There is a generation of Irish Rugby fans who go against the grain of normally cheering on ABE (Anyone Bar England) and this week there has been a poignant reminder of why that is.

We know that 2023 is the 25th anniversary of the Goof Friday Agreement which altered the political temperature of our historic relationship. It is also the 50th anniversary of the famous Ireland v England game that took place against the backdrop of a similarly heated political landscape.

The Five Nations as it was at the time had been disrupted by Wales and Scotland refusing to travel to Dublin citing fears over the safety of their teams. There was significant tension at the time.

In July 1972 the IRA exploded nineteen bombs over the course of one hour in Belfast City centre, killing nine and injuring 130 people. Then between November of that year and January 1973, three bombs exploded in Dublin, killing three and injuring 185.

The sport was not high on the agenda.

England though chose to come to Dublin to play their game. They lost 18-9 but the memory for those who were there was of the rapturous welcome they received.

“My greatest memory apart from the nerves of getting ready, was when we were about to run and one of the officials put up their hand to stop us,” said Ireland’s Kevin Mays, speaking at a special reunion yesterday in the Irish Embassy in London.

“Now at that stage in the game, the last thing you want is to be stopped from getting on to the pitch because the quicker you get on you get the nerves out of the way.”

“Anyway, all I could hear was this crescendo of noise coming and this continuous and rapturous applause for the English team. I was thinking, hang on a second…why are we waiting, it was interminable, applause, applause, applause.”

“At the end of the game, there were many thanks and a great appreciation and understanding of what the English team had done. At the dinner afterward, there were the immortal words that everyone remembers from John Pullin. He stood up and said “We may not be very good but at least we turn up,” and there was a standing ovation and it was absolutely fantastic.

“That evening, in particular, stands out, I used to drive a little green mini and we went to Hartigans for a number of refreshments before the dinner and I ended up bringing five of the English team down from Hartigans to the Shelbourne for the dinner. Now my mini had a sunroof and Andy Ripley was sticking out of the top of that, but we made it on time.

Tom Grace was on the Irish team, and David Duckham was on the English.  It was a time when live sport on TV was the rare exception and those moments were more vivid for those who saw them than might be the case today.

Then again if history rhymes this coming Saturday and Ireland win a first-ever grand Slam in Dublin, by beating England, that will create an equally potent memory fifty years on from England ‘turning up.’


Sport for Business Perspective:

Sport does history well and the IRFU and the RFU have marked this occasion in style, focusing on the players of the day but reminding us all of the power that sport can have to bring people together, even in the most difficult of times.