Sport Rugby

Thursday 12 December 2019

The referee who nearly caused a Lansdowne riot

Glaring mistake prompted bottles and fruit to rain from the stands - 'When they ran out of missiles, Irishmen threw other Irishmen'

Legendary Ireland lock Willie John McBride palms the ball back in a line-out as Ken Goodall waits at the back at Lansdowne Road in 1968 (INPHO/Allsport)
Legendary Ireland lock Willie John McBride palms the ball back in a line-out as Ken Goodall waits at the back at Lansdowne Road in 1968 (INPHO/Allsport)
David Kelly

David Kelly

Ireland and Wales have had their fair share of controversies in recent years - from "ballboy-gate" to Gatland grenades and even this week both coaches have heaped pressure on the match referee ahead of today's encounter.

However, despite all the coaching barbs and the judicial boobs, surely nothing can compare to the events of March 9, 1968, when a refereeing howler almost prompted a riot, with bottles and missiles being hurled on to the Lansdowne Road pitch as a referee sought sanctuary with a police escort.

When Ireland played Wales in the old Five Nations, a glaring refereeing mistake prompted unprecedented scenes of commotion when Bristol whistler Mike Titcomb awarded a 50th-minute Gareth Edwards' drop goal that all 51,000 attendees could see was visibly wide.

Cue pandemonium. "A Guinness bottle hit me," remembered Edwards. "When they ran out of missiles," Titcomb recalled before his death some years later, "Irishmen threw other Irishmen."

Were it not for Mick Doyle's winning try, after a more than generous nine minutes of injury-time, which ensured an Irish victory by 9-6, it is difficult to ascertain quite how the day might have developed.

"Only the burning of the British Embassy would have been more dramatic than this had we lost by referee error," according to George Hook. "Thankfully Mick Doyle crashed over to save the nation's honour."

Quite simply, the game was a shambles. When Edwards punted his goal, he remembers people came on to the field throwing orange peel and bottles.

"Everyone was going crazy. The game from then on was full of incidents, but two wrongs made a right this time, because Mike Gibson dropped a goal which was touched in flight but still awarded before that late try."


But it was the Edwards' drop-goal into the Lansdowne Road end that kicked everything off; the crowd were distinctly unamused and, as missiles rained down from the stands, play was held up for at least five minutes in order to quell a potential pitch invasion and restore order.

"I hit it very well," said Edwards. "It travelled straight and true but the ref was watching the Irish back-row line for possible offside. He looked up a little late to watch the ball swing.

"I thought for a moment that it might well have gone over because the ball just swirled in the wind and turned around the post. I think the ref thought it was going to go one direction, and he was cricking his neck to sort of see it go over. The next thing I knew he had given it. I think there were 40,000 people in Lansdowne Road who didn't agree with him."

There were mitigating circumstances; It was a very grey day, with no floodlights; flag posts behind the goal might have confused him; even the optical phenomenon known as parallax was mentioned.

Titcomb knew he'd got it wrong.

As the sides gathered for the next piece, with the crowd still fulminating, Titcomb apparently told the players, "Lads, keep it cool, I'm in enough trouble."

"This match almost cost me my marriage," recalls Hook. "In an excess of enthusiasm, I brought my future in-laws to watch the game. My Austrian future mother-in-law and my British future father-in-law.

"And the English referee gave the score which everybody in the ground saw had gone wide. Abuse was hurled at the referee but the crowd terrified my in-laws such that they wondered how could they possibly allow their daughter in this country of lunatics."

Doyle was lining out with his brother, Tommy, the first siblings to play for their country and the future Ireland coach would, eventually, seal the victory, only after Johnny Moroney earlier had seemed certain to score in the same Havelock Square corner, thereafter re-named the Currow corner.

"We wheeled the scrum and I only had about ten men to beat," laughed Doyle years later. "Then the referee blew his whistle and ran." Titcomb needed a police escort.

"We all thought the drop-kick he had awarded earlier in the game to Ireland's Mike Gibson had been touched in flight, and shouldn't have counted. Then he gave the goal to Gareth and there was a bit of a hiatus," John Dawes recalled later.

"Mike was conscious he had made a mistake and I think he got a little bit frightened. But Ireland scored a try in the end and won the match without any complaint from the Welsh team."

There were still complaints, though.

"Mum was at that game, she was pregnant at the time and worried about dad, so asked her friend Jerry to go down and see if he was OK," recalled Titcomb's son Dominic.

"Jerry battled through the crowds and made his way towards the changing rooms and asked to see Mike Titcomb. The guys there said - 'half of Ireland want to come in and see Mike Titcomb!'"

What rendered the gaffe so improbable was the fact that Titcomb was widely regarded as being one of the finest exponents of the refereeing art - and the fittest - and, in those chummy days of unpressurised amateurism, he was a friendly face to most of the players.

He became England's youngest international official, aged 32, when he controlled the first of his eight full Tests in the 1966 Five Nations, remained on the RFU international panel for a record 10 years and was given the rare honour of refereeing an England match in the RFU centenary season.

The esteem in which he was held by the players was amply illustrated by the fact that he organised a game to celebrate 50 years of rugby at his old school, St Brendan's College, in Bristol.

Edwards and Irish midfield genius Mike Gibson were amongst the returning heroes of triumphant 1971 Lions tour of New Zealand who turned out for the Mike Titcomb International XV.

Six of Titcomb's international appearances were in Welsh matches, including the dramatic 19-18 Murrayfield win against Scotland in 1971, when a last-gasp try from Gerald Davies and conversion from John Taylor won the day for the men in red.

If that victory remains a part of Welsh rugby folklore, the day that Llanelli beat New Zealand 9-3 in 1972 was also another occasion when Titcomb was the central, although uncontroversial, figure.

"Mike did more to establish a rapport between players and referees than anyone I can remember," recalled Dawes, the captain of that seminal touring party. "He was totally trustworthy and the kind of person you could seek out after a game and enjoy a pint with."

It is not known if he ever supped again with any of the Irish players involved in his most infamous hour.

But many years later he received a signed photograph from Willie John McBride, who was also in that Irish team.

On it, printed simply in the Ballymena behemoth's own handwriting, were just five words.

"That drop goal was over."

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