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Beating England still extra special

Brendan Fanning looks at a rivalry that has produced more than its share of drama, joy and disappointment


Shane Horgan touches down to score the last-gasp winning try for Ireland against England at Twickenham in 2006

Shane Horgan touches down to score the last-gasp winning try for Ireland against England at Twickenham in 2006

Shane Horgan touches down to score the last-gasp winning try for Ireland against England at Twickenham in 2006

We got some value out of the mileage covered this week in pursuing Eddie Jones for shifting Tom Curry to No 8 for England.

It may well have been a touch of arrogance on the part of the coach. Whatever, it would not have registered on any scale back in the days when England were so awful in their selection that their vast advantage in playing numbers would be set to zero. And Ireland - no masters of the Pick and Mix routine themselves - would fill their boots.

So while we would tune in excitedly to see if Ireland made a championship change here or there, England would need a minibus to ferry in the new faces every time the selectors started trading horses. It contributed to Ireland putting together a remarkable five-game winning streak against them from 1972 to '76 - still a record.

In the second and third of those fixtures, England changed six of their seven backs, and then four of the seven respectively. As for the first of the sequence, in 1972, Ireland were up against another five new backs from the previous season.

At the time, Ireland were decent. They travelled with confidence in 1972 and though stealing the game at the death through Kevin Flynn - a try that added inordinately to his reputation - Tom Grace's touchdown earlier in the game was the genuine classic.

Barry McGann's through-ball was actually a drop-kick along the ground, weighted to the ounce. It was an extraordinary piece of skill. Its value got lost subsequently in the drama of the endgame.

Twickenham has been the scene of some woeful hidings for Ireland, but popped into the mix is a handful of epic tries that told a story of where Ireland were at, not just in their relationship with England, but in their long journey towards becoming a respectable rugby nation.

In 1994, that standing was a long way off, but winning in southwest London was like scaling Everest. It was appropriate that Simon Geoghegan scored the killer try, for he understood the value of preparation long before many of his teammates.

At the time, his touchdown was hailed as a move of such cunning and complexity that Ireland had achieved rugby's version of splitting the atom. Not quite, but there was some science to it, and very well delivered.

Moreover, it allowed us to move on from Ginger McLoughlin's effort in 1982. Not for the first time, Ollie Campbell's soft hands and keen brain were at the heart of something positive for Ireland. Having kept the move alive beautifully, he was in the background being buried by England's openside Peter Winterbottom as McLoughlin drove over the line with the entire pack hitched to him like a wagon train.

That was the middle match in a successful Triple Crown. Big news at the time. And that prize - an anachronism now - was still valued when Shane Horgan was scoring at the other end of the field in 2006.

The winger's try stands out among a stellar list. Small margins? The chances were slim of Ronan O'Gara's chip catching England fullback Tom Voyce out so badly, and finding Brian O'Driscoll in full flight, but the call and the execution deserved the telescopic arm finish of Horgan in the corner. For drama, the TMO was summoned, and the positive response meant Ireland had to hold out for just a minute.

That game closed the third of four seasons where Ireland were real contenders, but couldn't marry Triple Crowns with a Championship, never mind a Grand Slam. That period under Eddie O'Sullivan would drive off a cliff at the 2007 World Cup in France.

By the time he brought them to Twickenham in March the following year, his bags were neatly packed. A 23-point hammering saw him collect them and leave.

Ten years on, and Ireland had made the jump O'Sullivan had dreamed of.

A devotee of highly prescriptive rugby, he would have enjoyed the mechanics of CJ Stander's try that contributed to a Grand Slam celebration on a freezing St Patrick's Day in 2018. The irony here was that the most functional of many moving parts was the tighthead prop and his sharp skills - not what you would expect from a team who, more often than not, chose collision over space.

It required Tadhg Furlong to time his run right; then catch a short, flat pass from Johnny Sexton; then pivot as if to give it back to the out-half only to slip it to Bundee Aki. Stander finished it. A lot going on there, perfectly delivered. Ireland led 14-0 and there was no way back for England.

In a phenomenal season, that try was a microcosm of how far Ireland had come along the road. And yet, for all the technical excellence of Joe Schmidt, the inability to go off-route when the game demanded it ultimately let Ireland down. Good times for this country are always better if they include happy days at Twickenham.

In search of that consistency, Andy Farrell brings an unchanged starting team there on Sunday. England, unlike the old days, will not be herding in a whole new backline.