Ireland form a figure of eight ahead of their win over the All Blacks in Chicago
IT’S just 25 years ago this week since the Republic of Ireland’s infamous FIFA World Cup qualifier with Northern Ireland at Windsor Park.
The raw, tension-filled atmosphere of November 17, 1993 in Belfast was exacerbated by the political climate of the time. The Troubles were at their height, and a month earlier 23 people had died in a series of shootings and bombings.
Northern Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for the 1994 World Cup in the US had long since evaporated, Jack Charlton’s side needed a point which they achieved in a scrappy 1-1 draw, thanks to Alan McLoughlin’s late strike.
The level of the outright hostility and sectarian overtones surrounding the Windsor Park game from just 25 years ago is in contrast to the incredible sacrifices made by many rugby players to ensure the island of Ireland continues to be represented by a single team on the international stage.
At the same time as levels of animosity towards the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland soccer teams among large sways of supporters from the two sides of the border was sky high, rugby supporters continued to be united behind one team.
Tom English’s updated version of, ‘No Borders – Playing Rugby for Ireland’ provides a fascinating account of how politics and religion have affected rugby in Ireland in the past century.
While the comprehensive book covers the schisms and divides, through a series of player interviews it also shows the great strength of unity and the bonds of brotherhood that the Irish rugby players developed over the years.
Limerick man English, an award winning BBC Sport writer and broadcaster, said: “I have always maintained that if Ireland go on and win a World Cup, another Grand Slam, two World Cups and two Grand Slams, the greatest achievement that Irish rugby will have ever won or are ever likely to win is the fact that we have a team at all, a united team that is.
“There have been so many things that have been in the way of it, potentially. If you even go back to the 1950s when Ireland used to play the international matches up in Ravenhill and half the team, the Catholics, refused to go out to stand for what would have been the Irish national anthem up in Belfast, God Save the Queen, and they said they were going to stay in the dressing room and let the Protestant lads go out and they could stand and then the Catholic lads would go out after the anthems were over.
“That was a major, major incident. It went unreported for about 40 years would you believe?
“The Catholic boys were told by the hierarchy in the IRFU, lads, if you don't go out there the idea of a united Ireland team could break apart very quickly. That was just one big, big test and of course throughout ‘The Troubles’ there were multiple tests.
“There were multiple, multiple tests of the united Ireland team during that period and they didn't break. There were a lot of strong men.
“The IRFU got pilloried an awful lot during the bad old days, but they were strong men back then and they kept the thing together. A lot of that had to do with the players from Ulster. Those boys, the Philip Matthews, the David Irwins, the Trevor Ringlands, these guys showed phenomenal strength.
“You talk about heroism in rugby, Ringland, for me, is the ultimate Irish rugby hero. His father was in the RUC and the IRA were trying to kill him and yet there he was going down to Dublin and he put all that aside, stood for Amhran na bhFiann and he stared up at the Irish flag and he carried on because he believed in peace. What is that if not heroism?
“Trevor Ringland’s father got free match tickets for internationals from his son for Lansdowne Road. Never once did he sit in the seat that was ascribed to the ticket for security reasons.
“His son Trevor used to look up at the Ireland flag when Amhran na bhFiann was played and he said he concentrated on the orange bit because that symbolised his background.
“He said that back then, what he was trying to do was build bridges while others were trying to blow them up. Yet he still had the moral outrage to go out there because he believed in peace on the island and he believed in a united Ireland rugby team.
“I wonder how many of the Ulster players currently lining out for Ireland know the history? I would hope all of them would know the history.
“I think it is important they do so. The history is very depressing, but in many ways it is very aspiring if you look at it through a rugby prism and the strength of those guys who wore that Ulster jersey before them and what they did when they went to play for Ireland.
“If you look at someone like Jacob Stockdale, I don’t know if Jacob Stockdale knows what a predecessor of his on the wing for Ulster Trevor Ringland did, but he should know it because it is all part of the story and they, thankfully, have lived through peaceful times, thanks God.
“But we should not forget where we have come from and I hope they don’t. I hope the modern generation are reminded of the full story of Irish rugby because it hasn’t always been Grand Slams and World Cup bids.
“It has been through many torrid times. I think everyone should really learn the history of it.”
The new version of No Borders – Playing Rugby for Ireland also provides first hand accounts from the players of Ireland’s historic win over the All-Blacks in Chicago in 2016 as well as last season’s Grand Slam success.
“That win in 2016 over the All-Blacks was one of the greatest moments in Irish rugby history.
“I remember texting Andrew Trimble when I was doing interviews for that chapter of the book as he had played in the game seeking an interview and he texted me back 10 seconds later with, ‘You bet!’
“It was the greatest day of his life. In all the interviews I did for that chapter, the joy and pride that the players speak with is powerful.
“What a moment. The fact it was unexpected, Ireland had a lousy training week. The pitch they were training on in Chicago was a swamp. They trained badly. CJ Stander talks about hearing a gun fight taking place near their training pitch.
“Joe Schmidt had blasted them because their training had been really poor, so they went in with low expectations.
“Then they did the famous figure of ‘8’ formation as a mark of respect to Anthony Foley which they put a lot of thought into preparing.
“They learned the lesson of 2013 when they got this big lead against the All-Blacks and then lost their nerve a little bit. Trimble was saying that in the dressing room at half-time the survivors from that last gasp defeat in 2013 were almost pleading with the players not to take their foot off the gas, to please, please, please keep playing.
“They did that, kept going right to the end. Incredible.”
No Borders is available, now, from all good book shops.
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