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28 years later: Gordon Hamilton still dreaming of Irish semi-final

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Ireland’s Gordon Hamilton scores his famous try against Australia in the 1991 RWC quarter-final at Lansdowne Road. Photo: Darren Kidd/Press Eye

Ireland’s Gordon Hamilton scores his famous try against Australia in the 1991 RWC quarter-final at Lansdowne Road. Photo: Darren Kidd/Press Eye

Ireland’s Gordon Hamilton scores his famous try against Australia in the 1991 RWC quarter-final at Lansdowne Road. Photo: Darren Kidd/Press Eye

It says much about Ireland's complicated relationship with the World Cup that the euphoria generated by the nation's favourite moment at the competition lasted all of a few minutes.

The sight of flanker Gordon Hamilton scampering up the wing, powering through one final Wallaby tackle and being mobbed by the over-spilling crowd remains one of Lansdowne Road's most enduring pieces of footage.

If only Michael Lynagh hadn't spoiled the fun, his even later riposte taking the much-fancied Australians through to the last four at Ireland's expense.

It's a never-to-be-forgotten game, but one that was only 20 or so minutes away from never taking place.

In 1991, as in 2019, Ireland's pool stage would hinge on their game with Scotland. Unlike this weekend, it was not to take place on neutral soil, but at Murrayfield.

Cited in the build-up to this tournament as a key turning point in Scottish rugby by no less a figure than Ian McGeechan, it's almost easily overlooked now that Ireland had led 15-9 approaching the hour mark, that a raucous Edinburgh crowd had come so close to being silenced.

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Gordon Hamilton. Photo: Matt Mackey/Press Eye

Gordon Hamilton. Photo: Matt Mackey/Press Eye

Gordon Hamilton. Photo: Matt Mackey/Press Eye

Reversal

"Scotland then, it was a bit of a role reversal from what it became soon after in the sense that they were consistently beating us," recalls Hamilton now.

Indeed, the game was part of a 12-game unbeaten run enjoyed by the Scots over the Celtic cousins.

"Hastings, Chalmers, Armstrong, Sole, Calder, they had some great individuals and they gelled into a really good team with Jim Telfer and Ian McGeechan pulling the strings," adds Hamilton.

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"We were usually competitive, but the results just didn't go our way. I don't think we were a bad team at all, there was never that big a gap."

Five kicks from Ralph Keyes, four penalties and a drop goal, with Scotland offering up only three in response had set up the narrow margin.

But Ireland's plans were soon to come crashing down around them as Scotland's No 9 Gary Armstrong hoisted a box-kick towards Jim Staples, Ireland's full-back, calling for the mark just ahead of Tony Stanger's challenge but long before the forearm of Finlay Calder left him sprawled on the turf.

No TMO in those days, nor a real understanding of the dangers of concussion. Today the footage, and the accompanying commentary that Staples didn't have "his wits about him" jar.

Twenty-eight years ago, such a situation didn't warrant the red card it would bring today, nor even a substitution as Staples struggled on when clearly suffering.

His kick to touch was understandably poor and Armstrong was a canny enough operator to sense the blood in the water. Again the ball was put on Ireland's full-back, in his condition it should have come as no surprise to see it spilled forward.

Scottish replacement Graham Shiel was over to score one phase later. On such moments, World Cups, and Irish World Cup history, turns. The final score of 24-15 telling only a fraction of the story.

"We were unlucky," reflects Hamilton. "It's well documented that Calder had taken out Jim Staples and that they then bombarded him after that. Graham Shiel played the high ball very well and Gary Armstrong, who was a fantastic player, was at the peak of his powers then really. We had been on top of them for a good part of the game, but it wasn't to be."

Ireland would face eventual champions Australia in the last eight while Scotland went on to beat Western Samoa, just as Ciaran Fitzgerald's men would have been fancied to do had things fallen their way, the "quarter-final curse" almost broken long before it was ever spoken into existence.

Not all is quite so cut and dry in the mind of Hamilton, however.

"We may have tripped up against Western Samoa too," he laughs.

"There wasn't a big deal made about which team we'd have been playing. Without over simplifying things, we were a pretty simple bunch.

"You went out to win every game, but we were guaranteed a home game in the quarters whoever we played. Who knows? What I remember most about that team was that we were better against better sides."

The Australia of Lynagh, Campese and Co certainly fell into that category.

"We've all been at or played at Lansdowne Road in big games, but that atmosphere was as good as any that I've played in or been to since.

"It felt like the Olympics, really. Something special, just every four years.

"As a player we were so excited to get the opportunity to play a game like that at home. You have to remember that we weren't exposed to that level all that often back then either.

"We were hard workers, even in the amateur days, but the preparation and planning that Australia had was a different level. They were light years ahead, but we worked hard and we were reasonably fit because of the pre-tournament camp that we'd had.

"We got close, but nothing more than that I suppose."

Underselling the drama of the 19-18 heartbreaker somewhat, Hamilton is sure to see his try over and over again throughout the next eight weeks or so, just as he will every four years until Ireland break through that glass ceiling.

"It's getting grainier and grainier now, that footage," he says.

"It's still shown enough that I regularly get teased about my hairstyle.

"It's a lovely memory to have, but we all want Ireland to do well in Japan and get further than we did.

"If we can do that, I think the shine of that score will fade a bit."

Hamilton is confident he'll be heading to Japan in time for the quarter-finals and staying out there to take in the last four.

Better late than never, he'll get that semi-final.


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