Eight Games That Defined Irish Rugby: Match Six

The Match: Ireland 30 France 21, 7 February 2009

What it Defined: Ireland’s Grand Slam and unbeaten calendar year in 2009

The State of Play

At the end of 2008, Irish rugby is doing everything it can to move on from their disastrous World Cup.  Eddie O’Sullivan resigns in the aftermath of the following Six Nations, and is replaced by another Corkman, Declan Kidney.  That’s about all they have in common, though.  Where O’Sullivan is technical, dictatorial and a control freak, Kidney is a man manager, an enabler and a delegator.  At some expense, he is backed by a world class coaching team: Alan Gaffney, Les Kiss and Gert Smal.

After a summer tour led by interim coach Michael Bradley, on which Ireland play reasonably well, the full scale of Kidney’s task is laid bare in the autumn internationals.  Ireland beat Canada in Thomond Park before the main course: New Zealand and Argentina in Croke Park.  The atmosphere before the New Zealand game is white-hot, and there’s a feeling that Ireland can do something.  After all, both Leinster and Munster are in good form in the Heineken Cup and it’s a good time to face New Zealand.  But they never fire a bolt, and New Zealand barely need to get out of third gear to win 22-3.  Ireland’s feeble performance is shown up by Munster’s reserves, who bring a second string New Zealand team to the brink in thrilling style the following Wednesday. Ronan O’Gara, watching in the stands, comments that Ireland ‘need to buy into the jersey a bit more’.

The Argentina match is an aberration.  It happens to be Ms Ovale’s first time going to an Irish international, and so awful is the game, it is a wonder she has made it back for another since.  Argentina lose Hernandez in the warm up, and appear to lose interest in the scoreboard, and choose instead to turn the game into a brawl.  The match is played almost entirely between the two 10-metre lines, virtually every ruck is punctuated by fisticuffs, but Ireland grind out a 17-3 victory, eventually conjuring up a decent attack as Tommy Bowe gathers a cross-field kick to score a try.  The victory is significant in one sense: Ireland have maintained their second-seeding for the World Cup draw, but other than that there is little to take from the series.

Kidney and his team are taken aback at the lack of confidence in the Irish players, and at the poor atmosphere within the group.  Some weeks later, players and management convene at Carton House to try to resolve some issues before the Six Nations.  Here, Rob Kearney makes his now famous, possibly overstated, but probably very significant ‘Munster look more united than Ireland’ comments.  While it’s hard to gauge just how big a deal it was, the team do appear fractious and cranky with one another on the pitch, and it’s not hard to imagine that factions along a provincial line may have developed within the squad.  With Kearney’s comments, it appears the elephant is finally removed from the room and the team can move forward.

A new tactical approach is also devised.  By now, many of the Munster forwards (who make up most of the pack) are frustrated with Eddie’s wide-wide gameplan, and would prefer a more attritional approach.  Deccie hands the forwards a licence to take on the opposition pack, and resolves to play a more territorial game.  He wants the players to play it as they see it, but to try and ensure each phase is played further up the field than the last one.  It’s essentially the formula with which he had so much success with Munster.  The players leave camp with a sense of a lot of baggage having been removed, and a greater clarity around the gameplan.

The good news is that the Six Nations is in its ‘odd year’, where Ireland face France and England at home.  And the schedulers have pitted Ireland against France in the first round.

The Game

While some are convinced that the new broom needs to sweep out the vast majority of Eddie’s Untouchables, Kidney decides to persevere, recognising that these great players have something left in the tank – he tinkers with some of the lineup, but it’s largely the same faces.  Flannery starts at hooker, and in the back row, Ferris, having impressed in the autumn is given the No.6 jumper.  Paddy Wallace is a surprise pick at 12, albeit as a favourite of Deccie’s from the underage days, and Gordon D’arcy, recently back from a long spell out with a broken arm that wouldn’t reset properly, is able to take a place on the bench.  For France, the selection is typically Lievremont.  He picks an exceptionally athletic backrow of Ouedraogo, Dusatoir and Harinordoquy, but puts Chabal in the second row and plays Sebastian Tillous-Borde at scrum half, while Parra kicks his heels on the bench.

The 2008-09 season is blighted by the ELVs, but this is one of the few games which rises above the torpor.  In short, it’s a cracker.  Ireland lose a try early on as Chabal smashes aside the last line of defence, but they rally.  After great work by Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe up the left touchline, Paul O’Connell pops a pass into Jamie Heaslip.  The Leinster No.8 gallops into the space, before bamboozling Clement Poitrenaud with a sidestep to get over the line.  It’s a classic try from a player who is becoming central under the new coaching regime.  Ireland lead 13-10 at half time – the general feeling in the stands is that they’re playing their best in some time, but kicking too much to France’s livewire back three.

