Saturday didn’t go very well, did it? Ireland were soundly defeated 18-7 by England, with Andy Farrell’s men lucky to get on the scoreboard at all. Then again, nothing about the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup could be considered a roaring success. More a calamitous catastrophe. From the much-maligned camera work from Amazon Prime, to the lackluster performances all round, to Fiji withdrawing due to covid outbreaks in their squad; the tournament has been well and truly snakebit. In stark contrast, the Southern Hemisphere’s replacement competition has excelled, with eternal rugby underdogs, Argentina, picking up their first ever victory over New Zealand.
Spring is the time of year when rugby’s oldest competition takes centre stage as the heavyweights of Europe descend on each other’s capitals for the Six Nations Championship. Summer is synonymous with those same Europeans flying to the Southern Hemisphere to test themselves against the best the sport has to offer. But November is the one time of the year when the giants of rugby – New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia – descend on these shores for the Autumn Internationals.
A tradition that dates back to 1905 when The Original All Blacks toured Britain, Ireland, France, and the USA, rugby’s Autumn Internationals hold the kind of mysticism of which other sports can only dream. Then COVID happened.
COVID 19 has changed the face of the world and sport is no different. The century old tradition of hemisphere vs hemisphere was cancelled, replaced by a bastardised version of the Six Nations. Rather than be brought down by disappointment, let’s instead look back at some of the biggest and best days in Irish rugby history.
Ireland 40-29 New Zealand, 2016
It took 111 years for Ireland to finally beat the All Blacks. One hundred and eleven years! The victory was made all the sweeter by the last gasp nature of the 24-22 loss three years prior, as Ireland allowed the Kiwis to snatch a win at the death. Either from a place of ignorance, foolishness or sheer jealousy, this victory is dismissed in some quarters as “a meaningless friendly;” these people do not understand rugby – even less-so the magic of the All Blacks.
Far from home, in the neutrality of Chicago’s Soldier Field, Ireland faced the Haka by standing in a figure of eight, representing the legendary Anthony Foley, who had passed away just a few weeks earlier. The kind of poignant poetry one would need to actively try to not appreciate.
This was no fluke; no lucky, last minute victory. Robbie Henshaw’s 75th minute try was Ireland’s fifth of the match and the perfect aperitif to a wonderfully dominant performance.
Ireland 16-9 New Zealand, 2018
The win in Chicago two years earlier was more relief than anything else. It had finally been done. The All Blacks finally conquered. The curse finally broken. But now Ireland needed to prove that was not a once-off.
This was more stoic than heroic. The game still made history as the first Irish victory over New Zealand on home soil. But that wasn’t the headline. This was an exercise in pragmatism over passion. Ireland were the better team; won the match; and proved they deserved to sit at the top table of world rugby. This was the win and the performance that catapulted Ireland to the top of the world rankings heading into the World Cup.
Munster 12-0 New Zealand, 1978
While it took the National team 111 years to beat New Zealand and 113 years to achieve that feat on home soil, Munster accomplished both of those things forty years earlier. On the 31st of October, 1978, in front of 12,000 fans at Limerick’s famed Thomond Park, Munster beat the All Blacks.
The game ended 12-0, with New Zealand’s Stu Wilson remarking that “We were lucky to get nil”. This is just one of the fabled quotes that has made this game the bedrock of Munster Rugby folklore, exemplified by Alan English’s book, Stand Up and Fight, and John Breen’s play, Alone It Stands.
Munster 16-18 New Zealand, 2008
On the 30th anniversary of Munster’s most famous game, with the legends of ‘78 in attendance, the All Blacks returned to celebrate the opening of the new Thomond Park. Prior to kick off, as the ball was delivered by helicopter, Munster’s four New Zealand players, Rua Tipoki, Lifeimi Mafi, Jeremy Manning and Doug Howlett performed their own Haka. Howlett led the challenge – he was New Zealand’s all-time leading try-scorer at the time.
This was all spectacle, until it wasn’t. Munster were fastest out of the blocks and led by six points at half time. Barry Murphy’s try was the only one conceded by the All Blacks during their European tour, which saw them complete the Grand Slam, demolishing Scotland 32-6; Ireland 22-3; Wales 29-9; and England 32-6.
