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32 years of hurt: Ireland's previous World Cup campaigns as told by those who played in them


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Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip leads his team off the pitch after the game. 2015 Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final, Ireland v Argentina. Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip leads his team off the pitch after the game. 2015 Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final, Ireland v Argentina. Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip leads his team off the pitch after the game. 2015 Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final, Ireland v Argentina. Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Perhaps the reason why Ireland have never done as well as expected at the World Cup is down to the fact that Ireland never really wanted to play in the World Cup in the first place.

It’s ironic that their opening game this month features the only other country – Scotland – who voted down the concept in 1985.

The Scots haven’t done that well either down the years. But at least they know what it’s like to play a semi-final.

Once more, Ireland hope to boldly go where no Irish team has gone before.

And yet for all the collective heartache, it is easy to forget that just playing in a World Cup remains a career highlight for so many.

Here are some of their stories; happy and sad, often both at the same time…

1987 – New Zealand and Australia

Job Langbroek: Flanker, Blackrock College/Leinster 1987 (1 cap), RWC 1987 (1)

"The winds of change were in the air and the rugby world was changing fast. It needed a marketable product which would need a global face. The Rugby World Cup was the launching pad.

"We didn’t know then what the tournament was or would become. It was a different time. We were still amateur but in the southern hemisphere, the game was already being commodified; the old ways had disappeared much more quickly.

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Ireland's Terry Kingston (with the ball) fending off Tonga's Liueli Fusimalohi during the 1987 Rugby World Cup. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Ireland's Terry Kingston (with the ball) fending off Tonga's Liueli Fusimalohi during the 1987 Rugby World Cup. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Ireland's Terry Kingston (with the ball) fending off Tonga's Liueli Fusimalohi during the 1987 Rugby World Cup. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

"We were only allowed two training weekends, one of which was disrupted when Nigel Carr was caught up in the deadly IRA bomb attack. And we hadn’t played a game in months.

"The Senior Cup was the be all for us back then; not the World Cup.

"For me the whole thrill of being capped outweighed the thrill of being at a World Cup. I didn’t know I was going to get capped but there was an opportunity I might be; that was incentive enough to make anyone enthusiastic.

"I’d been around for quite a number of years; the days of the 'Probables' against the 'Possibles'. I would have been one of the 'Possibles'.

People think the prospect of a Final Trial might be quite quaint now; but in those days they were important and I played in quite a few.

Now this was a chance for me to be involved in part of the set-up. The Tonga game was quick, I was tense and wired up in anticipation.

People might say it was only Tonga but it was an international and for me I could have no illusions about who I was playing. It was still a cap. It flew by.

They were proud islanders and they hit you as hard as they could. We won handily enough in the end. Brendan Mullin scored a hat-trick.

Ballymore was a strange place, it was almost colonial. There were lots of ex-pats there. It felt really distant but also new; like the World Cup.

Everything seemed to be about breaking new ground. I just caught up in the rush of it all.

I was sub in all the other games but not every sub got on back then. Phil Orr was an institution so they weren’t going to risk somebody like me. I didn’t accept it readily but I accepted it as a reality.

Knowing how big it has become, it gives me pride to say I played in Ireland’s first World Cup. I wouldn’t over-egg that pudding. Then again, I might have only got one cap but I was delighted to have got it.”

After losing the opening game to Wales, victories over Canada and Tonga booked a quarter-final date against Australia, which Ireland lost 33-15.

1991 – England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and France

Gordon Hamilton: Flanker, NIFC/Ulster, 10 caps (1991-’92), RWC 4 (1991)

"I actually found out I was in the squad by Ceefax. For younger readers, that was basically a slow internet that came through your TV. It was a fantastic opportunity for me; that a short enough international career would coincide with a World Cup. Really special.

"Playing in Ireland was big for us. And it was a thrill having to get time off work to devote every day to rugby. It was a taste of what it might feel like to be a professional.

"We weren’t mapped at all. We’d lost to Namibia and Gloucester that summer. But I don’t remember losing belief, I always felt we were a good team.

