Thursday 22 February 2018

History shows the Scots can sink World Cup selections

Big names have regularly crashed at this seemingly innocuous Scottish hurdle. Acidic memories still linger in Jamie Heaslip’s mind when he recalls his exclusion from the 2007 World Cup.
Big names have regularly crashed at this seemingly innocuous Scottish hurdle. Acidic memories still linger in Jamie Heaslip’s mind when he recalls his exclusion from the 2007 World Cup.
David Kelly

David Kelly

On September 6 2003, Munster's Irish contingent were enjoying their final sally south before their imminent departure to the World Cup in Australia.

Hours earlier, they had beaten Scotland in their final Murrayfield warm-up clash and, with Eddie O'Sullivan (below) due to announce his squad on the following morning, the players were eager to squeeze some time in with family before their imminent departure.

There were three car-loads, as the previous day's rain cleared to unveil a spectacularly sunny Saturday evening; one of which included both David Wallace and Alan Quinlan.

Wallace had played reasonably well - scoring a try - against the Scots despite niggling shoulder injuries and a yellow card; as the players shimmied into Naas for a few quiet pints, they assured him he would be joining them in Australia.

The next day, he found out he wouldn't; Simon Easterby, currently forwards coach, made it instead. "It was a low point in my career," he recalls.

Wallace would, however, make it to Australia when Quinlan's tournament ended in the act of ensuring Ireland's didn't, rupturing his shoulder while scoring a crucial try against Argentina.

A selection call freights a different sense of pain; it is someone else's opinion, a decision which is ostensibly out of your hands and often impossible to agree with.

There will be at least one leading Irish player who will experience this sensation as the countdown to England 2015 continues with, for the fourth successive tournament, a clash against Scotland this weekend in Dublin.

Leo Cullen felt that sense of outrage in 2003 too when his erstwhile Blackrock mentor O'Sullivan chose Gary Longwell in his stead; it was a decision that was finally made at 4am on Sunday.

If the coach got little sleep, neither had the anxious players on the bubble of his squad.

Cullen was sitting in his Blackrock apartment when the call came to signal his World Cup doom; no sooner had O'Sullivan begun to expound his reasons for doing so than Cullen erupted in spitting fury.

"Sometimes," O'Sullivan attempted to interject mid-rant, "you have to face up to it when other players are playing better than you."

Needless to say, Cullen did not agree. "I don't believe that!" he roared before promptly hanging up. Nothing becomes a player whose World Cup dreams are scorned.

Big names have regularly crashed at this seemingly innocuous Scottish hurdle.

Acidic memories still linger in Jamie Heaslip's mind when he recalls his exclusion from the 2007 World Cup; he featured against Scotland and many of his supporters presumed he would be bound for France.

Heaslip was omitted; neither Neil Best nor Stephen Ferris had shone against the Scots either but the Leinster man's youth and lack of versatility ultimately undid him.

Tommy Bowe, too, would have been confident of his berth as he jousted with rugby league convert Brian Carney in what had developed into effectively a shoot-out between the duo.

O'Sullivan had told the players that if they didn't get a call, that was good news. Like Heaslip, Bowe got a call too. He flew to France as cover for the injured Shane Horgan but that was as close as he got.

Bowe would make it four years later having firmly established himself as a world-class operator; Luke Fitzgerald was perhaps too young in 2007; in 2011, he too, harboured grand ambitions.

So too Tomás O'Leary, despite losing the form that had won him a Grand Slam with coach Declan Kidney two years earlier.

Scotland, the opening warm-up game of five in 2011, marked the beginning of the end for both of them as they were sensationally axed from the squad.

The thistle has pricked many ambitions in recent times; and that is without referencing injuries to Geordan Murphy and Rob Henderson in 2003 and Horgan in 2007.

So when Joe Schmidt today names his side to face Scotland, one of them could yet be in for a rude awakening by the time he names his 31-man squad.

Irish Independent

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