Melanie Verwoerd: A priest, the potato famine and an emotional rugby match

Ierland se Jacob Stockdale begrawe sy gesig in sy hand ná sy span Saterdag deur Japan geskok is.

Getty Images
Ierland se Jacob Stockdale begrawe sy gesig in sy hand ná sy span Saterdag deur Japan geskok is. Foto: Getty Images

It was a day the Irish would never forget – much like the match in 1978 when Munster beat the All Blacks (there is a play that still runs today about that match), writes Melanie Verwoerd.

On Saturday morning just before 11:00, my phone beeped. "Japan is beating Ireland!" read the text message. "Eh, these guys have too much time for jokes," I thought to myself.

I rang my son, who is in Ireland. "I can't talk now, Japan is beating Ireland!" he shouted into the phone. In the background, I could hear exasperated swearing by Irish supporters in a pub. At this point I decided to find a TV. And there it was… Japan 19, Ireland 12.

For those of you who don't know much about rugby, this was like me beating Serena Williams at a game of tennis. OK, not quite the same – but you get the picture.

Needless to say, the fairly reserved Japanese nation went ballistic – and I mean ballistic! The Irish, not so much. Although typical of the Irish sense of humour, within five minutes I received a meme: "What do Irish rugby and the Titanic have in common? They both went down 1912."

I'm not massively into sport. To be honest, I mostly watch it so that I am not excluded when the men in my working environment discuss the intricacy of every move during the week (or month) after a big match. Sigh!

Having said that, I have been to a few significant international sporting events – many involving Irish teams.  

One in particular stands out. In February 2007, I went to a match between Ireland and England at Croke Park Stadium in Dublin. This was extremely emotional for the Irish for a number of reasons.

Firstly, Croke Park is the headquarters of the Gaelic Athletics Association or, as the Irish fondly call it, the GAA (or "gaa"). The GAA was founded as a nationalist organisation to promote Gaelic football and hurling (two hugely popular indigenous Irish sports). Until 1971, if anyone was caught playing rugby or cricket (deemed to be English sports), they were banned from hurling or Gaelic football and their membership to the GAA was revoked (so intense was the anti-English sentiment!)

However, in 2005 a landmark decision was taken when the GAA agreed that during the renovation of Landsdowne Road rugby stadium, international rugby matches could be played at Croke Park Stadium. It was a BIG deal in Ireland.

The match on February 24, 2007 was also particularly emotional for political reasons. In 1920 during the Irish War of Independence, the British military entered the stadium during a Gaelic football match. They shot indiscriminately at the crowd and players, killing 13 spectators and one player, Michael Hogan. To this day the Hogan Stand is named after him and serves as a memory of the event, which remains deeply ingrained into Irish memory.

So as match day in 2007 drew closer, many people were worried. It was the first time Ireland and England would face each other at Croke Park. 

I was part of a group of Irish rugby supporters. On our way to the stadium, we picked up a lovely, retired Catholic priest. As we drove up to his retirement home, we saw him waiting for us on the steps in an Irish rugby jersey over his "dog collar" – rearing to go. He was talking to some British supporters who were passing by and then pointed them in the direction of Landsdowne Road Stadium.

When he got into the car, we reminded him that the match was on the opposite side of the city at Croke Park, to which he responded with a devious chuckle: "I'm well aware of that, lads."

The stadium was packed to its full capacity of 82 300. When it was time for the national anthems, tension intensified dramatically. The week before the match there were numerous appeals to the Irish spectators not to boo or disrupt the singing of "God save the Queen", but everyone knew it was likely to happen.

A deadly silence fell over the stadium as an Irish military band struck up the first notes of the English anthem. The tension was palpable, but no one whistled, no one booed; at the end there was even polite applause. Then it was time for the Irish anthem. I had never heard it sung with such emotion. People teared up and the TV screens showed players sobbing. As "Ireland's Call" ended, our friend the priest suddenly shouted at the top of his voice: "OK, enough of this politeness. Now fuck them up, lads!"

And that is exactly what the Irish team did.

At half-time, the score was 23-3. With a few minutes left on the clock, the score was 43-13. I looked over to my friend the priest. "That is revenge for the potato famine, Bloody Sunday and the Battle of the Boyne," he exclaimed while wiping tears away.

On that freezing cold day in February the English conceded the most points in 124 years of championship rugby. A journalist for The Guardian newspaper wrote the following day: "As the rented shamrock cathedral shook from cellar to dome, England looked about as comfortable as choir boys at a thrash metal convention."

It was a day the Irish would never forget – much like the match in 1978 when Munster beat the All Blacks (there is a play that still runs today about that match).

I'm sure the same goes for the Japanese after Saturday's victory. Let's hope the Springboks can do something similar at the World Cup because as the Irish would put it: "God knows, we sure could do with a bit of a pick me up!"

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

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