flannery, who was the substitute hooker that day, was in floods of tears when the anthems were being played and when the game started, he went over to the subs’ bench. He said that if Rory Best, the Ireland starting hooker, had gone down injured in the first 15 minutes, he — Flannery — wouldn’t have known what to do because he was in no fit state to play a rugby match. How the Irish players kept it together that day — it was just unreal — is hard to fathom, but they were magnificent.”
For Tony Ward, memories of Croke Park 2007 are undimmed. “Of everything I’ve experienced in sport, everywhere around the world,” he says, “I will never forget the singing of the anthems that day for as long as I live. The silence and respect that was shown for God Save the Queen in Croke Park, of all places, and then to be followed up by Amhrán na bhFiann. Honestly, I can still feel the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. There was no way Ireland was going to lose the game that day.”
Many will have been in agreement with Irish Independent GAA writer Martin Breheny when he suggested this week that today’s match should be played in Croke Park. “The logic is simple,” he wrote. “The game will be played in front of a 51,700 crowd while less than three miles away an 82,300-stadium lies idle.”
Ward says the game is capable of selling out multiple times, whether it’s at Croke Park or the Aviva, but irrespective of the venue, he believes this evening’s game will join the ranks of the great Ireland-England tussles. “England,” he says, “are travelling over as absolute underdogs, but they’re going to go down fighting after the poor performance they put in last week against France. The one thing they want to do is prevent us from winning the Grand Slam — and that’s the way it is.”
Mack Hansen, for one, will be trying to ruin their party. If he was asked to bone up on Anglo-Irish relations this week, in the wake of his headline-grabbing comments, he may have come across a quote for the ages from Tony O’Reilly, the veteran businessman and ex-Ireland international
“To the English, it is only a game of rugger,” O’Reilly once said. “To the Irish, it is part of history’s pageant, the continuation of centuries of loose rucks, crooked scrummaging and bad refereeing, including a particularly nasty period when England were strong up front and had Protector Oliver C at fly-half, a very mean fella with both boot and elbow when he got you on the ground.”