Sunday 17 December 2017

The mystery of the warning letter 'sent by the IRA' to All Blacks players over 40 years ago

A general view of the action between Ireland and New Zealand in 1973
A general view of the action between Ireland and New Zealand in 1973
Ger Keville

Ger Keville

In 1973, New Zealand's Bob Burgess received a letter 'from the IRA'. But could somebody else have sent it?

"We may not be any good but at least we turn up."

Those words muttered by England captain John Pullin in 1973 have been immortalised in rugby folklore.

Pullin was speaking following Ireland's 19-8 victory over England in the Five Nations 44 years ago - a year when Scotland and Wales refused to travel to Ireland for their matches due to the troubles in Northern Ireland which were very volatile at the time.

The English may have been missing four of their players who took the stance not to risk their safety, but travel they did. Both teams walked out on the pitch together in a show of unity in front of 50,000 spectators.

"For over a century the happenings on the field of international rugby have stirred men's emotions but it is doubtful if there was ever a more emotional scene than that at Lansdowne Road when the English side ran on the field," said the IRFU at the time.

"The entire concourse to a man stood and applauded the English team for a full five minutes. It was hardly material that Ireland won a close match, 18-9, in which England missed more chances than they took."

Before England braved the elements of troubled Ireland, New Zealand landed on these shores despite a letter of "advice" supposedly sent from the IRA to one of their players, Bob Burgess.

The letter, 'signed' by Official IRA volunteers Tony Heffernan and Mairin de Burca, stated that while the All Blacks players had nothing to fear from their organisation who, at the time, had adopted a non-violent policy, they could not say the same about the more militant provisional IRA.

The letter reads: "On behalf of the IRA, we would like to give you a word of explanation and some advice.

"The Freedom Fighters of the IRA are at war with Britain and not New Zealand.

"We will take steps to try and ensure your safety, as we do not trust the Provos (our Black September group)."

The letter added that it was unlikely that any of the All Blacks team would be treated as hostiles although "they play a foreign game and have close Ulster associations".

"No such immunity can be extended to any British team," it continues.

"So we can assure you that it was with good reason that the Scots and Welsh teams did not come here.

"By way of advice, we suggest that you should refrain from talking about politics.

"You should also refrain from making any comment on communication. If you do, apart from other measures, we will follow our usual practice of denying all knowledge or responsibility."

For over 40 years, the assumption was that this was a very real threat against their safety but the BBC's Tom English has recently found evidence that suggests it could have been a hoax.

In an updated chapter of his book 'No Borders', English reveals how he spoke with Tony Heffernan, who insists the official IRA had no involvement in the penning of any letter to Burgess.

Heffernan insists that, at the time, similar letters were being circulated and argues that the letter to Burgess could have been written by loyalists to stop the All Blacks from travelling to Dublin which would have had a negative impact on the capital.

One thing is certain, a lot has changed since 1973 and the All Blacks will be welcomed with open arms at the Aviva Stadium on November 19.

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