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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

"There was all the stuff about the £1,500 for each squad member and the threat not to play Australia. I wasn’t directly involved but I shared with the captain Philip Mathews so I was aware of it. But we were more having a laugh at the whole thing.

"Noel Murphy in the IRFU was very exercised about it but the younger guys like us thought it was funny he was struggling.

"We knew the older guys were reluctant to sign the agreement but we were never thinking about not playing.

"I wasn’t in a position to start telling my country what I was going to do. It was a generation game.

"The older fellas like Philip, Des Fitzgerald and Brendan Mullin would have been involved with the coaches in terms of strategy.

"For the younger guys, it wasn’t any more complicated than winning every game. There was no great psychology to it.

"Australia were clearly a better side than we were. I haven’t looked at the game in years but we stuck at it with guts and sheer refusal to die. From the skirmish at the start, led by Philip and Franno (Neil Francis) to taking Nick Farr-Jones out of the game. We all knew he was suspect injury-wise. We just got in their faces the whole game.

"People still talk about that try. Support play was my game. You went to where you thought the ball might be, irrespective of what you thought might happen.

"I’d like to think I had vision but you just got there the fastest way possible. I can still remember the ball being hacked through by Jim Staples.

"I thought Jack Clarke might hack it but if he didn’t, I knew I had to be on his shoulder. We knew David Campese was always dodgy in defence. I had a head start on him in fairness.

"It was a blur then but clear now. They knew what they had to do and we didn’t. They got together under the posts and planned it. We didn’t.

"Conceding a try from first-phase was pretty embarrassing, as was the defence. We knew we had a porous defence but what a time to spring a leak.

"When I went back home, it wasn’t the case people stayed away from you. They wondered what the experience was like.

"I was relatively young and didn’t think like one of the older players. I thought this would be the start of a long international career. Instead it was pretty much the end of a short international career.

"We all just felt we wanted to play them one more time and we’d beat them. We did, a year later. And lost again. It was my next game after the World Cup. And my last.”

Ireland beat Zimbabwe and Japan with comfort before a defining pool clash with Scotland, who won 24-15 to book a quarter-final date with Western Samoa. Ireland bowed out, 18-19, to Australia.

1995 – South Africa

Richard Wallace: Wing, Garryowen/Munster, 29 caps (1991-’98), RWC 3 (1995)

"It was the pinnacle of my career. I felt I should have made it for the home World Cup in 1991. That had cut me deep so this was all the more special.

"It felt like a sense of history with everything that was happening in South African society. And then there was a certain player preparing to make history too.

"I remember we were staying in the Sunnyside Hotel in Johannesburg. You came out of the hotel and walked down an outside corridor to our team room.

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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

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

"Suddenly I was collared by this Kiwi guy, he had the sniper rifle out and the camouflage on. He took me by surprise. We had no PR guys in those days.

"So he asked me about going up against Jonah Lomu and the journalist quickly clocked on I didn’t have a clue. He asked me three questions.

"I can’t remember the order but I remember the answers.

"You do realise he’s 6’ 4”?’ ‘Yeah, he’s big I guess.’ ‘You do realise he’s 19-and-a-half-stone?’ ‘Yeah, well he can’t be that quick then.’

"And then the coup de grace. ‘You do realise he can do 100m in 10.5 seconds?’

"So I’m thinking ‘S**t, how do I not know any of this’. So I just blurt out the line, ‘Well, I guess the bigger they are, the harder they fall.’

"Oh dear.

"Next day, he boshed me off and scored under the posts when I ran into Brendan Mullin.

"Then another time, I’m 14st, thinking the best way is to try to fall under him but he just stepped me and handed me off.

"England got it worse but then poor old James Small was able to chop him down.

"The funny thing was we felt like we were in the game. We were fitter than we ever were. We started and finished well. A few decisions and bounces and who knows?

"Gary Halpin’s priceless sign language after the try. It was a proper game. Giles Warrington had prepped our fitness well.

"France was disheartening. I was dropped for some reason, I still don’t know why. It was a bit messy. We were kicked out of a hotel in Pretoria and then went to sea level just two days before.

"We trained on the Thursday and we would have beaten anyone. But by game day we were spent. We could have troubled them but never gave ourselves the best chance.

