In February 1973, England travelled to Dublin to play Ireland in an international rugby match.
While that might not sound particularly remarkable, the English players that came to Ireland during the Troubles were given a standing ovation by the Lansdowne Road crowd, due to the threat they faced from the IRA.
The conflict in Northern Ireland had erupted in 1969 with a series of riots that had broken out across the province and would continue well into the 1990s, until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
In the previous Five Nations Championship Wales and Scotland refused to travel to Dublin, resulting in both games being cancelled, ruling out a potential Grand Slam for Ireland, who had beaten both France and England away from home in the previous weeks.
The political tensions were particularly high in 1972, following the massacre of 14 unarmed civilians by British soldiers in the Bogside area of Derry in January that year.
‘Someone else would have gone anyway’
Many expected England to refuse to travel to Ireland, as Scotland and Wales had, but former England captain John Pullin explained that the English RFU was determined to send a team to Ireland.
“It was left up to each individual whether to come or not but I got the impression that they were going to take a team anyhow, whether I went or not. People often ask if pressure was put on me to travel but it was left down to everybody individually.
“On one hand I can say no, there was no pressure but on the other hand there was. I got the distinct feeling that the Rugby Union were going to take a team whether you were in it or not. It was that sort of pressure, indirect, like: ‘do you want to play for England anymore?’
“I was visited at home by the chairman of selectors and, I recall, the president of the Rugby Union…I felt then that they wanted me to go as captain. Someone else would have gone anyway and they were going to bring a team to Dublin come what may,” Pullin told the Irish Times.
Pullin, who was a livestock farmer back home in England, was at first largely unbothered by the trip to Dublin, which he had made a number of times already during his international rugby career.
‘There were police all over the place’
However, upon the team’s arrival, the England captain realised the visit would be unlike any of those that came before it.
“You either believed you were safe or not,” says Pullin. “My view was that you’re never completely safe anyway. It wasn’t until we got there and saw the security that it came home to us.
“There was a fair bit of it in the hotel, policemen on the staircase, everywhere really. That’s when you became conscious of it. It was different, yes.
“Normally when we came to Ireland, we’d go down to a little bar, wander around and have a few drinks. I don’t think we did that. We were just stuck in the hotel. There were police all around the place. It was fairly high security. That was obvious,” Pullin explained.
When the England team ran out onto the pitch in Dublin, Taoiseach Jack Lynch and the Lansdowne Road crowd got to their feet to show their appreciation to the English players.
The English captain noted that his side weren’t at their best that day, telling the crowd at the post-match dinner, “We might not be any good, but at least we turned up.”
The tournament was also notable that year for resulting in a five-way tie. Each team had won two and lost two of their fixtures, and as it was before the competition recognised points-difference, all five nations were declared champions.