Thursday 22 August 2019

Class of 2018 chase history

It is 39 years since the last Irish team won a series on Tri Nations soil but even if the current team repeats it, the tour can hardly contain as much drama as in 1979

With captain Rory Best ruled out through injury, Conor Murray is one of the strongest candidates to lead Ireland on their tour Down Under. Photo: Sportsfile
With captain Rory Best ruled out through injury, Conor Murray is one of the strongest candidates to lead Ireland on their tour Down Under. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Phil Orr could pen his name in the annals at the end of this month, never mind James Ryan.

If, as many suspect they might, Ireland claim a first professional overseas series against a Tri Nations side, the outgoing President of the IRFU can lay claim to featuring on two winning tours in Australia.

"If my record as a player is consigned to the past, it would be nice to be there to witness it," the former loose-head smiles.

After a season of momentous feats, bridging the 39-year gap since Ireland last won a series of this significance would mark a triumphant coda to Irish rugby's successful symphony in 2018.

"It became more historic with every passing year because nobody could match it," says the 1979 tour's centre, Paul McNaughton.

Few gave them a chance in '79; Australia would beat the All Blacks that summer, but not the Irish. "They fancied themselves, especially in the backs," recalls McNaughton.

Many of the Irish players had finished their domestic campaigns a month before the eight-match tour commenced in Perth on May 20; some trained loosely together in Belfield, a world away from the ultra-professional preparation Joe Schmidt surveys today.

The Test series freighted much drama before a ball was kicked.

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The "Decision" - Ward or Campbell - edging the Pope's visit from the front pages at home, looms large as a legacy, such that most Irish folk would recall who won the decision but would struggle to remember who won the actual games.


There was also near tragedy, in Perth, when a car careened towards a kerb and almost ended Willie Duggan's tour. It did, however, finish that of his cousin, Ned Byrne, whose story, like so many others on that tour, was over-shadowed by the selection controversy.

Byrne's role in Irish sport merits elaboration.

Nephew of legendary brothers, Podge and Eddie, winners of three All-Irelands with the black and amber in the 1930s, Ned forged a dual path that was neither profitable nor popular in the dark days when sporting ecumenism was frowned upon from all sides. A city boy from James' Street, Byrne attended CBS and was a gifted athlete; an All-Ireland Colleges shot put champion in 1964 for one, a minor hurler with the village club James Stephens, then the Cats.

All-Ireland glory beckoned in '72 after a near miss in '71. All the while though, he played rugby too, as a boarder in Roscrea.

"I never saw a rugby ball until I was 12," recalls Byrne, now aged 70. "The ban was in place. I played minor hurling so I couldn't play rugby for the club.

"And in school, I couldn't play hurling. Somebody in St Kieran's found out and wrote to the school. Jesus, it's hard to believe that was the attitude - from both sides.

"When the ban relented, I was with Wanderers as a young fella but then Willie inveigled me to play with Blackrock. One of us would drive on alternative weekends."

Byrne was 6ft 2in and nominally a back-row but Duggan was too, so they put him in the front-row. In his other life, he was a corner-forward.

By the mid-'70s, and with the ban easing, he'd sated his hurling aims. Now rugby consumed him.

He'd scored a goal in the '71 All-Ireland in the second-half of a futile comeback against Tipp before an astonishing Lazarus the following year in the famed '72 edition - Eddie Keher's goal, Ray Cummins and all that - secured him his prized Celtic Cross.

Up in Dublin, Blackrock were a successful team and, after featuring for Leinster and in a few final trials, he found himself in Murrayfield. Five years after standing for an anthem in black and amber, now he was doing so in green.

"You can't compare the two, they're both so special," says the lucky man who, unluckily, would lose all of his six Tests; one after facing down the haka.

"We'd have more fearsome fellas in the county championship," he says of the Maori war dance.

While he was chasing an egg with a smile, James Stephens, his club, would win an All-Ireland. But he had moved on. Australia beckoned...

McNaughton remembers Noel Murphy's team-talk before the first Test because it was the same speech he delivered before every test. "This is the most important match you will every play!"

The squad had just consumed a hearty dinner and now, in a windowless oven, Duggan, bless him, couldn't help but nod off as the reprise began.

"Jesus Christ lads, ye're wearing the Irish jersey and do you realise this is the most important fucking game you will ever play?"

A dormant volcano is wheezing at the back. "HKH-SSSSS-HKH-SSSSHHHHHHH," Duggan, snoring.

"Ah for fuck's sake Willie you're after ruining it now!"

In Ireland, many thought the team had ruined it already such was the clamour around "The Decision", about which forests have been felled in the 39 years since.

"Listen, I had my head in the muck of a ruck most of the time so once we were going forward, I didn't care who was at 10," says Orr. "We were in a bubble," adds McNaughton.

"It wasn't like Gatty and Drico. No Twitter. We wanted to win and we all wanted to be in the team. So we got on with the tour while everyone back home battled it out.

"It's not as if the game-plan changed, we ran a bit and kicked a bit and tackled a bit. Ollie did well but so did Colin Paterson and the pack. But, yes, the decision was a big surprise."

At least there was a choice. Ned Byrne didn't make it that far. In Sydney, he and Duggan had gone to the 'trots' at the local track.

On the way back to their hotel, they were crossing the street when suddenly a car veered towards them.

"It glanced off Willie. I was holding on to him but then it clipped my left leg and that was the end of my tour," recalls Byrne.

The driver was showing off to a girl; she reported him and he was later jailed. Byrne was invited to stay by the ARU. The IRFU, who would hardly pay the price of a call home in those days, would have hardly stumped up the fare to get there.

"I was devastated. It was nice to stay on but you didn't feel part of it, that buzz on a Saturday. It was disappointing to miss such an historic tour, not to be really part of it," says Byrne.

"I would have made the Test team. Then again I could have been killed and wouldn't be talking to you today. You have to be reasonably philosophical about these things."

There were many other intriguing aspects to the tour; Johnny Moloney, a scrum-half, played on the wing. Ciaran Fitzgerald's selection at hooker was also a "big decision".

And, at 37, one of Ireland's greatest ever players, Mike Gibson, would finish a remarkable career by returning to the midfield.

"His performances were magnificent in terms of creating and defending," recalls McNaughton.

"There was so much focus on out-half but so little focus on him. It was like playing alongside a Brian O'Driscoll. He'd seen it all before."

Ireland dominated the first Brisbane test, winning 27-12, with two tries from redoubtable scrum-half Paterson while Campbell kicked the points, including a defining drop-goal after Orr had lifted Keane in the line-out.

"Lifting was illegal, I mean have you ever tried to hoosh Moss?" asks Orr. We did, once, in the Palace Bar but sin scéal eile.

As the ball sailed over the bar, Keane said to Orr, "You can leave me go now, Philip."

The second Test in Sydney - which finished 9-3 - was a dour affair.

"Both sides played so as not to lose it, in the first Test we played to win it," says Orr .

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