"Stones were left unturned and we made mistakes with logistics that wouldn’t happen today. We came home feeling we left a lot out there."

After the opening defeat to New Zealand, wins against Japan and an avenging one-point success against Wales left Ireland facing France in the quarter-final. They lost 36-12.

1999 – Wales (France, Ireland, England and Scotland hosted some games)

Reggie Corrigan: Prop, Greystones/Leinster, 47 caps (1997-2006), RWC 5 (1999-2003)

"Getting picked for a World Cup was amazing. It felt like a pinnacle in your career but it didn’t feel like that when the tournament started. And definitely not when it ended.

"It was a very weird World Cup and it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable one in any way, shape or form. I can honestly say I have no good memories of it.

"Instead of thinking, ‘Wow, this is an amazing thing to be involved in’, it was hard to know at times if there was a World Cup on at all. Imagine what it would be like if we were hosting in 2023?

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Reggie Corrigan pictured in 1998. Photo: Sportsfile

Reggie Corrigan pictured in 1998. Photo: Sportsfile

Reggie Corrigan pictured in 1998. Photo: Sportsfile

"Because it was partly held here, it didn’t feel exotic. We were in Finnstown House, scrapping for training pitches, mooching around the city.

"The Six Nations actually felt bigger than this, you know? There was hardly a banner up until you got to Lansdowne Road. It was like a state secret. No World Cup fever like you have now.

"The one nod to professionalism was that we did have a sports psychologist come in and talk to us. We’d no thoughts of winning the thing but he suggested we should. Why bother playing in it then? There were a few sniggers at that one.

"That feeling changed by 2003. But 1999? It was a different country. A different century.

"There was a bit of a division between the first team and the second team, with the first team bundled out to get the job done and the rest told to bumble along.

"Until Lens. What a s**thole. Was it even in France? We ate McDonald’s all week because we couldn’t face the food they dished up in the hotel. It was just a shambles.

"The 13-man lineout. The set-piece saviour of Irish rugby. Heads banging against a wall. Conor O’Shea waving for a ball that never came. Panic stations.

"When it ended, the darkest hour. What the f**k just happened? There was silence and shock, each minute like an hour it seemed. Argentina were an unknown quantity but they were not us. Not a team we should lose to in our minds, never.

"But we were well-beaten on the night and it was a case of not having a Plan B when it came down to those final minutes, not that we’d had a Plan A in the first place.

"It was my first match and last match. There was a sense that we just had to get over this hurdle to get to a quarter-final but we were completely undercooked for what turned out to be the most important match of the tournament. We still should have beaten them, get the job done, move on. We didn’t have any preparation done but that was the time.

"We had a VHS recorder, a remote with a cable and a few tapes of teams and I’m not sure if any of them were Argentina. We knew very little and neither did the management. That’s just the reality. It’s not a criticism. This was the way things were done, we were still in the amateur days.

"Warren Gatland was only in the job a wet week and he’d tell you himself he didn’t have the experience.

"After the shock wore off in the dressing-room, there was the shame, and the realisation we had to go home as the team who’d messed up.

"We had to go to a post-match function, heads bowed, looking at our shoes. They’re going mad, Omar Hasan belting out some opera.

"About five or six of us of got the bullet and never played again for Gatland. It almost felt like we had cost Irish rugby a World Cup quarter-final, like it was our fault.

"Except it was all of Irish rugby’s fault. It just wasn’t ready for it."

Easy pool wins against Romania and USA sandwiched a 23-3 defeat to Australia; the expansion of the tournament to 20 teams ushered in a series of three quarter-final play-offs; Ireland’s would end in defeat to Argentina, 24-28.

2003 – Australia

Victor Costello: Back-row, Blackrock College/Leinster, 33 caps (1996-2004), RWC 3 (2003), Olympic Games 1 (Barcelona, Shot put)

"The Olympics in 1992 was huge but personally the World Cup was much bigger because you’re part of a team.

"Athletics is selfish. A shot-putter has nothing in common with a marathon runner and never will. But it is the closest we get to a team sport. The greatest show on earth.

