From The Vaults

04 March 2024
Croke Park Stands Shoulder to Shoulder

'In 45 years of watching international rugby, no game has matched the power, passion and emotion at Croke Park.' - Jim Stokes (BBC)

On the afternoon of 21st November 1920, Dublin and Tipperary were scheduled to play a Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) football match at Croke Park in Dublin. The game was expected to begin at 2.45 but crowd congestion delayed the throw-in until 3.15. Five minutes into the match a flare was shot from a circling aeroplane foreshadowing the arrival of armed British forces into the ground.

In the chaotic minutes that followed, 14 people, including men, women and children were shot and killed. An estimated 60-100 people were injured. The incident came to be known as Bloody Sunday and is now understood as an event within the Irish War of Independence, that would culminate in the establishment of Irish Free State in July 1922.

The findings of two subsequent British enquiries were not made public until 2000. In the meantime, generations of Irish schoolchildren were educated about the tragic events of Bloody Sunday and its role in the creation of their country. Croke Park, long central to the Irish identity as the home of the GAA, named the Michael Hogan Stand in memory of one of their players who had lost his life in Dublin colours that afternoon.

Lansdowne Road

When the Lansdowne Road Stadium, a home ground of the Irish national rugby team since 1878, was demolished in 2007, a temporary ground was required to host Ireland's home 6 Nations fixtures. The GAA were approached and agreed to make Croke Park available, setting the scene for one of the most electrically charged test matches in rugby's long history.

6 Nations encounters between England and Ireland are always committed and passionate affairs but the social history that accompanied the 2007 meeting at Croke Park gave it a unique significance.

'Ireland were playing for a higher power that day' - Conor O'Shea

England, under the captaincy of Phil Vickery, went into the match having won two from two. Brian O'Driscoll's Ireland were Triple Crown holders and had beaten Wales in Cardiff but lost at home to France. A capacity crowd greeted the players as they took the field on a bright winter's afternoon.

Croke Park

The poignant but immaculate silence from Irish supporters during the singing of the English national anthem was perhaps the first noticeable expression that this would be no ordinary test match. The emotion that accompanied the two Irish national anthems caused some English, both on and off the pitch, to later remark that they felt like observers, rather than participants, in something more than a test-match.

The English were not totally unprepared. Coach Brian Ashton had enlisted former Irish international Conor O'Shea to educate his players in the sensitivities of the contest. O'Shea was happy to oblige, but later admitted that the significance of the match to the Irish would make things very difficult for England and that the Irish would believe themselves to be playing for a 'higher power'.

Energised by the occasion, the men in green called on all the intensity afforded them by their support and the rare setting. Their side contained the nexus of the one that would claim Ireland's first Grand Slam in 61 years, two seasons later. Three Ronan O'Gara penalties put them ahead before two tries by Girvan Dempsey and David Wallace gave them a commanding 23-3 half-time lead. After the break, England responded with a David Strettle try, but Ireland quickly slammed the door closed with further tries from Shane Hogan and Isaac Boss.

At the final whistle, the scores were 43-13 to the home side. Ireland would eventually finish level on points with France with England two points behind in third. It was a result that mattered, but the occasion, perhaps, mattered more.