Bridging the gap: ‘A lot of what I loved about rugby got lost in the end’

The Ireland team for the Rugby World Cup quarter-final against France. Back Row (L-R) Nick Popplewell, Gary Halpin, Eric Elwood, David Corkery, Paddy Johns, Neil Francis, Gabriel Fulcher, Paul Wallace and Simon Geoghegan Front Row (L-R) Brendan Mullin, Darragh O’Mahony, Niall Hogan, Conor O’Shea and Jonathan Bell. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

On June 10th, 1995, 25 years ago this week, Ireland were beaten 36-12 by France in a Rugby World Cup quarter-final in King’s Park, Durban becoming the last Irish team to represent the country under the amateur ethos of the sport.

Two months later in late August, the International Board (IRB, now World Rugby) declared the game ‘open’ to professionalism following a meeting in Paris.

The IRFU was firmly against paying players and it would be several years before the union’s initial misgivings were replaced by the implementation of structures that facilitated the development of rugby union in the country, an evolution that underpins the success Irish rugby enjoys today.

Just a month prior to the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa the IRFU had released a statement which included the assertion that the union “will oppose the payment of players to play the game and payment to others such as coaches, referees, touch judges and members of committees for taking part in the game because the game is a leisure activity played on a voluntary basis.”

Only three members of the Irish World Cup squad played their club rugby in England prior to the tournament, Jim Staples (Harlequins), Simon Geoghegan (Bath) and Gary Halpin (London Irish) but there was an appreciable exodus across the Irish Sea in the next 12 months as players chased contracts with English clubs.

Gabriel Fulcher (London Irish), David Corkery (Bristol) and Darragh O’Mahony (Moseley, Bedford, Saracens), who were all recruited by English Premiership clubs during that period, offer an insight into Ireland’s World Cup and what it was like to be a player as rugby shed its amateur skin for professionalism.

Ireland coach Gerry Murphy takes a session at Milpark in Johannesburg ahead of the opening game of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. Photograph: Phil Cole/Allsport
Ireland coach Gerry Murphy takes a session at Milpark in Johannesburg ahead of the opening game of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. Photograph: Phil Cole/Allsport

World Cup warm-up

Ireland, who had won one match against Wales in the 1995 Five Nations Championship, lost to Italy 22-12 in Treviso in a warm-up match ahead of the tournament in South Africa. There were a few glitches, not least arriving about 40 minutes before the start of the match because the bus didn’t turn up on time. A then 22-year-old UCD student, Darragh O’Mahony made his debut that afternoon.

Darragh O’Mahony: I was a late bolter into that World Cup squad. There wasn’t any sense of great disappointment after we lost against Italy. The sum of the ambition when we went to the World Cup was to get out of the group. That constituted success and a ticked box. I was living in south Dublin at the time. The training in the build-up to departure was as basic as a few of us meeting for an early morning run around the roads at 7.30am and then three times a week you’d meet for another running session on grass pitches.

I always recall to my embarrassment that I went to the World Cup in 1995 and I had never lifted a weight in my life. It was only when I came to England in 1996 that I started weight training.

Kilkenny

Head coach Gerry Murphy, his assistant Pat Whelan and fitness coach Giles Warrington oversaw a training camp preparing a 26-man squad for the World Cup. John Fitzgerald pulled out injured and was replaced by Henry Hurley. Peter Clohessy and Philip Danaher – he would be called out as a replacement – were unavailable because of work commitments. Seven of the squad were 30 or over and two, Michael Bradley and Brendan Mullin, would win their last caps of distinguished international careers in South Africa.

O’Mahony: The first three days, there were two or three sessions a day. It was a case of trying to get the squad to gel in a limited timeframe while improving individual fitness with running work. We had a couple of days together in Dublin before we flew to South Africa.

Gabriel Fulcher: It was a happy squad. Things were pretty positive.

David Corkery: I was 22 and don’t have an issue saying that I was uneducated in the ways of the world at that stage. It was all about the here and now and enjoying the moment. I was flying fit and excited about what lay ahead.

