Ireland Rugby from the Ashes?

A wave washed over Croke Park,  it was the last quarter of the rout of England, a large percentage of the 82,500 broke into song:

“‘Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé.”

Never before have we hear that for an Irish Rugby team! It was impulse, a lift back to Charlton’s football days, and further evidence that, at least in Ireland, rugby is the new soccer! The scoreline (43-13) was the fourth in a row win over the World Champions (England). Several weeks before Steve Staunton’s squad had almost the most embarassing result in Irish sports history. Rugby truly is where the heart is now!

In 1991, the IRFU were stalling over a commercial scheme put forward by the players during the World Cup, the IRFU refused it by saying the Scots objected.

1995, just before departing for the World Cup the IRFU issed a statement opposing the payment of players becaust it was a leisure activity undertaken voluntarily. Bill Hogg of the SRU had said the same several months earlier – same story, same page, same script.

The story of professionalism is a difficult one for Ireland, but they did it very differently to the Scots. When the game opened up in 1995, Ireland’s stadium plans were little more than buying 90 acres on the outskirts of Dublin for less than £1m. It’s still there, increasing in value. They didn’t pick up the debt that the SRU picked up with Murrayfield, and could afford to invest.

That didn’t mean they wanted to! They certainly didn’t! Every year the treasurer’s report was cheered, the idea of spending was alarming. The new era beagan.

The bit that made it work had been sent up in the previous century! Four provinces, that could be filled with contracted players, with their own grounds and histories. Filling those squads was not that easy as Brian Ashton (the current England coach) knows, after arriving to a six-year contract. He expected to be managing a team at the top of a system with four pro teams with coaches and full-time squads, he left after 13 months asking why that hadn’t happened. Once he was gone the IRFU decided to resource the teams. This is Ashton’s legacy and present to Irish rugby which might just be making them what they are today.

96/97 saw Munster mid table in their European pool, by 2000 Ireland’s provinces had a wanner, a runner-up and a semi-finalist amongst them. Scotland didn’t even have a qualifier there.

The darkest and most important change in Ireland’s transition was in Lens in 1999, Ireland lost to Argentina in the World Cup – out of the top eight in the World. The response was blunt:

“It was embarrassing. It came at the end of what was a very difficult transition for us. Our period from ’95 up to Lens was an absolute f*** up altogether. It was a sort of catharsis point where everybody said: ‘OK, we’ve reached it, now we can either play around with the professional game or get seriously into the professional game’.”

Investment was here, and to increase year on year. The youth team became more of a cause than a cost on the bottom line. Yes they were late to reach this stage, but with a European calling card they were here to stay. They fought to bring back the players that had fled to England in sumer of 1996. This was it, the only way was up!

Rugby is now sexy! Most Ireland players play in the provinces of Ireland, and the provinces do suffer when the national management tells them to rest players, but three Celtic League titles and two European Cups would suggest they do!

The triple crown is probably in the bag, but Grand Slam still eludes Ireland. The road to he last four in the World Cup this year is treachorous. No longer are we slaughtered by New Zealand and Australia, we are mentioned in the same breath! Now is the time!

10 Years and how it goes.

1997
Players leave for England. Brian Ashton arrives to suffer record losses, England (46-6), New Zealand (63-15) and absolute humiliation at Murrayfield (38-10). The end of the year ends as it began, beaten by Italy.

1998
Ashton resigns, Gatland takes over. What do Ireland gain? The wooden spoon after losing seven Tests in a row.

1999
Losing again at the Murrayfield, before that fateful night in Lens at the quarter-finals versus Argentina. The biggest inquisition in Irish rugby begins, it’s time for Operation Bring The Players Home.

2000
Gatland gambles five new faces at Murrayfield, it pays off. Ireland then win in Paris for the first time in 27 years, som young chap called O’Driscoll somehow scores a hat-trick! 50,000 fans follow Ireland’s Munnster to Twickenham to see them lose by a single point to Northampton. The whisper begins.

2001
Four out of Five in the Six Nations, Gatland is still sacked after a 32-10 defeat in Murrayfield. Munster make the semis in Europe, and Leinster show promise as they beat Munster in the Celtic League final. The year before 200 spectators watched that match, 30,000 turn out at Landsdowne for this!

2002
Munster lose another Heineken final to Leicester. Ireland beat Australia for the first time since 1979 this is the first big shout of the O’Sullivan era.

2003
A win at Murrayfield (finally!) for the first time in 18 years, and to come within one point of beating Australia in the World Cup shows where we are. Keith Wood retires but there are some big-game players in that squad. Munster and Leinster make the semis of the Heineken – they lose.  But Leinster manage to attract 40,000 previously uninterested fans to provincinal rugby.

2004

A Triple Crown (the first since 1985!), South Africa are defeated (first time since the 1960s). Munster lose to Wasps in the semis of the Heinekn in front of 40,000 home fanes.

2005
A flashback to times of old and calls for O’Sullivan’s head after the Six Nations and the autumns series and the provincial clubs make it no further than the quarters.

2006
Munster take the Heineken Cup as more than 70,000 travel to Cardiff to watch it! 15,000 further line the streets of Limerick to see it on a giant screen. They beat Leinster in front of a sellout 49,000 at Landsdowne (they could have filled it four more times) in the semis. Triple Crown numbers two is won in the Six Nations, before going on to beat Australia and South Africa in the autum. This is the year of Irish Rugby.

2007
Munster and Leinster are both in the Heineken quarters, Croke is new (temporary) home of Irish rugby. France have spoilt the first day party in the new ground, but against England, Ireland are simply spectacular to get the most emotional win in Irish rugby. Televions viewing records are all shattered for this match!