The second half performance is outstanding.  Off a set piece, Brian O’Driscoll breaks the line and wrong-foots Malzieu to get in under the posts.  Minutes later, Gordon D’arcy, off the bench for the bloodied Wallace, wriggles over the line from five metres out.  In an iconic image, he is mobbed by his team-mates, thrilled for him after such a long and difficult spell out.

The other memorable image, for WoC anyway, is that of Paul O’Connell hauling Jamie Heaslip – by now the man of the match – up from the ruck, slapping his back and grinning widely, after Jamie has won the match-winning penalty.  We are not writing with hindsight when we say that the sight of the Munster captain commending the Leinster tyro so vigorously really made us sit up and take notice.  Maybe there was a new hunger, a greater unity of purpose to this Irish team…

The Aftermath

The rest we know.  Ireland went on to win the Grand Slam, the nation’s first for 60 years.  There’s little need to go back over the details of Bowe’s try, ROG’s drop goal, Paddy Wallace’s hands in the ruck, Stephen Jones’ mercifully just-short penalty again – and we’ll skip the bit where Palla got so nervous before the game that he would let out a little yelp every time the camera cut to the empty Millenium stadium, couldn’t watch England v Scotland and instead had to go and play tennis for an hour to try and take his mind off the match.  It’s worth recalling a few details though.

For a start, Ireland never played as well, or as freely, again in the series as they did against France.  The stats showed that they passed less and kicked more than any other team.  Rob Kearney had looked electric counter-attacking in the previous summer tour, but with the game now dominated by defence and referees allowing the tackler huge leeway around the ruck, he was reduced to catching and kicking.  Tomas O’Leary’s game was tailor-made to the ELV-based gameplan.  With quick ruck-ball in such short supply it hardly mattered how quickly you passed to the fly-half, who was only going to kick it anyway, so his passing limitations were scarcely exposed, while his physicality around the ruck effectively gave Ireland an extra flanker.  After the France game it was a case of shutting up shop and trying to grind out wins.  Line breaks were in short supply, Fitzgerald barely touched the football and BOD’s ability from one metre out was Ireland’s best scoring threat.

Kidney’s management was astute from first to last.  While we’ve grown to be frustrated by his gnomic utterances over the last three years, when media expectation is building and all anyone wants to do is get the coach to talk up his grand slam hopes in front of a microphone, he’s the man to manage it.  One game at a time, not even thinking about it, sure isn’t this why we got into the game – he gave the media absolutely nothing.  When Warren Gatland cracked and said the Welsh disliked the Irish players more than any other nation’s, it appeared that Kidney had gained a slight advantage over his opposite number.

His greatest stroke was changing four players for the Scotland game.  Probably mindful that some players might be looking a week ahead to the Wales match, he shook up his team for the first time in the championship, dropping four players, some of whom were among his best.  Crucially though, he changed only where he knew he had quality reserves, so the team would be losing little.  Heaslip, O’Leary, Wallace and Flannery made way for Leamy, Stringer, D’arcy and Best.  Heaslip, in particular, was having an outstanding championship, and was not happy about it.  As it happened, Leamy got injured early on and Heaslip played most of the game, scoring the winning try, set up by a break from Stringer, who passed with metronomic accuracy.  Three of the four – all bar Wallace – were reinstated for the Wales game.  It was terrific, proactive management and had the desired effect.

It must also be said that Ireland were lucky.  They were lucky that France were having a season of experimentation.  Lucky that Danny Care lost his head and that by the time England got themselves to within a point it was too late in the game.  Lucky not to be further behind at half time against Scotland.  Lucky that Stephen Jones missed a penalty he would expect to score, and lucky that Gavin Henson, traditionally Wales’ kicker for long distance, didn’t insist on kicking it.  Lucky that Wales miscalculated and put the ball out on the full so Ireland could set up the winning score.  Most of all, though, they were lucky with injuries.  While Deccie deserved praise for making the four changes before the Scotland game, it must be recognised that doing so was a luxury.  At no time since that game has he felt he could make such changes, and now only really changes players when injury strikes.  Effectively, Kidney could put out his preferred XV in every game.  These days, to be able to do that five times in a row, is unheard of.

The contrasting legacy of Ireland’s two most recent coaches effectively boils down to a missed restart against France and a late missed penalty by Wales.  Fine margins.

