Monday 18 December 2017

Far from plain sailing getting Boks in ship-shape condition

Sean Diffley

It is generally accepted that the touring South Africans of 1951 were the best ever, coached by that Svengali, Danie Craven.

And that was in the time of an Irish team that was only denied a Grand Slam by a 3-3 draw in Cardiff. But that great Irish side of '51 -- Kyle, O'Meara, Mullen, McCarthy, McKay and O'Brien -- lost 17-5 to the rampaging Springboks at Lansdowne Road.

That was also the time when the French were zealously denying, in those pristine amateur days, that brown-envelope professionalism ruled their game. Ireland, with not a penny in their pockets, beat them that season of 1951 9-8 in those times of low-scoring internationals.

Meanwhile, Craven, sailing from sunny Capetown on the Pretoria Castle to engage with the British, Irish and French in dank and rain-washed northern europe, was taking no chances.

A coach of rigid convictions, he had his players out training on the ship's heaving decks, which got more heaving as they approached the English Channel. In their training, he had his players using a ball which he had rubbed with grease and wet soap.

Those were the days when the Irish disdained such things as a coach. The teams were selected by a five-man IRFU-appointed selection committee and subsequent matters were left to the appointed captain.

So, a substantial hop, step and a jump from those gullible days to the sophisticated coaches of today, from the loquacious Peter de Villiers to the aloof Declan Kidney, who has the unique gift of saying nothing at length. I don't believe either will bother greasing the ball before kick-off today.

The first Irishmen to oppose South Africans were the seven on the 1896 Lions side to tour. They were the Magee brothers, Louis and Joseph, Lawrence Bulger, Andrew Clinch -- father of Jammie -- James Sealey -- later a high court judge -- and Wanderers pair Tom Crean and Robert Johnston. They lost just one, the last of four Tests, of the 21 matches they played.

When the tour ended, Crean, who was a doctor, and Johnston stayed in South Africa and were both awarded Victoria Crosses for valour during the second Boer War. And as it so happens, another member of Wanderers, Frederick Harvey, became the third Irish international to receive the VC, during World War One.

So Wanderers, who used to be known as the "Chaps", have the bragging rights, the only rugby club anywhere with such a distinction.

Crean later practised medicine in London and that famous picture of the finish of the Olympic marathon in London in 1908 shows the official doctor, Crean, insisting on the semi-conscious Dorando Pietri being helped off the track after the Italian's legs gave up on him upon entering White City Stadium.

Of Pietri's total time of 2:54.46, 10 minutes were needed for the last 350 metres, and it was the help he received from officials after collapsing five times on the last lap that got him disqualified from the race.

Irish Independent

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