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Ireland vs England

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The Irish comedian and actor talks us through one of rugby's greatest match ups...

The 2007 6 Nations match between Ireland and England (above) was played at Croke Park – a monumental setting for the game. Both the Irish rugby and soccer teams traditionally play at Lansdowne Road, a ground built specifically to cater for those, what we would call, “English sports”. Croke Park was the headquarters of the

Gaelic Athletic Association, and home to both Gaelic football and hurling.

That year, Lansdowne Road was being renovated, so the match was switched to Croke. The symbolism behind the move was seemingly abhorrent to a huge number of people in the country who saw that particular stadium as an historic sanctuary for Irish sport and culture. There was a huge debate as to whether it should happen, or whether it should even have been suggested at all.

I watched the game in an Irish bar in central London. I was nervous before the game – not for the rugby, but for the crowd’s reaction. Many commentators had suggested that the English national anthem would be jeered by people making a political statement. I would have been embarrassed if there were boos - as an Irishman, as well as a very proud Londoner. I was concerned that the stupid element, which often prevails at sporting events, would take over.

When the national anthems started, I’d never heard such silence. It was absolute and felt like an emotionally exfoliating journey. It was the moment that Ireland collectively said, “All that sh*t is over. We’re a grown-up nation with our own identity. We don’t feel angry or suppressed, and the way we are going to show this is by being respectful to whoever visits us.”

After the anthem, the English commentator said, “What was all the fuss about?” It was a throwaway remark, but I know what all the fuss was about.

England took the lead through Jonny Wilkinson, but we had our own kick specialist, Ronan O’Gara, who converted a hat-trick of penalties to give us a 9-3 lead in the first quarter of an hour. It soon became more physical and we were on top from then on, landing some wonderful tries.

It was even more special for the fact that the crowd made a decision to remain silent for the songs beforehand.

I wonder if there would have been a similar reaction at a soccer game. Either way, it was a heart-warming and beautiful affair. And the fact that we won 43-13 didn’t hurt either.

The Crimson Petal & The White starts on BBC2 on 23 March at 9pm

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