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Pre-match pints, post-match vodkas – the secret to winning at Twickenham

Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris and Nick Popplewell retrace their steps and tell Andy Farrell what you need to do to beat England on their home patch.

Ireland team celebrates 2018 grand slam in Twickenham.
Ireland team celebrates 2018 grand slam in Twickenham.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

HE IS WOKEN by a knock on the door.

Peter Clohessy and Mick Galwey are there, all sweetness and light.

“Pints?” asks the Claw.

“Pints!” repeats Gaillimh, seconding the motion.

So off they go, out the door, down the corridor, three becoming four by the time they reach the hotel foyer, feeling loose and alive, escaping this plushest of prisons, the Chelsea Hilton Hotel.

They are winning. Not on the pitch – because Wales had beaten them a fortnight earlier, France the month before. The previous year (1993) had been a bit better, three victories out of five, including a memorable one over England at Lansdowne Road.

But no one gave them a chance this time. England had won seven on the spin at Twickenham, New Zealand their most recent victims, whereas Ireland’s record in London was appalling, no win in 12 years, 29, 23 and 32-point defeats from their previous three visits.

Now here they were, on the eve of the biggest game of the calendar, tucking into a feed of Guinness in the Rose & Crown – Popplewell, Clohessy, Galwey and Terry Kingston, fears and doubts disappearing with every gulp.

It’s Popplewell’s turn to go to the bar. Getting his round in, he hears a familiar voice from the lounge next door. “Don’t f**king look up,” he says to the rest of the lads. “The f**king five selectors are all in there.”

the-irish-front-row-1921994 Ireland's front row in 1994. Pre-match pints helped them win. Source: INPHO

There is panic and then there is fear. “Lose tomorrow and that could be our last game for Ireland,” Popplewell says. But they don’t leave. They can’t. “Everyone hadn’t got their round in,” Popplewell said. “It was one thing being snared but another to renege on your round. We stayed ‘til we’d drunk the four pints.”

This was the pre-match routine, 1994. The following day, Ireland beat England 13-12.

**

Time does not stand still. Rugby changes. Players start to get paid in 1995 although it’s 2000 before Ireland even begin to understand what professionalism means. By 2010, pre-match pints are replaced by a night in front of the laptop, line-out geeks studying footage of England’s set-piece.

If you think this signals an end to the fun then bear with us. What’s different between 2010 and 1994 is that the players had a thirst for knowledge rather than just alcohol. 

“The thing is that any time you play England, you are absolutely shattered afterwards,” Tommy Bowe, scorer of two tries in that 20-16 win, said. “So, there were no celebrations in the dressing room afterwards, no words even. We were too wrecked to do anything.”

tommy-bowe-scores-irelands-third-try Tommy Bowe celebrates the winning try in 2010. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Time is a great healer, though. By 11pm that night, they were rocking. The Kensington Roof Garden was the hottest ticket in town, the perfect place for a bunch of fun-loving players to celebrate just the 13th Irish win in Twickenham in over a century. “We’re on this roof terrace, the place hopping,” Stephen Ferris remembers. “We’re feeling good. Someone got a round of drinks in – not sure who it was, Mike Ross maybe – anyway £150 it cost him. It was £17.50 for a vodka and red bull alone.

“We’re like, ‘whaaaaaaaaaaaaat? Let’s get outta here’. We found this Irish bar. Ceili band playing; Guinness, £3.50-a-pint. That was a bloody good night out.”

**

Good nights have been rare enough for Ireland in Twickenham, that run of three wins out of four between 2004 and 2010 was followed by four straight defeats in London, including the 2015 World Cup warm-up. “Of all the places to go, it’s undoubtedly one of the toughest,” Bowe says.

Any time I lost to England, it was always there. Those towering stands, row after row after row of English fans and flags, the cauldron of noise, 80,000 people singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. When things go wrong, it’s a pitch you can’t wait to get off.”

