Monday 14 October 2019

Neil Francis: A haymaker, a hopping mad Paul Kimmage and my revenge - the full story behind that Tony Copsey punch

18 January 1992; Ireland's Neil Francis is attended to by the team doctor after an incident with Wales' Tony Copsey. Five Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v Wales, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
18 January 1992; Ireland's Neil Francis is attended to by the team doctor after an incident with Wales' Tony Copsey. Five Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v Wales, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Before last Saturday’s game with the Welsh there seemed to be a flurry of articles on ‘The Punch’ as a backdrop to the simmering rivalry between the two countries on the rugby field.

Tony Copsey’s infamous punch in a Test match in Dublin in 1992 still lives on. Seeing as I was the recipient of that particular punch I would like to give some perspective on the matter.

When Australia beat us 19-18 in the dying seconds of a World Cup quarter-final in October 1991, quite a few of the team would, if we had won that game, have quietly fancied our chances against a mis-firing, out-of-sorts All Blacks side in the semi-final. The Aussies were one of the best sides of all time and easily disposed of the Kiwis at Lansdowne Road. England would be a far tougher proposition in the World Cup final at Twickenham.

The Five Nations was due to kick off against Wales on January 18 and that was really only around the corner. We all thought we had a chance of a good championship, maybe even more than that.

Wales had been beaten by Samoa in the World Cup group stages and were a bumbling shambles. To that end additional fitness sessions were held on the track at Belfield on non-training nights. Hard track work on the tartan surface followed by hard work on mushy pitches during the winter in south County Dublin was a daft combination and it meant that nearly everyone tore some soft tissue between that quarter-final and Christmas. It was a miracle that we all got back for the championship. None of us were fit and that would tell in the second half against Wales.

Still, when we left the dressing room to go out on the park that day everyone on the team was certain we would win.

Ireland had a good start and I won several clean lineouts in a row with ease. It looked like Tony Copsey was winning two caps that day — his first and his last. We had a lineout just past the 10-metre line and a peel was called. I took one step back and climbed into the air (on my own volition). I tapped the ball to Donal Lenihan and as I came down, I came down on top of Tony Copsey. The lineout was over, the ball was won legally and I turned around to follow play. As I turned I walked straight into a haymaker from Copsey.

In fairness, it was a terrific strike. It hurt too! When a 6 foot 6, 18 stone man punches you as hard as he can and you aren’t expecting it, the net result normally means you end up on the floor. I spent a minute or two there trying to get my bearings. I wasn’t concussed, but I was groggy and disorientated, and just about managed to walk off the field — assisted by Dr Michael Molloy.

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The punch didn’t cut me but the cheekbone and eye began to swell up to the point that I could not see out of my left eye. Ciaran Fitzgerald came out of the stand as my face was being iced.

“What’s happening?” asked Fitzy.

“I can’t see Fitzy,” I said.

“You aren’t fucking going to let him away with that are you?”

“You’re fucking right I’m not, just give me a minute so I can see.”

I ran back onto the pitch with the sole intention of giving Copsey some and a bit more. As I got to the lineout Fred Howard called me aside. They called him Fearless Fred because he had sent four players to the line in his career in a time when that would have equalled the total number of players sent off in Test rugby.

“Don’t do anything stupid. I will be watching you.”

I couldn’t believe it. I was sure he had seen what happened and let it go and now Copsey would get one on the house.

When you have monocular vision, it is very difficult to judge distance properly or track moving objects accurately. Even running across the pitch in a straight line was a difficulty. I told the lads there was no point in throwing lineout ball to me but the match was going well and we were in charge.

Close to half-time Mick Fitzgibbon went on a burst and was brought down. While he was prone on the ground, Copsey went into the ruck and kicked him twice. Mick was about to get another when Fred Howard grabbed the Welsh second row by the shorts and told him to stop. He awarded us a penalty instead of issuing a red card. Fearless fucking Fred my arse!

We scored the penalty to lead 15-6. All was well. It was weird to see the north and the south terrace heaving with people on camera once again — ‘alive, alive oh’ — back when Molly Malone was the song of choice.

We couldn’t secure quality lineout ball in the second half and Wales got back into the game and scored a late try in the right-hand corner through Stuart Davies to nick it 15-16. I felt sick!

A win gone through the side door. A good run in the championship? A possible Triple Crown? Agony. A mood of inoperable discontent set in. That team were worn dead from losing and another spiritually coruscating loss would lead to the sudden death of pre-tournament optimism.

