As a pivotal member in the Ireland side that claimed the famous Triple Crown in 2004, Shane Byrne knows better than most what it takes to beat England in the Championship.
The former hooker had to be patient before making his bow in competition tournament he holds such fond memories of with the great Keith Wood blocking his path for much of his career.
He eventually went on to make 41 appearances for his country, including playing every game in the 2004 Championship as Ireland missed out on the title to Grand Slam winners France.
But despite missing out on the main prize, Byrne said victory against the reigning world champions England – and the Triple Crown that followed – was more than a consolation.
FIRST TASTE OF CHAMPIONSHIP
The Triple Crown played an important role in Byrne getting into rugby in the first place, after he was inspired by the Irish triumph in 1985 – which would turn out to be their last until Byrne’s side repeated the feat in 2004.
“I suppose for most people my age the first memory was the titles in 1983 and 1985 as I was in school and that was the first time I really became aware of the international scene,” he said.
“The Irish team used to train at Blackrock College but I was very late to rugby and it wasn’t until I saw them on the telly that I put the two together and really got hooked.
“I was 12 when the Five Nations – as it was then – took place in 83, so 85 was probably even bigger for me as before that rugby was just something I did that I wasn’t very good at.
“It changed in 85 when Ireland won the Triple Crown. I was older and started to understand who these guys were and how impressive they were to watch up close.”
While there were many heroes in that 1985 squad for Byrne, Fergus Slattery, who had retired a year earlier, was always a player who stood out for being a world class performer who had originally plied his trade at Blackrock.
“I was always a fan of Fergus Slattery,” he said. “Just the way he played rugby and he was world renowned in his position. There were also some great stories about him from the Lions tour.
“He was just always trying to raise the bar and he also played his rugby at Blackrock. Looking at those guys as a 15-year-old kid, they were just absolute giants.”
FRUSTRATION AT BEING OVERLOOKED
While he went on to become an Ireland legend and earn a Lions call-up to the 2005 tour to New Zealand, Byrne had to bide his time before earning his first international honour.
He only broke into the team in 2001 after patiently waiting behind Keith Wood in the pecking order, doing everything he could to impress at Leinster.
“I was on the brink of making the squad against Wales away in 1995 and again in 1997 as I had become a regular for Leinster at that point,” he said.
“I kept being in and around the squad during the 90s, but I just couldn’t quite make the team. It was frustrating as you set your sights on somebody and then someone else is brought in ahead of you – and there were umpteen players brought in ahead of me.
“I just didn’t seem to fit the picture at that point, but when I stopped worrying about it and just focused on my game it started to come my way.”
His first cap for Ireland eventually came against Romania in a World Cup qualifier, but Byrne said his debut appearance in the Championship against Scotland in 2002 was extra special.
“Nothing really compares to the first time you hear your anthem played in the Six Nations at Lansdowne Road,” he said. “It is a very personal experience and all you want to do is get out there and start taking lumps out of the opposition.
“Fortunately, it was a good day and at that point we won more games than we lost.”
WINNING TRIPLE CROWN IN 2004
Byrne cites many highlights from the Championship in 2004, but the victory against England at Twickenham – the hosts’ first home loss since 1999 – is, unsurprisingly, high up the list.
“It was on the way to the Triple Crown and at that time England were coming in as world champions,” he said. “After that victory there were people sending pictures of themselves wearing the Ireland shirt to work the next day.
“It made me realise just how big the Six Nations is everywhere and people get so caught up in it. There is no love lost on the pitch either and you can’t afford to slip up even once or that could be the end of your Triple Crown, Grand Slam or title hopes.
“The rivalry with England was passionate and at that time they were always the team to beat, even if we had a bad Championship a win over England would make up for it.”
He also scored two of his three international tries in the 36-15 win over Wales on the way to the Triple Crown triumph in 2004, an experience that still brings up vivid memories.
“It was a fantastic experience scoring a try for your country and as the years go past, those are the sort of memories that stick out,” he said.
“They were both a case of collapsing over the line, but we knew we had to take Wales on up front.
“There is just a blaze of emotions when you score for your country, finally getting the ball down and hearing the whistle blow is just incredible.”
Byrne makes no apologies for being obsessed with the Championship and he still follows it religiously, whether he is doing media work or just watching as a fan.
“There is a lot of media duties and talk around the Six Nations, so I often do a lot of stuff for radio or TV around the games and if I’m not at the game, I’ll certainly be close to it,” he said.
“It’s such an addictive experience and watching it just reminds you of all the emotions when you were out there on the pitch.”
He has also been instrumental in arranging the Ireland Legends versus England Legends match, which is played annually for charity the night before the Test match.
“The rivalry is still there and while we can’t run as fast as we used to, the skill levels are still very high and it is always very full on when the two sides meet,” he added.
To date, the event has raised almost £1 million for charity, with this year’s battle set to take place at Twickenham Stoop on Friday March 16 at 7.45pm.