Updated: Jun 13, 2021
It may come as a surprise to learn that next Sunday in Murrayfield Ireland will play arguably one of their most important matches in almost 150 years of test rugby. Yes, 138 matches after playing Scotland for the first time, Ireland finally have the opportunity to lead in the head-to-head series, with both teams now on 66 victories each (plus 5 draws and 1 abandoned).
The only other time Ireland had a chance to achieve this feat was when they lined out against Scotland on the 19th February 1877 at the Ormeau Cricket Ground in Belfast, their first encounter. That day Ireland lost 6-0 and started out on a long and winding road of playing catch-up.
By 1893, for example, Ireland only had 1 victory to Scotland’s 14. By 1925 Ireland were at 10 wins against Scotland’s 30, and on it goes. And so next Sunday is a once-in-a-century opportunity not to be missed, as any Irish supporter who suffered through the long, barren spells of the late 1980s and 1990s can testify.
It is easy to forget, for example, that over a total of 15 matches played between 1986 and 1999 Ireland only beat Scotland once. For Irish fans that fallow period was particularly challenging – some would say existential. I remember one particularly devastating Saturday afternoon in 1994 in Birchall’s pub in Ranelagh when Eric Elwood stood up to kick a penalty to secure victory against Wales. As Elwood carefully positioned the ball on a mound of sand and lined up his kick, we sipped our pints and dared to hope. But the ball hit the upright and I can still hear the groan that went around the pub to this day.
Reading match reports in the Sunday papers was often an act of pure masochism. But we were a generation conditioned to such outcomes and we even learned to laugh at them. Remember Tony O’Reilly and his famous words of consolation as captain of the Irish team in the dressing room after another defeat to France?
“Eleven nil lads. Eleven f’ing nil! And we were lucky to get nil!”
The story is apocryphal, of course, but it captured perfectly the mood – for a generation. To doubters about how bad things really were for Irish rugby fans it is worth recalling that Ireland never beat France in the Parc des Princes. Not once. From 1974 to 1999, not one victory on French soil. Zero. Zilch.
For die-hard fans, 25 years is a long time of dying harder.
Despite the blond ambition and scintillating runs of Simon Geoghegan, or the odd flash of team brilliance against England (the 93-94 back to back wins for example) there was little to cheer about in those days.
Which is why the year 2000 was a turning point for Irish rugby. Fans in the Stade de France on the 19th of March 2000 (including this one) will never forget it: Brian O’Driscoll scored a hat-trick and Ireland beat France after 18 times trying.
But by 2000 Ireland were still trailing Scotland by 15 in the head-to-head series (45 wins to 60). Despite a couple of purple patches in the 1930s, 40s and 50s when they inched within a couple of matches, no Irish team had a chance to draw the series level with Scotland. In 2000 Ireland also beat Scotland for the first time in 13 years and it was clear something was happening. Looking back, that millennium year heralded the dawn of a golden age of performances and results. Two grand slams, in 2009 and 2018, 4-time winners of the 6 Nations, 5 Triple Crowns. Throw in maiden victories against New Zealand in 2016 and 2018 and the Irish rugby scales were being rebalanced, with the sweet taste of success heightening a new generation’s expectations whenever the Irish XV take to the field.
Perhaps there is a study to be written about how the progress of Irish rugby mirrored the island’s progress over the first 20 years of the 21st century – and that of the economy also – but it would take a PhD in sports and economics, maybe, or possibly an entire book (something David McWilliams, no doubt, could easily turn his hand to).
Many legendary characters emerged from those years, every one becoming an Irish household nickname: Gaillimh, The Claw, The Raging Potato, Axel, Paulie, ROG, Strings, The Bull, Humphs, Maggsy, Shaggy and of course BOD. And so from 2000 to early 2020 a mini-dynasty of successive talent made a serious dent chipping away at the head-to-head deficit against Scotland, winning an unprecedented 20 out of 26 matches. By the time Ireland lined out last December in the Autumn Nations Cup, Ireland were only trailing Scotland by 1, a match they won 31-16.
Which means that today, for the first time since 1877, 138 matches later, the teams are finally neck and neck. So let’s take it, as they say, one match at a time. Scotland on Sunday, 14th March. Murrayfield 3PM. 80 minutes. Put points on the board lads and get stuck in!
Win this one and you’ll go down in history.
richardb is an Irish rugby fan and author of A Flaneur’s Guide – Paris The Left Bank www.aflaneursguide.com
Postscript: Ireland won this close match and now lead the head to head series against Scotland for the first time in history.