Eight Games That Defined Irish Rugby: Match Two

The Game: Ireland 44 Scotland 22, February 2000

What it Defined: The birth of a new generation of Irish players, a ‘Golden Generation’ according to some

The State of Play

Irish rugby has been in the doldrums for a decade.  The IRFU has grudgingly lumbered into the dawn of professionalism unprepared and unwilling.  The majority of Ireland’s players are playing for England’s club sides and the national team appear to be slipping towards the second tier of world rugby.  Results are appalling.  Ireland have not won more than a single match in the Five Nations since 1993.  The 1999 World Cup is a disaster, with Ireland exiting before the quarter-finals in a dramatic loss to a gutsy but limited Argentina side.  It is a very public humiliation, with the entire world watching our glaring incompetence.  In the opening game of the now Six Nations (after some notable results in friendly games, Italy are included in the championship for the first time), Ireland are beaten by a rampant England side by 50-18, conceding six tries.

However, all is not as bad as it might appear.  While the Lens debacle was a crushing and highly visible lowpoint, much work behind the scenes has been done.   With the birth of professionalism, the newly minted Heineken European Cup is successfully launched.  It creates a platform for four Irish provincial franchises, giving Ireland a vehicle to keep its best players on these shores, and just as importantly, to pool its playing resources into just four teams rather than a sprawl of AIL sides, and they get exposure to playing the big French and English clubs.  By 2000, the competition has gained significant traction and Irish provinces are improving rapidly.  Ulster win the Cup in 1999 (albeit with the English sides not taking part) and in Spring 2000, Munster have qualified for the quarter-final, having beaten Saracens and Colomiers home and away, with a young pair of halfbacks, Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara catching the eye.  The new format is catching on with the public, too.  Ulster’s victory is played out in front of a rammed Lansdowne Road, and in Munster, where the club game has always been strong, an army of Cork and Limerick fans are rallying behind the Munster brand.

Ireland also have an exciting coaching team in place.  While Gatland has yet to preside over any upswing in results, he is held in high esteem.  And he has a new assistant coach in tow – Eddie O’Sullivan.  The Corkman is considered authoritarian and aloof, but is a technically outstanding coach of back play and a master at analysing how to hurt opponents.  He favours a highly programmed and rehearsed, but often exciting and attractive brand of rugby, with a heavy emphasis on first-phase back moves.

The Game

Following the defeat to England, Ireland face Scotland in Lansdowne Road.  Warren Gatland ditches the old brigade and selects five young players, four of whom are playing in Ireland, for their first caps.  The five are a giant prop, John Hayes, Munster’s fresh-faced halfbacks, Stringer and O’Gara, a rangy winger-cum-centre from Leinster called Shane Horgan and a gutsy backrow playing for Llanelli, Simon Easterby – all went on to be key members of the first team for 8 years.  The changes mean that 13 of the team are plying their club trade in Ireland; Easterby and Kieran Dawson (London Irish) are the exceptions.

After a slow, nervous start, Ireland fall 10-0 behind, but recover their composure to lead 13-10 at the break, with Mal O’Kelly scoring his first try for Ireland, and Ronan O’Gara settling into the match.  In the second half they pull away, winning the match 44-22, with Horgan bagging a try on his debut.  Two old hands, Keith Wood and David Humphreys, are hugely influential in the win, and the five debutants are all considered a success.

Four weeks later, after hammering Italy 60-13, Ireland, improbably, incredibly, go to Paris and win, 27-25, with a famous hat-trick from another kid playing his first Six Nations, a youthful Brian O’Driscoll, seemingly playing in a jersey several sizes too big for him.  Although the season peters out with a loss at home to Wales, the series is a success, with Ireland bagging three wins, their best for some time, and with a young, zestful team.  For the first time in a long time, there is a feelgood feeling around Irish rugby.

With the five new debutants picked to start against Scotland, the team that came together over the next decade was largely in place.  The full line-up that day was:

Ireland: 1 Peter Clohessy, 2 Keith Wood (c), 3 John Hayes, 4 Mick Galwey, 5 Malcolm O’Kelly, 6 Kieron Dawson, 7 Simon Easterby, 8 Anthony Foley, 9 Peter Stringer, 10 Ronan O’Gara, 11 Denis Hickie, 12 Mike Mullins, 13 Brian O’Driscoll, 14 Shane Horgan, 15 Girvan Dempsey
Reserves: Jeremy Davidson, Rob Henderson, David Humphreys, Justin Fitzpatrick
Unused: Guy Easterby, Trevor Brennan, Frankie Sheahan

The Aftermath

The Golden Generation of Irish rugby is born.  With this group of players currently passing into retirement, the idea of them being a one-off ‘golden generation’ seems foolish, but, for certain, they were golden compared to what went before.  Whatever you make of the phrase, there is little doubt that throughout the noughties, Ireland were blessed by a group of brilliant players who completely turned the fortunes of rugby in the country.  The bad old days of the 1990s were behind us.

The new generation were fearless, incredibly tough and, crucially, professional to the core, with no hangover from the amateur days.  They were broadly split between a Munster-based pack and halves, which had lost none of the chippiness handed down from the previous generation, but had absorbed the tenets of professionalism, and a slick cabal of Leinster backs; skilful, exciting and capable of scoring from anywhere on the pitch.  They were incredibly demanding of themselves and one another.  The old have-a-go-and-sure-we’ll-drink-them-under-the-table-anyway ethos was put to bed – these were men who dreamed only of winning, of securing silverware and medals.  They would go on to become heroes to a nation, household names and thanks to a certain pair of red underpants, even sex icons.

