Dublin has been a fair city to England’s rugby teams. They have played 64 times there against Ireland and won more than they have lost: a rare record for an away team at international level.
The breakdown of England’s results in the city reads:
The fixture is the second-oldest on international rugby’s calendar. The first match staged in Dublin was at the Leinster Cricket Ground at Rathmines in December 1875, ten months after the sides had first met at the Kennington Oval in London. Cricket grounds, it seems, regularly doubled as the scenes for international rugby in those days.
Lansdowne Road, where Saturday’s showdown takes place, is the oldest rugby pitch on the circuit still hosting internationals. Apart from the recent Croke Park interlude, it has been in use as a Dublin venue since the English match of 1878.
England were unbeaten there until 1887 when history records that Ireland moved heaven and earth in an effort to score their first win of the series. The Munster forward John Macaulay even married his sweetheart Julia Ryan in Limerick just before the game in order to qualify for compassionate leave from his employers.
It was the only way he could engineer the time off to play in Dublin and one Irish critic of the time, obviously with detailed inside knowledge, commented: “Macaulay’s wife fully endorsed the enthusiasm.”
Old-timers used to speak warmly of the Lansdowne Road games just before and after World War Two. England won 36-14 there in a gale in 1938 and haven’t bettered the seven tries they scored that afternoon anywhere since against Ireland.
Two well-known county cricketers, Grahame Parker (Gloucestershire) and Peter Cranmer (Warwickshire), were in England’s team. Parker set a series record by converting six of the tries and Cranmer, to his great amusement in later life, could never understand why he was relieved of the captaincy after that landslide victory.
The next time the countries met in Dublin was in 1947 when Ireland ran a ragged English back division off their feet. Coventry’s Harry Walker, 102 last month and the grand old gentleman of English rugby, was a member of a side beaten 22-0 and described Ireland’s fabled fly-half that day, Jackie Kyle, as “one of the best players I’ve ever seen. He was magic.”
Ireland playing England in Dublin in 1951. William Vanderson/Picture Post/Getty Images
Kyle was the catalyst again for victories over England in Dublin in 1949 and 1951 when Ireland were captained to Five Nations titles by Karl Mullen, and had in Bill McKay, Jimmy McCarthy and Des O’Brien a back-row which was every inch as challenging to England as CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip will be on Saturday.
England made four unbeaten visits to Dublin in the late fifties at a time when the city’s hospitality – and wit – were at their best, whether Ireland was winning or – more often than not – losing.
These were carefree days as far as Dublin rugby players were concerned with one noted international describing the state of Irish rugby as “always desperate, but never serious.”
And who will ever forget the late Mick English’s summary of his misfortunes marking the well-known English fly-half Phil Horrocks-Taylor: “Horrocks went one way, Taylor went the other, and I was left trying to grasp the hyphen.”
The advent of Tom Kiernan, Ray McLoughlin, Willie-John McBride and Mike Gibson brought a more serious perspective to Irish preparations in the sixties and seventies when England’s most notable feat was simply pitching up for the 1973 fixture.
Scotland and Wales had cancelled their visits to Lansdowne Road in 1972 owing to the political troubles. When John Pullin led his England fifteen onto the ground for the game in February 1973 they were given a standing ovation.
Ireland won 18-9 in a match remembered not only for Tom Grace’s running and Barry McGann’s goal-kicking but above all for the English captain’s post-match quip: “We might not be much good, but at least we turn up.” England in fact weren’t much good in Dublin for years, recording only two wins in eight visits between 1973 and 1989.
England’s Rory Underwood celebrates scoring against Ireland in 1991. Russell Cheyne/Allsport
Until 1973, the fixed sequence of international matches ordained that Ireland and England should meet annually on the second Saturday in February. However, with the introduction of the rotation of fixtures in 1974 came the possibility of a last-weekend Dublin encounter between Ireland and England to decide the Championship.
The first such meeting was not until 1983 when Ireland’s veteran forwards paved the way for the home side to clinch the Five Nations title. Another Irish out-half legend, Ollie Campbell, set an Irish record for the series by landing 21 points in a 25-15 win while Fergus Slattery, in a pack which was nicknamed “Dad’s Army,” scored their other points with a try.
English rugby turned a corner in the late eighties with the appointment of Geoff Cooke as team manager and Will Carling as captain. They quickly put the national side back on a winning course and the first silverware of their tenure came in the Dublin match of 1991.
Rory Underwood’s try and Simon Hodgkinson’s goals sealed the Triple Crown with a 16-7 victory which teed up a Grand Slam decider with France. The long-serving Carling was still playing in the centre of the three-quarter line when England’s highest Dublin score and biggest winning margin there came in the 46-6 win at Lansdowne Road in 1997.
Ireland set their corresponding team records for the series by winning 43-13 at Croke Park in 2007 on the day that Ronan O’Gara matched Ollie Campbell’s Irish record of 21 points for a match against the men in white.
Croke Park in fact was an unhappy hunting ground for England while Lansdowne Road was being rebuilt. Martin Johnson was in his first season as coach in 2009 when poor discipline let England down in a 13-14 defeat on their only other visit to the famous stadium.
This week marks the sixtieth anniversary of the first use in print of the expression “Grand Slam” to denote the achievement of beating every other nation in the same rugby season.
England inspired the phrase (used in the Daily Telegraph and The Times) after hooker Eric Evans’s team beat Scotland at Twickenham to complete an invincible season in 1957.
In the context of this weekend’s game, Irish thoughts will hark back to the great Grand Slam denials of 2001 and 2011 – occasions when confident St George had his hopes blown by St Patrick in the final match.
England on the other hand will look for inspiration to the 42-6 win in 2003 when the Grand Slam was up for grabs for both sides. That was the day Jonny Wilkinson, Will Greenwood, Lawrence Dallaglio and Martin Johnson carried them to the Six Nations’ Holy Grail – the only previous occasion when they clinched it in Dublin.
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