Cormac Looney

THEY'RE the 16th man... the rugby fans who drove the Irish team onto victory over Italy.

More than 25,000 Irish fans crammed into Dunedin's Otago Stadium to devour every second of Ireland's defeat of Italy.

The scale of the Irish presence in Dunedin drew a barbed comment from Italian coach Nick Mallet who wanted to know where the impoverished Irish got the money to travel.

Well, they told him.

But who were the thousands of young, attractive and apparently pretty affluent Irish fans and how did so many get to New Zealand?

It's a story of our young and the tens of thousands who have found a new life Down Under.

Official figures had stated that just 500 fans were expected to travel to New Zealand for the Rugby World Cup.

Instead it appears that between two and three thousand Irish fans have dug deep to make the trip to the Southern Hemisphere.

The remaining 20-odd thousand fans show the extent of emigration from this country to Australia, in particular.

Every flight out of Australia to New Zealand has been packed with Irish fans for the weekend games.

The Irish may have had to leave home for good jobs abroad but they have lost none of their passion of the Ol' Sod.

And they are set to be joined by thousands more Down Under on if the thousands of young Irish people who queued around the block at the RDS to attend the Working Abroad Expo is anything to go by.

Australian officials were offering jobs with salaries of €45,000 and all the trappings of a Southern Hemisphere lifestyle.Many of these are young, educated and unemployed Irish people.

At this rate the Irish '16th man' looks set to take over the entire tournament -- and their presence has had a major effect on the players themselves. Captain Brian O'Driscoll described the match as "like Lansdowne Road". "I've played in Dublin before when it hasn't been that good," he said.

His feelings were echoed by quotes from young fans in Dunedin, who all told the same story -- 'we're here, we love it and why would we go back now'?

One Dubliner told a reporter: "I worked in Queenstown for three months as a butcher, and I bought a campervan about seven weeks ago. We've been to all the matches and anywhere the team is playing.

"Our country's in the darkest recession in I don't know how many decades, but we managed to outnumber the Australians two to one in Eden Park."

His story has been replicated hundreds of times over, it appears, by fans in their 20s and 30s who've resettled in Oz.

Previous waves of emigration from Ireland have been marked by sadness and depression. Many readers recall black and white photographs of Cobh Harbour or Christmastime news footage of distraught parents at Knock Airport.

Some pundits remarked on the 'sad' background to the huge Irish support.

Sad for some, maybe.

But the Irish fans who crowded Dunedin showed the positive side of the emigrant's experience.

They could have watched the game on TV in rain-lashed Dublin. Instead, they're living the dream.