Ireland and Kidney’s purple patch didn’t end with beating Wales.  They went the calendar year unbeaten, signing off with a distinguished autumn series in which they drew, somewhat fortuitously, with Australia and beat South Africa, piloted by a new fly-half, Jonny Sexton, from a newly resurgent Leinster.  It was among the best performances of Kidney’s tenure.  Everything was rosy in the garden.  It had been a remarkable season.  But the game was going to change.  The IRB, frustrated with the hideous kick-and-chase monster the game had become, were about to change the “interpretation” of the breakdown law, requiring tacklers to clearly disengage from the tackled player before competing for the ball.  It was enough to hand the initiative back to the attacking team.  Rugby would become a phase game again, and Ireland would have to adapt or be left behind.

Eight Games That Defined Irish Rugby: Match One

The Match: Italy 37-22 Ireland, December 1997

What it Defined: Ireland’s initial ineptitude in the professional era.  It was the prescursor to Ireland’s lowest ebb, the infamous defeat to Argentina in Lens, 20 months later.

The State of Play

The last tournament of the amateur era was the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. It gave the world the iconic pictures of Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar, Tony Underwood’s “tackle” on Jonah Lomu, Suzy the waitress, the Battle of Boet Erasmus and the tragedy of Max Brito. Ireland, and Irish rugby, contributed nothing to the tournament.

They were in a group with New Zealand, Wales and Japan – New Zealand administered a predictable beating, and it only got worse from there. They played Japan in Bloemfontein, and took them on up front, fearing the Japanese three-quarter line would run riot – the sprightly Japanese didn’t buy it, and just after half-time had Ireland in trouble at 21-26. Ireland resorted to the maul and pulled away to win by 22, much to the displeasure of the assembled Afrikaners. Next was Wales, and it was essentially a play-off to avoid being left behind in the coming professional era. The game was an abomination – Ireland’s tactic was to kick the ball over the dead ball line and force Wales to drop-out – it worked in that they won, but the paucity of skill was embarrassing. France administered the lethal injection in Durban a week later.

Four of that squad of 28 played abroad, and a few months later, the amateur game was dead.  Professional rugby in Ireland started with all the pace and certainty of a concussed sloth – the union didn’t want to contract the players without something for them to do, so the players found something for themselves … in England.  The IRFU had no idea how to keep squads of professionals busy, and the players did what could be expected of them – bailed to where the clubs had embraced professionalism.

In January 1997, following a defeat to Italy in Lansdowne Road, Murray Kidd was booted out and the IRFU hired Brian Ashton. Ashton was then considered the best club coach in the hemipshere, and had resigned as coach of Bath in 1996 after leading them to unprecedented success alongside Jack Rowell, then as head coach. The Ooooooooooooooooooohhh in Bath essentially came from Ashton (and Barnesy), and Ireland had him – it is like Romania signing up Heineke Meyer or Joe Schmidt tomorrow. He signed a 5-year contract, and he was the IRFU’s statement that they were finally embracing the pro era. They also committed to getting four full-time coaches in the provinces by the next season, and setting about bringing the players home – moves on this were considered key by Ashton.

A difficult first Five Nations, where Ireland tried to play it wide, but resorted to boot any time pressure came on, did not augur well. Ireland won one match, beating Wales in Cardiff by 26-25, whereupon a dismal “development” tour to New Zealand and Samoa (NZ Academy 74 Ireland 15, anyone?) did not improve matters. When Ashton came back the next season, only two provinces had full-time coaches (Mike Ruddock in Leinster, and Warren Gatland in Connacht) and the player exodus continued.

The 1997 autumn/winter internationals saw Ireland play New Zealand and Canada in Dublin and Italy in Bologna. After losing to New Zealand and beating Canada ,the players headed off to face the Italians – a team with a point to prove to one of the (then) Five Nations. Italy had beaten Ireland on their last two meetings, including Murray Kidd’s last game in charge.

At this point, Ashton did the logical thing and arranged training and rendez-vous where it was most convenient to the players… Sunbury, near London. Predictably, the IRFU exploded – the players had left and now the management had as well. Expectations were minimal, and while skill levels improving due to exposure to the professional English league, organisation was a shambles.

The Game

Italy looked upon the visit of a shambolic Ireland the way a wolf would look upon the visit of a plump chicken – the slick Italians had a pseudo-professional league running for years – the likes of Campo, Naas Botha and Michael Lynagh all played there during the amateur era, so they took to the professional game easily, and had an impressive recent record against Five Nations sides, including a win in Paris earlier in the year. In the 1995 RWC that Ireland stunk out, Italy nearly beat England and finished above Argentina – they were a proper side.

