"I’ve been in rugby a long time, been in a lot of dressing-rooms. I played in dirty, vicious games. I’ve never seen a dressing-room like that one after the game. There was blood everywhere, the amount of stitching that was done. It was just a bloodbath."
The scene painted by Donal Lenihan occurred 22 years ago, when an Irish team coached by Warren Gatland brought its seven-match odyssey around South Africa to a close in ignominious circumstances with the 'Battle of Pretoria'.
The 36-man panel had been on the road for the best part of a month on the last of the old-school tours and, while results didn’t go their way and they finished with a 33-0 defeat, to a man they recall the trip fondly.
It is remembered for the fracas' that repeatedly marred the final game, but Lenihan believes it was a pivotal moment in changing the direction Ireland were taking towards the end of a bleak decade.
This is the story of Ireland’s last old-school tour and the most violent match in recent history . . .
State of Play
Ireland was slow to take to professional rugby and when Gatland replaced Brian Ashton midway through the 1998 Five Nations, he couldn’t prevent them collecting the wooden spoon in their 11th bottom-two finish in a row.
They did run France to within two points in Paris in Gatland’s first game, but the tour was a chance to find some new blood.
1997 Lions Eric Miller and Jeremy Davidson were injured, while Keith Wood joined up with the squad late as Paddy Johns captained the squad.
It was a mark of the chaotic nature of Irish rugby in the late 1990s that Lenihan was promoted from assistant manager to manager when Pa Whelan resigned days after he threw a dig at journalist Tom English in a Limerick sports bar. He stepped down to focus on his business and Ireland travelled to Africa with a young management team.
"I was 38. Gatty was 34/35 and Philip Danaher wasn’t much more," Lenihan recalls. "We were certainly thrown in the deep end. But it was refreshing. I mean, we were very much aligned to the players, there was an awful lot happening three years into professional rugby."
The Boks, meanwhile, were rebuilding under Nick Mallett, who took over in the wake of the Lions series and his side were on their way to a record-equalling 17-match unbeaten run.
"We had had some disappointment, the Lions tour being one because in fairness I don’t think that Lions team was an exceptional team but they came together really well," captain Gary Teichmann recalls.
"Nick came in and convinced me to carry on because I’d been through a lot of Springbok coaches and was getting tired of the inconsistency. He brought a lot of confidence."
On The Road
The itinerary was kind to Ireland who arrived into Cape Town and stayed along the Garden Route for the first two weeks of the tour before they ascended to the Highveld for the final warm-up match and the two Tests in Bloemfontein and Pretoria.
The rugby was tough. Reggie Corrigan suffered a broken back courtesy of a local’s knee in the tour opener against Boland, one of only two wins the tourists enjoyed. The hosts did not make much of the visitors.
"It was clear they had no respect for us, it became us against the world. It was a hard tour. Touring South Africa isn’t easy," Lenihan recalls.
Not that the players didn’t enjoy themselves. Johns remembers that the tour song was ‘Lucky Man’ by The Verve and the long build-up to the internationals afforded the touring party plenty of time to enjoy themselves.
"We had a great time," Johns smiles. "Thank God there was no mobile phones about. Some of the craic would have gone viral!"
Gatland was a players’ coach.
"We were well organised," Lenihan says. "In those days, things like gear was important to players. We got a couple of people who sponsored sunglasses and watches. We needed to make them feel important and bring them together, there was a great atmosphere. Gatty was good at that. He put in a lot of committees. So everybody was involved.’"
Still, there was plenty of work to do on the pitch where Gatland wanted to test the players’ fitness in order to bring them on. The problem was, everywhere they went there was a problem with the facilities.
"We had loads of incidents on the road," Lenihan says. "You’d go training and there’d be pieces of the scrum machine missing.
"We were lucky in Warren had connections in New Zealand and, since the ’95 World Cup and the allegations of poisoning and all that, they found that when you tour South Africa in that time you had to be self-sufficient.
