A Rare Wearin' of the Green

The Irish do not often beat England at Twickenham, but they did last week and almost everybody was happy. When Mike Flynn made his goal, he was demonstrating what sports can offer that politics cannot
February 21, 1972

In Dublin the British Embassy had burned, in Derry the graves were fresh, and both sides were right and both sides were wrong—and now Ireland was losing again. Only this was across the Irish Sea on a foreign field, at Twickenham, and what Wimbledon is to tennis Twickenham is to rugby.

The game had been close from the start, but now time was running out on Ireland. Then suddenly, with only seconds left, Dublin's Michael Kevin Flynn came bursting through the dusk. There had been a scrum, and some had even thought the game might be over, but not Flynn or those who defended against him. He had the ball, and there he was slicing through the defense of two centers and 15 yards beyond to the goal. The ball was touched down, blessedly (for Ireland) too late for a response this year from England. The game was over, Ireland had won and the chanting grew. "Ireland...IREland...IRELAND...IRELAND...." On and on. It was only Ireland's sixth-win at Twickenham in 62 years, its first since 1964.

Some 65,000 rugby enthusiasts had crushed into Twickenham last Saturday for the annual renewal of what has become one of the sports world's fine rivalries, this year made more emotional by events which neither team would discuss. Maybe 10% of those present were Irish, which is why the scene that followed appeared so strange. Everything seemed green: the grass, of course, and the frantic crowd that muddied it and swarmed on it with pennants and pins and ties and blazers, so many of them green, too. A little man in a green hat stood looking at the sky and screaming, hands over his ears against the din: "Oh, my God, oh, my God, oh, my God, oh, my God." The air smelled as if a brewery had exploded and later, at the Hope Tavern in nearby Richmond, an old man recalled something Eamon de Valera once said. At least, he said he did.' 'When Ireland beats England, that's the one thing that unites us."

The victory seemed to have united everyone. Out back, a Dublin man had his arm around a Londoner. "Mate," he said, "rugby is above politics. We don't care about the Irish Republican Army. We just want to watch our game." They drank to this and it was sincere, but like so many others in London they were probably relieved. The match had gone off with hardly an incident despite events and pressures that might have canceled or disrupted games elsewhere in other sports. Bernadette Devlin, scarcely a rabid rugby fan, was rumored to be coming to the game. And in London's Fleet Street, bomb scares emptied two newspaper offices. The IRA was implicated and the Irish papers seethed with controversy. Play the game, one group of letter writers insisted, pointing out that the Irish rugby team was a symbol of needed unity, representing all 32 of Ireland's counties, both Catholic and Protestant, and that this was true of no other major Irish sport. But a typical dissenter wrote: "The...match...should it proceed...will do so against the background of the Derry murders, for...which...the British government...has expressed no sympathy."

As the game approached, a London fan said, "Anyone who isn't completely confused by that business is not fully informed. It's beneath our sort of intelligence to muck about in the slough of political diatribe." The pubs were full of such talk, although not always on such a high-flown plane. But at the Turk's Head in London's West End, on the eve of the game, there was a discordant voice along with the songs: "Why'd you shoot us up, ya bahstards? Fifty-six of our soldiers have been killed and only 13 Irishmen in bloody Derry, but you'll never understand. Rugby is a middle-class game—you're not involved in the class struggle."

"Stay away from him," somebody said. "He's not a rugby man." But all there admitted the dissenter's "class" charge. There was no derision in their tone or talk of status, it was simply that different economic or social classes were wedded to different interests. "Rugby," an expensively dressed man with a cauliflower ear said, "is a hooligans' game played by gentlemen," pronouncing every syllable of the old saw as though it were freshly minted.

Among the hooligans present were 95 rugby freaks from the United States who had chartered an Irish International plane in New York and flown to London for the weekend. The plane had an open bar, and within an hour everyone was feeling fine. Someone suggested a rugby game in the narrow aisle, but no one had thought to bring a ball, so they amused themselves by listening to the pilot's announcements. "The temperature outside is blfssbpp" or, "We are now flying ovtktkssst." They hadn't expected too much for their $140 round-trip fare, and anyway it was a pilgrimage and worth a few sacrifices. The plane stopped for an hour at Shannon Airport, and suddenly everyone was Irish. It was that kind of weekend. "Isn't it luvly," one Italian with a glass in each hand kept saying, looking out at the green and fog, while another new Irishman hawked, "Turfs of the ould sod."

The weekend's climax, of course, was Twickenham. Everyone had been lectured on its holy past, how Alexander Pope lay buried nearby and how once it was called Billy Williams' cabbage patch. And when the tired Americans finally reached it, they found that there was a certain aura about the place. The stadium looked as if someone had split the world's largest tin warehouse lengthwise and stuck in twice as many seats as it could hold. The cabbage patch would have been more comfortable, but before anyone's feet fell asleep in the numbing cold the game had begun.

After about 10 seconds of play, a dozen people ran onto the pitch. One young fellow with bright red hair seemed to be arguing with Ireland's Mike Gibson, a Protestant from Ulster, who ignored him. So the carrot top turned toward the stands and started gesturing with his arm. He seemed to want the other 65,000 odd to join him in his disruption, but the bobbies got him and his friends off, and that was all the trouble there was for the largest security force ever to work Twickenham.

A hard wind did nothing for the quality of play. It was a kicking game. Most of the English points came on kicks, and for all the hard banging about by the players—a few were laid out fiat in the clean but rough in-fighting—the overall impression was one of the ball flying through the breezes, into the stands, up the field, intentionally offside or onside far, far upfield. It was, even the most enthusiastic of the American fans was willing to admit, pretty dull until the moment that Michael Kevin Flynn got away for his last-minute try which, with the ensuing kick, made it 16-12 Ireland and green all over.

Later a cabbie taking a group of the Americans for another round of pubbing, talked about the game. "That last minute must have been the most exciting moment in rugby history," he said. "Rex Ulster [the BBC announcer] almost went berserk, and then the crowd rose up and smothered his voice."

That evening there was a black-tie dinner at the London Hilton. Both of the teams were there, and about everyone else connected with English and Irish rugby. There was no mention of politics, but one of the speakers said, "Today's game is a great indication of what sport has to offer the world, that our friendship can break any barriers. Any fellow who goes through life without experiencing the comradeship that sport can offer is a poor man indeed."

And across town in a pub a London Irishman was saying, "You take the kicks on the field, you sling a punch and get one back—you break your nose or your leg—you get your shoulder out or maybe get concussed, but it's all a part of a rugby man's life. You could almost kill the fellow next to you and he'd be the first to buy you a drink afterward."

"Yes," an Englishman said. "Too bad politics can't be played the same way."