Monday 24 October 2016

Alan Quinlan on touring South Africa: 'Big fat f***ers shouting 'F*** you, you Irish b*****''

Alan Quinlan

Published 11/06/2016 | 11:30

Former Munster and Ireland star Alan Quinlan Photo: Sportsfile
Former Munster and Ireland star Alan Quinlan Photo: Sportsfile

We leave the hotel an hour and a half before kick-off, a police escort guiding us along our way.

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All seems fine as we approach the stadium until the traffic suddenly slows and then stops. Five minutes it takes for them to open a gate, and as we wait, this mob surrounds our team bus. Big fat fu**ers, most of them with moustaches on their faces and beers in their hands, making slit-throat gestures and giving us the middle finger.

We look at them a little bewildered. They look back in anger. "F*** you, you Irish b*****," they shout. Then they start shaking the bus and for five long minutes we sit there, waiting for this gate to open, trying to stay calm on the inside while this madness is ongoing on the outside.

It is 2004, the last time Ireland travelled to South Africa for a Test series, and, just like today, hopes are high.

And with good reason. Over the previous 18 months we had beaten Wales, Scotland and Italy (twice each), as well as France, Argentina and, best of all, world champions England in their backyard.

Our team was strong. We had experience, very few guys who were wet behind the ears, and we arrived here in Bloemfontein believing we could make history.

Alan Quinlan after Ireland’s defeat in 2004 in Bloemfontein Picture: SPORTSFILE
Alan Quinlan after Ireland’s defeat in 2004 in Bloemfontein Picture: SPORTSFILE

Never before had an Irish team won in South Africa. In fact, the only country to ever win a series here was New Zealand. The Lions are different - they claimed the 1974 and 1997 series.

Otherwise, the narrative is the same. When South Africa play at home, South Africa tend to win.

Certainly they believe they should always win against the Irish. And they seem practically affronted by what they have been reading in the press in the build-up to this game.

"Ireland have a chance," one paper says. "This Irish team is the strongest in 20 years. South Africa will be in for a fight."

The hype works against us. Were we spooked by the bus-shaking incident?

Well, we certainly start badly, conceding an early try before a moment of Brian O'Driscoll magic sets up Shane Horgan for an equalising score.

But we ride the storm. Their players hit us hard on the field, their fans pelt us with oranges and other bits of fruit off it. A sub that day, I pick up one of the oranges I'm hit with and return it to the sender with a little bit of force.

Welcome to South Africa. This is what you have to expect. They don't like losing at home - not that they particularly enjoy it on their travels, either - but, a little like the French, they have an especially strong attitude to defending their own patch.

And this is what the Irish players have to bear in mind.

There will be hostility, off the field as well as on it. The Springboks attitude will be: "How dare you even think you can win!" Never mind that in the last six meetings in Dublin, Ireland have won four times.

As far as the South Africans are concerned, that was then, and this is now. This is their land. They aren't going to be upstaged on it.

And yet I feel they might be.

At some stage, history will be made and Ireland will win a Test against the Springboks away from home. It could happen today, given how the first Test of these tours always tends to offer the visiting team the best opportunity, before fatigue and injuries kick in.

However, I don't buy into the theory that it is all or nothing today, that if we lose this game that the second and third Tests of the series will be write-offs.

Who says we can't beat South Africa? Never mind history, because none of these players were on the 2004 tour, therefore none of them bear any scars from those defeats.

And let's look at the statistics another way. Ireland have lost seven times to the Springboks on South African soil. That's right, seven, not 57.

So let's place the history of this fixture in its proper context.

This is just the second time Ireland have come here this century, a century which has already been marked by firsts: the first win over France in Paris since 1972, first Triple Crown since 1985, first Grand Slam since 1948, first win over Australia since 1979 and a first win over the Springboks since 1965.

All those boxes have been ticked. Yet a few remain. Getting to a World Cup semi-final is one; beating the All-Blacks another and doing a number in South Africa is the third.

For it to happen, they need to approach this match with a boxer's mentality and go toe to toe.

It will be aggressive and physical but given we have a decent pack, that is something we should be ready for.

Injuries clearly have hit us hard. If you think back to the World Cup, Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien, Paul O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony, Johnny Sexton, Tommy Bowe and the Kearneys were all there.

So in the context of their absence, our expectation levels should not be overly high. It has been an extraordinarily long season and mentally a number of Ireland's players are bound to feel fatigued.

But after leaving the team hotel in Cape Town yesterday, I bumped into five Connacht players who were heading out for a stroll, all of them buzzing to be here, all of them hoping for their chance, a chance to make even more history.

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