"Gatty found out that New Zealand had scrummaging sleds sort of parked in various places so we could get access… It was us and them."
Ireland arrived in Bloemfontein for the first Test after losing bruising games against the Eagles, Western Province and the Griquas in increasingly obscure rural South African venues.
All along, the lack of respect from the locals fed into the Irish mindset.
"We felt that from the first press conference when we landed," Johns says. "At that time our perception was that in South Africa there was an arrogance – certainly with their fanbase, their supporters. There would have been quite a few comments. It was a bit more than banter."
Similarly, the South Africans were unimpressed by what they were hearing from the Irish camp and braced themselves for an onslaught.
"There’d been quite a bit of talk about Ireland meeting us physically. That the only way Ireland were going to win was by being far more physical than us. It had been more media hype," Teichmann says. "Then, once it got up to the game it felt like one of their strategies was to rile us up.
"Before that we’d had a couple of incidents where certain players had reacted to things, not wisely, and the Springboks were renowned for that. I think that’s how they felt they could win the game."
There was no one there to greet Ireland when they arrived at the stadium in Bloemfontein, so they had to sit on the bus as locals hurled abuse and banged the sides to make them feel nice and welcome.
Justin Bishop’s try kept Ireland firmly in the first Test at half-time, but they flagged after that and Stefan Terblanche ran in four tries on debut to win the game.
A late flare-up between Wood and Teichmann was an isolated incident, but it all fed into the bad feeling.
The perceived slights continued into a shambolic post-match function where the Boks kept to themselves and spoke Afrikaans throughout and Wood led the tourists in a round of ‘It’s a long, long way from Clare to here’ for sport.
By the time the two teams arrived at Loftus, the tinder box was ready to go off and when the late Joost van der Westhuizen aimed a kick at Malcolm O’Kelly, the fuse was lit.
"It probably stemmed from the South African media after the first Test," Johns says. "After the first Test I know their forward pack got a lot of slagging from their media, that was the catalyst for how they started.
"The first few incidents were South African foul play. The first one was Van der Westhuizen kicking Malcolm in the chest and not getting sent off. James Dalton punched Victor Costello in the head, somebody tried to take Keith Wood’s head off.
"The referee did very little… We had a good collection of hardened club players in the team. Peter Clohessy, Trevor Brennan... they were watching it from the bench and it snowballed."
Van der Westhuizen, Rassie Erasmus and James ‘Bullet’ Dalton scored tries before half-time. By the time Teichmann added a fourth, things had spiralled. A four-and-a-half-minute YouTube compilation of the series of violent incidents is a reminder of how things got out of hand.
"The game was over. We were going home in the morning, Trevor and Peter came on and we more or less – without maybe saying it – we just thought, ‘Everything that’s South African, let’s just smash it’," Johns recalls.
Pieter Rossouw’s fifth made it 33-0 and brought "one of the nigglier games" of the understated Springbok captain’s career to an end.
Remarkably, referee Joel Dume opted not to issue any red cards, while citing commissioners had yet to arrive on the scene.
It was up to the teams to decide if they wanted to take any action and the Springboks conveyed a message that they wouldn’t cite anyone if Ireland didn’t. While Lenihan made them stew on it, he eventually agreed to not pursue it if Van der Westhuizen was punished internally.
That November, South Africa arrived in Dublin and the manager wanted to treat them the same.
"In my naivete, I suggested it to the IRFU," Lenihan laughs. "But we put on this lavish banquet in the Berkeley Court – wined and dined them. What does it say to the players that they treat us like that and we treat them like lords?
"Noel Murphy was president of the IRFU that year and there was no way South Africa were getting sausage rolls on his watch!"
South Africa won a tamer game at Lansdowne, but Lenihan believes the tour had started the ball rolling on closing the gap.
"If anything it brought our fellas together more. In many ways that was the start of the mini-steps being taken," he says. "We’d plenty of time to sit down with the people in the IRFU and we all knew we needed to get the fellas back (from England).
"If you like, that was the first step in the road to 2000 when the whole thing turned around."