In the summer of 1997, the gnarly figure of Peter Clohessy would become the first Irish international to play Super Rugby down under. He spent a half season with the Queensland Reds (Read about it here). That he embarked on this sojourn at all was partly attributable to the annoying capacities of the French forwards.
Neil Francis told the story of standing in a chilly Donnybrook watching an Ireland A game when he noticed a small balding man waving frantically at him. Flummoxed, Francis beckoned him over and in the early chit chat was forced into a painful game of pretending he knew who the man was. After a few minutes, his French colleague discerned this. He told him who he was. Francis refused to believe him and only relented when he was offered proof in the shape of his driving licence. He was stunned at how the man had changed. He was a shrunken figure.
In French colours, he was a Kenwood outrigger hauling logs, a buttress pinioned to Notre Dame, a savage beast.
He told the story to illustrate the rampant and casual nature of the doping problem in French rugby in the shamateurism era. The man disclosed, with a rather charming chirpiness and candour, that he simply stopped taking steroids.
But it also served to remind one of the beastly bogeymen who populated the French pack in the 1990s. Peter Clohessy, the target for the target for much of the scragging and tearing and punching, didn't like any of them.
He eloquently described their modus operandi to Tom English in No Borders.
I never liked them. On the field they'd be gouging, punching and catching you by the stones. If there's anything worse than having some fucker sticking his finger in your eye, it's having his buddy trying to rip the bollocks off you at the same time.
In 1994, he was hauled off the pitch, with Noisy Murphy shouting at him 'They're going to kill you, they're going to kill you, you're not going back out on that field'.
In Irish rugby's bleak days, the thought of winning in Paris was wholly fanciful. It looked like we'd never win there again. Ireland had last won in the French capital in 1972 in the last Five Nations game played at the old Stade Colombes. Shortly afterwards, they moved across the city to the newly built Parc des Princes, billed at the time as a state-of-the-art stadium. Ireland played there twelve times between 1974 and 1996 and lost every match.
At least in 1996, we managed a try at least. Albeit a penalty try. It was the first time Ireland had managed a try in Paris in sixteen years and only the second they scored there in the Six Nations. Winger Freddie McLennan scored in Ireland's one point loss there in 1980.
When Denis Hickie darted in for an intercept try in the Stade de France (a marginally happier hunting ground) two years later, McLennan rang him up and delivered a message of congratulation.
This is Freddie. You're some bollocks. Nobody me apart from that try and now nobody is going to remember me ever again.
Incredibly, the curse still held long after the ground stopped holding Six Nations games. Ireland endured an unhappy return to the ground for the final pool game of the 2007 World Cup against Argentina. They rolled back the years as they as they succumbed on a scoreline of 30-15 and returned with their tails firmly wedged between their legs, their traditional method of departing the Parc des Princes.
The '96 game was one of the worst defeats of all. They were murdered on a scoreline of 45-10. It was a fitting send off.
However, the game is mainly remembered now for an incident involving Peter Clohessy. It led all the match reports. It would replayed time and again on RTE without a parental advisory warning.
With the game long gone (as if there was ever a chance) Clohessy saw the French lock Olivier Roumat lying on the floor at the bottom of the ruck and decided to let his foot down on his head.
The incident happened outside the referee's eyeline but the cameras glare was more all-encompassing. The game trundled on with the zooty French backs gliding in for a few more tries.
Even the moral victory was painfully out of reach. The players trooped off, glad to out of sight of pitch, knowing nothing about an incident involving Peter Clohessy and a French forward.
Clohessy himself had to be reminded of it afterwards.
The match was over and no one took any notice of it as we were coming off the field. It was actually Neil Francis who was reporting on the match, who said it to me. 'I think you're in a bit of trouble.' I said, 'Why, what happened? I had forgotten about it. He explained that it had been replayed all the time on TV. I kind of leaned on his head with my boot. I actually pulled out of it when I was doing it as I realised I was doing it.
Retribution was stunningly harsh. Clohessy was hit (stamped) with a 26 week ban. He became a bigger bogeyman than anyone. Keith Wood was doing commentary for the BBC that day and was urged, via a message in his earpiece, to comment on it. Skillfully, he skirted addressing the matter.
Mick Galwey defended Clohessy stoutly:
There was an awful lot said about it, but it was payback. Like an elephant Claw wasn't forgetting what happened to him two years earlier. Whatever Claw dished out that day, I guarantee you he took the same again and more beforehand. The 1994 game was the backdrop. We got the shit kicked out of us. We didn't give out about it, we just got on with it. But he was caught red-handed with the Roumat thing and he took an awful hiding for it. He knew he was wrong.
Four years later, Claw was back in the team when Ireland won in Paris. The elder statesmen on the team thought immediately of Clohessy.
I knew then I could die happy.