‘We refused to take it any more’ – rugby legends reflect on Ireland v England

Girvan Dempsey, Shane Byrne and Malcolm O’Kelly relive a glorious period of Irish dominance over the Auld Enemy.

Paul O'Connell of Ireland over Jonny Wilkinson and Tom Rees of England in 2007.
Paul O'Connell of Ireland over Jonny Wilkinson and Tom Rees of England in 2007.
Image: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

THE LAST TWO IRISH outings against England have yielded chastening defeats, scrum worries and not a hint of a try.

Recent woes aside, Ireland have the wood over the English in the past decade – winning seven of the past 10 encounters. The weekend win over Wales has added to a sense of optimism across the nation.

Malcolm O’Kelly, Shane Byrne and Girvan Dempsey will all take part in an Ireland versus England legends game at Donnybrook on Saturday (7:30pm).

Ahead of the match, the trio spoke to about a golden era when Ireland, on their way to a 2009 Grand Slam, held sway in the battle of the auld enemies.

The nadir

Malcolm O’Kelly: “I remember we played them 2003, before the World Cup, here at Lansdowne Road. That was probably the toughest. We were both playing for the Grand Slam.

“That was a really, really tough game. We were on the back side of a whopping. They were in great form. Incredibly strong up front – we really felt that.”

England, led by the inspirational Martin Johnson, hit the front after an early try from Lawrence Dallaglio.

Clive Woodward’s side, who would go on to win the World Cup in Australia later that year, sapped Ireland’s will through Jonny Wilkinson’s penalties and drop goals. Will Greenwood, Dan Luger and Mike Tindall crossed for second-half tries as England won 42-6.

Denis Hickie is crestfallen at the final whistle. (©INPHO/Billy Stickland)

The tone was set before kick-off as England, under instructions from their captain, lined up for their anthem on Ireland’s section of the red carpet – forcing the Irish, and President Mary McAleese, to traverse the grass.

O’Kelly said, “That was the same game and there was a bit of controversy but it probably marred from the result that they really dealt with us quite well.”

The fightback

It was quickly forgotten that Ireland were in contention for the 2003 Grand Slam but Eddie O’Sullivan was putting together a side that felt they were capable of mixing it with the best.

An opening round defeat to France dented that resolve but a 36-15 home win over Wales gave Ireland hope as they travelled to Twickenham to take on the world champions.

Shane Byrne: “It was that never say die thing we had going for us. We always went into the England games as underdogs, which helps the Irish psyche and we always respond to that.

“We always wanted to get one over on them. We were a side that were emerging but we all knew what we could do. Everybody was very highly motivated and we might have caught them on the hop once or twice but it took a good team to beat them.

Byrne celebrates Dempsey’s try with the fullback in 2004. (©INPHO/Morgan Treacy)

“The English games are always toe-to-toe. You have to stand up.

If you show them any chink of weakness, physically, skill-wise, you will pay for it. That was something that we refused to take any more. We really turned a corner there.

“Definitely, the best would have to be beating them in 2004. We were going for the Triple Crown and we spoiled their party in Twickenham. That was very, very choice. A great game.”

Four Ronan O’Gara penalties saw Ireland lead 12-10 at the break but a superb Girvan Dempsey try in the corner sealed the contest.

Byrne added, “There were so many superb moments – demolishing their lineouts and things like that. It was really enjoyable, as is beating the English always is.”

The pinnacle

Girvan Dempsey: “Croke Park was definitely the stand-out for me. The whole occasion was momentous; it was incredible. I remember the whole week, the lead-up and the media frenzy; everything. Then coming into the ground and the place was packed – 80,000 – it was incredible.”

The hype surrounding England’s visit in 2007 led to many wondering if their anthem, God Save The Queen, would be drowned out in a chorus of catcalls and boos.

Croke Park, GAA headquarters, would host the match while Lansdowne Road was under construction and England drafted in Conor O’Shea to impart a history lesson on their players and drive home the significance of the occasion. Dempsy added:

We had the anthems and looking along the line, seeing teammates in tears and just the emotion there. To back it up then, and put in the performance that we did, was amazing.”

Ireland were immense from the first minute until the last. Dempsey was on the mark again while Shane Horgan scored the try of the match as he plucked an O’Gara crossfield kick out of the night sky and touched down in the corner. O’Sullivan’s men won 43-13.

YouTube credit: Paul Burns

Dempsey added, “We really felt that we owed it and we thought it could have been our last game in Croke Park. We needed to put in a performance that we would be proud of, do justice to that stadium and do justice to that season.

“Obviously, we had lost so narrowly, in the last minute, against France in the first ever rugby match at Croke Park. That was always there, in the back of our mind. And, naturally, to get on the scoresheet was extra special.”

For more on the Ireland v England legends match, click here.

*Updated version of a story that appeared on 27 Dec, 2012

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Patrick McCarry

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