Monday 22 October 2018

'We drew Fiji, Samoa and Tonga and thought 'oh lord'' - How Ireland upset the odds to almost win the Sevens World Cup

18 Mar 1995: Richard Wallace in action for Ireland against Wales in the Five Nations. Clive Mason/Allsport
18 Mar 1995: Richard Wallace in action for Ireland against Wales in the Five Nations. Clive Mason/Allsport
Will Slattery

Will Slattery

When an interviewee says they have never been asked about a topic, it isn't always the greatest sign.

You hope you've stumbled upon a journalistic gem that the person had merely forgotten about, because alternatively, the subject you have broached may be so obscure that it was buried deep in the recesses of their mind alongside unmemorable childhood trips to the seaside and disappointing Christmas presents.

Ireland's unlikely run to the semi-final of the inaugural Sevens Rugby World Cup is an achievement that turns 25 years old this week, and for former Ireland international wing Richard Wallace, the memory is closer to the first of those juxtaposed scenarios than the second.

It is something he is proud to have be a part of, although he does admit that despite the looming milestone, the tournament where Ireland unexpectedly beat France, Samoa and Tonga before falling in heartbreaking circumstances to a star-studded Australia side wasn't at the forefront of his mind - even when chatting to a 1993 team-mate just last weekend.

"We probably won’t have a reunion seeing that the first notice I had of this 25-year anniversary was you calling me, so it wasn’t on my radar, put it that way," Wallace laughs.

"I met up with Paddy Johns last weekend and we had a long chat and it never came up. I think we are way too long in the tooth at this stage to be remembering those things!"

Although it remains the only time that a senior Irish men's team has reached a World Cup semi-final, it isn't that surprising that the success didn't have much staying power amongst the rugby public given the lack of resources and attention furnished on the abridged version of the game in Ireland.

Only in the last two or three years has the IRFU put a real effort into getting a Sevens team back on the world stage, with Ireland set to play in this summer's World Cup in San Francisco having just missed out on World Series qualification at the Hong Kong Sevens last month.

It was at that marquee invitational tournament in Asia where Ireland's charge towards the '93 World Cup began.

It couldn't have gone much better in terms of getting a squad to gel before the upcoming challenge - they rattled a few of the big guns and morale was boosted by an obligatory nocturnal outing that circumvented the coach's abstinence edict.

"Our preparation started in Hong Kong," he says.

"We got to the quarter-final and Australia beat us in extra time. The preparation actually started on the Sunday before we went to Hong Kong. Noel 'Noisy' Murphy got the whole squad into a room and said there would be no drinking in Hong Kong until the tournament was over. We got together as a team and said there was pretty much no chance someone isn’t going to have a beer at some stage. The only thing we could do was if the whole team went out together and came home together, he couldn’t send the whole team home. Bizarrely enough, the team bonding from that really helped."

Ireland may not have had the star power of some of their opponents but still boasted quality backs in future Lions, Wallace and Vincent Cunningham, out-half Eric Elwood, 'nippy' scrum-half Alain Rolland as well as eventual Ireland captains Mick Galwey and Paddy Johns, whose presence as second row enforcers encapsulates the tactical approach the team adopted for the World Cup at Murrayfield, which was basically the antithesis to a Sevens style.

While most successful Sevens teams focus on a fast-paced game that constantly shifts the ball away from the tackle zone, Wallace explains that the Irish approach was more rudimentary but remarkably effective against sides who weren't expecting to come up against a traditional fifteens game plan.

"We had Paddy Johns in the pack – not exactly your ideal Sevens exponent but he was able to create the required amount of mayhem," he laughs.

"We played a different game. We didn’t have the experience to play the non-contact game that the Fijians played. We were used to playing fifteens rugby. For us it was always about hitting something. So we decided to do that and put a lot of pressure on the opposition and don’t be afraid to go into contact ourselves."

The put 'em under pressure style saw Ireland emerge from a first round pool containing New Zealand, France, South Korea, USA and the Netherlands. The players expected to beat the latter three - but struggle against the two giants.

