Eight Games That Defined Irish Rugby: Match Three

The Game: England 13 Ireland 19, 6th March 2004

What it Defined: The emergence of a consistently successful Ireland side

The State of Play

After the Night of the Long Knives following the All Blacks defeat in 2001, Eddie was always going to get some time to get things right – and he needed it. In the 2002 Six Nations, Ireland mixed the sublime with the ridiculous – veering from feeding Wales a painful 50-burger to being on the end of two shellackings in Twickers and Paris.  The inconsistency that had been Gatty’s downfall wasn’t going to go away quickly.

Next season, it looked like they had begun to sort themselves out. After being unable to beat Scotland for a decade, suddenly Ireland were finding it very easy – a 3rd win in 4 years got them off to a great start, and it was followed up by a routine win in Rome. The character of the next two wins had the Irish public sensing something different – a tough grinding win over France in Lansdowne Road was followed up with a last gasp one point win in Cardiff (shurely shome mishtake Mish Moneypenny). The mental toughness we had been looking for seemed within reach … as did a Grand Slam as England came to town.

Until, of course, it was slapped down in spectacular fashion by Johnno and co. at Lansdowne Road. The game will be remembered for the English captain’s perceived snub of Mary McAleese, but that preceded a right beating from the English, who were thoroughly sick of being denied Grand Slams by Celtic upstarts. A 5-try 42-6 demolishing was the result, but Ireland were quietly pleased with progress, and this was one hell of an England side.

The World Cup in Oz that autumn was about one thing in the minds of the Irish rugby public – atonement for Lens. Ireland had been drawn with Argentina again, as well as the hosts, and someone was going to bite the bullet. In the event, Ireland staggered past an obdurate Pumas side in a stinking game – Quinny’s try-scoring injury put him out for a long time, and both Argentinian props were accused of gouging in the aftermath.

The newly carefree Irish almost caught the Wallabies napping in the final pool game, but a last minute Humph drop goal sailing left meant it was the French instead of the Scots, and after 30 minutes Ireland were whacked and bagged at 24-0 down, eventually losing 43-21 – a defeat which prompted the retirement of all-time legend Woody.  It was about par for Ireland World Cups, but the players had a ball in a terrific base.  Shane Horgan rated it as a career highlight, but lamented that it came a year too soon for what was a young team.

The following years’ Six Nations started with defeat to France, but that was followed up by another handsome victory over Wales. Despite the loss of Wood, the trip to Twickenham was crucial for Ireland – another defeat and they were essentially back where they were after 2000 – some pretty wins, but no cigars.

England themselves were reigning world champions and at the peak of their powers – they had scored 11 tries against the concession of one in their first two games – we tend to associate the 2004 England side with their shambolic 2006-10 cousins, not the powerful machine which won a series in New Zealand and the World Cup in the nine months preceding this game – make no mistake, this was a formidable team, one of the best (if not the best) of the professional era.

The Game

This was the first Great Eddie Performance – a ruthless and well-executed devastation of the opposition’s weak point: the lineout. Thommo had the worst day of his career, and Mal O’Kelly the best, in tandem with the incredible Paul O’Connell. The English set pieces never got going, and Ireland kept them under incredible pressure throughout the first half. Despite an opportunist try from Matt Dawson, Ireland went in 12-10 in front thanks to four Ronan O’Gara penalties.

England came out flying after the break, with a Ben Cohen try in the corner ruled out by the TMO for a double movement. It was a tight call, but probably correct.  Ireland responded with one of the memorable moments of the last decade, and another Eddie Classic – an all-singing backline move started by a sublime step-and-go from Gordon D’arcy – suddenly playing to his great potential – and finished by Girvan Dempsey. Every step was training ground rehearsed.  Egg can recall the dirty Vinnie Jones-esque tackle on Dempsey by Cohen as much as the try itself, but it was beautiful to behold (although look how deep the whole line stands!).

