Monday 19 February 2018

Inches from triumph – The day Ireland matched the mighty All Blacks

On the eve of our match against New Zealand, Kim Bielenberg remembers a 1973 epic touched by the tragedy of the Troubles

Nearly man: Barry McGann's kick sailed past the All Blacks' posts.
Nearly man: Barry McGann's kick sailed past the All Blacks' posts.
So close: The 'Sunday Independent's' match report captures the spirit of mayhem and elation at Lansdowne Road over forty years ago in January 1973
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

The ecstatic crowd cheered as the ball kicked by the Irish out-half Barry McGann headed towards the posts. In that frozen moment in time 40 years ago, just before the final whistle, Ireland were on their way to victory against the All Blacks. It had never happened before, and it has never happened since.

Ireland, who looked battered and beaten through much of the match, had staged a remarkable comeback.

Just before the end, scrum-half Johnny Moloney broke away on the blindside of a scrum and passed to the fleet-footed Tom Grace, now an insolvency practitioner. He hoofed the ball forward towards the try line, and raced alongside All Black Bob Burgess.

By the time Grace won the race and touched down, there was already pandemonium. The crowd was on the pitch, and Grace was engulfed in a sea of bodies. Ireland was level and just needed the conversion for a historic triumph. Was this the moment?

Barry McGann's conversion was on target.

Some of the Irish supporters had already jumped in the air for joy. Then a sudden, perverse gust of wind came in from Dublin Bay. At the last moment it blew the ball just wide by inches.

One witness said it was so close to the upright that it could have flicked flakes of paint from the post.

The high cheer turned to a low groan. Ireland had to make do with a draw – 10-10.

Ireland have played New Zealand 27 times, lost 26, won none, and drawn once.

In Irish sporting folklore, Ireland's draw against the All Blacks 40 years ago on January 20 has largely been forgotten.

It was eclipsed by Munster's famous victory in 1978 – now celebrated in books, songs and the stage play Alone It Stands.

The Irish players from 1973 are now modest about the day when the caprices of the Lansdowne Road breeze denied them a triumph.

Johnny Moloney says: "At the time I was not so acutely aware as I am now that we had never beaten the All Blacks before. It is only in hindsight that I realise its significance." Just over 40 years has elapsed since and we still haven't beaten them.

'My main memory of playing the All Blacks is that you always ended up black and blue from being raked at the bottom of a ruck."

The Irish team had legends of their time – Mike Gibson, Willie John McBride and Fergus Slattery. They can stand alongside Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell in the rugby hall of fame, but they did not attract the same showbiz razzmatazz. In some senses this was an unlucky generation of players that was affected by the Troubles.

Prop Ray McLoughlin says: "We had a talented team. We beat France in Paris (and for a second time at home in a friendly), and overcame England, but Scotland and Wales refused to play as a result of the violence in the North."

The Troubles struck in a much more tragic way in the centre of Dublin at the very time Ireland were playing New Zealand in an incident that has also been strangely wiped from public memory.

While the match was being played at Lansdowne, a car bomb exploded on Sackville Place near O'Connell Street, killing a young bus conductor Tommy Douglas. It was the second fatal car bombing on Sackville Place within a matter of seven weeks.

A second bus conductor Oliver O'Donnell, who was injured in the blast, said a brief conversation about the rugby saved his life. He told The Sunday Independent: "I had just finished my run and was going to the CIE canteen. I asked a man who was winning the rugby. This took about 20 seconds and if I had not made it I would certainly be dead. I would have been passing the car at the moment it exploded."

The Irish rugby team may have been unlucky on that day in January 1973, but they were to enjoy success in the following year when they won the Five Nations championship.

Willie John McBride said in the minutes after the New Zealand match: "The aura of invincibility that used to surround the All Blacks has gone."

If only we could say the same as we look forward to tomorrow's match.

Irish Independent

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