‘I’ve spent my entire life explaining’: Decades on, players are finally awarded their Ireland caps

A dozen players have been retrospectively recognised by the IRFU for matches in which they played

Like the Olympic medal awarded far from the podium, the crowds and the giddiness of youth that earned it, last week the IRFU finally righted a wronged group of players.

It announced a dozen non-international rugby players that would become international players after deciding to retrospectively award them Irish caps for matches in which they played. For some of the players, the honour would come after almost a lifetime.

Fixing what was an anomaly, Lansdowne’s Paul Clinch was one of the 12 named mostly former players (he still plays Tag Rugby) and one of the most recent to be finally recognised by the Union as an international, more than 30 years after he lined out as an Irish centre in a green shirt.

Clinch played against Canada and the USA in 1989, while UCD’s Frank O’Driscoll, father of former Irish captain Brian, played in 1970.


Another name, Clontarf’s Paul Traynor, played in 1952 while five others, Jack Belton (Old Belvedere), Hugh Dolan (UCD), Hugh Greer (NIFC), Jack Guiney (Bective Rangers) and Des Thorpe (Old Belvedere) came from the Irish team of 1946 that played France in an “unofficial international”. None were awarded caps at the time.

“I’m delighted. I think we deserve them but I’m still very grateful that they have gone and put it right. It’s a very nice honour,” says Clinch. “I’ve spent my entire life explaining.

“People would be asking what I did in rugby and I’d never mention that I played for Ireland. But the kids would sometimes say it and I’d have to say I did play for Ireland but I played against these countries and they didn’t award Test caps for it.

“People would say, ‘what are you talking about?’, and I’d say, ‘well, it’s a long story’. I always had to qualify it. Because they’d go home and check it and think: ‘The lying fecker, he’s gone and told us that he played for Ireland and he ever did’.”

To make it more poignant, he is the third Clinch from his family to be capped. Just the Murphys, Noel ‘Noisy’ Murphy, his son Kenny and father Noel Snr have had three generations on the Irish international roll of honour.

Clinch’s grandfather James Daniel Clinch, known as ‘Jammie’ played for Ireland in the 1920s and won 30 caps while his great grandfather Andrew played in the 1890s.

Andrew was picked to play in the 1896 Lions team that travelled to South Africa, where they won the series 3-1. When he returned, he had been given the nickname ‘Coo’ which stuck.

“They said he was huge and like a ‘coo’ or ‘cow’. That’s where it came from,” says Clinch. “I’ve no way of verifying that.

“My great grandfather was a doctor and also president of the IRFU. My grandfather was also a doctor. He was a kind of mad guy. I don’t think he ever wanted to be a doctor.

“He started his medicine in 1919 and qualified in 1937, which was quite good going even for those days. The story I heard was he qualified six weeks after the death of his father, [who was] broken-hearted that his errant son still hadn’t passed his medical exams.”

Detailed criteria

It was a tricky undertaking for the IRFU and people have already come with other names they claim should have been included. However, the union did use detailed criteria and applied it across all the potential candidates.

According to the explanatory document, between Ireland’s first international match against England at the Oval on February 15th, 1875 and the last Test of the Autumn Nations Series against Australia in Dublin on November 19th, 2022, Ireland has played 734 capped international matches against 20 different countries and 3 non-national sides.

Over the course of those 734 matches, 1,141 different players have been capped, the last of whom was Joe McCarthy against Australia. That is the IRFU’s “settled” figure as there is a lack of certainty as to who actually played in the away game against Wales in 1884 when two Newport players had to turn out for Ireland.

There are one or two other “uncertainties” in the period before the first World War.

In the two games Paul Clinch played, both USA and Canada awarded international caps to their players, and when O’Driscoll appeared twice in 1970 with Ballymena’s John Birch, they were not awarded an international cap, although the Argentina team were.

There were also matches against France, Japan, Romania and Fiji, for which Ireland did not award international caps, but their opponents did.

“I would have loved the cap at the time,” says Clinch. “But I’m delighted to get one now. I’m really pleased for people like Rab Brady, who sat on the bench for Ireland 13 times and played once against Japan and didn’t get awarded a cap. He deserves it.

“Leo Galvin played against a really good Argentina side. I think we lost to them in Argentina. But they were not considered good enough to give a cap.”

Only the players that were never capped by Ireland are included in the 12. Nick Popplewell, for example, played with Clinch against the USA but was subsequently capped, as was Brian Rigney, and they so are not part of the latest group.

If they had included the names of players on the non-capped teams who were subsequently capped for Ireland, all the historic statistics, caps, tries, points and the number given to each international player would have had to be changed.

The players have therefore been numbered from the end of the 2022 November series. On that basis McCarthy is Irish cap #1,141, and the 12 individuals have been designated as players #1,142 to #1,153.

Other issues came into play. On the 1952 tour of Argentina, the Irish team arrived as the country was mourning the death of Eva Peron. The squad diverted to Santiago, Chile and played an unplanned match. While the match programme says ‘Chile’, there does not appear to be any record of it.

In 1961, Ireland beat Rhodesia 24-0 in the final match of a four-game tour to Southern Africa. At that time the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was made up of a self-governing UK colony (Southern Rhodesia) and two Protectorates (Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland). It was not included.

“It sounds like a simple thing to do but when you look into it, it’s quite awkward,” says Clinch three decades after his matches. “On the criteria they chose that was what they decided. I think it’s a pretty generous gesture and I greatly appreciate it.

“There are six of us that got our first caps in our 60s or 70s, so it’s not too bad.”

Ireland have played 19 games against national sides where caps were not awarded by Ireland. However, in some of these games, caps were awarded by Ireland’s opponents.

v France*, England, Wales & Scotland 1946; v Argentina 1952* (2 Tests away) 1970* (2 Tests away) 1973* (1 home Test); v Fiji 1976* (away) 1985* (home) 2012* (home); v Romania 1980* (home); v Japan 1985* (2 Tests away); v France 1988 (2 Tests away); v Canada 1989* (1 Test away); v USA 1989* (1 Test away).

The asterisk denotes that Ireland’s opponents did treat this as a capped international. 12 players played for Ireland in these 14 games but never played in a capped Test match for Ireland.

Ireland’s 12 ‘new’ caps

Jack Belton (Old Belvedere) 1946, #1,142; Hugh Dolan (UCD) 1946, #1,143; H Greer (NIFC) 1946, #1,144; Jack Guiney (Bective Rangers) 1946, #1,145; Des Thorpe (Old Belvedere) 1946, #1,146; Paul Traynor (Clontarf) 1952, #1,147; John Birch (Ballymena) 1970, #1,148; Frank O’Driscoll (UCD) 1970, #1,149; Leo Galvin (Athlone) 1973, #1,150; Emmet O’Rafferty (Wanderers) 1976, #1,151; Rab Brady (Ballymena) 1985, #1,152; Paul Clinch (Lansdowne) 1988, #1,153.