Five former Ireland internationals, Derek McGrath, Brian Robinson, Eric Elwood, Malcolm O’Kelly and Alan Quinlan, relive their Rugby World Cup memories with Liam Heagney.
DEREK MCGRATH – 1987:
Six tournaments, 25 matches, 13 wins and four quarter-final appearances – that’s Ireland’s Rugby World Cup history in a nutshell.
It all started 24 years ago and for Derek McGrath, the current ERC Chief Executive, it was a case of opportunity knocking at the very last minute.
Nigel Carr, David Irwin and Philip Rainey had been en route to squad training in Dublin when their vehicle was caught in the blast caused by an IRA roadside device at Killeen.
Carr’s injuries ruled him out and McGrath, whose previous cap came in 1984, got the nod to travel to the inaugural Rugby World Cup in New Zealand and Australia after impressing in a trial match.
Knowing time off from work would be a problem, he left his job (he had been temporarily employed as a veterinary surgeon at the Department of Agriculture). But it was worth his while, as he started all four games in a 14-day period. The flanker’s recollections are vivid.
Ireland had flown out from Heathrow sharing economy with Wales, McGrath chatting to opponents like Paul Thorburn and Jonathan Davies. But sharing a plane with your main pool opposition was not the only strange occurrence.
The morning of Ireland’s first full day in New Zealand was spent with the forwards scrummaging the Scottish pack.
There was also an opening ceremony dinner attended by 11 of the 16 teams.
With games in Wellington, Dunedin, Brisbane and Sydney, Ireland’s itinerary was tiring, but certain things stood out.
The smell of fresh paint at each venue. The rugby knowledge of the New Zealand public (McGrath recalls being in a sheepskin rug shop with team-mates and their chat about a controversial try in the Australia-England match prompted informed opinion from an elderly woman behind the counter).
There was an absence of the wild, boozy post-match nights associated with the amateur era (McGrath spent much of his time resting up). And then there was the jet lag.
“We all found the first game difficult (the defeat to Wales). Even though we were there for about a week you knew it was about six o’clock in the morning back home and you felt like you were playing like it was six in the morning. It was tough to get your legs going,” he said.
He would do it all again, though, even enduring the anxiety of Heathrow baggage handlers mislaying for a month his case containing the opposition team jerseys he collected.
“Every moment was a great adventure. It was certainly something I was delighted to be involved in and the further you get away from it and see the event grow, you’re more and more proud of the fact you were there for the first one.”
BRIAN ROBINSON -1991:
Brian Robinson was there for the second edition, a tournament remembered as the one that got away.
Ireland had Australia on the ropes in the quarter-finals in Dublin, but the eventual champions snatched salvation with Michael Lynagh’s last-gasp try in the corner.
“He landed at my feet,” recalls Robinson, the number 8 who scored four tries in Ireland’s opening game against Zimbabwe. “I remember standing with my hands on my hips looking down on Lynagh.
“There was a lot of satisfaction from that tournament but there’s still regret at what might have been. That quarter-final frames my career. It was the best game I was ever involved in. An epic.
“In everybody’s career you get a pivotal moment and that was mine. It slipped away from us.
“The last couple of minutes were an emotional rollercoaster, having got Gordie’s try (Gordon Hamilton) and the high of it.
“That just wouldn’t happen, the fans running onto the pitch and swamping you. It’s a bygone age. Nowadays you’d have psychologists telling you what to do, to get back to the halfway line and think about the next play.
“We were probably a bit too emotional as it was still an amateur sport. Australia were more professional and they did what they had to do,” adds Robinson, a teacher at Belfast’s Campbell College where a current pupil is, ironically, Hamilton’s son.
ERIC ELWOOD – 1995:
The 1995 World Cup saw Ireland reach a third consecutive quarter-final, progress in South Africa sealed by the cliff-hanging 24-23 pool win over Wales.
“We took a flying lead,” remembers out-half Eric Elwood, who now the Connacht head coach.
“We were very relaxed, thinking the Welsh didn’t have a hope of catching us, but once they got within 10 points we started to panic. In the end we were hanging on.”
MALCOLM O’KELLY AND ALAN QUINLAN – 2003:
Malcolm O’Kelly and Alan Quinlan, veterans of the 1999 and 2007 campaigns, when defeat to Argentina confirmed Ireland’s exit, both have fond memories of 2003 when they put the Pumas to the sword in an Adelaide slugfest clinched by a point.
“The support going out of the hotel to the match was pretty tremendous and I’ll never forget it coming back in,” enthuses second row O’Kelly.
“It was absolutely incredible. A memorable occasion, that’s for sure. There was the relief of winning, and the absolute party that night was incredible.
“No joke, Adelaide ran dry of beer. The supporters were in such great form and we partied into the early hours.”
Even Quinlan was smiling, despite dislocating his shoulder in the act of scoring his crucial first half try. The jersey he wore still hangs with pride in his uncle Andy’s pub in Tipperary town.
“I was in Lens in ’99 and saw the devastation and heartbreak that caused, the impact it had in Irish rugby, so winning that match in 2003 got us back on track.
“It was great to be part of it. Getting injured wasn’t in the plan but it was better getting injured that way (scoring) than in training.
“It eased the pain. At least I had scored and had a part to play. I got an X-ray at the hospital, got put in a sling after getting my shoulder put back in place, so I was back in time to have a shower at the ground and meet all the lads. Everyone was very happy.”
They sure were. It was Ireland’s most priceless World Cup win.
This article appeared in the special World Cup edition of ‘In Touch’ – the official IRFU magazine in association with O2. It was free with Tuesday’s Irish Independent.
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