Friday 20 April 2018

'Even Joe Schmidt wouldn't have been able to coach us' - Reggie Corrigan

Scotland’s last win in Lansdowne a wooden spoon low

Reggie Corrigan endured 1998. Photo: Sportsfile
Reggie Corrigan endured 1998. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

"If only we could train like this all the time, we'd be a very dangerous squad." Brian Ashton, January 29 1998.

Within a day, those words would be gobbled whole, regurgitated and then spat out when the Englishman in charge of the Irishmen who lost to the Scotsmen and produced merely the latest in Irish rugby's lengthening repertoire of feeble jokes.

"I'm not quite sure whose game plan that is but it's nothing to do with me," were the words that inked his death warrant.

A month later, Ashton would be history and, despite a brave effort under new coach Warren Gatland, Ireland would submit narrowly to France in Paris en route to an eighth whitewash in their history, their second wooden spoon in six years of a miserable decade.

Rock bottom

"That year, that Scottish game, that was when Irish rugby truly hit rock bottom," says Reggie Corrigan, who had been enjoying - or rather enduring - his first season in a game that had just turned professional.

Irish rugby didn't get the memo; or if it did, they used it as a beer coaster.

"Everything was just a shambles back then. Even a coach as brilliant as Joe Schmidt would have struggled to work in those circumstances."

A snapshot of the time reveals a world away from that confronting the current Grand-Slam chasing squad.

Then, Corrigan didn't even have a professional contract; now, the Irish squad are rewarded handsomely.

Three of the side who faced Scotland played their rugby in England; unless you're Johnny Sexton, that scenario is now strictly verboten.

Ireland trained in staggeringly intensive two- or three-day bursts at the Dublin ALSAA complex and, bar the handful of home-based players, bunked in an airport before returning to their day jobs.

Now the Irish are ensconced in the grandeur of Carton House with every last need catered to, from masseurs to nutrition, with GPS recording their every step and video analysis each precise play.

"Three hours in the morning, then lunch, then another three hours," recalls Corrigan. "We'd try to get as much packed in as possible. We'd no real base, it was very haphazard. A very amateur set-up.

"We flogged the bejaysus out of each other in a limited amount of time and then went out to play the match at the weekend. That was the template really.

"Brian Ashton had been a professional set-up with Bath, he didn't realise what he was getting into. He thought we were further advanced than we were.

"He was implementing game plans which were very new and innovative, which would have been great if he had the players with the skill-level to do it. But he just didn't have the players."

He found not merely a team in transition but one mired in confusion. And his attempts to alter the script would become utterly lost in translation.

To his mind, considering the best Irish players were in England, he should live there and watch them; his first major meeting with the squad was held in London.

Also, he was rarely seen at AIL club matches, provincial rugby being still a pup then with only two having professional coaches.

Deploying the granny rule with even more dexterity than Jack Charlton and, displaying all of that man's outward gruffness, his relationship with the blazers and some players was torrid, if any existed at all.

The feeling was predominantly mutual; a bond based on confidence and appreciation; he had no confidence in Ireland and they didn't appreciate him.

"Pat is an Irishman and I am an Englishman; he is an amateur and I am a professional," he famously said of Pat Whelan who, uncomfortably for both, was the team manager.

"You can't blame Brian Ashton for everything," demurs Corrigan. "There was stuff going on behind the scenes with the powers that be which really caused his demise. A lot of people didn't like the fact an Englishman was coaching Ireland."

Mis-matched

Scotland, against whom Ireland had not won for 10 straight years, would be the start of the 1998 Five Nations but the end of the mis-matched affair.

"His ideas were right but it was just at the wrong time. But the way he wanted to play was right," adds Corrigan. "Like the bigger picture, as a team we were disjointed, the pack focused on scrum and lineout, the backs tried a few moves and never the twain should meet."

Corrigan helped the Irish scrum win a penalty try in the first-half but Alan Tait's try signalled danger as the lead lurched with the fitful quality of the fare; in the final quarter, David Humphreys' kicking would enrage the coach; that of Craig Chalmers' would execute him.

The next day, Keith Wood thwacked Chalmers on the back in Dublin Airport.

"What the f**k is that for?" asked the Scot. "Ah Jaysus for yesterday and all the other days!'"

Strange days, indeed.

Irish Independent

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