Saturday 17 March 2018

Twickenham tales of triumph and disaster

For the Irish, Twickenham has been a theatre of dreams - victories in the auld enemy's fortress that will echo down the ages; but it has also staged some nightmares that continue to haunt us. Shane Horgan recalls one of the glory days while Tom Court relives a painful ordeal

Shane Horgan touches down the ball to score Ireland’s last-minute try against England at Twickenham in 2006. Photo: Brian Lawless/Sportsfile
Shane Horgan touches down the ball to score Ireland’s last-minute try against England at Twickenham in 2006. Photo: Brian Lawless/Sportsfile
Tom Court talks to Sean O’Brien during the game in 2012. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

And so once more to Billy Williams' old cabbage patch and the wonder of what misery or magic may strike.

Ireland have indelibly imprinted their signature upon, literally, all four corners of the ground. From Ginger McLoughlin's try, hefting half of Surrey upon his frame, in the Triple Crown winning year of 1982 to Simon Geoghegan's puncturing of a decade of Irish gloom with a scintillating finish 12 years later.

From these two finishes on either side of the north end, we return the 100 metres or so south; in the south-east corner, we recall Girvan Dempsey launching a new, golden generation upon their journey to bridge a 19-year Triple Crown gap in 2004.

Two years later, the same squad produced a collective burst of invention to score probably the most dramatic try of them all, when Shane Horgan squeezed into the other corner in the dying seconds to claim their second Triple Crown in three seasons.

Four corners, four celebrations.

But there have been dark days when the scent of Red Rose didn't smell so sweet; 17 victories have been countered by 64 defeats here; the '60s and the '90s were particularly bleak.

Ireland crumbled here when professionalism dawned: 28-15, 35-17, 50-18, 40-11; Eddie O'Sullivan and Declan Kidney both thrived on this ground; but both would also see their careers dive on this ground.

Gallantry and heroism have jostled with despair and anguish in a fixture which remains indelibly unaffected by time's march; its history always informs the present. And what happens today will become part of one of rugby's richest tapestries.

Shane's Story - The Try

Ireland had to beat England by an unlikely 34 points to win the title in 2006; after a spectacular first-half collapse in Paris earlier in the campaign, merely being in the hunt for the Triple Crown was beyond expectations.

Or was it? Shane Horgan had grown in authority at half-time in Paris, forging a leadership role which underpinned a remarkable revival.

Such belief marked out Ireland on this St Patrick's Day; the Celtic Tiger was being celebrated at Cheltenham as thousands flocked south expecting to beat England. Ireland did, too. Despite a horrendous autumn, Eddie O'Sullivan's 2004 Triple Crown winners had advanced their ambitions in more ways than one.

"We had beaten them twice in a row," says Horgan. "We were progressing from a point earlier in the decade when expectations had been really low.

"It wasn't a case of giving it a lash. There was a belief that we could and probably should win that game.

"There was a communal dawning that an expansive game could be pushed to another level and that's where we were at this stage of our development."

And that is how Ireland scored their winner in an extraordinarily see-sawing contest: England scored a try after 90 seconds, trailed to Horgan's 'controversial' first try, and went ahead again before Denis Leamy pounced on an over-throw before, breathlessly, drawing level then regaining the lead with five minutes left.

"When any game is tight, everything gets inspected a lot more," says Horgan, fronting Glenisk Protein Yogurt's new #EatLikeThem Rugby campaign.

"A lot of quirky stuff happened, there are stories within stories. England were in the box seat. It's fine to be a nice winner but more difficult to be a nice loser when it's taken away from you like that."

Touch judge Rob Dickson had apologetically withdrawn his flag during Horgan's first try, when he hacked down the line.

"I didn't think I was I touch but I thought I was going to be pulled back," recalls Horgan.

Ireland seemed to wilt late on; Simon Easterby was binned, Johnny O'Connor was pinged; 24-21 down, with a scrum on their own 22, Ireland adopted the spirit of the times and attempted boldly to go where no Irish team had ever gone before.

"The best thing was the ambition we showed to go from the 22," says Horgan, of a play called by Ronan O'Gara that had never seen the light of day.