Alas, this was to be just a moral victory. With New Zealand in their pomp, the legendary Joe Rokocoko broke Munster hearts with a 76th minute try in the corner.
Ireland 15-10 South Africa, 2009
The novelty of “foreign” sports at Croke Park had long-since worn off by November 2009. When the 2007 renovation of Lansdowne Road began, the entire country was shocked that the GAA gave permission for football and rugby to be played on their hallowed turf. But by the time South Africa arrived, 10 rugby internationals had already been played at the 82,000 capacity stadium, and a Munster-Leinster semi-final had set an attendance record for the Heineken Cup. Ireland’s best kept secret was well and truly out of the bag.
Then the mist descended. Literally. Ireland had won the Grand Slam in the spring and were yet to taste defeat in 2009. South Africa had bested the Lions, won the Tri Nations, and beaten the All Blacks three times. This was a clash of the two teams-of-the-year; and it seemed as though even the weather knew. Bathed in thick, Dublin fog, Ireland and the Springboks went to battle.
The game had an extra bite, carried over from the tumultuous Lions tour. A young man by the name of Jonathan Sexton, who had made his debut just one week prior, was given the daunting responsibility of not only running the show but replacing Ronan O’Gara in the process. Sexton held his nerve, kicked all fifteen of his team’s points, and in unfamiliar white, Ireland beat the reigning World Champions to finish the year unbeaten.
Ireland 38-3 South Africa, 2017
Just look at that scoreline. 38-3. To Ireland. Against South Africa. 38-3. Let that sink in. Ireland’s biggest victory over one of the Southern Hemisphere giants was an exhibition of the endless attacking talents at Joe Schmidt’s disposal. The win was cemented in the last 10 minutes when Ireland ran in three late tries, totally outclassing the side who just two years later would go on to lift the World Cup in Japan.
But as impressive and dominant as the win was, the main talking point coming out of the game was Ireland’s kit choice. Ireland and South Africa are the only sides in world rugby whose green jerseys cause a kit-clash, which is why both sides have always opted for a crisp, white alternative. In 2017, however, Ireland and kit-makers, Canterbury, dared to be different. Inexplicably, Ireland togged out in grey, the only colour that could possibly clash with South Africa’s dark green. The clash was so stark, it probably would’ve been better for both sides to wear green.
Ireland 18-9 Australia, 2002
Ireland had not beaten Australia in 23 years and had not toppled the Wallabies on Irish soil in 34 years. Australia were the reigning World Champions and had outclassed the British and Irish Lions the previous year. Ireland, on the other hand, were coming off a disappointing Six Nations campaign, suffering heavy defeats to England and France, and a summer trip to New Zealand with nothing to show for it.
This victory proved pivotal in Ireland turning a corner, as Eddie O’Sullivan, in his first year in the job, set out his stall. O’Sullivan’s tactics, based around kicking, defence and discipline, were the launch pad for a new kind of Irish rugby. The game shone a light on Ireland’s new generation; players such as Ronan O’Gara, Peter Stringer and Shane Horgan. It also has the distinct honour of being the first time Ireland’s greatest player, Brian O’Driscoll, captained his country for the first time.
Ireland 27-24 Australia, 2016
This was a monumental day for Irish rugby. Just three weeks after the historic first victory over New Zealand, Joe Schmidt’s men became the first Ireland side to ever beat New Zealand, South Africa and Australia in a calendar year. This was no meagre Australian side either; the Wallabies were chasing their own grand slam, having comfortably beaten Wales, Scotland and France.
A grueling year, which included a three-test series in South Africa and an All Blacks double header, rapidly began to take its toll. The win was a victory for the squad and proof that Schmidt’s insistence of the 23-man mentality was the way forward for the sport, not just Irish rugby. This is the game that gave rise to the Kieron Marmion legend, where the diminutive Connacht scrum-half played the entire second half on the wing. He could have scarcely been more out of position without finding himself in the front row.
Captain Rory Best’s 100th Test could not have gotten off to a better start with Ireland leading 17-0 early on. But despite the early lead, Ireland actually fell behind. After a thrilling, back-and-forth encounter, it took a late Keith Earls try to secure the nail-biting victory.