South Africa

Ireland were in a pool with New Zealand, Japan and Wales, playing the matches in that order with all three at altitude, in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein.

Fulcher: The 1995 World Cup was a fabulous experience. When we went to the opening ceremony down in Cape Town you got the sense that there was something special happening. It was fuelled by the notion that South Africa had come back into the fold, having been outcasts, politically speaking. For me, at that stage I was 25, I had never seen South Africa play on television, never seen South Africa play another team.

Corkery: It was fairly surreal, being in South Africa, playing a World Cup and the whole country coming to a halt. It was like we were superstars the way we were feted by the general public. It opened my eyes to racism. I found that shocking. It painted a very poor picture for me of [some of] the white South African people. Sometimes, how they treated the hotel staff, to [me] it was disgusting and disgraceful.

The whole rugby side I remember living it. I couldn’t get enough training, couldn’t play enough games. I went out there not as a first-choice backrow; you had Anthony Foley, Eddie Halvey, Denis McBride and Paddy Johns played at eight. I definitely wasn’t in the top three at that stage. I was enthusiastic in training sessions.

There were one or two Saipan moments involving logistics and balls. [On one occasion] the props had no Vaseline for their ears. I remember Nick Popplewell going back to the bus and taking the axle grease off the wheels.

Jonah Lomu in action against Ireland in the opening game. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Jonah Lomu in action against Ireland in the opening game. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

The Jonah Lomu Experience

Ireland produced a gutsy performance in their opening match before losing 43-19 to New Zealand, a match in which Jonah Lomu announced himself on a global stage scoring two tries and Ireland prop Gary Halpin’s two fingered salute after crossing for one of his own. Fullback Jim Staples broke a hand and didn’t play again in the tournament.

O’Mahony: I didn’t make the team that day but in hindsight, and probably while I was even sitting in the stand, I was quite glad. I was 12 and a half stone, Lomu must have been 18 and a half stone. Essentially 12 and a half stone guys, who had never lifted a weight in their lives, wouldn’t do well against 18 stone wingers, who were built like secondrows with the speed of a 100 metre champion. Lomu changed the face of the way rugby was going to go in terms of size and speed.

There was no belief we were going to win that game; it was one of damage limitation to try and ensure that we were going to be okay for the next two games in the group which were going to be far more important, against Japan and Wales.

Corkery: We played reasonably well. People remember the game for the [Gary] Halpin two-fingered salute but for those of us on the pitch it was the unleashing of Jonah Lomu on a world stage. It was an honour to play against him. By the end of the tournament, he had transformed rugby; such a nice guy as well. I scored a try in the game and another in the following match against Japan, two of the three in my international career. New Zealand’s fitness was at a different level as were their skills, considerably higher than ours. They were able to offload in tackles, something that we didn’t do.

Fulcher: A clearance fell short, went to Lomu, and he ran back 60 metres to score and there was a collective ‘oh, that’s why everyone is talking about him in the way they are.’ He did it again and that was kind of the game.

A fright against Japan

Ireland won 50-28 but lost Keith Wood to a dislocated shoulder ending his tournament.

O’Mahony: It was very close [19-14 at half-time]. They caused us severe problems. We didn’t cope or handle that very well until we managed to shut down the game, used the bulk and experience that we had and eventually [pulled clear]. When things were going slightly against us against Japan, there was panic on the sidelines.

Corkery: Japan was like chasing shadows. That was one of the fastest games I ever played in my life. New Zealand put 145 points on them in the next game. We were struggling up until half-time. Then we got a couple of penalty tries; they just didn’t have the physical bulk.

Nick Popplewell with Denis McBride read the papers after Ireland’s victory over Wales. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Nick Popplewell with Denis McBride read the papers after Ireland’s victory over Wales. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Victory over Wales, mission accomplished

Ireland beat Wales 24-23, with tries from Nick Popplewell, Eddie Halvey and Denis McBride.

