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…