Sunday 23 October 2016

We missed the boat once, we can't miss it again

Published 30/04/2015 | 00:00

Willie Anderson v New Zealand, 1989
Willie Anderson v New Zealand, 1989
Warren Gatland and Eddie O'Sullivan

The footage of Ireland captain Willie Anderson literally leading his troops into battle with the All Blacks in Lansdowne Road in 1989 is worth looking up on YouTube. The 3.5 million hits tells you it's special, and if you're a recent arrival to rugby then you'll struggle to believe it actually happened.

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It was in the days before facing the Haka became an area subject to protocol. If you wanted to spark up a fag and whistle a happy tune then you probably could have done that. Anderson, however, having earlier in the tour seen Neath retreat to a corner of the pitch rather than face it - only, humiliatingly, to be pursued there by the men in black - decided on a different strategy. If his defiant march into the middle of the Haka was stunning then so too was the preamble to the game.

By the time the tourists arrived here they were already humming along nicely. Ireland in contrast hadn't taken the covers off the latest model in green. And given the IRFU's strict observance of the amateur code at the time, that wouldn't happen until a couple of days before the game itself.

Ireland's coach at the time was Jimmy Davidson. We are great admirers in this parish of the late Jimmy D, a slightly mad but thoroughly thoughtful and innovative coach. With a view to being the best they could be against the world's best, Davidson had asked the union for leeway to have a few extra squad sessions. He was knocked back. And the letter which gave him the bad news - the amateur code would have to be observed - was one he stuck up on the notice board above his desk in Stranmillis College.

Hard to fathom now, but that's how it was back then. And this was two years before the second World Cup. It would be the fourth of those tournaments that woke the IRFU up to the idea that, while they didn't much like the pro game, they'd better get on board with it or be left behind altogether.

The degree of their unwillingness to embrace the new order had been perfectly illustrated by Bobby Deacy, who was IRFU president in 1996/97. Early in that season - it was the second year of professional rugby - I had asked the four provincial coaches if they thought they needed full/part-time squads to operate effectively. There had been a brief period when the clubs, high on the success of the All-Ireland League, fancied their chances of representing Ireland in the fancy new European Cup, but the union had jumped all over that one, designating the provinces as the vehicle that would carry Irish rugby forward. So it wasn't a quantum leap from there to providing those provinces with the means to do their work: players. Naturally enough, the coaches wanted workable squads. When I put this to the union president his response was a classic.

"I have no comment to make on their opinion," Deacy said. "I don't know what they mean by provincial contracts, and I don't know if they know what they mean by provincial contracts."

By the time Argentina dumped Ireland out of the World Cup, on that long, numbing night in Lens in 1999, the union were crystal clear on what provincial contracts were all about.

That was four years after the stable door had been opened, and Irish rugby was still in the barn, chewing away. Playing catch-up was better than not playing at all, and the decision to ditch Warren Gatland in favour of Eddie O'Sullivan in November 2001 was in fact a positive sign that they were getting serious about consistency and how to achieve it.

O'Sullivan became very powerful very quickly, and used his position in a way Gatland never figured. He was the right man in the right place at the right time, and in his eight seasons in charge Ireland began to look like a professional operation.

The IRFU men had mostly come round to the shape of the new world by the time O'Sullivan was replaced by Declan Kidney in 2008. Because there had been no separation between the honorary side of the house and the paid one - the amateurs to this day still call the shots - they were able to enjoy the good times when they rolled. So the committee still travels en masse to all the away games in the Six Nations, staying in the best hotels and living the high life.

It's hard to say for how much longer this will continue. The power shift in the European club game over the last two years has signalled the end of the first era of professional rugby. The second one will see the international game in a battle to remain at the top of the tree, challenged by cash-rich clubs driven by money men who'd rather wear sackcloth than a blazer. A bit like Willie Anderson and the Haka back in '89, not everybody wants to observe the status quo.

Sunday Independent

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