O’Mahony: It was the crunch game of the group. We started superbly and in truth they were never going to come back from that. There wasn’t a whole lot between us. We would have been favourites to win that game. We got off to a strong start, they clawed it back a bit but never to the extent where there was any undue concern. My memory after that game is that we went up to Sun City for a few days for a break. The feeling within the squad was that the bare minimum ambition had been achieved and anything from then on was going to be an unexpected bonus. There was just a sense of calm and relief that what we had set out to achieve had been achieved.

Fulcher: They came back and scored twice. Their last try came on the whistle. The fatigue element would have been a factor. We played our first three matches in eight days with a 26-man squad. There was none of this a week between games. We had a week to the French game because we went up to Sun City for a bit of R&R for a couple of nights.

Ireland manager Noel Murphy talks to the press during the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Ireland manager Noel Murphy talks to the press during the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Life in South Africa

O’Mahony: I was a student at the time. It wasn’t as if your days were filled with video analysis. Guys would go to their rooms in the middle of the day to catch up on work, catching up with their employers. You would train for a couple of hours in the morning and you might do another hour in the afternoon so there was plenty of time to kill. Some of the players were trying to do their day jobs in between.

The altitude issues were there. We went to Sun City and then came down to Durban at sea-level two days before the quarter-final. There was very little science about altitude and how you prepare or don’t prepare. Noisy [team manager Noel Murphy] to our amusement used to tell us what the Lions did 20 years before. That was about as much science as we had, what the Lions did in the 1960s and 1970s and we were applying the same logic in 1995.

There was no special kitchen. We went down to the dining room in the hotel and had whatever, steaks galore for the most part. You ate like kings, eating whatever was in front of you. In some ways it was like being on a little bit of a holiday because and I am not going to shy away from the fact, if you weren’t on the team for the weekend, they were the days when you used to head out for a couple of beers in the middle of the week.

There was no such thing as you preparing as a squad member. If you weren’t on the team or the subs you were out a couple of nights before, enjoying the hospitality. That was all part and parcel of it. It sounds hilarious and it was but Noisy got wind that we were all out one night on a Wednesday or a Thursday and he tried to stay up in the hotel lobby to catch us out. We arrived back in the hotel at 2am or 2.30am and Noisy had fallen asleep in the chair in the lobby; we all snuck behind him up the stairs and that was the end of it. That was what genuinely carried on in those days and I suspect knowing players from the other squads it was no different to most of them were doing in the 1995 World Cup.

Another dose of the Blues

Ireland were beaten 36-12 by France in their World Cup quarter-final – it was 12-12 at half-time – conceding 17 points in the last 10 minutes.

Fulcher: It you look at that game against France it was like a portrait of Irish rugby at the time. We had some good players and were reasonably well prepared. We went out and competed pretty well. We were tied at half-time, 12-12. The third quarter was okay; France pulled ahead with a couple of penalties and then tagged on two late tries.

They were a better team, better intended and had more confidence, and had won 10 straight matches against Ireland: in terms of mindset, we hoped, they knew. That was the rule for Ireland teams in that era with the exception of the close call with Australia in 1991 and the victories over England in 1993 and 1994. There were a lot of days like that, we were competitive, in the game but then the last quarter didn’t have, I don’t know, confidence, fitness, experience; didn’t have what it took to put the game to bed.

I broke my collarbone in that game, sometime in the second half. When I looked back at that game it was the story of Irish rugby in the 1990s: well intended, putting in a good amount of work but falling short regularly. I also remember it was incredibly hot. We had a 1pm kickoff and the mercury climbed sharply as the game progressed.

Darragh O’Mahony in action against France in the quarter-final. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Darragh O’Mahony in action against France in the quarter-final. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

O’Mahony: In hindsight there was a feeling that we didn’t want to embarrass ourselves but really how confident were we about winning that match? Not great. In the 1995 Ireland were completely amateur. Some of the other teams and unions would have been further down the professional route. Certainly the southern hemisphere teams were being prepared as professional teams. And bizarrely the French would have been much more, well prepared physically for a rugby tournament like that. The French in terms of physicality and athleticism were streets ahead of most of the home nations.

