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Video: The Forgotten Rugby Sevens Tale Of When Ireland Played Croatia In 1999

By Paul O'Hara
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In September 1999, an Ireland team travelled to Zagreb, Croatia for a crucial Euro 2000 qualifier at the Maksimir, a cauldron of nationalistic Balkan fervour. A win for the Boys in Green would have all but secured a place in the Low Countries the following summer, while a draw would have pretty much secured a spot in the playoffs, with games against Malta and Macedonia to come.

With the score at 0-0 into injury time, the Irish were looking satisfied with their nights work when Davor Suker's beautiful control of a hopeful ball upfield and deft finish threw Ireland's qualification hopes into all sorts of trouble.

[Watch Video]

The nature of the defeat seemed to have a visible effect on Mick McCarthy's side, as they struggled to a 2-3 away win against Malta, who finished the group on zero points, before the infamous Macedonia game. 1-0 up thanks to Niall Quinn, Ireland were still on course for automatic qualification when Goran Stavrevski popped up in the 90th minute to utterly shatter Irish hopes. Subsequent playoff heartbreak at the hands of the Turks meant that Ireland would miss three major tournaments on the trot.

There was another Ireland v Croatia showdown earlier in Drico year zero, one that has probably been totally forgotten by Irish spectators and players alike - though I suspect the Croatian players may still remember the occasion. It took place at the annual Hong Kong Sevens tournament, the flagship festival for the short-sided version of the game. The Irish squad was made up of  up-and-coming and established provincial- and international-level 15-a-side players  - unthinkable today, but perfectly reasonable in the early days of the pro game.


Judging by the first names of some of the Croats, and the clubs they played for, it seems as though they were a group of Antipodean club players with Croatian ancestry, in similar fashion to Australian soccer teams down the years. As a result, they're not completely out of their depth against the Irish professionals, and acquit themselves very admirably indeed.


Ireland, according to the commentator, had only two training runs going into the competition, which would not be entirely far-fetched as the occasion is better known for its off-field antics than anything that takes place on the  dry side of the whitewash.

With a squad of players to jog the memory of any fan of late 1990s Irish rugby, there were plenty of names who had, or would go on to win full international caps. Pace was provided by Ulster speedster Jimmy Topping, who played in the 15-a-side World Cup later in the year, while a painfully young-looking David Wallace provides some muscle up front.

A still-playing Alain Rolland is visible on the sideline, on what must surely have been his final outing in an Ireland shirt. Leinster favourite John McWeeney is the other go-to pace merchant, while Dominic Crotty is busy throughout. Thrice-capped fullback Kevin Nowlan gets on the score sheet, while Leinster out-half Fergal Campion does the honours with the boot The squad was seriously half-back heavy - one-time London Irish 10 Barry Everitt replaces Brain Carey early on. In a scene comparable to a hypothetical Peter O'Mahony appearance at the Kinsale Sevens, veteran flanker David Corkery comes off the bench in the second half.


Ireland's inexperience at the shorter version is clearly evident. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the match is quite watchable with the Croats managing to stay in the contest right to the final whistle. Ireland's highly unusual decision to take a penalty kick at goal ultimately proves the difference between the sides.

If the hard-fought 15-12 victory isn't enough to convince you, you can be assured that the Irish didn't explode into life after their Balkan scare. I can't find a definitive results table for the tournament, but Wikipedia tells us that Fiji beat New Zealand in a very predictable main final, while Japan overcame the hosts in the Plate decider.

Croatia kept up their high standards by beating Hong Kong 14-12 and giving New Zealand an almighty scare before eventually going down by just 17-12.


Also notable is the shockingly outdated commentary by Kiwi Hamish McKay, with colour provided by the late Scotland and Lions great Gordon Brown - the second row better known as 'Broon frae Troon'.  After Nowlan gets smashed after the whistle, Brown lambastes the referee's "poncey wee blow" as the cause of Nowlan's injury. Even funnier, at 16:32 they pass a well-intentioned word on the appearance of Argentina's female physio that would probably see them both blacklisted today.

Many thanks to uploader  Bruno Vu?ica for this and Croatia's other games at Hong Kong.



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