Monday 12 November 2018

Pumas stalk some of our darkest days - Ireland and Argentina have travelled long roads since that fateful World Cup of 1999

 

Matt Mostyn shows his dejection after the defeat to Argentina at the 1999 Rugby World Cup. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Matt Mostyn shows his dejection after the defeat to Argentina at the 1999 Rugby World Cup. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Stade Felix Bollaert in Lens, about half an hour after the final whistle of a World Cup tie that shaped the future of the two nations involved: Ireland and Argentina. It was 1999, a mild October night, and for the losers a slightly convoluted tournament had just ended in the no-man's land of a play-off between pool stage and quarter-final.

In this business it's unwise to go batshit crazy in the press box when the team you want to win - and most of the time you have a vested interest - is not going well. The flip side is equally true. This is a bitchy business, and those who break this unwritten rule would be considered inferior. Still, the atmosphere in the press room afterwards was funereal. At the press conference coach Warren Gatland looked like a kid who had been mugged, and manager Donal Lenihan was the uncle looking for whoever had perpetrated the crime.

In Lens that night we had a vested interest. Anyone who had travelled there as part of the Irish media wanted to be writing about a team that was still in the competition rather than one turfed out. Rugby in Ireland at the time was going through some public growing pains, so from a professional point of view bad news sometimes was better than good news. This had been pretty clear though: get rid of the Argies and get home to crack on with the rest of the tournament.

The longer the game went on the more apparent it became that it would end in tears. Ireland had been content to chip away through the boot of David Humphreys. The sizeable local contingent in the crowd were unimpressed. Lens is not a rugby heartland. The locals didn't give a continental about good goal-kicking. They had come to be entertained, and this didn't match the cover price. They sided with the Argies - hardly playing stellar rugby themselves - and at the end celebrated like it was a French win. And of course it was.

Typically, we were staying some distance away in a crap hotel on the edge of an industrial estate. For a fairly high-end tourist destination France has cornered the market on truly awful places to put your head down. This one was in darkness when we got back. The next morning we drove at unwise speed through a sea of spray and pissing rain to get back to Beauvais in time for the flight home. There were two flights a day to Dublin: very early and very late. The late one would have pushed us over the edge.

The entire experience was like telling yourself it was all a bad dream and if you could just wake up and crack on there would be a different story to tell. Instead the narrative was of how the Pumas arrived into Ireland's base in Finnstown House outside Dublin, where all the signs suggested Ireland had been expected back there for the quarter-final. Argentina showed up for that one the following weekend, where they lost a high-scoring game to France.

For the IRFU, it was a disaster. A microcosm of what England would feel in 2015, but very painful nonetheless. The silver lining was that the embarrassment of it all, hosting a World Cup quarter-final in which we were not involved, woke the union up to the idea that if you weren't serious about professional rugby then it would bite you in the ass at the most inconvenient moment.

Sometimes we wonder how things would have worked out if Ireland had got over the line that night in Lens. The image of Conor O'Shea all alone out on the wing, flapping his arms like a man on a desert island shouting at a plane, became the metaphor for a team that hadn't any real ideas on how to go about winning. Well, other than the 12-man lineout they hadn't.

Maybe that quarter-final in Dublin against France would have turned into the choreographed set-piece Warren Gatland had in mind when pre-tournament he was urging us to get on board the good ship Ireland. Earlier in the year the Five Nations meeting between the teams had seen Ireland run them to a point, and but for a narrow miss from David Humphreys off the tee Ireland could have nailed it. That was the 15th defeat in a row to France. You can imagine popular interest in a home tie in a World Cup quarter-final against them given the closeness of the Championship game.

Moving this on a bit, let's say Gatland's dream of a semi-final against his native New Zealand in Twickenham came to pass. Given that 19 years later we're still working towards the same prize clearly it would have been a first. The Ireland of 1999 was a long way removed from the rugby-friendly version of today.

Ulster had won the Heineken Cup the previous January but it did nothing for them, and the Munster bandwagon was at that point just a wagon. Leinster hadn't got the wheels on theirs. And Connacht were still at the design stage.

For Argentina, that World Cup win didn't catapult them into the top echelon because back then they were still on the outside, admiring the comfort and warmth of life inside the Big 8 (the Five Nations plus New Zealand, South Africa and Australia).

A year later Italy would be granted access to the Championship. But for Argentina they would have to wait until 2012 before the door opened for them into an annual Tier 1 competition: the Rugby Championship.

Meantime, they were sucking hind tit when it came to World Cups in that the Big 8 looked after themselves on the critical issue of scheduling fixtures. So while we would always have good recovery time in between each pool game they, along with the other outsiders, were pressed into service to suit our needs. Remember the gut-wrenching tension of the Ireland versus Argentina pool game in Adelaide in 2003? For Argentina, it was their fourth game in 16 days. For us it was our third in 15.

By 2007 in France, things were improving but still the Pumas had two days fewer on their match schedule than Ireland by the time the teams met in Paris. More bad blood between two squads who really didn't like each other.

This time the Pumas, still on a high from beating the hosts first up, ushered Ireland out the gate. They took huge enjoyment in doing so. It was all but the end of Eddie O'Sullivan who was gone at the conclusion of the following Six Nations.

Since then the meetings have been restricted to out-of-competition games which Ireland have hoovered up with six wins from seven. Last year's contest, at the tail end of the Guinness Series, featured a touring team whose year had involved a mind-bending travel schedule taking in Super Rugby, for the Jaguares, followed by the Rugby Championship, topped off with a European trip.

The Test in Lansdowne Road was their 12th and had included trips to New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Italy and England. To their credit, in that last Test and running on fumes with the clock almost into the red, they went from their own line to finish the scoring with a marvellous try for Ramiro Moyana Joya.

It was a classic example that the Pumas are never beaten. On Saturday, they will arrive with wins over South Africa and Australia to their credit in the Rugby Championship but against a side who are tooled up to make it seven from eight in this fixture since the 2007 World Cup.

Last night in Chicago was the opening salvo on Ireland's World Cup war but Saturday with the Pumas carries all sorts of overtones that shape how we feel about RWC 2019. Lens is a long way away now but we still get the odd tremor.

Sunday Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport