Losing to Italy still fresh in one Irish mind
David O'Mahony tells Hugh Farrelly about a bittersweet first and last cap in the final days of the amateur era
IRELAND are 1/8 with Ladbrokes to get their Six Nations campaign off to a winning start in Rome on Saturday, against a side they have never lost to in this tournament.
An Italian victory would not be seismic enough to have people sleepless in Seattle, but it would certainly reverberate around the rugby world. And yet, you do not have to travel back too far to discover a time when the Italians were the dominant power in this fixture.
Three defeats for Ireland between 1995 and 1997, saw them battered in Bologna, limp in Lansdowne and tonked in Treviso -- the match that kicked off that sequence in what was supposed to be a confidence-building exercise prior to the 1995 World Cup.
That afternoon has bittersweet memories for David O'Mahony, who won his first and only cap at scrum-half.
The 40-year-old is a well-respected coach these days, working with the Ireland club international side and with Clonakilty in Division 2 of the Ulster Bank league, and his memories of that solitary appearance for his country are dominated by descriptions of a very different time for the Irish game.
"Rugby was just about to go professional and the southern hemisphere countries, England and France were along that path, but in Ireland it was still completely amateur in every sense," recalls O'Mahony.
"You'd play a tough All-Ireland League game on a Saturday and travel up to Dublin that night for the Ireland squad session on the back pitch in Lansdowne the next morning, maybe grabbing a burger and chips on the way.
"You'd check into the Berkeley Court on the Saturday night and guys would be in the front door and out the back to the pub and on to Leeson Street, it was a world away from the preparations players go through these days.
"Then, at the training session next day, guys would be beaten around the park, way too much contact after a hard game the day before, particularly when some of them were hanging from a night on the tiles. It's crazy when you look back at it."
O'Mahony's involvement in the national set-up had come after a steady climb up the representative ladder through CBC Cork, UCC and on to Cork Constitution, one of the heavyweights in Division 1 of the AIL. He was playing well enough to deserve consideration for the 1995 Five Nations, but Ireland veteran and club colleague Michael Bradley was ahead in the pecking order, along with Terenure's Niall Hogan, and he had to wait for an opening to present itself.
"I was 24 and probably in the form of my career that season," says O'Mahony. "I was getting on the Munster team ahead of Brads (Bradley) and was going really well with Paul Burke at out-half. We had won the inter-provincial championship playing a great brand of rugby and scoring lots of tries. I thought it would be enough to get me into the mix for the Five Nations.
"But Brads was the established first choice and Hogan the back-up and the attitude back then was that younger guys did their time with the Ireland 'A' side and waited their turn, which was very frustrating when you felt you were playing well enough to be involved.
"But for the warm-up game against Italy, Brads was unavailable and Niall was doing medical exams so there was an opportunity at scrum-half. Looking back, it's still frustrating to think how it came about because they only told me I was going to start the Sunday before when they could have let me know earlier, which might have changed how it turned out.
"I played for Con against Garryowen in the Munster Senior Cup on the Saturday and picked up a knock. Then driving up to Dublin that night, it developed into a haematoma of the thigh and I was in agony by the time I made it up. These days you would not even consider playing, but, when you have the chance of winning your first cap, you'd do anything, so I played it down and got on with it, though I spent a lot of the week on the treatment table. We travelled over with a strong team on paper, but, in truth, it was really just thrown together and Italy, at the time, were a coming force.
"They had a big physical pack and excellent half-backs in (Alessandro)Troncon and (Diego) Dominguez and were a formidable prospect at home. They were far too good for us that day. I was wearing heavy strapping, but managed to get through the first 40 minutes not too badly before I was forced to come off in the second-half for Alain Rolland.
"That was a tough period for Irish rugby and there was a strong tradition of drowning your sorrows after defeats. Afterwards there was a hell of a session. Let's just say there were a few escapades that night and the following morning we were all marched off the bus and lined up outside the hotel like schoolboys as the management investigated an incident from the night before.
"Apparently, laundry bags had gone missing and a large bottle had been removed from behind the bar after the night porter had gone to bed and there was a witch-hunt to find the culprit with Noisy (Noel Murphy) in the role of Hercule Poirot."
Technically, O'Mahony was the man in possession of the No 9 jersey, but when Bradley and Hogan returned he was out in the cold, on the stand-by squad as Ireland struggled to another disappointing World Cup exit.
"I had problems with that injury for three months afterwards and, even though I was on stand-by, I wouldn't have been able to play if I had been called up. Afterwards, there was a change in coach, Murray Kidd came in for Gerry Murphy and then he was replaced not long after by Brian Ashton, who was only really interested in players in England.
"The game had gone professional by then and I never really had another chance. I moved to Dublin to play with Lansdowne and Leinster, but you needed to go full-time professional to have a chance. I had a good job in the bank and giving that up to go on a 12-month rugby contract for half the money with the risk of injury was too much of a gamble
"So, that was it. One cap, one defeat to Italy, but it was still an honour to play for Ireland. And I will always be grateful to Rollers (Rolland), who made a point of swapping his jersey with Troncon and presenting it to me in the dressing room. I still have Troncon's jersey and my own Irish one at home -- although I think those laundry bags and the missing bottle were given back."