Published: 10:53 | 29/9/20

Doc: The Team That Turned Up


This is the story of the English rugby team that received a standing ovation at Lansdowne Road at the height of the Troubles. The simple reason for such a rousing reception – they turned up when others wouldn't. eir sport 1, Thur, Oct 1st 12.05am

The Irish rugby team was riding the crest of a wave in 1972. Having beaten England at Twickenham and won in Paris for the first time in 19 years, a potential grand slam was in sight. 

With a host of young stars including Fergus Slattery, Tom Grace and Johnny Moloney emerging to complement established talent such as Willie-John McBride, Syd Millar and Mike Gibson, the future looked bright indeed.

Sadly, the outlook was entirely different off the pitch. 1972 was the worst year for the Troubles with almost 500 people killed, including the shooting of 14 civilians by the British Army at a civil rights march in Derry at the end of January in what became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. 

The British Embassy in Dublin was burned to the ground in reprisal. Ireland, both north and south, was a war zone.

Against this backdrop, Wales and Scotland both refused to travel to Dublin to fulfil their fixtures and the Five Nations championship was abandoned for the year.

Tension

Twelve months later and tensions remained high with 18 people killed in the first four weeks of the year. Security was a major concern and no-one knew for sure if the championship would proceed.

England were due to visit Dublin on January 27th. In the North in the fortnight running up to the game three RUC men were killed in landmine and booby trap bomb attacks and a UDR soldier abducted and shot.

There was outcry over another shooting of a civilian by the British Army, while a magistrate died three months after being shot on the Falls Road in Belfast. In Dublin a civilian had died after being blown up in a car bomb in Sackville Place.  

Yet, in another example of how sport can transcend all boundaries, the game did go ahead, thanks in no small part to the determination of the RFU. They were keen to protect the future of the Five Nations tournament and took the unusual step of sending a delegation to the house of England captain John Pullin to state their case.

Pullin then met with a number of senior players and, despite it being clear that the security of the England team would be most under threat compared to any other nation, they decided to travel.

The players were billeted in the Shelbourne Hotel amid high security with armed soldiers patrolling the stairs and corridors. It was only then that Pullin, a livestock farmer and veteran of several England team visits to Dublin where they eagerly looked forward to sampling the hospitality of the local pubs, realised how serious the situation was. It just made him more determined that the game would go ahead.

Standing ovation

The English took the field the next day and received a five-minute standing ovation from the home crowd who knew what a courageous decision it had been for them to travel and wanted to show their appreciation. It was a moment where sport triumphed over politics and the death and destruction of the Troubles were laid aside for a while.

The Irish left their dressing room and were making their way towards the pitch when they were held back by an IRFU official. He recognised the importance of the moment and wanted to ensure that the England team would know that the applause was for them and not the home side.

Ireland won the match 18-9 thanks to tries from Tom Grace and Dick Milliken, but the result was almost irrelevant. At the traditional banquet that evening in a nearby hotel, Pullin summed up what had been a truly momentous occasion when he light-heartedly quipped: "We might not be the greatest team in the world. But at least we turn up."    

Produced by Sorcha Glackin, directed by Luke McManus and made with the support of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, The Team That Turned Up features contributions from the likes of John Pulllin, Willie John McBride, Syd Millar, Tom Grace, Johnny Moloney, Fergus Slattery, Fran Cotton, future England captain Roger Uttley and others who were there on the day.

It shines a light on a difficult period of Irish history, one which is gone - hopefully never to return.

Images: Getty

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