Ireland closed it out after that with the sort of tough hard-nosed performance they needed to produce – it was a display full of grit, desire and marked confidence in their gameplan. Gordon D’Arcy and Paul O’Connell were excellent in their first games in Twickers and would be mainstays of the team for years to come. The England team they beat were missing Johnson and Wilko, but had a plethora of World Cup winners, and were led by Lawrence Dallaglio.

The teams that day were:

England: Balshaw; Lewsey, Robinson, Greenwood, Cohen; Grayson, Dawson; Woodman, Thompson, Vickery; Borthwick, Kay; Worsley, Hill, Dallaglio.

Ireland: Dempsey; Horgan, O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, Howe; O’Gara, Stringer; Corrigan, Byrne, Hayes; O’Kelly, O’Connell; Easterby, Gleeson, Foley.

The Aftermath

The game was the catalyst for Ireland to win three Triple Crowns in four seasons – their most consistent period of success in history. The first was secured three weeks later at home to Scotland and prompted wild celebrations. The team of 2004 was largely the team that played for this entire World Cup cycle and through to France 2007, missing only the silky-haired Jirry Flannery – at that point just back in Munster after a sojourn in Connacht – and the soon-to-re-emerge David Wallace.

The following season, it was Wales’ turn, and they won a rather fortuitous Grand Slam, but this was the catalyst for Eddie’s best years – a Triple Crown followed in 2006 (as did a horror beating in Paris – something which was becoming a familiar marker), and that Autumn, Ireland beat both South Africa and Australia, and reached the heady heights of 3rd in the world rankings.  The South Africa and Australia teams were somewhat developmental in nature, but that was lost on a public giddy with excitement over Ireland’s form.  Ronan O’Gara surely never played flatter than in that series, and two new stars from Ulster emerged: powerful winger Andrew Trimble and wrecking-ball blindside, Neil Best.

The peak of the side was due to be in 2007, and it corresponded with the knocking down of decrepit old Lansdowne Road in favour of the sparkling new Palindrome – Ireland were to play their home game from 2007-2010 in Croke Park, the 80,000 seater occasionally atmospheric home of the GAA. The emotion and unfamiliarity of it all were undoubtedly contributors to a slightly off-key performance in the first game of the series, against France. Ireland were but a lucky bounce away from a home win that would likely have led to a Grand Slam.  As a fan, there are some defeats you never quite get over, and for Palla Ovale this is one – he simply sat, motionless in Croke Park with his head in his scarf for an extended period of time, before going straight home to bed.

The team were more proactive however – they were primed against England in their next home game. The emotional peak and nationalistic fervour conspired to inspire Ireland to their most complete performance to date – a 43-13 pummeling of a shell-shocked England. The momentum took them to a 50 point win in Rome, which would surely have been good enough for the Championship had France played Scotland simultaneously. In the event, it was another Triple Crown, and this one was greeted rather less positively than the previous two – it was, quite rightly, perceived as a chance of a lifetime having been missed, and Ireland felt short-changed.  They hadn’t climbed their mountain yet, but the mentality was one of winners.  A Triple Crown was no longer good enough.

After the physical and mental peaks of the Six Nations, surely Ireland would be firing on all cylinders again for the World Cup in October?

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13 Comments

  1. Degsy

     /  July 24, 2012

    That knee into Dempsey’s hip by Cohen after the former scored – I remember it with considerable ill-feeling to this day. What a knacker. Another example of where the authorities allow anything around the goal line.

  2. Oh how will this compelling tale end? Surely glory awaits at the world cup for this exciting bunch of players, with a backline playing with such depth and in its pomp, and a motivated and athletic pack. Surely?

    The Rome spring was perhaps the most enjoyable international sporting fixture I have ever attended. The apres-match in the Piazza de Popolo and the near-miss of the 6 Nations crown, was the epitome of Roman drama. Dagger’s doyennes in all their pomp…and just a couple of KMs away from the location of the event for which his mentor Brutus became famous.

