Sunday 22 September 2019

Brendan Fanning: 'Ireland's year of winning famously'

Looking back at IRFU before professionalism, it's amazing to see how far Ireland have come

Ireland's Jacob Stockdale. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland's Jacob Stockdale. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The tumultuous events of last weekend in Lansdowne Road took us back to a near miss that has been all but wiped out by the recent history between Ireland and New Zealand.

And that's readily understandable. When a fixture shifts from being a novelty to a recurring date - Saturday's thriller was the 11th match-up in as many years - it's easy to airbrush out something that happened in an age when, if you didn't get TV or radio coverage of the game, you were waiting until the next day's newspapers to find out what happened. That was life in the dark days of 1992.

The day we left Dublin, the headline in The Irish Times was breaking a story about Bishop Eamonn Casey having a son. In those days that kind of stuff was sensational. A week into the New Zealand tour, in Christchurch's Lancaster Park, a punter unfurled a banner pitch-side with the message: 'The Bishop didn't do it'.

Bizarrely, Ireland would nearly do it too. We will always remember it as a dark tour lightened by many moments of gallows humour. And one gob-smacking afternoon when the All Blacks were caught cold and almost paid a price.

By the time we got to the first Test in Dunedin the tourists were shell-shocked. The previous Saturday in Auckland, the provincial side had unloaded 62 points on them.

In the changing room afterwards, tour manager Noel Murphy was tip-toeing through the wreckage reassuring anyone prepared to listen that, by comparison, the Test wouldn't be so bad. He was right.

Seven days later, on a bright afternoon in Carisbrook - rugby's original House of Pain - New Zealand looked like a Robin Reliant compared to Auckland's Rolls Royce. As for Ireland, they were so happy at this turn of events that they raced into a 12-0 lead, playing really positive rugby. In the end, they would be caught but even at 24-21 down with time running out they had a glorious chance when Dungannon wing Ronnie Carey went for an intercept that might have won them the game. "Had I gone a split second earlier I would have been away," he said. And New Zealand would have been buried.

Oh well. To be honest, it would have been a battle to do justice to the effort if Ireland had won, for within minutes of the final whistle everyone realised it would be the high point of a trip that exposed us as being a mile off the pace. That would have been fine if the IRFU were prepared to invest in catching up.

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Rooting through that tour file the other day, we came across the following faxed message from the sports editor of the Sunday Tribune, after the second Test.

"Let's make sure we're the ones who are first off the mark in questioning how useful this all is? Question one: what the fuck are we doing over here?!!"

Sure enough we asked, and with equal surety coach Ciaran Fitzgerald and Noel Murphy had the usual stuff about needing to see it up close to realise the job that needed to be done. Problem was, there was no appetite for same job.

Back then we used to lament the IRFU's skewed priorities that favoured good husbandry to fund a game that was so conservative you could write a personal cheque to cover the costs. Meantime, south of the equator, our Aussie cousins were breaking the bank to keep their talent from going pro in rugby league. Two World Cups from the first four vindicated their approach.

A few years after that '92 tour, with Irish rugby still miles off the pace internationally and domestically, the IRFU lashed out a whopping IR£1m on a fat parcel of land at Newlands Cross. Out in the sticks, as we referred to it at the time. But if the union were crap at grassroots development and player management, then they were world class at the property game.

How appropriate then that in the run-up to last weekend's Test they should offload the same real estate for €27m. In truth, we had forgotten all about it. It would be name-checked regularly when the old Lansdowne Road was so close to being dysfunctional that its replacement was the topic of the day.

And then, just as the team were about to run out on one of their biggest days, the IRFU tell us that they have a chunk of change to throw at the next stage of developing the game in this country. How good is that?

Interestingly, CEO Philip Browne, himself a seasoned timber from the days when the union had no interest in serious rugby, was quick to explain that the wedge would fund the future of the domestic game - "for the benefit of clubs and schools".

How timely that the IRFU should open this shoebox full of cash at a time when they are, ironically, trying to drag the AIL clubs into the future. The words 'carrot and stick' present themselves.