They’d have to do most of that without Warren Gatland, though, and the demise of the head coach after his conspicuous role in turning around the nation’s rugby fortunes represents one of Irish rugby’s great cloak-and-dagger moments.   Indeed, Gatland’s Ireland take another big step forward in the following Six Nations.  In a foot-and-mouth disrupted series, they beat France and Italy before the tournament is postponed.  Reconvening in September, the series is there for the taking, but they splutter to an awful 32-10 drubbing against Scotland.  The season is rescued in style, however: thrashing Wales in Cardiff and signing off with a Grand Slam party-pooping, Keith Wood-inspired 20-14 victory against England.  It’s a four-win series, and Ireland are denied the championship only on points difference.  A month later they give New Zealand a jolt, running up a 21-7 lead early in the second half, before eventually succumbing to the visitors, who are debuting a new openside from Canterbury, Richie McCaw.

However, it proves to be Gatland’s last game in charge.  The IRFU appear to be taken with the impact of his increasingly prominent assistant, O’Sullivan, who is credited with the newfound invention in Ireland’s back play.  Gatland recieves his marching orders, and as he is driving out of the Berkley Court Hotel, having been told in an eight-minute meeting that his contract will not be renewed, his assistant Eddie O’Sullivan is seen arriving, ready to sign a new three-year contract as Head Coach.  Gatland perceives it as an act of unforgiveable treachery, giving rise to ‘Dagger’s image as a ruthless political mover.

Three final pieces of the jigsaw were needed for Ireland to become properly competitive: an athletic, flame-haired pack enforcer in the second row, for their quick-footed line-breaking inside centre to get his head sorted out, and for their powerful ball-carrying openside to overcome a spell of injuries and patchy form.  Once those ingredients were in place, Ireland could begin to strive for something greater…

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8 Comments

  1. Cena2j

     /  July 19, 2012

    If I didn’t know the rest of this story…I’d think Ireland were going to go on to win a few 6Ns and maybe get to a semi final or final of a WC.
    Apologies for the cynicism

  2. Cena2j

     /  July 19, 2012

    Also in a slightly unrelated topic are you going to do a piece on Argentina finally making it into a major annual competition?(obviously after you finish the 8 game deal which is excellent so far) I’m really excited about them getting into the Rugby Championship as they are my fav team other than Ireland.

    There is so many potential consequences. Will we see a super 15 franchise move? (like the rams moving from LA to St. Louis). Maybe an Aussie one that isn’t competitive enough could move to Argenitina and merge an Australian and Argentine conference together.

    Will the Argies get a scalp over one of the big 3 in the first iteration of the championship?

    How long will it take for them to beat the ABs?

    Will it see a mass exodus of Argie players from France and England to SH so they can play in a season that is more suited to their internationals.

    Will we see a super 20 in the next 10 years. Or back to the moving of franchises. Move 3 (1 from each of the big 3) teams to Argentina and make 1 new team and make a super 16

    • More drum beating here and something from the archives http://dementedmole.com/2011/09/09/france-v-japan-preview/ but two locations for Super Rugby franchises that make a lot of sense are Tokyo and Hong Kong. Both with proven rugby audiences, a long history in the game, high density populations, massive TV audiences and loads of wonga. Oh, and they’re one time zone away from Sydney and Brisbane. And they’ve a long history of importing foreigners so the Argentinians could be based there and not flog themselves between NH and SH seasons. What’s that? The Kiwis could play there, earn loads of money and still compete in the same competition as NZ teams so maintain a high standard of rugby. Turkeys, Christmas? There is that of course.

      • @Cena2j The problem with Argentina (and I’m pretty sure the Mole has been there and can concur) is the utter lack of anything approaching a professional domestic game – in Buenos Aires, where 40% of the population live, its all soccer …. and inflation – the economy is genuinely in an appalling state, and virtually no-one seems to work – even one franchise here would seem like a tall order.

        Then in the provinces, where rugby is genuinely very popular (Cordoba, Roasario, Tucuman, Mendoza), they are all too far away from one another to have a critical mass.

        I woudl be stunned if Argentina, despite its plethora of excellent players, could produce even one viable domestic franchise – I fear a Wild Geese scattering is inevitable, but also suspect a move from the NH to the SH (particularly Oz, where there just isn’t the player numbers for 5 franchises) is likely as well.

        The SupeRugby franchise question is a live one again – the Saffas have promised the Southern Kings (of Port Elizabeth) entry in 2014, but have yet to tell which of the other franchises which will be cut (probably the Cheetahs) – it looks like they are trying to force an expansion.

        Which brings us to the @mole’s point – HK and Tokyo are very obvious potential venues – the incumbent unions aren’t likely to approve them (for the turkey reasons) but Japan have bagloads of cash to bring to the table, and money talks!

    • Anonymous

       /  July 19, 2012

      apologies for taking you guys off the point of this article. points are great by yourself and the Mole. Can’t wait for Whiff and the Mole to take this one on in full.
      Mole that HK and Tokyo thing is brilliant. I’m a big fan of spreading the game to other nations and making it a truly global sport,

  3. gibbsey

     /  July 24, 2012

    any sense in creating a second tier down there? (i think the celtic league could do with this as well but that is for another day). SA have another franchise ready to go, ARG realistically have to get a franchise, HK and Tokyo get one each and a Pacific Island franchise in some form or another. If the islanders are to improve they need to be playing together in some form at a half decent level far more often than they are. That brings the total teams up to 20 so 2 x 10 team leagues with promotion/relegation.

    • Egg Chaser

       /  July 24, 2012

      I can tell you who won’t vote for that – the Flamin’ Galahs – at any point you would expect 3 of the Aussie teams to be slumming it in Division 2

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