Rugby

Balls Remembers One Of The Most Harrowing Nights In Irish Rugby History

Balls Remembers One Of The Most Harrowing Nights In Irish Rugby History

 

It's like we've spent the best part of four years preparing to be tested at the highest level, then some imposters had gone in and sat the examinations.

Brian O'Driscoll

Brent Pope was removed from his normal perch in a studio in Donnybrook and was instead watching the Georgia game in Kiely's Pub in Dublin 4.

Among the pub-goers, rugby people to a fault ('they are always rugby people in Kiely's'), there was frustration after the previous week's showing against Namibia but also an expectancy, born of five years of watching Ireland win games consistently, that the team would surely find their form and their swagger soon. And roll over Georgia? Well, that was never in doubt.

In the early years of Ireland's resurgence in the noughties, those who supported them through the previous decade were grateful for almost any victory.

By 2007 however, people had got used to seeing Ireland winning games. Everyone had fully adjusted to the new reality. Scotland, for instance, were just a team to be mowed down - especially at home.

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The 90's, where we failed to beat Scotland even once and the only game we could win was against Wales in Cardiff, were a distant memory.

Ireland had frittered away that spring's Six Nations title in comically agonising circumstances.

However, the memory that stuck longest in people's heads from that campaign was the cathartic victory over England and the team headed for France on a wave of goodwill. Not even the narrow and utterly undeserved victory over Italy in a warm-up game in Ravenhill caused too much disquiet among the public at large.

Irish rugby fans were entirely unprepared for what happened that September.

Of course, if one wanted to be superstitious, one could say the first blow against Ireland's chances in the 2007 Rugby World Cup was struck a year and half beforehand.

With scant regard for Ireland's prospects, Rugby World Cup Limited offered broadcasting rights to TV3. The station had long since succeeded Jimmy McGee as the harbinger of doom for Irish national teams. Previous broadcasting horror shows included their coverage of Ireland's trip to Cyprus in late 2006, the sickening 1-1 draw away to Macedonia in 1999, and our 2-1 humiliation of San Marino earlier that year.

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Thus were Brent and George and Tom separated that night.

The details of the Georgia game are largely lost to Denis Hickie now. He doesn't even recall Denis Leamy lying under the ball in the final couple of minutes, denying Georgia the winning try. The game is impossible to separate from the experience of the World Cup as a whole.

The issue surrounding the team hotel, where Ireland ended up staying at a soulless dump near an industrial estate, emerges as a curious metaphor for the whole World Cup.

We were due to stay in the hotel in right in the centre of the city, which would have been fantastic. I don't mean we'd have had a nicer room or anything. It just means the World Cup would have been on our doorstep, we would have been mixed up with fans and we would have been in the heart of a beautiful city like Bordeaux and, actually, players feed off that kind of stuff, because there's just a sense of the occasion or whatever.

But, actually the hotel wasn't built. I think when the hotel was selected a year previously it was due to be finished at a certain point in time. It was no one's fault. As a result, we had to stay at a hotel a half an hour out of the city in an industrial estate near a conference centre. It was like staying at an airport hotel for four weeks. You don't blame the tournament on that but when you add up all these things together, it just gives you an understanding of how the little things can start going against you.

Groggy and out of sorts as they were, Ireland had at least mustered a quick start in the opener against Namibia. That didn't happen against Georgia.

It took longer than expected to get the opening try - Rory Best bundling over after a lineout from five metres out - but it still didn't feel good. Another fifteen minutes past without a score. The Georgians enjoyed some time in the Irish half. It was all very unseemly. Ireland had a five metre scrum after an O'Gara grubber kick was carried over his own line by the Georgian winger. Irish supporters were still in the 'racking up points' frame of mind and the scoreline still had a fairly bare look. So the feeling was 'right, convert this and we'll go again'.

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The Georgians forced the Irish drive back and the ball was turned over. The doughty Georgians sallied up the pitch, their pressure manufacturing a penalty close to the posts.

They roared the righteous roar of the underdogs. The French crowd, understandably warming to the minnows, roared with them.

By half-time the scoreline was 7-3 and everyone was almost resigned to the likelihood that Ireland were not going to do anything at this World Cup. This team was not getting any better. The colour showed no sign of returning to their cheeks.

Hickie is not sure if panic is the right word to describe what was going on. But he does admit there was mystification within the squad as to why they weren't 'gelling'.

As the game went on there was more a sense of... I think guys were confused more than anything else...

The second half was like a bad dream, a hallucination. The Georgian try was the worst moment. Stringer flung a pass which the Georgian out-half Kvirikashvili spotted about three rucks previously. He caught the ball and ran sixty yards to touch the ball down. The play gave us the match's most iconic moment - the sight of O'Driscoll, his bones shaking with frustration, berating his scrum half.

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Whatever happened now, this was going to be an embarrassment - it was now just about degrees of embarrassment.

There may not have been panic but the players looked shook at this stage. As they congregated under the goalposts after the Georgian try, their faces looked reddened and sweaty.

O'Gara captured the chaos in his 2008 autobiography:

Things got heated in the second half. Drico ate the head off Peter Stringer for their intercept try. I had a go at Isaac Boss near the end. People were shouting at the pack to sort themselves out. It was a bad scene. In that situation you don't have time to think about the restart, the next possession, the next tackle.

For 10 unbelievable minutes, the Georgians lead Ireland. On 54 minutes, D'arcy ran through a hole in midfield and Ireland strung a few passes and Girvan Dempsey broke a weak tackle near the sideline and jogged over. At 14-10, we could breathe easier. Some began to think tentatively about the possibility of bonus points.

But, no they weren't in that kind of arena at all. The floodgates remained stubbornly shut for the remaining 26 minutes. And the final ten minutes were the most harrowing in the history of Irish rugby.

