Tuesday 12 December 2017

A slow healing process

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

PERHAPS it's time we moved on, but it's hard to get through a week talking about the World Cup without referring to the long night in Lens. For many in this country Ireland's dismissal from the last World Cup has cast a shadow over the game here, one that won't be shifted until and unless Adelaide next month produces a fresh and more positive chapter.

So when you talk to a man who was at the heart of that setback four years ago you expect a groan at the mere mention of the subject. Followed by tales of how he still wakes in the middle of the night, re-enacting the chase into the corner after Argentina's try-scorer, Diego Albanese. Or recasting the final minutes when, instead of applying all hands to a pump that was already broken, Ireland shift the ball wide and wash the Pumas away.

But Dion O'Cuinneagain, the skipper of that sunken ship, sleeps like a baby. If he stirs in the middle of the night then more likely it would be to think of a patient in the intensive care unit of the Cape Town hospital where he now earns his living. Or the emergency room where he sees more blood in a week than in a lifetime of rugby. But the World Cup doesn't keep him up nights.

"No, not at all," he says. "It's probably the one game you would have liked to have won but I think it's gone, you know? I'm just happy to see the Irish guys doing extremely well at the moment and the team performing so well. I really do believe they can have an extremely good World Cup."

Steady on there Dion, we seem to remember similar words in the run-up to the last big bash. Back then, however, he was in the middle of it, spinning the PR line that was designed to fast-track Ireland into a quarter-final against France in Lansdowne Road.

The truth of it was he shouldn't have been playing at all.

O'Cuinneagain had been galloping about the place for Sale when he came into the Irish set-up towards the end of the 1998 season. In a high-scoring 40-30 defeat against England A at Richmond he convinced Warren Gatland that this was the sort of pace that could win races. Two months later he was picking up his first caps for the land of his parents on a tour to South Africa, the country of his birth. And by autumn 1999 he was the leader.

'The huge difference between then and now is that Ireland have won a lot of games recently'

Problem was that in a run of the mill training drill building up to the World Cup, a colleague ploughed into his shoulder while O'Cuinneagain was holding the tackling bag. The AC joint was damaged and it was far from right come tournament time. O'Cuinneagain still reckons he was OK to play, but then adds, somewhat incongruously: "At the time I felt fine, but generally I couldn't tackle on that side."

Bit of a restriction, that. So too were a few other factors: one win (Wales in Wembley) in the preceding Five Nations; less than flamboyant backs; an all round shortage of experience; and a game plan that didn't cater for plan A not working. In retrospect, the talk of quarter-finals was inspired more by the location of the fixture than Ireland's form.

Now the contrast is stark, and O'Cuinneagain's optimism about next month is rooted more in reality.

"The huge difference between then and now is that Ireland have won a lot of games recently and they've a lot of experience in that team now," he says. "I still remember being one of the senior players in the squad around the last World Cup - as were Woody and Claw - and we were all in the 20 cap range. There's a huge difference when you have guys at 50 caps: just your ability to control a game and read situations and handle the pressure and make the right decisions. That's massive.

"If you take a guy like David Humphreys who played against Argentina in the last World Cup, he's still playing four years later with probably another 30 caps up, and he's playing great rugby. And Ronan O'Gara (not involved in '99) has got a whole load of caps (33) since then.

"Now, we made terrible decisions against Argentina last time. We were 18-6 up or whatever and basically came out after half time and gave away penalty after penalty in our own half and just got kicked out of the game. But Ireland have guys who make the right decisions now. In the end we couldn't score a try but it wasn't as if we had scored a hell of a lot of tries in the Five Nations."

That was at the heart of it: the inability to score tries. Aside from that mob handed maul, which started out with Warren Gatland in Connacht as innovative and brave, and ended up with Ireland as quite the opposite, there wasn't a whole lot going on. And the extent of the inactivity caught up with us that night. O'Cuinneagain delights in the apparent difference between then and now.

"The whole thing about the (current) Irish attack is that it's intelligent," he says. "When the backs go wide or use the ball well the forwards know exactly where it's going. The game plan is structured three or four plays ahead and that makes a huge difference. With Gats (Gatland) we had good structure up until about two phases and suddenly we had won the ball four times and it was: 'now where the hell do we go?'

"It's probably come a lot from the Munster play and the confidence they built up under Declan but the Irish team have taken it on and the ball is used far more effectively."

From his perspective though, he has also picked up on a few interesting points about Ireland's selection for the World Cup. Like most with an interest in the subject he was taken aback by the omission of David Wallace.

"When Ireland went out to Australia in the summer, obviously Eddie O'Sullivan would have looked at the surfaces there," he says. "A big problem northern hemisphere teams always have down here is that they underestimate the speed you need in your loose forwards. If he's going to play both Victor Costello and Anthony Foley you need very quick guys around them.

"Gleeson is a very good player in terms of linking and putting pressure on the ball at breakdowns, but what you find a lot down here - if you look at Richie McCaw and all these guys - is that the number seven gets a lot more carrying opportunities on the harder surfaces. That was the first thing I thought of when David Wallace was left out. And at number eight also: I wouldn't be scared of playing Eric Miller there. He's a footballer and he plays his best rugby on hard surfaces; he's not a man for just bashing it up the whole time."

'When the backs go wide or use the ball well the forwards know exactly where it's going'

At just 31, O'Cuinneagain is still close enough to ache for the action of Test rugby, but he's happy enough with his lot. He only started one more game for Ireland after the '99 tournament and when the shoulder injury cleared up, it was followed by a hand problem that affected his day-to-day living. Quite apart from not being able to lift weights with it, not being able to grasp a toothbrush was more unsettling. A couple of operations returned it to full function, but rugby was out.

Instead that gap in his life is filled by coaching. And he has landed in an unusually Irish set-up. Three nights a week he trains the University of Cape Town side along with former UCC number eight Barry O'Mahony. Recently they have been joined by Steph Nel, who had been hired by South Africa coach Rudolf Straeuli as part of a Springbok strategy group. "But nobody quite knows what Rudolf's doing," O'Cuinneagain says. "Steph was being paid to be part of a think tank, but he hasn't had to think too much. I think he's a bit frustrated so we called him in to UCT to get some use out of him and he's helping us out."

O'Cuinneagain is happy with that, and content with a life that has given him an international rugby career, followed by a job back home in his chosen field. Next summer, Ireland head to South Africa for a two-Test trip which, conveniently, finishes in Cape Town. He can't wait for the mini Irish invasion, and stories of a successful World Cup.

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