"Usually we'd try to kick it down there. But we stacked the right-hand side and we were keen to try to do something, to try to score a try. Even the decision to kick was brave."

A wicked bounce deceived Tom May; Brian O'Driscoll gathered and fed Horgan.

"I tightened up a bit. I should have got there the first time, I felt Lewis Moody on my outside, I didn't relax," he says. "For a split second I thought about flicking inside to Ronan and realised pretty quickly that was a terrible idea."

They would wait. "Ronan hit the ruck ferociously, the biggest he ever hit. Peter Stringer threw a great flat pass. I was panicking from the first time. You know the consequences of not finishing but you still want a second chance. I didn't think I would score, the line was a long way away. Lewis hit me again! As I fell, the line was right upon me and I knew that I could get to it.

"I don't know how the ball ended up in my right hand and then, something that never happened me before, my left hand propelled me towards the line. It's just instinct, survive or flight, adrenaline.

"We didn't go bananas, I didn't want to jump around in case it wasn't given even, though Mike McGurn jumped on my back. Rog nailed the kick but the referee didn't add on the time."

England restart; Ireland win it. Kick to touch. Time not up. England lineout; Ireland win it. Kick to touch. Time still not up. England attack. Ireland win the ball. Kick to touch blocked down. So O'Gara shins it out of play. Never in doubt.

"I remember having a pretty big night," smiles Horgan. "One of my proudest moments. And there's a lesson there today about ambition for Ireland."

Tom's Tale - The Scrum

If 2006 might foreshadow the promise inherent in forward-looking ambition, 2012 reminds us how a back-pedalling scrum can bring the whole house down.

Four years on, the nation still turns its lonely eyes to Mike Ross. A decade of praying rosary decades to John Hayes has taught Irish rugby nothing about the preservation of an international scrum.

In 2012, ignorance would produce farce and, unwittingly, a change in the game's laws, as an extra prop would henceforth be allowed on the bench.

Tom Court, a former Australian shot-putter turned Grand Slam winner, had concentrated on loose-head scrummaging once Ulster had signed one of the many foreigners blocking tight-head development, BJ Botha.

He covered both sides, reluctantly. On a bleak, rain-soaked day, the scrum was already creaking before Ross' neck cricked three minutes before the break. Court had said he would cover both sides. He couldn't refuse now. England would run out 30-9 winners, all but a half-dozen points deriving from the hapless set-piece.

Court unfairly carried the can, Rory Best, Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien, Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip emerged unscathed; Ferris would view the Ross exit with some disdain later.

"Mike was having a tough time before he went off," according to Ferris. "In my opinion, it is very easy for him to walk off the pitch, rather than dig in. I am not saying Mike does it deliberately but walking off the pitch with a sore neck undoubtedly saved him a lot of grief that day."

Court won't throw his friend under a bus. For the first time, he also reveals that he was given the chance to quit and allow uncontested scrums. Court, so ignorantly criticised, was no quitter.

"There was an option put to me at one stage to go off injured, not by my players or the referee.

"That's not me, I said in no uncertain terms that I was not going to do that. Whatever happens, happens, and I knew I was going to have to wear it," he said.

"You can't want to be an international player for Ireland if you're not going to go out there and do it.

"I started a Test at tighthead versus the All Blacks and against Australia at the World Cup - it wasn't all on me.

"But no matter what happens to me for the rest of my career, it's never going to be as bad as that day.

"I think the public miss a lot of the bigger picture. Sometimes it's about self-preservation, if you have an injury, if you're not feeling well and can't do your job right. I can't assume to know that. I had no idea how injured he was. But you can't take risks with a neck injury.

"I'd made my career on playing when I shouldn't have, crawling around on my hands and knees and my wife is wondering why I'm going to training. I played with bronchitis for two weeks and I survived until we beat Leicester, and we won a scrum penalty. I knew what I could do.

"But regardless of how long ago it happened, Twickenham is always going to be a raw feeling for me."

More Twickenham tales will unfurl today. But which one of Kipling's twin impostors will prevail?

Irish Independent

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