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Who fears to speak of summer '98

Rugby Union in the professional era -- born 1995 -- has yet to come of age as a sport. So, perhaps it was appropriate that this week's build-up has been dominated by the perceived difficulty its players seemed to have had getting a drink during the summer's Lions tour.

Normally the trouble starts when people have too much to drink -- not when they refuse one. But if you think the events at the Loftus Versfeld stadium were deserving of an alcohol ban, then what about the torrid 1998 test between the Springboks and Ireland?

Now that was the original "Battle of Pretoria." Eleven years ago this month, South Africa arrived in Dublin for the November series still simmering after a summer tour that had exploded into violence during the two-test series.

Trouble had been sign-posted from the first test in Bloemfontein. Manager Donal Lenihan had to persuade officials to open the gates to let the Irish coach pass into the ground.

Their dressing-room was so cramped, the replacements and tackle bags had to be moved into a separate room, as well as habitual pre-match puffers Peter Clohessy and Rob Henderson.

Ireland lost 37-13 (Stefan Terblanche scoring four tries on luckless Denis Hickie's wing); yet the match was more memorable for the actions of Keith Wood, who had launched his best haymaker at the head of South African captain Gary Teichmann.

"What he did was unacceptable," fired the angry Springbok coach Nick Mallett, "and I think he should have walked. In fact, it's just as well that the punch hit the back of our flanker Johan Erasmus' head beforehand, otherwise it would have taken Gary's head off."

Steaming

Wood apologised, but privately both camps were steaming. Paddy Johns, the normally mild-mannered captain off the field, declared that he was willing to put his body on the line. "Tomorrow, I know I can rest," he intoned.

Warren Gatland had a warning for any South African players who tried to slow down Irish ball: "We will deal with them in our own way." The gauntlet had been flung with ferocity.

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Trevor Brennan, who was still on a high after winning his first Irish cap in the first test, watched the surreal proceedings unfold from his position on the bench, and recalls vividly the moment he knew that all hell was going to break loose.

"It was when their scrum-half (Joost van der Westhuizen) kicked Malcolm O'Kelly after about 10 minutes," recalled Brennan this week, as he launched his eponymous rugby tours company. In fact, it had all kicked off even earlier than that.

Franco Smith, now Treviso coach, would pull the strings at out-half all day and he should have helped the side into an early lead; however, his thrilling break and pass to Johannes Erasmus was pulled back as prop Adrian Garvey had launched the first of the day's punches earlier in the move.

Johns subsequently lamped Teichmann at an early line-out. Then came van der Westhuizen's cynical, cowardly kick on O'Kelly as the Dubliner got trapped on the wrong side of a ruck.

"I'll never forget it," said Brennan. "Malcolm got a kick, in the same way you'd see a fella taking a penalty in the All-Ireland final."

Astonishingly, the French referee Joel Dume didn't send him off and van der Westhuizen would subsequently open the scoring.

Tempers frayed again when Victor Costello was cautioned for a fracas with the notorious hooker, James 'Bullet' Dalton, who somehow emerged from the proceedings without caution. His opposite number, Wood, was heavily targeted all afternoon.

Full-back Percy Montgomery had a score disallowed for a forward pass before Rassie Erasmus and Dalton added further tries before half-time. But the shimmering threat of violence was rarely far away.

Minutes after the break, Teichmann was penalised for reacting to Irish scrum-half Conor McGuinness pulling on his jersey; then South African lock Krynauw Otto was binned when he traded blows with Johns, who was lucky to escape sanction.

By this time, the scene was anarchic, with fist fights breaking out arbitrarily. Ireland introduced Brennan and Clohessy. It was like pouring petrol on fire. "Myself and Peter, wha," Brennan laughs. "Two gentler guys you couldn't meet, arriving into the middle of all this.

"By the time myself and Claw came on there were about 12 fights going on about the place. Then Mark Andrews and Paddy Johns started fighting just as I walked on. For once in my life I was the peacemaker!

"This wasn't your normal just three or four in the pack having a few boxes off each other, it was one-in all-in. It was like a 99 call (Willie John McBride's notoriously unambiguous call to violence on the 1974 Lions tour to South Africa).

"Not that we had a call or anything like that. I remember you could hear the whistle being blown, but the referee was being completely ignored, whether you turned right or left, you could see fellas fighting.

"We wanted to put up a bit of a show, front up and show some pride. Both teams wanted to play rugby, but when those things start happening, you have to get in and stick up for each other."

Teichmann crashed over from a loose ball close to the line for his side's fourth try before Pieter Rossouw ran in from 40 metres out to round off a humiliating afternoon on the scoreboard, to which the gleeful captain pointed repeatedly in the game's dying embers. "We were trying to play the rugby, while their only interest was in preventing us from playing," moaned Mallett in the aftermath of the game.

Unsurprisingly, the Springboks refused to offer any hospitality to the visitors after the match, an eerie echo of events this past summer, when this time the Lions refused an invitation to break bread with their opponents after any of the three tests.

"The South Africans never mixed at all, a bit like the Lions this year," remembers Brennan.

"They stood up at one end of the hall, we were down the other end of the hall. At no stage did any of the players talk to the opposition."

The irrepressible Wood led his players towards the podium and sang the squad anthem, 'From Clare to Here,' paying special attention to an extremely apt verse: "And the only time I feel alright is when I'm into drinking, It sort of eases the pain of it and levels out my thinking."

Combat

When the teams renewed combat later that year, the enraged-looking Dalton stared down the Irish players before the kick-off, but there was no repeat of the ugly scenes that had blighted the summer tour.

And, despite some disquiet from leading Irish figures, the IRFU forgot about the Springboks' measly cocktail sausage reception and persisted with their lavish Berkeley Court gala dinner. "We'd like to go for a drink with them, if they'd like to drink with us," said Mallet after the game. And so that summer's ill-feeling was forgotten in the grand old tradition of the game.

"Whatever happens on the pitch should be forgotten about," says Brennan. "That's what the game is about, giving it all when you're out there and making friends off the pitch. I don't think 1998 has any relevance to today, I don't think the Lions tour has any relevance even."

Now, 11 years on, and regardless of what happened during this summer, or even what may happen in Croke Park this afternoon, the players from both sides will finally get to share a beer at the post-match function.

And Brennan feels that South Africa will be the team drowning their sorrows.

"Ireland will beat them and beat them well," he said. "Gone are the days when Ireland tried to beat teams up. Now they just beat them."


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