Having seen some wonderful individuals in a green jersey over the last 40 years, Bill Bridge selects his best Ireland XV.
EVEN 14 years on from the last live experience of an England match against any of their neighbours the buzz refuses to retire and the sight of Twickenham, Murrayfield and the rest brimful with people enjoying one of sport's great days out has the memory gurgling with excitement.
In those days we had Five, not Six, Nations; there was no Millennium Stadium complete with roof, imposing Stade de France, swanky new Croke Park or even a completed Twickers; and matches kicked-off at times which did not demand that even the bulk of home supporters had to book hotels.
We had the dubious delight of taking the Dart to Lansdowne Road or simply walking the soggy streets of Dublin, taking a couple of pints of stout on the way to the crumbling old ground with the railway station under the stand.
Cardiff was daunting, old Murrayfield Spartan, the Parc de Princes exhilarating. Twickenham was almost invariably a building site, the walk to the station grew ever longer and the dash from Waterloo to King's Cross more taxing on the stamina.
Each venue and match had its own special feel; against the Welsh and the Scots there were occasions when rivalry went beyond sporting boundaries; against France there was always the thought of Waterloo, Crecy and Agincourt as the anthems played. Against Ireland there was always – and still is from all accounts – the craic.
The action on the pitch was always unforgiving but before and after the game the fun was immense. As Willie John McBride once memorably said: "It matters a great deal who wins; it matters not at all who won."
Perhaps the turning point came in 1973 when England, at the behest of Yorkshire's Dick Kingswell, that year's president of the Rugby Football Union, and his committee, travelled to Dublin to fulfil the fixture after Wales and Scotland had not turned up the previous season due to the outbreak of "the Troubles".
England were famously beaten after being given a thunderous reception and ever since then the relationship between the two rugby nations, their players and supporters, has been different to that of all the others.
Many great players entertained us in England v Ireland games over the years. Some, like Jackie Kyle, Cyril Pedlow, Noel Henderson and Andy Mulligan in the green, Richard Sharp, Peter Robbins, Jeff Butterfield and Peter Thompson in the white, were seen only on TV, their exploits being chronicled by writers like Vivian Jenkins, himself a great rugby man.
Invariably when looking back on the matches and the personalities, comparisons are made and the inevitable question arises: who were the best of the Irish over the past few decades? It sounds a simple task, to check a few old programmes, flick through several books and cast the mind back over quite a few years but it was much more difficult than imagined. For better or worse, this is the result:
Full-back: Slashing runs from deep and spectacular tackles made Hugo MacNeill and Geordan Murphy outstanding players but for complete reliability under the high ball, certainty in the tackle and the ability, even in the later stages of a long career, to snaffle a try or land a vital goal make Tom Kiernan the clear choice.
Wing: Tony O'Reilly was recalled in 1970 after seven seasons out of international rugby and by then he was past his wonderful best. Tom Duggan, Wallace McMaster and Shane Horgan were all class wings but the best two since O'Reilly were Trevor Ringland and Simon Geoghegan.
Centres: Too much choice here for one position, given that Mike Gibson has to be included. Mike Kiernan, David Irwin, Alistair McKibben, Dick Milliken, Brendan Mullin, Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll would all have their admirers. Milliken, Kiernan and Mullin were outstanding Lions but the marvellous O'Driscoll at his best is almost as good as Gibson and wins the place.
Fly-half: Barry McGann and Tony Ward were on the portly side but both scored buckets of points for Ireland while Ollie Campbell, Ward's perennial rival, was also a wonderful kicker and perhaps used those around him rather better but Munster's main man, Ronan O'Gara, is the complete fly-half.
Scrum-half: Peter Stringer has established a great playing relationship with O'Gara for Munster and Ireland but is still reluctant to try the unexpected and while Roger Young and John Robbie were excellent kickers and good passers both ways, the best was John Maloney.
Prop: No shortage of muscle with Peter Clohessy, Gerry McLoughlin, Syd Millar and John Hayes among the contenders and plenty of guile too with Ray McLoughlin, Sean Lynch, Phil Orr and Paul Wallace applying the science in the dark corners. It would have to be Ray McLoughlin at open-side and Millar at No 3.
Hooker: Ciaran Fitzgerald was an excellent leader of men – as you would expect from a professional soldier – who led Ireland to the Triple Crown and a share in the Championship itself but as a hooker was eclipsed by the dynamism and sheer determination to impose himself on every game which made Keith Wood the best in a generation or two.
Lock: Again one man demands inclusion: McBride. The rest make an imposing panel, comprising Jeremy Davidson, Paul O'Connell, Mick Molloy, Moss Keane, Donal Lenihan, Brendan Foley and Donncha O'Callaghan as the cream of a splendid crop. Davidson would have the edge on Lenihan if he could be guaranteed to repeat the form which made him a fleeting star of the 1997 Lions tour but for all-round quality and reliability it has to be Lenihan.
Flanker: Another area in which Ireland been well-blessed with Philip Matthews, Mike Hipwell, John O'Driscoll, Nigel Carr, Jimmy Davidson, Fergus Slattery, Stuart McKinney and Colm Tucker being just a few of their outstanding breakaways. Slattery was as good as anyone in the rugby world on the open-side and of an impressive list of blind-sides the vote has to go to O'Driscoll.
No 8: Ken Goodall flourished briefly before taking Workington Town's shillings in the early Seventies and since then we have admired Mike Gibson (no relation), Denis Hickie, Anthony Foley and Denis Leamy but for all-round prowess in a key position the man has to be Willie Duggan.
Team: T Kiernan (Cork Constitution); Trevor Ringland (Ballymena), M Gibson (NIFC), B O'Driscoll (University College, Dublin), S Geoghegan (London Irish); R O'Gara (Cork Constitution), J Maloney (St Mary's College); R McLoughlin (Blackrock College), K Wood (Harlequins), S Millar (Ballymena), D Lenihan (Cork Constitution), W McBride (Ballymena, captain), J O'Driscoll (London Irish), F Slattery (Blackrock College), W Duggan (Blackrock College).