Last-gasp Ireland stun England
Huw Richards
February 10, 2012
Ireland's Tom Kiernan takes a breather during a clash with England, England v Ireland, Five Nations Championship, Twickenham, England,
Skipper Tom Kiernan steered Ireland to a memorable victory over England at Twickenham this week in 1972 © Getty Images

The experience of an Irish match turning inside out in the final minutes is hardly a new one. It happened 40 years ago this weekend, on February 12, 1972, when Ireland played England at Twickenham in what was then the Five Nations Championship.

Then, though, it was the Irish who were trailing as the game went into its final stages. England, with a try, recently upgraded to four points, from lock Chris Ralston and eight points from the boot of fullback Bob Hiller had led 9-3 at half-time and were still ahead by 12-7 with a three minutes still to go. Ireland's points had come from a penalty by Tom Kiernan, like Hiller captaining his team from fullback, and a second half try by wing Tom Grace - who had kicked ahead from the England 25 (as it was in those pre-metric days) and run outside the playing area before looping back to make the touch down ahead of the English defence.

Ireland had enjoyed much the better of the second half, but been thwarted by poor handling. So perhaps it made sense that a kick started their late revival - Barry McGann, whose rotund build made him the most unlikely of international outside-halves but the possessor of innate ball skills that could have made him a star in almost any sport, dropped a goal.

So that made it 12-10 as the Irish pressed desperately in injury time and moved the ball across the field in English territory, eventually reaching centre Kevin Flynn, one of their veterans.

He was not, until this moment, the most celebrated of them. Kiernan had been cheered on to the field as he became the first player from any of the four Home Nations to appear 50 times for his country. The veteran Corkman, who had captained the Lions in South Africa in 1968, was in spite of this not the most experienced international player in his team. That was lock Willie-John McBride, whose 13 matches for the Lions (and there were still four more to come) meant added to his 47 in the green shirt gave him the edge overall.

McBride was celebrating his 10th anniversary as an Irish international, having made his bow in the same fixture in 1962. Also among that day's debutants and a survivor in 1972 was the tough, cerebral prop Ray McLoughlin - a pairing that looks seriously like Ireland's challenger for the title of the best two players ever to make their debut together.

Flynn was 32 and had been around longer than any of them, but after one of the oddest of all international careers had rather fewer caps. He had first appeared in 1959, so is one of the rare players who can claim to have played international rugby in three decades, had been a regular during the mid 1960s and, while apparently dropped for good in 1966, had continued playing for Wanderers and Leinster and done well enough to earn a recall in 1972.

As John Griffiths' account of the match recalls: "The Irish backs started an orthodox passing movement. Flynn was about to continue the move to the left when he suddenly sliced through a narrow chink in the English defence and won the game for Ireland with a classic try." Twickenham - or at least the numerous and very vocal Irish sections, erupted and Kiernan's conversion meant that it finished 16-12 to Ireland.

"It was also the end for Ireland's season - which was particularly frustrating as they had won their first match in Paris and with two home games to come were contemplating the possibility of Championship, Triple Crown and Grand Slam."

It was the end for one Englishman. Hiller had been good enough to go on two Lions tours, although accompanying captain Kiernan to South Africa in 1968 and J.P.R Williams to 1971 meant that he never played in a Test, an accurate and painstaking goal-kicker whose long set-up routine and mannerisms - notably a scrape of the back of his left leg with the toe of his right boot - ingrained themselves in the memories of spectators in much the same way as Jonny Wilkinson's set-up and praise gesture have implanted themselves in a later generation.

He was England's captain, all-time leading scorer with 138 points from 19 games and had enjoyed some memorable days of success - beating Ireland single-handedly with two giant drop goals at Twickenham in 1970 and three penalties at Lansdowne Road a year later - but in keeping with the habitual capriciousness of England selectors went from captain to reject, and never played for them again.

It was also the end for Ireland's season - which was particularly frustrating as they had won their first match in Paris and with two home games to come were contemplating the possibility of Championship, Triple Crown and Grand Slam.

It never happened. With tensions high on both sides of the Irish border following the 'Bloody Sunday' massacre in Derry a few weeks earlier - the British embassy in Dublin had been burned to the ground only 10 days before this match, itself briefly interrupted when demonstrators invaded the pitch during the first-half - both Wales and Scotland concluded that the safety of their players could not be guaranteed.

For Ireland it is one of the great might-have-beens, although ESPNscrum's own John Taylor, a fixed point at open side for Wales during this period, points out that his team had won their three matches this season and remains convinced that it would have won a potential Grand Slam decider.

It was also the Championship's last away win for two years - a total of 19 matches including 16 consecutive home wins, not broken until Ireland won on their next visit to Twickenham - as it entered an unprecedented period of parity and home advantage.

The following season would see the only ever five-way tie for the title, each of the team winning its two home games and losing two away. In the days before tie-breakers (Wales would have been champions under modern rules) that meant the title (still theoretical - there was no trophy until 1994) was shared.

The 1974 Championship was almost as close, decided by that single Irish victory at Twickenham. Ireland won the title with five points, Scotland, France and Wales all had four and England three. Had the Twickenham result been reversed - the margin was 26-21 - England would have been first and Ireland last. A draw would have meant a second consecutive five-way tie.

But for some it was a beginning. The 1972 England v Ireland match was the first international seen by this writer. Can it really be 40 years ago?

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