Ireland’s tilt at the Grand Slam against England this Saturday, on St Patrick’s weekend, is potentially one of the most momentous days in the history of Irish rugby.
By coincidence, it also marks the 50th anniversary of probably the most significant of all the 139 rugby meetings between the two countries.
Never have the reverberations of an Ireland-England game, not even the seismic 2007 match in Croke Park which leaned on history and drew so much global attention, been more significant than the match on February 10th, 1973 at the old Lansdowne Road. It transcended sport.
Last Saturday, after this exceptional Irish team secured their fourth win in four games, RTÉ gave another timely airing to the excellent documentary The Team That Turned Up, which was made in 2019, and ably put that 1973 Ireland v England game in context. In some ways, it’s not stretching things to say it was the single most important game in the history of Irish rugby.
In the preceding Five Nations Championship of 1972, Ireland started their campaign against France in Paris in the old Stades Colombes. Ireland hadn’t won in that venue since 1952 and were given little chance, but after early tries by Johnny Moloney and Ray McLoughlin, led all the way to win 14-9 in the last rugby international played at what was a French fortress.
“It was a seminal moment in Irish rugby,” recalled the former Irish outhalf Mick Quinn in that aforementioned documentary, “in that suddenly everyone perked up and said: ‘Look, if we can take France in Paris we can beat anybody anywhere.’ And you really believed that that was going to happen.”
Next up for an unchanged team was the big one, England in Twickenham, where Ireland had won just once since 1948.
“It was like playing in a sardine tin filled with the auld enemy,” said Tom Grace. “There would have been a belief in the crowd that they were cocksure they were going to win.”
Although Grace scored early on from a perfectly weighted grubber by Kevin Flynn, Ireland trailed 7-12 with five minutes remaining when outhalf Barry McGann landed a drop goal. Then, with the last play of the game, from a scrum deep inside the English 22, Flynn arced through with a classic outside break in midfield to round the posts.
Ireland were scheduled to host Scotland and Wales in pursuit of securing a first Grand Slam since 1948.
But this was at the peak of the Troubles. Bloody Sunday, January 30th, when British Paratroopers killed 14 people at a protest march in Derry, came a day after the Ireland win in France. On February 2nd the British Embassy in Dublin was burned down. Of the 3,500 people who died in The Troubles, 500 died in 1972. Over 40 people died in the first six weeks alone.
The Scottish RFU decided they would not send a team to Dublin, and despite entreaties from the IRFU, and by the Irish government to the UK government, were not for budging.
The Welsh WRU followed suit, informing their players that they would not fulfil their fixture in Dublin either. A seven-man IRFU delegation could not persuade their WRU counterparts to change their minds.
According to the Welsh flanker John Taylor, whose team had beaten England and Scotland, they wanted the opportunity to win back-to-back Grand Slams.
“Virtually everybody wanted to go, no question. We were absolutely furious because we felt we were on the right track for a second consecutive Grand Slam,” said Taylor.
“We were going to win the two matches in Dublin, there’s no question or doubt about that,” said the Irish flanker Fergus Slattery, who has never wavered in his belief that that Irish team was primed to win the Grand Slam.
“In 1970, we beat Wales 14-0. We would have beaten Wales and Scotland in 1972. I’d sign my life in that.”
But even more importantly, the future of Irish rugby hung in the balance at this troubled point in history. As was pointed out by Grace, who subsequently served as IRFU honorary treasurer, the Irish union made about 80 or 90 per cent of its annual revenue from the gate receipts to the two annual home games in those days. Take those away indefinitely, for even a few years, and what then?
The championship itself was also under threat. To put the events of the 1972 Five Nations further into perspective, it remains the only championship not to have been completed since the second World War, and the only championship outside of the two World Wars not completed since 1898.
To their credit, France sent over a team for a one-off friendly on April 4th to help defray the IRFU’s losses, a gesture and a game relatively overlooked. The All Blacks also travelled to Lansdowne Road in January 1973, when a 10-10 draw secured by Tom Grace’s last-minute try denied the All Blacks a Grand Slam tour against the four home countries.
But the immediate future of Irish rugby, and to a degree the Five Nations, hinged on whether England would play Ireland in Dublin three weeks later.
England arguably had even more cause not to travel, but the RFU informed their players they would be sending a team, and their players duly travelled.
In the two weeks leading up to the game the Troubles claimed another 26 lives. Both teams, unusually, stayed in the same hotel, The Shelbourne. Security was tight in the foyer and in the corridors.
When English captain John Pullin led his players out there was an immediate roar and standing ovation. My dad, a member of both Trinity rugby and boxing clubs, always procured tickets for Ireland games. Touchline seats on a long wooden bench situated between him and my mum, right next to the pitch. That’s where this rugby thing all started.
“Stand up,” he said to his son who, as a kid, was oblivious to the significance of it all, and unable to see through the bodies to the men in white who had entered the pitch. The ovation went on and on. Meanwhile, the Irish players waited to be given the signal to enter the pitch too.
“We were like a bunch of cattle trying to get out of a pen,” recalled Grace.
“Before or since I’ve never experienced anything quite like that,” said the English prop Fran Cotton.
Fifty years ago, Ireland beat England in February 1973 by 18-9 – Grace and debutant Dick Milliken scoring the tries, McGann kicking 10 points – but the result was almost incidental in the greater scheme of things.
Sadly, Pullin recently passed away, but his line when speaking as captain at the post-match dinner will remain immortal.
“We may not be very good but at least we turn up.”
As Cotton put it: “It was the perfect line. If he’d had his own scriptwriter he couldn’t have put it any better.”
Reflecting on how his words struck such a chord and more than stood the test of time, Pullin told the documentary: “I didn’t expect it to have quite the effect it did, but it seemed to live on and have a life of its own, that line, as it were.”
In a rugby context, Moloney likened it to Neil Armstrong’s immortal, moon-landing line: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Recalling the magnitude of that decision by the RFU and the English players to fulfil that fixture half a century ago, both then and for the ensuing decade, Moloney said: “I have so much time for England. If I hear people running down England in a rugby context I will go mad. They are our friends.”
Willie John McBride also noted: “It restored normality to our game that had been taken away from us”.
Syd Millar surely wasn’t wrong too when wondering aloud what England’s decision in 1973 meant to Irish rugby and concluding: “Oh, I don’t know that we could ever have repaid them for it.”
The documentary fittingly closed with the words of Grace.
“As long as the fellas still live and even after we’re all gone, it will never be forgotten, because on that day they [England] probably saved the future of Irish rugby.”