Web Columnist Stuart Rutherford’s latest piece before the big game this weekend:
As Scotland and Ireland prepare to take centre stage and open their respective 6 Nations campaigns at BT Murrayfield on Saturday, you could perhaps suggest that there has been a certain level of bad blood brewing between the two nations.
With both country’s premier clubs, Glasgow and Munster, having met three times already this season in what have all been fiery fixtures and not without their share of controversy – see Conor Murray and Keith Earls – the opening game of the 2017 6 Nations should prove to be a fervid encounter to say the least.
However, once upon a time the relationship between the two Gaelic nations wasn’t quite as, shall we say, strained, and much like in Mel Gibson’s 1995 classic Braveheart, the Celtic cousins once joined forces to take on England (and Wales), albeit without the aid of long swords and dodgy Scottish accents.
In 1980, to celebrate the Welsh Rugby Union’s centenary, an England/Wales XV welcomed a Scotland/Ireland XV to the Cardiff Arms Park and needless to say, the two sides delivered an exhibition for the ages.
In a match that produced 12 tries in total, an exuberant Welsh crowd watched in amazement as England/Wales came away with a 37-33 victory, courtesy of a last minute try from Cardiff’s own Gareth Davies.
With household names such as J.P.R. Williams, Andy Irvine and Bill Beaumont taking the field, the contest was as star-studded as it was thrilling, however, for one young player the match was only the beginning of a long and successful career.
David Irwin, who went onto win 25 caps for Ireland, started in the centre alongside Hawick’s Jim Renwick on that fateful November afternoon and at the tender age of 21, the Belfast boy was barely a whippersnapper compared to the superstars surrounding him.
“I only had two caps under my belt prior to the game.” said Irwin.
“I had just played in the third and fourth tests of Ireland’s 5 Nations, so I was a bit of a rookie generally. There were a lot of players in that game that I would’ve looked up to and admired, particularly the likes of J.P.R. Williams, Andy Irvine, Jim Renwick and Bill Beaumont, who had just captained the Lions in 1980.
“I was really in awe of a lot of these players, but in particular, I was fascinated with J.P.R and Andy. They were, and still are, two of the most exciting full-backs you’ll ever see play the game.”
“I was just very privileged to be selected. Normally when you play for your country, your next goal is to play for the Lions, but this game, of which there were ever four played – one for each nation’s centenary – was different in that you will never have a chance to play in it again.
“So in that sense I was just so excited about being selected with these other players, who were truly giants of the game. And the other thing, if I’m being honest, was getting to meet the Queen! She was obviously there being introduced to the teams beforehand. So just all these things made the game really special.”
For most inexperienced players, the sheer size of the occasion may have caused them to wilt, but not Irwin. The Queens University student put in a marvellous performance and ended the match with a try and several line breaks. Of course, any score at international level is memorable, but what made Irwin’s day particularly special, was that his try was against his own personal hero, J.P.R. Williams.
“When you’re young, you just have a go don’t you,” he said.
“The fact that it was J.P.R. defending me didn’t even come into my head. I managed to get around him and reached for the corner to get the ball down. As I was grounding it, he managed to put my legs into touch and we both ended sitting upright next to each other.
“I knew it was a score, and I think JPR did too, but he tried to appeal to the referee that he put me in touch. It’s funny because, even though this was a guy I was totally in awe of, it didn’t stop me tapping him on the cheek and saying, ‘I don’t think so mate’.”
The 1980 exhibition match at Cardiff Arms Park was the last of the ‘centenary games’ and it is truly unfortunate that a whole generation of rugby fans will miss out on witnessing the theatre and excitement that these occasions generated.
That is unless we see a return of these spectacular exhibitions as the home nation unions celebrate their 150th birthdays. With England’s RFU’s turning 150 years old in 2020, could it be possible to see another England/Wales versus Scotland/Ireland battle in the near future?
Irwin certainly believes there would be an appetite for it.
“I think the way rugby is marketed now and the way people want to see exciting games, in a sense the centenary games are the next best thing to the Lions. It is really like watching a Lions team play amongst themselves because essentially you’ve got the best players of each of the four nations in one place.
“It’s almost like a Lions trial match. I really think there would be a massive appetite for it, especially since there hasn’t been one since 1980.”
Whether or not the world rugby calendar would have space for a return of these exhibition matches remains to be seen, however, with the RFU’s 150th falling in between the Japan 2019 World Cup and the 2021 Lions Tour to South Africa, it’s not completely out the question. Now just to decide who would start at stand-off, Finn Russell or Jonathan Sexton?
Here is my current Scotland/Ireland XV, if everyone is fit:
1 Cian Healy
2 Rory Best
3 WP Nel
4 Jonny Gray
5 Iain Henderson
6 John Barclay
7 Sean O’Brien
8 Jamie Heaslip
9 Conor Murray
10 Finn Russell
11 Tommy Seymour
12 Robbie Henshaw
13 Huw Jones
14 Simon Zebo
15 Stuart Hogg
‘Keep It SCRUM’ for all the news and views about the upcoming 6 Nations tournament – and read SCRUM 91 here
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