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In Kiely's where Brent Pope was, frustration and bafflement had mutated into outright anger.

People at the end were almost livid. People were irate. It was a mixture of shock and being hacked off. Especially because it wasn't a situation whereby it was a substandard performance but it was still a 10 or 15 point win and you say 'okay, they didn't play particularly well'. This was a situation where, going into the last five minutes, people actually thought on the balance of play, Georgia probably deserved to win.

And in the last five or ten minutes, it wasn't like you were saying okay we'll put a line through this and move on, it's done and dusted and forget about it. It was a case of 'Oh my God! They're going to lose here!'

The battling Georgians thoroughly enjoyed kranking up the pressure on their betters. With two and half minutes left, the Georgians pounded at the Irish line. Closer and closer. Then, novice referee Wayne Barnes blew his whistle. He made the video referee sign with his hands. Oh my God! Mercifully, he didn't ask the ref, 'Is there any reason I can't award this try?' He left it up to the video ref entirely - 'Was this a try, yes or no?'

Denis Leamy's arm convinced the man behind the monitor it was a 'no'.

It wasn't over yet. The Georgians had a five metre scrum. Mercifully the ball came back on the Irish side but they proceeded to kick it away again. When Barnes finally blew up, Ireland were camped on their own 22 metre line, trying to defend a last-gasp Georgian surge.

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The French crowd, smarting at being denied a fairytale, jeered loudly at the final whistle (though the French would boo an eight year old's school play if they weren't sufficiently entertained by it). The stunned Irish crowd may have jeered too for different reasons.

Shame-faced, Ireland had escaped with a four point victory. There were was a bit of shaping and jostling at the final whistle, a case of, what Anthony Daly once termed, ''fuck ye' with faces on us'.

Eddie O'Sullivan arrived down on the touchline to cool matters, trying manfully to look businesslike rather than distressed.

The final insult: We were reminded in the post-match analysis that this was a largely second-string Georgian outfit. Over on ITV, Thomas Castaignede, half enjoying it, half feeling sympathy for Ireland, spluttered 'It's embarrassing'.

Ronan O'Gara expressed it well in his autobiography.

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Losing that match would have been the lowest point in the history of Irish rugby. Winning that match seemed like the lowest point in the history of Irish rugby.

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Ireland's performance was debated on Questions & Answers the following Tuesday. Official Ireland had decided that Ireland's display was a scandal equivalent to a political scandal.

And that was how it was debated. Something that demanded an inquest or possibly a head on a plate - or at the very least a catch all explanation that could be expressed in a soundbite.

Jim Power, the economist, remarked knowingly that they were 'over-hyped and overpaid' (a stock economist's answer to everything) indicating that the team who had beaten Australia and South Africa the previous November were never that good in the first place and their true level had finally been rumbled by the mighty powers of Georgia and Namibia.

Finola Meredith, the northern journalist, preferred to blame Phil Coulter for the whole thing, saying they should ditch that 'dreadful anthem', remarking that the Ulster players would hardly object if they just sang the Soldier's Song.

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Angry people in the audience declared they were 'entitled to expect more from professional players' - as if seeing the sports team you support play well was enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The whole thing was like a throwback to the 1990s, except the teams coached by Murray Kidd and Brian Ashton, for all their limitations, never humiliated us like this.

Hickie recalls the pressure from the media making little impact on the squad largely because the pressure coming from within the squad was now so great. In ten years with the Irish team, there was never more angst-ridden hand-wringing than there was that September.

With that team, over the previous 5 or 6 years, I don't think we ever had such a sub-par performance. There were one or two when we were developing along - but it was very clear why things weren't going well. I remember we were beaten 43-6 by England in the 2003 Grand Slam game, but there was no mystery why we lost that. They were just such a good side that there was no confusion as to why we weren't winning. Whereas this was a different thing. It was much more introspective. It was wondering why all this stuff that had worked so well for us or we had been practising just wasn't clicking during the games.

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Eddie O'Sullivan's stock fell dramatically. At the start of September, he was regarded by many as an almost indispensable part of Ireland's future. After the month was through, he was a man living on borrowed time. He was chastised as a dictator who created a cold atmosphere for his players and was excessively conservative in his team selections.

On the Questions & Answers episode, one member of the audience, Tom Carew (of the Ireland-Israeli Friendship League incidentally) said that both Eddie O'Sullivan and Steve Staunton had shown 'a lack of guts' and should resign immediately. Furthermore, if anyone 'wanted to see real managers are like they should look at Brian Cody and Roy Keane'. Truly, it was a different time.

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Rather more damningly for O'Sullivan, two days after Argentina formally ended our interest in the competition (following Ireland's most acceptable performance of the month), Gerry Thornley wrote a savage article in the Irish Times entitled 'Let the spinning stop and let O'Sullivan go' where he reported tales of unhappiness and division within the camp, fuelled by O'Sullivan's alleged dictatorial tendencies and poor man-management.

There was an official report commissioned into the disaster (carried out by the consultancy group Genesis, the same people who looked at Saipan) which concluded that Ireland hadn't played enough matches in the lead-up to the tournament and thus didn't have enough match practise.

Though they never played quite as badly again, Ireland's slack form continued into the 2008 Six Nations and O'Sullivan, who (excluding Joe Schmidt for the moment) has the best win-loss ratio of any Irish coach, was gone.

When the Munster players returned home, Anthony Foley had some soothing words for them.

Ye're not the first Irish team to bring disgrace on the nation and ye wont be the last.

Read more: Ronan O'Gara Offers A Different Spin On Miami Dolphins Story - Which One Is Right?

Conor Neville
Article written by
Perennial finalist in stand-up comedy competitions and former Contract Lawyer/ Coal Salesman with Corless, Corless and Sweeney

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