    • Cena2j

       /  July 24, 2012

      Brilliant!
      Looked like they were going to go to the world cup 07 and take names and kick ass.

      • The next international match I had the pleasure of attending – after the Roman masterpiece – was against a certain Caucasian nation in Bordeaux. I won’t spoil the plot for the next article though.

      • Although, I would add that I thought the world cup was primarily in September (and not October as per the article).

    • Len

       /  July 25, 2012

      I remember being very angry at Denis Leamy after the Italy game. He gave away a penalty near the Italian 22 from which the Italians came back down and scored. I was never his biggest fan but that day I think I’d have gladly fed him to the lions in the coliseum.

  3. HenryFitz

     /  July 24, 2012

    Ah, memories. For a while there, Ireland had the two most dangerous line-breaking centres in the NH, in one team. But it was short-lived. Later that summer, Darce and Drico were slicing South Africa to pieces through the centre when Darce pulled up lame with a hammer or groin strain, I forget which. I turned to my friend and said: “that’s it, it was good while it lasted”. On came Maggsy to try to outbosh the boshers, and the Boks stampeded all over us for the rest of the game.

    Darce never really recovered his top pace (which was winger-grade) after that, with a series of groin and hamstring problems keeping him out until the 2005 Lions tour, where he was palpably unfit. Then 2006 started, and a blockier but less elusive Darce was shunted into the 12 jersey, where he put in some solid performances without ever recovering the elusive brilliance of his breakthrough season.

    Although Drico and Darce have been a very good centre partnership, solid defensively with the occasional outbreaks of brilliance, I can’t help but look back on 2004 and think what might have been. If Ireland had continued taking the pitch with two 12.5s, one scarcely less frightening than the other, was there anyone up north who could have stopped them?

  4. gibbsey

     /  July 24, 2012

    This was the defining positive moment for me. It was huge psychologically, Twickenham has not been as daunting a place since that win and 2 from 4 since is a great record. If we had won in Paris in March I feel it could have had same effect in taking the French monkey off our backs!

    @HenryFitz thats a great point about Darce. Similar situation with Geordan Murphy and his leg. While they both had solid careers for Ireland, I think we never seen what they were really capable of. Pity

    • Shame indeed, although – arguably – Geordan’s fate was as much down to not being in Brutus’ mythical golden group of players. He managed to be one of the Premiership’s best players for a decade but always looked lacking in confidence in an Irish jersey. While he definitely lost pace after the leg break, you can’t help but feel he could still have played a much more central role if he had been backed.

      • O’Sullivan gave Murphy 43 test starts in less than six and a half seasons [EOS came in midway through the 2001-02 season and resigned before the end of the 2007-08 season].

        Denis Hickie made 38 starts; Girvan Dempsey made 50 starts; and Shane Horgan made 50 starts. Considering that Ireland played 78 test matches under O’Sullivan and that Murphy suffered a broken leg in 2003, that’s not bad going at all. It’s a bit of a myth that O’Sullivan never gave him a shot.

      • @dementedmole how many of those starts were in his actual position of fullback though? That is what I mean by backing him.

        • gibbsey

           /  July 26, 2012

          He was a gifted runner and a fantastic fielder but i felt he was never as explosive after his leg break (not unlike Darce). His try against Scotland showed what real pace he had.

          No doubt that he never had EOS’s confidence, and it sometimes really came out in his game. In the next piece about RWC 07 (which was painful to read!) WOC states he was dropped from the bench for the game against France after playing for 1 minute against Namibia. I had forgotten about this but I think it says it all

  5. Dave

     /  July 25, 2012

    On an aside how many times has Tony Ward said “that is as good a team try as you will see…”, it must in the tens of dozens at this stage!

    Great try though all the same, especially the depth at which the back line stood but also changing the point of attack. Christ if we could just get our backrows in those outside channels at varying levels of depth (decoys) we would make hay. Sexton did it once against Italy for Tommy Bowe (almost resulted in a intercept), in this years 6 nations.

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