Yet Twickenham has also been a place where something melded in him, ambition and achievement. After Cardiff and the 2009 grand slam, that two-try day in 2010 was his greatest in an Ireland shirt. Around him, other stories, other memories. “That Twickenham win,” Ferris says, “that was unforgettable. I was at the peak of my career, up against Jonny Wilkinson, an idol. To win there, to beat them. Ah, it was special.”

**

It always takes something special, a moment, a second of inspiration, a game-changing piece of brilliance. In 2006, it was Shane Horgan leaping through the sky to touch down in the corner with the final play of the game; four years later, four minutes from time, it was Bowe, right place, right time, right wing. “We’d worked on this set-play for ages. Finally it came good,” he says.

Sixteen years earlier, another blond-haired winger, Simon Geoghegan, was the hero. “Ahem,” Popplewell says, laughing at the absurdity of what he’s about to say. “I set him up, quite frankly. Go back about 18 phases earlier and you’ll see what I did.”

Which was?

“We’d a scrum. I grabbed hold of (Tim) Rodber and got a belt for my sins. He knocked the head right off me. Anyway, that little infringement of mine gave Eric (Elwood) an extra half-second or so. And once you got Simon away in space – to be fair, he only got to touch the ball about twice in his international career – no one had a chance of stopping him. Simon was different class.”

simon-geoghegan-england-v-ireland-1921994 Simon Geoghegan's try was all down to Popplewell. Source: © INPHO/Billy Stickland

**

This isn’t just a rugby edition of Reeling in the Years. There’s more to it than that. Aside from the well worn anecdotes, there are serious points alongside the jovial pints, lessons from history’s scrapbook that are relevant to Sunday.

Here’s Bowe: “When we won in 2010, we got off to a flier. Three minutes on the clock, Johnny (Sexton) chips through, I’m lucky to be on the end of it. You’re confident then. You’re not chasing a game. You’re not listening to their crowd sing. Two years ago, Ireland got off to a great start then, too. Flip it the other way, England’s two big wins last year, against us in the Aviva; against New Zealand in the World Cup, they were the ones who flew out of the blocks. Start well, it’ll end well.”

Ferris made a similar point: “Ireland know how to win there. It’s not ancient history since the last time we did it away from home against England, not like the ‘90s whenever an Irish side went to Paris, hearing everyone tell them it’s 1972 since your last win in France. Look, Ireland beat them there two years ago; the majority of this team have won a grand slam, have beaten New Zealand, have won away in Australia and South Africa.

Sure, the game has changed in the last 10 years. But some principles remain. Self-belief still counts for a lot in this sport. We went there in 2010 believing we could do it. It’s all about backing yourselves. We did it then. Why can’t these lads do it now?”

stephen-ferris-tackled-by-dylan-hartley-and-lewis-moody Stephen Ferris was at his peak in 2010. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

This is Popplewell’s take on things: “I know this may sound like an overly simplistic thing to say but I find it easy to draw parallels between Billy Vunipola’s absence on Sunday and Dean Richards’ unavailability back in 1994. Now, look, I know. It’s 26 years, a different era. I get that. But when you are missing your talisman, a team’s confidence can be brittle.

“Without Richards – that seasoned old veteran who dictated the pace of games – England weren’t the same side that day. Missing Vunipola, who is going to put in their big carries, get the crowd roaring, get the team on the front foot?

I accept the professional era is radically different to my era but every team needs a figurehead, someone to inspire them. Vunipola is that guy. And he’s not there. It reminds me of Richards and 1994.”

For players, past and present, winning is a craving; to do it at Twickenham, with the world bearing witness, is as good as it gets. “All week, people will be telling them, ‘best of luck lads, this is the big one’. If they have a day off, if they go for a coffee, drop the kids to school, they’ll be reminded of how this match means more to Irish people than any other,” says Bowe. “Winning there is so hard to do …… but so special when you do it.”

Tommy Bowe presents Pro14 rugby on eirSport. Munster, Leinster and Connacht’s games are on the eirsport package tomorrow from 7pm.

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Garry Doyle

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