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The Comical Tale Of How Ireland Became The First Top Tier Rugby Nation To Lose To Italy

The Comical Tale Of How Ireland Became The First Top Tier Rugby Nation To Lose To Italy
By Conor Neville
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It's twenty years this year since Ireland became the first top tier rugby nation (from the old Five Nations and Tri-Nations) to lose an international match to Italy.

It was a World Cup warm-up in Treviso where the evil event took place. The World Cup was on earlier in the year in 1995 and so it was only a couple of months after the Five Nations that Ireland regathered and headed out to Italy.

Ireland had their standard 1990s Five Nations that year. They were soundly beaten by Grand Slammers England in Lansdowne Road (ending hopes of a remarkably improbable three-in-row over Will Carling's men), then lost to Scotland in Murrayfield, were defeated by a sizeable enough margin by France at home and then beat Wales in the wooden spoon decider in Cardiff (where else?).

The game against Italy took place on 6 May.

The events are well chronicled in Brendan Fanning's book 'From There To Here' (which examines how Ireland went from whipping boys in the late amateur and early professional era to consistent contenders in the new millennium).

Ireland were ostensibly coached by Dubliner Gerry Murphy who had been appointed coach after Ciaran Fitzgerald stepped down at the end of 1992. But, according to Fanning, it was team manager, former player and long-time committee figure Noel 'Noisy' Murphy (no relation) who had become de facto coach in the lead-up to the World Cup.


According to Fanning, the problems started in Heathrow airport. The team assembled in London and trained at London Irish's ground. Their flight from Heathrow was delayed by a few hours. To kill the time, they were shown to a room 'with no ventilation and only tables to sit on.' They sat and suffered in this unaccommodating location for a few hours until the flight took off.

Once they arrived they got ready for training. The training pitch made the supposed car park in Saipan look state of the art. It was described as a farmer's field riven with potholes.


The game was scheduled for 6.30 the following evening. It was in the lead-up to that the craic really started. Noisy, replete in his IRFU blazer, was operations head. The bus was to collect them at 5.00.

Fanning takes up the story.

Kick off the next day was in the early evening. The bus was due to collect them at five. At 5.05 Noel Murphy was already anxious. By 5.20 his blood pressure was rising. By 5.30 the taxis he called at half ten still hadn't showed. So he risked life and limb and set about trying to flag down any passing bus. As it happened, the strip was a haunt for prostitutes, so motorists wouldn't have known what to make of the excited man in a green blazer waving a fistful of cash.


They arrived at the ground with forty minutes left to kick off. English ref Tony Spreadbury wasn't having the idea that the game could be delayed.

Despite their smallness, the Italians were frightfully professional in those days while the Irish were the ultimate amateurs - with the IRFU more steadfast in their opposition to creeping professionalism than any other union.

Ireland lead at 12-9 at half-time through four Paul Burke penalties but failed to score in the second half. Diego Dominguez clipped over two penalties and then came only try of the game through full back Paolo Vaccari.


The Italians went nuts at the final whistle, while the Irish, who knew the drill as regards losing at this point, were far of heartbroken.

The Italians' hospitality improved considerably once Ireland were beaten.

Fanning again:


The Irish retreated to their hotel where Guinness had kindly laid on a barrel of stout. Everybody - players, press and whatever supporters there were - tucked in. The bar was soon hopping and I was struck by the speed with which the players were able to put the defeat behind them. They had just become the first International Board country - as the world's top eight were called - to lose to Italy.

The following morning, supporters and press arrived down to breakfast only to witness Noel Murphy arguing with the staff behind the bar. He was dismayed by the size of the bill and felt there had to have been a mistake. The players couldn't have possibly drank that much?

The night porter was called. After some time, he arrived and gave a description of the individual who was responsible for bottles that had disappeared after the barrel ran dry. The description encouraged Murphy to settle the bill hastily.

Fanning later confirmed that it was one Davy Tweed who accounted for much of the Guinness that was sunk that night. Davy, who made his debut for Ireland in that year's Five Nations at the grand old age of 35, really enjoyed himself. One of the most controversial players ever to play for Ireland on account of his hardline loyalist politics, he famously remarked on the eve of his debut that he had already played for his country thirty times (aka, Ulster).

Nefarious intent was inevitably attributed to the bus driver's failure to turn up (not to mention the shitty training field laid on). The Italians were suspected. The incident had an impact on Leinster's preparations for their first ever Heineken Cup that November in Milan (see here).

The way winger Niall Woods tells it 'the Italians conspired allegedly that the team bus never arrived to bring Ireland to the match and so Jim Glennon had to go out and do a recce beforehand.'

So, the comical tale of amateurism and excess that was Ireland's first ever loss to Italy ended up having a direct on influence on the first ever Heineken Cup weekend, the tournament that would do much to encourage Irish rugby professionalise in future years.

Brendan Fanning and Peter O'Reilly's new podcast 'Down the Blindside' can be caught here.

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