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Pro evolution rugby

Maybe no story captures the troubled birth of professionalism in Irish rugby quite like Munster's giddy dalliance with John Bevan.

The former Welsh wing was signed up as one of the IRFU's four full-time provincial directors in '97. Bevan arrived for his introductory meeting positively radiant with enthusiasm, only to be met by a comment from of one of the supposed mainstays of his new squad: "Don't know why you're coming over here, because we're all p***ing off!"

The Welshman soon discovered a muddled contracting policy whereby just about any Irish player worth his salt was already bound for the financial re-assurance of the English Premiership. In other words, the professional game in Ireland was still little more than a conceited illusion.

Bevan promptly thanked the Union for their interest and took the next flight home.

After the Welshman, came New Zealander Andy Leslie and a deal that was "80pc" agreed until Leslie, too, baulked at what he saw as half-baked revolution. Irish rugby was being dragged kicking and screaming into the new world.

The international team at the time was hapless, finishing rock bottom of the Five Nations for four successive seasons between '96 and '99, national coaches coming and going like blooms on heather.

Model

Yet, just over a decade on, Irish rugby looks the very model of smart housekeeping. Munster's 'spin the bottle' pursuit of a new leader eventually chanced upon the Declan Kidney/Niall O'Donovan alliance that set the province off on a magic carpet ride which continues to this day.

And, by the time Italy joined the hitherto closed shop of Five Nations rugby (2000), Eddie O'Sullivan's hand was already on the Irish tiller, albeit as Warren Gatland's assistant. Remarkably, today will be Ireland's first game in Six Nations history without O'Sullivan somewhere in the cockpit.

In the nine years of its existence, fourth place represents this country's worst performance in the tournament. Five times, we have finished second. Ireland's record, then, is unrecognisable from the amateur days where avoiding a whitewash so often seemed the breadth of national ambition. Through the final 10 years of the amateur game, Ireland finished in the bottom two of the Championship nine times, an indignity they have yet to suffer in Six Nations rugby.

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Mick Galwey played through the evolution and easily identifies the point of separation.

It was, he says, the '99/'00 season. He was part of a Munster team that, on successive weekends, recorded Heineken Cup victories in England and France (Saracens and Colomiers). Then Ireland won a Championship game in Paris (Brian O'Driscoll scoring that celebrated hat-trick of tries) for the first time since 1972.

"At that stage, we'd been training full-time maybe three or four years and it was slowly starting to pay off," recalled Galwey this week. "For me, that was when the change happened.

"I mean I made my own international debut against France in '91. We were doing really well against them but simply ran out of steam. Peter Clohessy made his debut against them two years later and it was like a carbon copy. We'd play them, give them plenty of it for most of the game, but you always kind of sensed what was coming.

"Even playing in the game, you knew you'd be out on your feet for the last 10 or 15 minutes. And that's when we got beaten."

To this day, the French remain Ireland's most problematic foe in Championship rugby. Despite an astonishing win ratio of 75% during his time as Irish coach, O'Sullivan's only Six Nations victory over 'Le Bleus' was a

15-12 success in '03 at Lansdowne Road, notable for the controversy surrounding O'Driscoll's decisive touchdown.

Indeed, the Corkman's experience as a Six Nations coach may forever be framed by that cruel moment two years back when, with 44 seconds remaining and Ireland four points to the good, Lionel Nallet swung randomly at a restart and the ball broke into the hands of a galloping French centre. The next time Ireland touched the ball was to kick off three points down, Vincent Clerc having been left one-on-one with Irish tight-head, John Hayes, 10 metres from the Canal-end try-line.

Subsequent events, particularly the 30-point drubbing of England, suggested that Ireland ought to have won a Grand Slam in '07. Instead, they found themselves in the lobby of a Rome hotel, watching France pick the Championship crown from their pockets with a last-second try against Scotland in Paris.

Galwey suspects the memory will forever haunt this Irish team.

"The records show that professionalism has suited Irish rugby," explained the Kerryman.

"Even look at the early days of the Heineken Cup, we were getting hammered. Now any of our provinces can take on the best teams out there, be they from England, Wales or France. We can beat them home and away, which is testament to how the professional game has worked here.

"The one galling thing I suppose is when you look at a team like Wales with two Grand Slams in the last four years. I mean you wouldn't say that Wales are that much better than us, if they're better at all.

"Fair dues to them. If you look at it that way, you'd say we've under-achieved. We have been consistent and our record under Eddie O'Sullivan stands comparison with anyone. But we have very good players too. If you look at the performances of the provinces, particularly Munster winning two Heineken Cups, you expect us to be doing well at international level.

Expectations

"The players themselves expect it. These guys are professionals and their goals and expectations are set very high now."

Intriguingly, Wales' two Grand Slams have book-ended two seasons during which they finished fifth in the Six Nations. Ireland's fourth place last season stands as their lowest finishing position in the competition's history.

O'Sullivan admitted this week that he has replayed the Clerc try "thousands" of times in his mind. Indeed, he recalled a conversation with Ronan O'Gara immediately after the game where the Irish out-half revealed that he had considered committing a professional foul in the build-up to that crushing score. Had he done so, O'Gara would probably have been binned. But a penalty would not have been enough for France.

So many ifs, buts and maybes now. Had Brian O'Driscoll been fit enough to line out? Had the team not played the first 20 minutes as if in some kind of psychological strait-jacket? Had Nallet's one-handed swing not pitched the ball so freakishly into a French midfriff?

At the time, O'Sullivan was a putative Lions coach. Today, he watches the game from his home in Moylough.

It is to Kidney the baton falls then and expectation practically scrapes the heavens.

France and England, the traditional Championship heavyweights, look to be in various degrees of turmoil. Scotland have yet to finish higher than third in Six Nations history, Italy higher than fourth.

And Wales? Who knows? They remain as predictable as a roulette wheel.

Galwey, though, sees only opportunity for Kidney's Ireland today. "You'd have to be optimistic," he said. "The team has been picked on form and I'm delighted to see Rob Kearney in his best position at full-back. The pack more or less picks itself. And, more than that, we have a lot of impact players on the bench.

"Munster's form has been good. People go on about Leinster not scoring tries, but they're winning tight games. They've found a hard edge. Ulster have been flying, even Connacht are doing well. So we have to have a great chance."

The story is often told of Brian Ashton's incredulity in the build-up to the '97 Five Nations' opener against France in Dublin at the technical shortcomings of players within his Irish squad. In Brendan Fanning's 'From There to Here', Ashton's assistant coach, Mike Brewer, describes the former Bath supremo as being visibly shocked by what he had inherited.

"I remember after that first week, he (Ashton) said to me 'Jesus, I don't know if I've made the right decision here!'" recalled Brewer. Ireland lost the game 15-32. They would keep on losing.

Twelve years on, only the colours remain unchanged.


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