New Zealand ran out 31-7 winners with a team stuffed full of top All Blacks like Frank Bunce, Glen Osborne and Todd Blackadder as well as a young Pat Lam.

But Ireland weren't cowed by a swashbuckling French side seemingly tailor-made to play with the flair required to excel at Sevens. Despite containing rugby's most renowned silver fox in speedster Philippe Bernat-Salles, France were consigned to the bowl tournament after being upset 17-9.

"We got a little bit of confidence from how relatively well we did in Hong Kong," Wallace remembers.

"We had a little bit of hope but the first group we were in had New Zealand and France in it. We looked at that and thought we would struggle to get out of the group but we beat France comfortably."

Ireland advanced to the penultimate group stage and were drawn with Fiji, whose Sevens credentials would match the word count of this article, Samoa, who had won that aforementioned Hong Kong Sevens and Tonga, a handy side containing Billy and Mako Vunipola's two uncles who had beaten Australia in the pool stage.

So again, Irish expectations weren't exactly sky-high.

"We were looking at the next day and we drew Fiji, the best Sevens exponents at the time, Samoa, who had won the Hong Kong Sevens, and Tonga, who were a fine side as well. We looked at that and thought, 'Oh lord'," Wallace says.

"But we had an early morning start on a miserable day in Murrayfield and we beat Samoa 17-0. I think they were stunned by that."

Tonga were also accounted for before Ireland went down 31-7 to Fiji with semi-final qualification already secured. Amazingly, of the 24 teams that started off in Edinburgh, Ireland were one of four left standing alongside Australia, England and Fiji.

The Wallabies were Ireland's semi-final opponents and boasted arguably the best squad in the tournament. Michael Lynagh was there to pull the strings, David Campese brought the requisite trickery while the beast that was Willie Ofahengaue was rampaging around the pitch daring opposition tacklers to try and get him to ground.

All three were World Cup winners and they were joined by a 20-year-old Matt Burke who would subsequently hoist the Webb Ellis trophy in 1999.

But again, despite on paper being vastly outmatched, Ireland roared into an early lead courtesy of the man described in commentary as Ireland's 'outstanding player of the weekend'.

Wallace got the ball in a bit of space on the left wing, and left Campese for dead as he latched onto his own chip to open the scoring.

"Straight line speed was never Campo’s strong suit!," Wallace laughs.

Unfortunately, Australia's World Cup-winning trio had the muscle memory of breaking Irish hearts in '91, and after Ofahengaue slithered through the Irish defence like a beefy boa constrictor, Lynagh was left with a simple last gasp conversion to hand his side a 21-19 win.

Despite it being a fairy tale run that exceeded all expectations, it was still crushing disappointment for the Irish team after flirting with a place in a World Cup final.

"Just like at the ’91 World Cup and the Hong Kong Sevens, Australia did it to us again," he says.

"Lynagh kicked the conversion to win by two points at full time. He was one of the players who was very good at Sevens because he was deceptively fast. You would think you had him and then he was gone before you knew it.

"By then we were fully invested in the opportunity to go all the way.

"We knew we were in with a chance of getting to a final."

Ireland Sevens entered a deep fallow period following that 1993 high, which lasted the guts of the 25 years that have passed since Wallace and his team-mates almost did the unthinkable.

The Irish team are finally starting to go places in 2018, and will expect to be competing on the main circuit in the near future. Still, Wallace feels that there was an opportunity squandered after rocketing onto the world stage a quarter of a century ago.

"From the first World Cup on, the unions who took it seriously, took it more seriously, whereas Ireland really didn’t apply any resources to the Sevens game after the ’93 World Cup," he says.

"It meant that four years later when everyone had moved on, a lot of the other teams were almost playing with professional squads, it definitely made the difference. The idea of hitting it up and retaining the ball didn’t work for us anymore. Ireland started to fall down the pecking order."

Ireland Sevens squad, 1993 World Cup:

1. Vincent Cunningham

2. Eric Elwood

3. Mick Galwey

4. Jonathan Garth

5. Brian Glennon

6. Paddy Johns

7. William Mulcahy

8. Dennis McBride

9. Alain Rolland

10. Richard Wallace

Online Editors

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport