#1 – Ireland vs England in Croke Park. Dublin, 2007.
Number one in Ryan Mackenzie’s countdown of the five most memorable moments in Irish sport is really more than just one moment; it is an event.
After the demolition of the very old Lansdowne Road stadium, Ireland’s international sides were left without a home. With the rugby Six Nations tournament next on the agenda and the possibility of Ireland’s home fixtures being staged in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, the use of the GAA’s magnificent Croke Park stadium was audaciously requested by the IRFU.
The prospect of a foreign game, not to mention a typically English one, being played in the headquarters of Ireland’s most traditional and stubborn organisation provoked widespread debate. Under Rule 42, foreign sports are strictly prohibited from GAA grounds and therefore, a vote was needed to reform this rule.
In 2005 the GAA voted in favour of foreign sports being played in Croke Park until the completion of the new Aviva stadium – when the rule would revert back to its former wording – with a clear two-thirds majority. Thus, the stage was officially set for Ireland to play its old enemy England in the GAA headquarters, 87 years after British forces opened fire on a Croke Park crowd and killed fourteen civilians.
The match was heavily anticipated with both excitement and anxiety, as no one knew quite how the Irish crowd would react to the presence of the English in Croke Park.
At this time the English were still the world champions – and would reach the final of the 2007 World Cup in France a few months later. In this way, the match was shaping up to be the stuff of Hollywood movies and for Irish fans it did not disappoint.
Packed with over 81,000 fans, of which over 75,000 were Irish, Croke Park was buzzing with a surprisingly positive atmosphere. Unlike when Ireland’s football team played England in Lansdowne Road back in 1995, the fans were mixing in harmony.
First up was England’s anthem and Irish fans in the stadium remained respectfully silent. Scenes of English players and fans belting out their national song with pride failed to spur any negative reaction from the Irish. Instead our sentiments were demonstrated through tears and a proud rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann. The dreaded moment was over and it had gone inspiringly well.
With the level of emotion reaching fever pitch, most would be forgiven for briefly forgetting that a rugby match was yet to be played.
The match kicked off to a procession of flashing cameras and deafening cheers, and it wasn’t long before Ireland opened the floodgates. Early penalties from Munster’s Ronan O’Gara gave us a slim lead before Girvan Dempsey crossed the line on the end of a nice move to give Ireland the first of four tries on the evening.
It was, however, a unique try from winger Shane Horgan which reserves a special place in the memories of most. The big Leinster man and former Gaelic football player received a cross-field kick from O’Gara inside the English 22 by leaping over his marker in quintessential GAA style to grab the ball out of the air. The try was hugely symbolic and all but put the English away.
Ireland won the match by a record scoreline over the English, running out 43-13 victors. It was without a doubt the most memorable moment in this country’s sporting past.