"The Olympics is not lonely but you’re only a small part of something massive and overwhelming. The pressures are different. Gary O’Toole was my closest buddy. And the boxers doing well was amazing.

"But when I competed, you’re on a bus with people you don’t have much in common with. I might as well have been heading to Belfield for training on my own.

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Victor Costello, Ireland, in action against Gonzalo Longo, left, and Agustin Pichot, Argentina. 2003 Rugby World Cup, Pool A, Ireland v Argentina, Adelaide Oval, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia. Picture credit; Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE *EDI*

Victor Costello, Ireland, in action against Gonzalo Longo, left, and Agustin Pichot, Argentina. 2003 Rugby World Cup, Pool A, Ireland v Argentina, Adelaide Oval, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia. Picture credit; Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE *EDI*

Victor Costello, Ireland, in action against Gonzalo Longo, left, and Agustin Pichot, Argentina. 2003 Rugby World Cup, Pool A, Ireland v Argentina, Adelaide Oval, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia. Picture credit; Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE *EDI*

"The stadium was full but they weren’t watching me. The 100m qualifiers are on. You feel alone. If you fail, you’re responsible. And nobody says anything to you afterwards. Because nobody is there.

"But in Melbourne, when Fabien Galthie comes around the corner and finger-taps my ankle, as I’m focused on the out-half, you’re letting a whole stadium down, a whole country, not just 14 team-mates.

"We were in a hotel 70 per cent of the time, we knew each other inside out, the bond was tight and had been for years.

"You’re doing it for each other, socially and professionally. You share it all. Ups and downs. We were a really settled group. We’d a consistent Six Nations before England showed us all where they were going.

"But even though they hammered us in ’03, now they were world champions, we didn’t feel a million miles behind them.

"Beating Argentina was important, Alan Quinlan dying for his country! Well, busting his shoulder at least.

"But then maybe we were over-worked going in against France, we didn’t dip into the whole squad. They were all over us; Galthie was all over me in the back-row because their scrum was on top.

"In the dressing-room afterwards, Keith Wood retired straight away. It was quite emotional. A great ride but also a great disappointment.

"We’d beaten France in the Six Nations. But the World Cup is different even if you’re playing the same teams. France are different at a World Cup. France are always thinking World Cup.

"Irish teams don’t tend to be comfortable thinking like that – it’s always the next game. Maybe it’s just not in our culture.”

"Ireland had to qualify following their premature exit in 1999 and did so by beating Russia. Opening up with two spanking wins against minnows Romania and Namibia, Ireland avenged their Lens defeat by edging Argentina 16-15 before a familiar loss to the hosts and an even more accustomed quarter-final exit to the French.

2007 – France (Scotland and Wales also hosted matches)

Shane Horgan: Winger, Lansdowne/Leinster, 69 caps (2000-2009), RWC 8 (2003-’07)

"People still ask me what went wrong. Oh Jaysus. If I knew that!

"It was probably a level of stress. And a lot of things brought the stress level up. So, personally, I got injured beforehand and didn’t play the first game so I came into it late.

"Brian O’Driscoll had his cheek hammered in Bayonne. There were just a number of stresses that built up. The warm-up games didn’t go well and, although you didn’t know, I think it’s in the subconscious.

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Shane Horgan lies on the ground after injuring himself in the Rugby World Cup warm-up game against Scotland at Murrayfield back in August 2007. Photo: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

Shane Horgan lies on the ground after injuring himself in the Rugby World Cup warm-up game against Scotland at Murrayfield back in August 2007. Photo: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

Shane Horgan lies on the ground after injuring himself in the Rugby World Cup warm-up game against Scotland at Murrayfield back in August 2007. Photo: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

"There was just a level of stress that was restrictive and stopped players from playing as well as they could, or potentially overthinking what they were doing. But still, I don’t know. I really, really don’t know.

"I remember someone having a conversation with me in a pub, maybe three months afterwards, saying, ‘We went down there, and we paid our money, and we deserve explanations, so what went wrong?’

"I was like, ‘Jesus, if I had one of them I’d be happy to deliver it’. We never got going, never played. It was disappointing."