The team was skillful, experienced and confident, and was marshalled by the superb Diego Dominguez at 10 – they fully expected to beat the Irish, and further improve their credentials for joining an expanded Five Nations, something they had been pursuing since the 1980s.

The first half was even, with the boots of Humph and Dominguez the only scores registered. Italy then pulled away in the second half, scoring three tries, all from their backline (no, seriously), and they cruised to a 15 point win, with the Irish try a late consolation effort by Darragh O’Mahoney.

The Ireland line-up contained ten players plying their trade in England, including Kevin Maggs, David Humphreys, Mal O’Kelly and Keith Wood, who would go on to win 297 Test caps between them. The full line up was: Nowlan; Hickie, Maggs, McCall, O’Mahoney; Humphreys, Hogan; Corrigan, Wood, Clohessy; Johns, O’Kelly; Erskine, O’Grady, Miller.

The Aftermath

It proved the second last game of the Ashton revolution – with two provincial vacancies, no players at home, and a serious case of culture shock, it was inevitable. Ireland had no national coach, two full-time professional coaches, no structures, and had all their best players abroad – they were at rock bottom. They appointed the only man they could think of – Warren Gatland. Gatty came in with a serious dose of goodwill, to no little relief. He had to prove his way back then, and built up a rapport with the press – something Ashton conspicuously did not – but still, his experience was limited to Galwegians and Connacht.

The inevitable culmination of Irish rugby’s chaotic structures was the now infamous Lens debacle, when Ireland were defeated by a gamey, but limited Argentina side.  The paucity of imagination when you saw 12 Irishmen trying to plough over the Puma line with Humph screaming for the ball to kick across to Conor O’Shea, alone on the left wing, was a low point for everyone involved in Irish rugby.  It was a very public humiliation, with the eyes of the rugby world seeing Ireland lose to one of the teams outside the cosy cartels of the Sanzar trio and Five Nations.  It was the sort of thing that just shouldn’t happen.  It meant Ireland had to suffer the humiliation of qualifying for the next World Cup.  The horror, the horror.

But while it seemed like the end of the world to much of the nation watching, behind the scenes the tide had started to turn. Gatty’s honeymoon had continued right the way through to Lens, and enabled him to survive that horrorshow. Despite the continuing grim results, there was a recognition that Ireland were being left behind, and some continuity was required – the union brought in another former Connacht coach from the USA to help Gatland – Eddie O’Sullivan.  The players were filtering back home (not all due to an IRFU masterplan; English clubs were going bust at a fast rate) to play in a putative Welsh/Scottish/Irish league and the new European Rugby Cup, where new young players untainted by the 1990s were starting to make names for themselves. The initial desire of the clubs to play in it (Shannon vs Toulouse!!) was rebuffed by the IRFU in favour of the provinces – the one thing Irish rugby had going for it. As Nigel Wray said, there was no such place as Saracens. The identification of place was to be a crucial element in the development of Irish rugby. It was darkest before the dawn…

The Games That Defined a Nation

It’s been a frenetic season; hard at times to catch one’s breath.   It started and finished in New Zealand, kicking off with an emotional roller-coaster of a World Cup and ending with a freakish three-game series in which Ireland went from almost creating history to abject humiliation seemingly in the blink of an eye.  In between we had a glum enough Six Nations and a second successive Heineken Cup win for Leinster.  We had the rise of Ulster and the end of an era, and dawn of a new one for Munster.  Throw in the politicking of the IRFU’s foreign-player rule-changes and it’s been one chaotic season.

Between the hand-wringing over Deccie’s selection policy, Ireland’s propping crisis and the unceasing, unyielding nature of the rugby calendar, it’s hard at times to keep the bigger picture in view – to get your head out of your season ticket holder commemorative scarf for long enough to take stock of the whole situation.

So over the next month we’re going to take a step back from the hullabaloo and ask: Where is Irish Rugby And How Did It Get Here?  From the dawn of professionalism to today’s provincially divided landscape, via 15 years of heroism and heartache, we’re going try to plot its recent history through Eight Matches That Defined Irish Rugby.  These are not he eight best games, the most successful, the most heartbreaking or even the most memorable, but those which, for our money, had the most significance beyond what happened as 30 large men thudded into each other for 80 frenzied minutes.  Of course, you’ll disagree with our choices and opinions, and as ever, we welcome your comments.  Game One follows tomorrow.