As for the shop window, it has never looked more appealing. One sign of its progress is the serious heat generated by the frothy debate over rugby's evolution into the people's game. Not sure which is more ludicrous: the contention that rugby is now reaching parts other household sports cannot or the hot-under-the-collar reaction to it. Hard to credit, but there you go.

What is inarguable is that it's a country mile ahead of where it was when we were setting off to New Zealand in 1992. You didn't need super powers to figure that going pro could be the salvation of Ireland, for not only did we have more to benefit than most - along with the Scots, we had been world champions at being amateur - but the IRFU were in rude financial health. Getting them to part with the cash in the early days of the new era was like pulling teeth, but they're making all the right noises now.

Joe Schmidt's role in all of this has been well documented, and we will hear more of it as he gears up for the last lap. To his credit, he has moved heaven and earth to provide what for Ireland will be a unique level of playing cover going to the World Cup next year. If you go back to the Canada game in 2016, the only handy run-out of Ireland's November programme that year, almost a third of the side were either filling gaps or somewhere in transit between flights in and flights out.

The squad that wrapped up the series yesterday comprised 23 players who not only have real ambitions of being in the 31 to go to Japan, but who will do a decent job there. And, last week, the 23 who saw off New Zealand didn't include Robbie Henshaw, Conor Murray, Sean O'Brien and Dan Leavy. If push comes to shove on the injury front, Schmidt will have no qualms about calling up Simon Zebo or Ian Madigan, or both.

Getting to this point has involved keeping a lot of balls in the air, making a few big calls in search of spreading the work experience - for example the selection for the first Test in Brisbane last summer - cajoling, schmoozing and bullying at various points along the journey. So, for Irish rugby the year now coming to a close has included a Grand Slam, a Champions Cup, a Pro14, a series win in Australia, and an historic win over New Zealand in Dublin.

When we were landing in Auckland in 1992, the New Zealand rugby union didn't send any blazer along to the airport for the usual handshakes. Horror. At various points along the way their players were refreshingly insulting; All Black Gary Whetton told us after the Auckland demolition derby: "To be honest, I'm a little disappointed in the Irish team - there's no doubt about that. I thought they would put up more of a challenge, if you like."

Sadly, you don't get that sort of candour any more. Neither would you get cause for it about an Ireland rugby team.

6 Nations

v France (a) Won 15-13

v Italy (h) Won 56-19

v Wales (h) Won 37-27

v Scotland (h) Won 28-8

v England (a) Won 24-15

The international element of Johnny Sexton's 2018 started with a game saved and ended with a game largely sorted before he left the scene. And then he was shortlisted for the World Player of the Year award. The first blow struck in that campaign was the last kick of the day in Paris with a drop goal so dramatic it put in the shade Ronan O'Gara's effort to win the 2009 Grand Slam. The odds on that would have been as long as those on Ireland beating New Zealand twice in two years.

Australia Tour

First Test (Brisbane) Lost 9-18

Second Test (Melbourne) Won 26-21

Third Test (Sydney) Won 20-16

Will Addison was grateful not just to spend a week with the Ireland squad on tour but that it should coincide with their build-up to the second Test having lost the first one. "Going into the camp the week after Brisbane and just seeing the intensity of Joe and the intensity of Andy Farrell was brilliant," he said. "I think If I'd gone in when times were easier I don't think it would have been so enjoyable." The best bit came in Sydney in week three when history was made with a series win after a gap stretching back to 1979.

November Series

v Italy (Chicago) Won 54-7

v Argentina (h) Won 28-17

v New Zealand (h) Won 16-9

Time was when it was hard enough to shift tickets for November internationals whether it was New Zealand or Nicaragua you were playing. The demand for the All Blacks game - after what happened in 2016 - was unique. Had it gone south it would have caused a hangover that lingered all the way to Japan. With no guarantee of being shifted. That it went right was to validate the work Joe Schmidt has done, and means Ireland can present themselves at the World Cup having beaten all of the contenders at least once in the preceding two years.

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