No Borders: Playing Rugby For Ireland is Tom English’s history of Irish rugby, told by the players and coaches. Whiff of Cordite was sent a free review copy, and this is our review.
The book starts with the Jack Kyle era and finishes with the 2015 Six Nations. English provides narration along the way, but for the most part the book is made up of the players’ own versions of events. English lets all the main players speak in their own words and keeps himself off the stage. The players’ words shape the story, charting Irish rugby’s chequered history from the troubles to peace, from amateurism to professionalism and from failure to a sort of success.
It’s a ripping read. I must confess I didn’t start at the beginning and finish at the end, but read in a random order, starting with the bits that were of most fascination: in my case the 2007 World Cup and the breaking of professionalism in the 1990s. There’s interest in every chapter.
Plenty of the material will be familiar to readers of these pages, and depending on your age, plenty of it will be new to you. As children of the early 1980s, we were too young for the two triple crowns of that era but can remember plenty of the awfulness which followed. The abiding memories of that era are of Ireland valiantly taking the game to teams before the inevitable late-game surrender. The Six Nations was an event in Chez Ovale in Bray, and poor Papa Ovale seemed an eternal optimist. Palla has distant memories of once making a 2p bet with him that France would beat Ireland, and feeling conflicted as the second half saw Ireland lose an enormous lead and France got their multi-phase groove on. The folly of youth! Another year, now old enough to know better than to cheer for the enemy in pursuit of a tuppence, we have slightly clearer recollection of a Five Nations in which Ireland led all four games at the hour mark, only to return three losses and a draw with Wales. Ah, great days they were.
English’s book serves as a reminder of a few things. The first is just what a quirky sport rugby is in Ireland. Largely played in a handful of areas in the country; Belfast grammar schools, Dublin private schools, a handful of schools in Cork and – who could forget? – earthy types in Limerick. Somehow, the elements all have to come together in the green shirt, and more often than not they do. For all the failings of Irish rugby, the players rarely did anything other than try their hearts out. Trevor Ringland and several other Ulster players give terrific insight into what it was like for Ulster protestants to play rugby for Ireland, especially during the troubles.
The second is just how… there really is no other way around this… terrible Irish rugby has been for most of its history. Think this season is bad because we lost to Argentina and Munster and Leinster are a bit rubbish? Try re-winding twenty years. Thought Kidney’s Ireland were a bit hit and miss, only showing their best when able to feed off emotion after everyone had written them off? Well, they were only keeping up the traditions of a century before them. Even the good days feel like a mere temporary blip before normal service is resumed. Ireland’s triple crown in 1982 is immediately follwed by a winless campaign. 1985’s triumph only proves a cue for Mick Doyle to buy into his own press and isolate the players. For the most part, Ireland’s history is of being poorly prepared for matches and having teams backboned a handful of warrior heroes but generally lacking enough great players and general fitness to beat the best sides. And it’s one of being repeatedly hammered in Paris, of course.
There’s no end of great storytelling here. The uneasy journey from amateurism – days when the players would call into the chipper for a ‘one-and-one’ on the eve of a Triple Crown decider – to professionalism is brilliantly captured. The old farts in the IRFU – a consistent theme throughout the book, it must be said – were militantly anti-professionalism, to the point of farce. Tony Ward wins the Player of the Five Nations, but is told he cannot pose for the cameras as there is a sponsor involved. The World Cup is treated with fear, and the IRFU bans the team from training in advance of it. At times it seems less point of principle, and verges on a ‘they can’t have what we never had’ mentality. Meanwhile, the advent of professionalism appears to the players through their TV sets, as every ad break is saturated with the Kiwi players advertising farm machinery.
The 1990s are relentlessly grim. Murray Kidd is an angry ant, and is followed by Brian Ashton who, it must be said, is reticent and fair-minded about where he went wrong. But go wrong he did, trying to get Ireland to play like his Bath team and failing to get the players to buy in to his ideas. Things finally take a turn for the better when Gatland comes along, though he takes a while to get going and has to endure the Lens debacle before turning the tide. Indeed, he is almost down to his last chips, but plays a winning hand in famously blooding ROG, Stringer et al against Scotland. The players enjoy his pragmatism and more consistent approach to selection, but interestingly, don’t appear terribly put out when he gets the axe in spite of a terrific final Six Nations in which Ireland win four matches. For the first time ever, it’s the backs who are the kingpins, and they see technical supremo Eddie O’Sullivan as the man who can best improve them. When Brian O’Driscoll first appears, he is like a beacon of light, and it’s clear to everyone just what a star he is almost immediately.
The tension between Gatland and O’Sullivan simmers on the pages, and it’s not the only time Eddie’s quotations seems at odds with the words of others. The 2007 World Cup fiasco makes for fascinating reading. Eddie is still clinging to his idea that all the team needed was a couple more warm-up games, but it’s clear from the players words that the problems ran far deeper.
There’s plenty of comedy in there too. Neil Francis gives expectedly sweary copy (‘that fucker Eales is untouchable’) and takes the credit for the tactical smarts in the almost-win against Australia in 1991. Andrew Trimble describes trying to get some meaningful critique out of Uncle Deccie on the numerous occasions he is dropped from the team, but can’t get anywhere. And you can picture Cian Healy pulling his dad’s car around the beach as a teenager. Needless to say, the amateur days feature plenty of revelry and regular trips to O’Donoghue’s for post-match recovery aids.
Finishing up in 2015 means we get a happy ending, but this sort of book can only ever finish ‘in media res’, or ‘in the middle of things’ to those less versed in the classics. Which means, if history is anything to go by, Ireland’s next failing can only be around the corner.
No Borders is a terrific read, recommended to any Irish rugby fan.