The day England rugby captain Martin Johnson upset a nation with the 'carpet controversy'

Ireland and England were aiming to win the coveted Grand Slam in 2003, when Lansdowne Road was at fever pitch only for the visitors to spoil everything in a rout
The day England rugby captain Martin Johnson upset a nation with the 'carpet controversy'

Former President Mary McAleese found herself in the middle of a controversy after England captain Martin Johnson took his players to the wrong side for the pre-match ceremonies at Lansdowne Road in 2003. Picture: INPHO/Patrick Bolger

IRELAND-England at the Aviva this afternoon is strange for a number of reasons.

Apart from no crowds and all the Covid restrictions in place, there is also nothing tangible to play for because the Grand Slam, Six Nations title and Triple Crown are out of reach for both.

It doesn’t mean there won’t be an edge, especially being the final game of the championship and several players auditioning for Lions places, as well.

And when it comes to matches involving the ‘old enemy’ this latest offering couldn’t contrast more sharply with the infamous ‘carpet controversy’ of 2003.

Remember when England captain Martin Johnson took his players to the ‘wrong’ side for the pre-match ceremonials, forcing President Mary McAleese to walk on the wet grass, not that she seemed bothered?

England captain Martin Johnson shouts at an Hans Geisler (IRFU official) after the England team lined up on the wrong side. Picture: INPHO/Patrick Bolger
England captain Martin Johnson shouts at an Hans Geisler (IRFU official) after the England team lined up on the wrong side. Picture: INPHO/Patrick Bolger

The visitors were raging hot favourites to finally complete the slam, having missed out the three previous seasons.

Ireland, under Eddie O’Sullivan’s direction, were also hoping for a clean sweep, so the tension and excitement levels were mounting.

Years later John explained what happened: “Ireland won the toss and played into the area in which we had been warming up, so I naturally went to that side.

“Most stadia have dressingrooms either side of the tunnel and that’s the side you went out, but the old Lansdowne Road was different because the dressingrooms were on the same side,” he said.

“We lined up and the guy who actually set the whole thing was the fellow who asked me to move.

“If it was the referee who had asked we would have moved because it was no big deal.

"The crowd went mad because they were very hyped up and I had Neil Back standing next to me, saying ‘you can’t move now’."

Johnson also highlighted another incident about 15 minutes before the game, when an Irish official came up with a jersey for him to sign.

“You have no idea what you’re going through at that point before one of the biggest games of your life.

“The only people I listened to at that stage were my own and the referee, nobody else,” Johnson added.

Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll recalled having a dilemma about where he and his colleagues were going to stand.

As soon as the game kicked off the crowd sang The Fields of Athenry and that was the only time in my life when the hairs on the back of my stood up,” Johnson admitted.

It was the only memorable aspect of a game in which Ireland were thumped 42-6 with Lawrence Dallglio and Will Greenwood both scoring two tries and Mike Tindall and Dan Luger also crossing.

IRELAND: G Murphy; J Bishop, B O’Driscoll, captain, K Maggs, D Hickie; D Humphreys, P Stringer; M Horan, S Byrne, J Hayes; G Longwell, M O’Kelly; V Costello, A Foley, K Gleeson. 

Replacements: P O’Connell for Longwell, R O’Gara for Humphreys, A Quinlan for Costello, J Fitzpatrick for Horan, G Dempsey for O’Driscoll.

ENGLAND: J Lewsey; J Robinson, W Greenwood, M Tindall, B Cohen; J Wilkinson, M Dawson; G Rowntree, S Thompson, J Leonard; M Johnson, B Kay; R Hill, L Dallaglio, N Back. 

Replacements: K Bracken for Dawson, D Luger for Cohen and J Worsley for Hill, temp.

A couple of weeks later many of the protagonists squared up in the Leicester Tigers-Munster Heineken Cup quarter-final at a packed Welford Road.

It was an old style ground with fans close to the action, helping generate a brilliant atmosphere.

During a lull for treatment to an injured player before a line-out, there was one hilarious moment.

In a typically strong Limerick accent, a Munster fan roared: ‘Hey Johnson, do you want to buy a carpet, never been used’?

Even the great man allowed himself a smile and a chuckle as did players on either side though Munster had the last laugh, winning impressively by 20-7.

Scrum-half Peter Stringer was one of the try scorers that afternoon in the English midlands when the wretched weather couldn’t spoil the fun.

A one-point defeat away to Toulouse in the semi-final reflected how tantalisingly close Munster were to reaching the Holy Grail.

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