Tuesday 25 July 2017

It's a different world since it all began in 1987

Jim Glennon recalls 15 flights, eight hotels and four countries in a four-week odyssey

It was a year of recession, unemployment, hospital closures, and historically-high interest rates. In sport, Shamrock Rovers were in the news (but for the wrong reasons), the All-Irelands were won by Meath and Galway and the first Rugby World Cup was held in Australia and, mainly, New Zealand.

To put the interest rates in some perspective, I recall a New Zealand bank offering a World Cup Special on interest rates for term-deposits of 18per cent basic, with a bonus percentage point for each game won by the All Blacks in the competition (maximum six), together with a further bonus point, bringing the potential return to 25 per cent, if the home heroes managed to claim the trophy.

I was a married father-of-two enjoying, in my 33rd year, an unexpected return to representative rugby, having retired from the game a couple of years previously. A middling-enough season with Leinster -- all of six games -- was somehow enough for me to win a place in the final trial, in which I managed to convince the selectors I was worth a run in the national team for the Five Nations, and subsequently for inclusion in the 26-man squad to travel in May to the Antipodes.

We finished mid-table in the championship, beating England and Wales and losing to Scotland and the Grand-Slam winning French. There was an air of underachievement around the squad, the backbone of which was still very much that of coach Mick Doyle's 1985 Triple-Crown-winning group.

The World Cup, however, was another issue entirely, a voyage into the unknown.

We had a back-up team consisting of Doyle, his assistant Syd Millar who doubled as tour manager, team doctor Mick Molloy, physio Joe Doran, and George Spotswood from the IRFU staff; we were also provided with two native New Zealander liaison officers. Interesting to note that the 2011 group have a support group which almost quadruples that.

Among our 26 were just two hookers, Harry Harbison and Terry Kingston, and two scrumhalves, Michael Bradley and Tony Doyle. We went through five hookers: Harbison, who had been first-choice, was injured in training before the first game and took no further part. His replacement John McDonald was injured in his debut game against Canada, and took no further part either, being replaced in turn by his Ulster colleague Steve Smith. So Kingston had a tough baptism in international rugby, playing in three of the four games at the start of what turned out to be a distinguished Irish career.

Preparation, if it could be so described, was minimal. In stark contrast with the past six weeks, we were instructed not to play any rugby for a month prior to our departure and came together for a few weekend sessions, being encouraged to maintain fitness levels in the interim periods.

For one of those weekend sessions, we were greeted on arrival at the ground by the sight of armed Special Branch men hiding in the bushes and behind walls. We had grown accustomed to an ongoing presence among our group of one or two such officers as we invariably had among our number at least one member of the Northern Ireland security forces. Small arms we were used to, but Uzis were a new departure!

It transpired that three of our colleagues, Nigel Carr, David Irwin and Philip Rainey, had been caught in an IRA bombing near Newry as they travelled south for the session. A senior judge and his wife were the primary targets and both tragically died in the incident. The lads were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nigel was lucky to survive and the serious injuries he incurred ruled him out of the competition, bringing a premature end to an outstanding international career. Fortunately, both Davy, a medical doctor who performed heroics at the scene, and 'Chipper' recovered sufficiently to take part, but the loss of Nigel was a major blow to the team.

The irony of three young athletes putting aside any political differences to represent the island at the highest level of international competition in their chosen sport being attacked by terrorists acting in pursuit of a so-called united Ireland wasn't lost on any of us.

We travelled to New Zealand ten days before our first game, against Wales, and on the same aircraft as our opponents; 34 hours in economy class of a packed aircraft, with one-hour refuelling-stops in Los Angeles and Hawaii, and an unscheduled diversion to Wellington -- where we spent a further two hours confined to the aircraft -- before taking off again for Auckland.

Ironic, too, that it was Wellington, because the windy city was the venue for the Welsh game the following week, and here were both squads at the airport bursting to leave the plane but we had to travel on to Auckland because both squads were expected at the tournament dinner there the following night.

Indeed that dinner, for me, was an excellent metaphor for the whole experience. The idea was a nice one, all the players and officials coming together before the tournament started in a social environment. The problem was that none of the players wanted to be there. There had been such a build-up to the tournament that all we wanted was to get on the pitch and play a game.

That night was noteworthy for another, unwelcome, reason too; Doyle suffered what was at first thought to be a heart attack. There was great publicity around it at home, prompting Taoiseach Charlie Haughey to phone him in hospital, only to be told by the patient that it was better that he had his illness in New Zealand, considering the rate at which his government was closing hospitals in Ireland.

Thankfully, it wasn't a heart attack, and our coach was able to rejoin us a few days later in time for the vast bulk of our near four-week odyssey, over the course of which we were to stay in eight hotels in four countries, taking 15 flights to get from one to the next. There was just one day on which we didn't either train, travel or play, and that was in the fourth and final week.

On the playing side, we were in a group with Wales, Canada and Tonga, in that order. We lost to Wales in Wellington, then beat Canada and Tonga to qualify as group runners-up for a quarter-final against Australia in Sydney, which we lost 33-15, on June 7. We boarded a flight for home early the following morning, leaving our conquerors behind us in the semi-finals along with France, Wales and ultimate victors, New Zealand.

The Welsh game was noteworthy for the anthems. In response to a recording of the massed Welsh choirs singing Land of our Fathers at the Arms Park as only they can, we were obliged to stand for a recording of James Last and his orchestra in concert in Austin Stack Park, Tralee, giving their arrangement of the Rose of Tralee. I've nothing against the park, the Rose, Tralee or even James Last, but a launching-pad for the biggest-ever rugby competition it most certainly was not.

One of my abiding memories from the game in Sydney was one banner among several tricolours supporting us. It read: 'Keep Rovers at Milltown'.

Times have indeed moved on.

Sunday Indo Sport

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