Irish forge strong link with rugby in America


WHEN the Ireland rugby team plays against the United States at the Life College Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, it will be strengthening still further the rugby connections between the two countries. And while those were first forged as recently as 1989, the liaison between Ireland and the United States has certainly been very frequent since the inaugural international between the countries in New York that year.

While organised rugby has been played in the United States since early in this century, it was initially almost totally confined to California. Yet the United States holds a unique record in the game in that they have twice been Olympic champions. In fact they are the reigning Olympic champions, as they won the title in 1924 in Paris, the last occasion in which rugby was part of the Olympics.

They had won the Olympic title for the first time in 1920 in Antwerp - a team drawn from California beat France in the final in totally unexpected circumstances. Earlier that year France had beaten Ireland for the first time in the International Championship.

It should be stressed, however, that when rugby was a part of the Olympic movement the big powers did not participate. Although Australia won the title in 1908, in those days Australian rugby was not the force it subsequently became. The same could be said for the French. Nonetheless, the USA victory in the 1924 Games in Paris, when they again beat France in the final, was of even greater merit than the win four years previously, as this time it was achieved on French soil.

But those Olympic wins did not preface unbounded enthusiasm for rugby in the United States, and there has been an ongoing struggle to give the game a nationwide character. The size of the country is a factor, but organisation has been streamlined. Jack Clarke of Berkeley University, the USA team coach, has done much in that regard. He is also responsible for raising finance.

A man who has contributed significantly in recent years to the development of the game in the USA is George Hook, and he has done a lot to forge strong links between Ireland and the Americans. He is the liaison man for the current visit. He has recently spent several months in America setting up coaching courses and, in essence, acts as technical director to the USRFU. They have had 20 level one coaching courses in recent times and no fewer than 800 coaches now operate at different levels through America. Their coaching structure is based on the IRFU system.

So a very concerted effort is being made in America to propagate the game. The USA have played only one international since they played against Ireland early last season in Dublin. That was against arch rivals Canada in the annual Can-Am match and, for the first time, after a few near misses, the USA won the match.

In contrast, the match against Ireland next Saturday will be the first of 13 internationals that the USA will play in 1996. They are in the new Pacific Rim tournament with Canada, Japan, Argentina, Hong Kong, Fiji, Tonga and Western Samoa. The USRFU has also signed an agreement with Rupert Murdoch, whose organisation will have the television rights to all the USA matches, including the match next Saturday. The agreement will bring in $1 million per annum to the US union over the next 10 years.

There are 65,000 players in the United States and 1,600 clubs. So there is a very good base. The vastness of the country has been a problem in the organisation and co-ordination, but they are working hard on it.

For over half of the members of the Ireland squad it will be a case of renewing an old acquaintance with the Americans and indeed, four of the current squad were on the first tour made by Ireland to the United States in September 1989. They are Nick Popplewell, Terry Kingston, Dennis McBride and Neil Francis.

The first international between the countries took place in New York on the ninth of September, 1989. Ireland won the match, played in a temperature in the high 90s, by 32 points to seven. Ireland did not award caps for that match, or for the international against Canada played the previous week in Victoria, a ludicrous situation, bearing in mind that both Canada and the United States had played in the 1987 World Cup finals and Ireland actually met Canada in the 1987 World Cup, and caps were awarded.

It is interesting to reflect on the Ireland side that beat the USA in that inaugural international. It was: Fergus Dunlea, John Sexton, Michael Kiernan, Paul Clinch, Keith Crossan, Brian Smith, Fergus Aherne, Nick Popplewell, John McDonald, Jim McCoy, Willie Anderson, Brian Rigney, Philip Mallhews, Noel Maanion and Pat O'Hara. Philip Danaher came on as a replacement for Dunlea; Michael Bradley for Aherne, Tom Clancy for Popplewell, Terry Kingston for McDonald.

Three days before the international, Ireland beat The Midwest 58-6 in Chicago, having defeated British Columbia 21-18 and Canada 24-21 before travelling on to the United States.

In March 1990, the USA came to Ireland for a two-match tour, but Ireland fielded an under-25 side against them in the international. That was played at Thomond Park and Ireland won 12-10. Current Ireland captain Jim Staples, then uncapped at senior level, was on the Ireland side, as were Popplewell, Paddy Johns and McBride of the current squad. Four days previously the Irish Students had played the Americans at Anglesea Road and that was the first time that most people who attended what was a very good match, saw Simon Geoghegan play. He played on the left wing that night in a side coached by George Hook. Johns. was also on that team. The Irish Students won 19-18.

That team also makes interesting reading and was: Fergal O'Beirn (UCG); James Harley (Queen's), Brian Glennon (UCD), Steve Tormey (COMAD), Simon Geoghegan (London Univ); Nicky Barry (Waterford RTC), Rob Saunders (Queen's); Ray Ward (Trinity), Paddy Kenny (Trinity), Conor O'Brien (Trinity), Paddy Johns (Trinity), Jim O'Callaghan (Cambridge), Mark Egan (Oxford), Ken Gallick (Queen's), Kevin Devlin (DCU).

Glennon, Geoghegan, Barry, Saunders and Johns went on to win full caps. Conor O'Brien is now the Leinster team doctor, and even though more rotund than six years ago, still puts on the boots occasionally. He was a bench replacement for Lansdowne against Monkstown in the Leinster Senior League semi-final last Sunday.

The most recent Ireland-USA encounter was in November 1994 and Ireland won that match 26-15. Six of the Irish side that lined out are not in the USA. They are Brendan Mullin, Michael Bradley and Pat O'Hara (all retired), Philip Dana her and Keith Wood (injured) and Alan McGowan, who did not get into the squad.

Niall Malone and Mick Galwey came on as replacements, and they too have failed to get into the squad, while Alain Rolland replaced Bradley during the match, and he is of course now in Atlanta. A team from the Ireland Development Squad also played the Americans in Galway four days before the international and lost 13-20. Three members of the current panel played in that match, Sean McCahill, Shane Byrne and Anthony Foley.

Yet, for all the recent connections between Ireland and the Americans and the matches at different levels, no fewer than 13 members of the Ireland squad have not played against America at any level.