Originally published February 14, 2020
Ireland versus England is one of the most storied rivalries in rugby and while their battles in the modern game have increasingly become championship defining clashes, it is important to remember that this was not always the case.
There was once a time that when the two nations squared up against one another in the Six Nations that England would inevitably run out winners, quite often on a lopsided scoreline.
However, that all changed in 2004 when Eddie O’Sullivan’s Irish side travelled to London, marched into Twickenham Stadium and took down, the then world champions, England, in their own back yard.
The two nations operated at the opposite end of the spectrum when it came to international rugby in 2004. England came into the third round game very high in confidence. Comfortable wins over Italy and Scotland had the world champions on course for a second successive Grand Slam while they had not lost at home since 1999.
Ireland, meanwhile, lost to France in Paris on day one, no surprise by any means, before defeating Wales at home by 21 points in round two. Ireland’s form wasn’t poor but it’s important to remember that a year prior they shipped a 42-6 defeat at Lansdowne Road as England clinched the Grand Slam.
As well as that, Ireland’s last win at Twickenham was in 1994 with their only other victory in the intervening years coming in the 2001 Six Nations championship.
On the day, Ronan O’Gara converted back-to-back penalties inside six first-half minutes to leave Ireland ahead with 25 played. However, a turnover at the Irish scrum left them at sixes and sevens as the ball was laid on a plate for Matt Dawson to score the game’s opening try.
A Paul Grayson penalty moved England four ahead before O’Gara again slotted back-to-back kicks to give Ireland a 12-10 half-time lead.
Perhaps the turning point of the game came a minute after the restart when England looked to have scored a second try, however, Ben Cohen’s finish was rightly ruled out following a double movement. In hindsight, it’s a passage of play that the winger will look back on with regret as he really should have converted.
Ireland were able to harness England’s misfortune and use it to their advantage as they turned the screw in the second half. Eventually, they scored the all-important try following a beautiful passage of play involving two risky, yet perfectly executed skip passes. In the end, it was Girven Dempsey who finished in the corner.
With 30 minutes left to play, Ireland were made to hold on. England scored a further penalty through Grayson but drama ensued beforehand when Mark Regan thought he had scored for England, however, the substitute was adjudged to have been forced over the line before grounding the ball.
In the end, Ireland held on for a famous 19-13 victory at Twickenham. Not only had they secured the Triple Crown but they’d defeated the world champions on their home patch, becoming the first nation in five years to do so.
It was a win that provided somewhat of a spark for Irish rugby as that side, backboned by legendary figures such as Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell, Ronan O’Gara, Gordon D’Arcy and John Hayes, recorded four straight victories over England in the Six Nations.
The following year saw them record another 19-13 win, this time at Lansdowne Road on a day where O’Driscoll scored a try and O’Gara converted 14 points in front of a raucous home crowd. Ireland returned to Twickenham in 2006 looking for back-to-back wins over England in their home ground and they did it in the most dramatic of fashion’s as Shane Horgan’s last gasp reach for the line handed them a 28-24 win and the Triple Crown.
The year 2007 would prove to be the most famous of meetings between the pair as Ireland trounced England 43-14 in front of 83,000 people at Croke Park (a game in which current head coach Andy Farrell started at inside centre for England) to record their fourth Six Nations win in succession over a side who for so long, had Ireland’s number.
England would eventually gain the upper hand once more in 2008, however, it wasn’t to last long as Ireland returned in 2009 to record their fifth win over England in five years en route to a first Grand Slam title since 1949. The title in many ways felt like the culmination of a life’s work for a legendary side who changed the course of Irish rugby over the course of that decade.
In what was a golden generation for Irish rugby at the time, many look to O’Driscoll’s hat-trick in Paris as the turning point for Irish rugby, however, speaking to Joe Molloy on Off The Ball, O’Gara reflected on that 2004 victory in Twickenham as the catalyst for what was to come as it confirmed the belief that the Irish players already felt within themselves.
“04 changed everything I think. I remember Kevin Maggs at the end of the final whistle because here was a guy, as proud an Irish man you’d ever play with, a great 12.
“Rare, grew up in England and we’re going to Twickenham and playing the World Cup champions and what it does Joe is it just gave you belief.
“But that was the day we got belief… or sorry… copper-fastened that belief I should say we had in this group of players in the green jersey.”