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The history and joys of Irish rugby in a broader context

Last night I watched my recording of recent BT Sport-transmitted Shoulder To Shoulder, a excellent and thought-provoking documentary made/presented by Irish rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll on the strange not to say unique place that the sport of rugby union occupies in the relationship between Eire and Northern Ireland.

In some respects it shone a light on many things – including the ‘community’ feel that the Irish on both sides of the North/South divide have, the stresses that religion and nationalism have wreaked upon them, even yes (if one wanted to drag the subject in) Brexit and – this was probably the programme’s key purpose – the extraordinary effect, despite all the tensions, that love of a particular sport has had in bonding the people together.

I believe it is the case that there exist only three institutions in which that Eire and Northern Ireland operate together: the administration of lifeboats (coastal sea rescue), chartered accountancy and rugby union.

Nobody can explain – well save perhaps the Irish – the logic as to why, for example, Ireland (Eire) and Northern Ireland boast separate national teams in every sport – not least football and the Olympics – and yet have always played rugby union as a united ‘Ireland’.

It brings into being such oddities as the fact that, whilst when playing at home in Dublin the Ireland rugby team stands to attention for both Amhrán na bhFiann [English translation: ‘The Soldier’s Song’] and Ireland’s Call – originally commissioned from songwriter Phil Coulter by the IRFU for use at the 1995 Rugby World Cup to accommodate Northern Irish sensitivities – and yet, when playing outside Ireland, only the latter is used.

In line with the Rust’s unwritten policy of providing comment rather than a blow-by-blow account of the subject of a review I shall confine myself here to a few points and a recommendation of Shoulder To Shoulder to fans of sport everywhere.

In it Brian O’Driscoll demonstrates to this viewer’s satisfaction that – never mind his former professional career and iconic sporting status – if he should want it, he has waiting before him a top-notch future broadcasting career.

He reveals himself to be an engaging, sensitive, intelligent and articulate presenter in his descriptions of complicated situations and events, his interviews with others and – in real-life situations, not least such as when he attends an Orange Order parade on 12th July celebrating the victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and talks to participants about their beliefs and then attitudes towards Irish rugby – a genuinely-humble and easy-going conversationalist with everyone he meets even when he comes from a completely different (and often deeply opposed) tradition and background.

And that’s a significant compliment to someone who will remain a ‘top three’ candidate for the title of the most famous and recognised Irishman alive until his final breath.

For Rusters and others old enough to remember it first hand, this documentary vividly recalls the circumstances of the international between Ireland and England played at Lansdowne Road in Dublin on 27th January 1973.

To be blunt, things were pretty bad in those days, with the escalating Troubles in Northern Ireland  that had begun in 1968 still dominating the headlines.

The subsequent sustained explosion (and that’s an unfortunate but appropriate word) of violence prompted in Belfast and elsewhere, together with bomb outrages and atrocities on both sides, had made the security situation bad enough that both Scotland and Wales had refused to travel to Dublin to play their Five Nations matches in 1972, the year of Bloody Sunday.

Eighteen people had already died in The Troubles during the first four weeks of January 1973 and for obvious reasons the scheduled visit of England to the Eire capital was an issue with attendant complications far greater than any that had been confronted by Scotland and Wales the previous year, not least the fact that the British Embassy in Dublin still lay in ruins after being firebombed.

In the documentary O’Driscoll revisits the situation in conversation with another (Ulster through and through) Irish rugby legend, the larger-than-life in many senses Wille John McBride, captain of the 1974 British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa.

McBride recalls receiving a phone call from English 1974 Lion David Duckham, whose wife was worried about him travelling to Ireland for the game, the England RFU having indicated that the match would go ahead if the players were happy to travel. Duckham was asking for McBride’s advice on what he should do.

McBride told Duckham that, as the first man on the England team sheet, he just had to come. If he didn’t, nobody else would.

Duckham, also interviewed in the programme, tells his side of that conversation. When McBride spoke to him with such quiet assertion and passion, he said, he immediately knew there was no way that he could refuse to go.

The rest is history. Security in Dublin was oppressive – the ground was searched three times before spectators (then also searched individually) were allowed in and the atmosphere in the ground was extraordinary as kick-off approached. Then, as the England team ran out onto the field, to a man everyone in the ground stood and gave them a standing ovation the like of which had never been heard before or since.

Ireland won the game 18-9. Duckham speaks in the documentary of his reactions to the enormity of the occasion and of how, during the post-match dinner formalities the self-effacing farmer and England captain hooker John Pullin (a man of few words) got up to reply on behalf of the England team and concluded his brief oration with the observation “Well, we might not be any good, but at least we turned up …”, at which point every person in the room stood up and gave him and the England team a prolonged standing ovation.

Duckham, describing these events on camera some 45 years later, did so with moistened eyes and on the verge of tears.




About Sandra McDonnell

As an Englishwoman married to a Scot, Sandra experiences some tension at home during Six Nations tournaments. Her enthusiasm for rugby was acquired through early visits to Fylde club matches with her father and her proud boast is that she has missed only two England home games at Twickenham since 1995. Sandra has three grown-up children, none of whom follow rugby. More Posts