Ireland-England games are generally tense, feisty affairs at the best of times, but when a grand slam is on the line it generally adds another layer of intensity to what is often a fiery and fervent occasion.
Sir Clive Woodward’s 2003 England team were a highly abrasive, confrontational group of players that had steamrolled their way through the first four rounds of the Six Nations en route to a grand slam finale with Eddie O’Sullivan’s Ireland in Dublin.
Woodward’s England would ultimately cruise to a resounding 42-6 win at Lansdowne Road to secure their 12th grand slam title, but the match will forever be remembered as the game in which England captain Martin Johnson refused to switch sides after taking up position on Ireland’s preferred side for the national anthem.
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Johnson’s refusal to move meant that Irish president Mary McAleese had to walk across the grass of Lansdowne Road to shake the hands of the Irish players, after the Irish team had moved to the right of the English team to assume their usual position towards the Lansdowne Road end.
Woodward looks back now on the matter in jest and said that the whole ordeal was started by an Irish event co-ordinator who had nearly smashed down the England team door ten minutes before kick-off.
“I thought it was amazing, I thought it was fantastic. That was a pressure moment and he handled it really well,” Woodward said of Johnson at the One-Zero Conference in Dublin.
“All I know is that it was just one of those things that happened. When you play away in the Six Nations, it is quite a challenge with what happens. When England go away, especially up to Scotland followed by Ireland, in terms of people trying to give you grief, they must have committees like ‘how can we really wind England up?’
“It all kicked off the day before when they tried to kick us off a train at Lansdowne Road when we were a bit over time.
“But on this day, it was ten minutes before kick-off of a big game and we knew that the referee was coming in, whatever time it was, say five minutes before kick-off.
“And some Irish guy comes up to our dressing room and starts smashing on the door… bang, bang, bang. And this guy walks in and goes ‘out now, out now’. And I went ‘who are you?’
“I don’t know who you are! It was just this Irish guy who came smashing the door in. So anyway we eventually got rid of him, it caused a bit of a problem, but the referee came in and then we went out.
“So Johnno [Martin Johnson] just waits next to the referee who we stood next to and this same Irish guy starts giving Johnno a hard time.
“So Johnno is just looking at him going ‘you can do whatever you want to do, we’re not going’, and it was him that caused the problem, that guy banging on the door, and I was in the stands chirping away going actually this is quite interesting.
“And you can see Johnno throws his arm, he’s got Neil Back winding him up next to him – going ‘don’t move Johnno, don’t move’ – so that’s how all this stuff happened.
“They were these kind of comic book moments, and it was a lot of serious stuff, but the idea that we planned all of this stuff up was absolute nonsense.
“We generally didn’t know where we were supposed to stand or where we weren’t supposed to stand.
“But I liked the way he reacted, I thought it was absolutely fantastic.”
England would go on to win the Rugby World Cup later that year with a 20-17 win over Australia in the final to become the first northern hemisphere team ever to hoist the William Webb Ellis Cup.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena
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