Ireland squeezed past Georgia and Namibia before losing to France and Argentina, ensuring that for the only time in the country’s World Cup history, they had failed to emerge from the pool stages.

2011 – New Zealand

Mike Ross: Prop, Clontarf/Leinster, 61 caps (2009-16), RWC 9 (2011-’15)

"Poor Jerry Flannery. Before the famous Australia game, Declan Kidney had a masterstroke when he decided to let Jerry hand out the jerseys.

"Jerry had a lot of trouble with his calves and it just broke down in the World Cup. And he broke down handing out the jerseys. He just couldn’t speak.

"It had a huge impact on me personally, on everyone I think. We were buzzed up to the eyeballs. We could have beaten anybody that day.

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Mike Ross

Mike Ross

Mike Ross

"The World Cup was brilliant for me. As a professional, it’s on your bucket list. I didn’t play for Ireland until I was nearly 30 so I appreciated everything even more.

"Of the two I went to, we genuinely thought we could make the semis in 2011; before then, it always seemed to be Irish teams travelled in hope rather than expectation. It wasn’t like we were playing South Africa or New Zealand in the quarter-final, a team we might have feared.

"It was Wales. We knew them. We’d beaten them before. And if we beat them now, we do what no other Irish team has ever done.

"But we didn’t play our best game. Rory Best had virtually dislocated his shoulder against Italy. However he managed it, he made it back. He had no right to play.

"Everyone else was fully fit. We had Ronan O’Gara and Jonathan Sexton as rivals, a great back-row. But we never really got going.

"My parents came over for the quarter-final but my wife was at home. We had a six-month-old baby and I found it quite tough.

"Kimberley had had a difficult time with the birth, she was home on her own. There was only two hours every day when you could talk with the time difference. I was worried about them and found that difficult even though you’re at this event, the highlight of your career.

"Ultimately, Wales did to us what they’ve done to us a few times since then. I remember walking off thinking, ‘S**t, will I ever have a better go at this.’ Turned out I would.”

Ireland topped a pool including USA, Russia, Italy and, famously, Australia, the 15-6 win securing their first win away to one of the ‘big three’ southern hemisphere nations since 1979. Wales would beat them in the quarter-final, 22-10.

2015 – England (Wales also hosted some games)

Jamie Heaslip: Number eight, Leinster, 95 caps (2006-’17), RWC 10 (2011-’15)

"From the first point, I would imagine there would have been a narrative of let’s try and not get carried away with the hype or let’s try and play down the hype.

"But there is outside interpretation, there are fans getting caught up in the whole thing.

"But in fairness it was hard to not get caught up that day in the Millennium Stadium beating France. And then after that, it seemed tense, I’m sure it was tense as well because we haven’t got past the quarter-finals before and now we’re playing Argentina again.

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Jamie Heaslip, Ireland, following his side's 2015 Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final defeat to Argentina at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales in October 2015. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Jamie Heaslip, Ireland, following his side's 2015 Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final defeat to Argentina at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales in October 2015. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Jamie Heaslip, Ireland, following his side's 2015 Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final defeat to Argentina at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales in October 2015. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

"In terms of preparation, the one thing that always irked me was that in the week building up to the game, we trained on a field that was a lot narrower than the Millennium Stadium pitch.

"And at the time, you’re kind of doing a defence which, while it wasn’t necessarily a drift defence, it was up and out which on a wider field is going to be exaggerated where there is much more space.

"So we were giving up 10 or 20 metres off a couple of passes which is a bit mad. We were running backwards all the time.

"That’s where they made up all their ground in that game and scored all their tries, from those outside channels after stretching us.

"So maybe that had something to play a factor in it. I mean, in terms of preparation, that had all been good.

"Yes, lads were banged up after the game against France. We lost Jonathan Sexton, Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony. Then Seán O’Brien gets suspended.

"We didn’t know if some would make it or not for the Argentina game. But listen, that happens at club and international level. Lads would have been well prepared in all the other regards.

"It just wasn’t to be for Ireland. Again. Maybe next time…"

For the second successive World Cup, Ireland topped their pool, this time featuring Canada, Romania, Italy and France, before losing to Argentina for the third time in five editions, 20-43.

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