In 1991, Paul Kimmage and I collaborated on a World Cup player’s diary. It was raw and pretty close to the edge. Apparently the blazers thought it was funny and they let it go. The column would continue for the championship. A soul-emptying loss. A punch which spiritually and tactically changed the course of the game and I was centre stage. The Sunday Tribune would be well read that weekend . . . only if they could find me.

I went to hospital for an x-ray on my cheekbone. It wasn’t broken so I went back to the Berkeley Court and moped about in my room. The phone was hopping and I took it off the hook. Ten minutes later there was a knock on the door. That will be the ice I ordered. I opened the door. No ice, just a small man who is hopping mad. If he could have, Kimmage would have boxed me on the other side of my face. Telling him to calm down only made it worse. Vincent Browne was waiting in Baggot Street looking for 1,000 words by 8.0pm. I was up in my room feeling sorry for myself and it was 7.45. Kimmage sat down on the couch in the room — his tape recorder wouldn’t work. The bathroom door opened and my girlfriend came out in a towelling robe. Kimmage looked at her and then looked at me.

“I’m getting the interview first.”

I explained we were getting ready for the post-match dinner and I was not in the mood for anything. A fairly staccato interview followed. Name, rank and serial number. Kimmage left the room muttering profanities, our relationship temporarily, severely strained.

I was late for the post-match dinner and arrived just after the first course to take a seat beside Copsey where we would have to talk to each other for the whole night.

Let me explain about this playing rugby, knocking lumps out of each other and then having loads of pints and letting bygones be bygones crap. That’s a myth.

I think Tony is a great fella now, but right then, at that moment, if I could have popped him one I would have. We shook hands at the table and at the end of the night.

Retribution was still on the menu — but for a later date.

The season fell apart and we were thumped by England, who were a really powerful side. We ended up in Paris in March looking to avoid la cuillere en bois. We had lost a huge amount of quality from the quarter-final team by the time the France game came around. Jim Staples, Keith Crossan, Brendan Mullin, Rob Saunders, Ralph Keyes, Donal Lenihan, Philip Matthews and Des Fitzgerald were all gone. I had contracted pneumonia and missed the game in Paris. Wooden spoon — what were we thinking?

The seasons rolled by and when I next played against Wales, Tony Copsey wasn’t picked. England breezed into town on January 21, 1995 and they brought a pack of forwards with a granite edge — Martin Johnson, Dean Richards, Tim Rodber, Ben Clarke. A powerful, no-nonsense side.

I bust my ribs in the first half and we lost 20-8. On the way to hospital for another X-ray I thought my chances of a third World Cup had been extinguished.

Management kept in touch on a regular basis and then light at the end of the tunnel — the injury had improved to such an extent that if I could last the game in an A international in Pontypridd against Wales A they would pick me for South Africa. Councillor Tweed was holding down the number five jersey at that stage . . . try and get back soon.

The match was to be played on St Patrick’s Day — my birthday — a day before the big game in Cardiff. An early birthday present too as Tony Copsey would be my adversary in the Welsh second row that night.

Conor O’Shea, Mark McCall, Paul Wallace and Mick Galwey played that night hoping to be included in the squad for South Africa. Conor and Wally made it. I led the pack and I found the lure of retribution, well, irresistible. I’d pick a moment at lineout, a call would be made and everyone would pile in. Dave Pearson was the referee and he told me to behave myself. I shrugged my shoulders in faux indignation and went out the door.

After 25 minutes the moment arrived and the call was made. The ball came in, there was the usual pushing and shoving. I loaded my fist and punched Copsey in the face. It wasn’t a king hit but it was good enough to do some damage. A millisecond later and a good old-fashioned ‘all-in’ dust-up took place. There were too many punches thrown and Pearson had to wait until it all died down.

I joined the Irish huddle and said well done to the lads for mucking in. “Copsey’s sorted — let’s see if we can push on and win this fucking match.” A few of the lads looked at me with a blank expression. I looked over at the Welsh huddle and there is Copsey looking at me — unblemished. It was almost as if he gave a wave and shouted “Cooeee” at me.

I looked behind the doctors attending to the injured player on the ground. Blood and snotters everywhere. It was our number eight Roger Wilson who had claret streaming from his nose and had to be helped off.

“Who did Rog?” they asked.

“Fucked if I know,” I said.

Couldn’t even get even properly.

I said nothing. How could I? I had a few pints with Tony after the game and we have met several times since. He is a good bloke. The punch lives on, the moment has passed and revenge is off the menu. Maybe when we are stuck in rugby purgatory we can have a winner-takes-all boxing match to join Paul O’Connell and Alun Wyn Jones sitting at the top table in rugby heaven. Maybe not!

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