Sometimes people forget how far Irish rugby has travelled. After being beaten by France there was no great level of disappointment. It was a case of we are out of the World Cup and we were beaten by a much better team who always beat us anyway. There was no recrimination, no breakdown of where or how we lost the game. It was a case of we didn’t embarrass ourselves and got out of our group.

When you think that was the genuine mindset of Irish rugby you see how far it has travelled since then. Sometimes you have to take stock and realise that it wasn’t always like this. We don’t have a history of year in, year out performance. Yes, we had exceptional teams in the past but they would be the exception rather than the rule.

Corkery: I remember being physically shattered come the quarter-final. That probably goes back to the whole conditioning side of things. When we reached the quarter-finals there were players who had to ring work and ask for additional time off. We did well against New Zealand, we beat Japan and Wales; was that our lot? Yes, as it worked out. We could go home at that stage with our heads held high.

David Corkery at the back of the Irish lineout as New Zealand’s Ian Jones takes the ball. Photograph: Philip Littleton/AFP via Getty Images
David Corkery at the back of the Irish lineout as New Zealand’s Ian Jones takes the ball. Photograph: Philip Littleton/AFP via Getty Images

Going to sleep an amateur, Waking up a professional

Fulcher: I was approached by Clive Woodward who was coaching London Irish at the time and I registered for London Irish in December and started playing pro in March 1996. I think about half the national squad went to English clubs within that year. The experience of players based in Ireland was slightly different. The Irish pro scene was a little slower to take action in terms of paying of players, getting contracts [sorted] and recruiting players in whatever way they saw fit but they actually did a better job if you look at what happened in the next five to 10 years and beyond.

Initially nobody knew how to manage a professional player full-time in rugby. Players, coaches and administrators had been playing, operating in and presiding over, an amateur sport. There was always going to be an adjustment period. Coaches just started scheduling sessions all the time. We were in the gym at 7.30am, we were on the pitch at 10 and then you’d go home for two hours to have lunch and would then be on the pitch again in the afternoon. You would do that four or five days a week and then play a game.

People did begin to look at soccer and other sports over time but it took several years for them to scrutinise the NFL, rugby league and soccer for inspiration. The first few years of professionalism, there was a little bit of the response, ‘we are paying these guys now, they’re full-time athletes so we need to have them on the pitch all the time.’

In my second year in London Irish I played 42 games in the season, a full Premiership season in England and had a clause in my contract where I was released back to Munster for Heineken Cup duty. I played the season with Ireland, a couple of Tests in November, the Five Nations and then in the summer of 97, we took off to Samoa and New Zealand on a seven-game tour and I played in six. Irish rugby eventually thrived in terms of provinces and the national side because of the centralised pro system; the IRFU had greater management options.

Gabriel Fulcher leaves the pitch after the New Zealand game. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Gabriel Fulcher leaves the pitch after the New Zealand game. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

O’Mahony: I was professional from 1996-2004 and pretty much for that period it was a case of quantity over quality. Your fitness coach said it was a great session if he saw 10 of your squad getting sick in the corner. In the early professionalism it was a case of more, more, more; you are being paid so why aren’t you doing something Monday morning, afternoon and evening. There were days when you would come back in and wouldn’t be able to walk [after] training on a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, you are so physically drained. Two and a half days later you were expected to go out and be a world beater. It didn’t come as a surprise that those two things didn’t correlate.

There was no manual for professional rugby so in England they borrowed initially from rugby league. Be as hard as nails, no great science to it, be as big as you can, be as strong as you can, keep going as long as you can; that was the influence for English club rugby in the early years, that sort of mentality.

In Saracens it had become a pressure environment, results mattered as did performance week in, week out and by the end of the my career you had squads in Saracens of about 40 people. You had to work unbelievably hard during the week to make sure you got your place in the team. In the professional era you carried the defeats and disappointments far harder and longer than you carried the brief highs of a good victory or performance. The two eras were so separate. In the amateur days of playing my rugby with Munster and Leinster, results mattered but the repercussions lasted no longer than the evening and they were forgotten about the next week.

I am so glad that I lived and played in both eras because to me, a lot of what I loved about rugby got lost in the end. It became a grind, mentally very, very challenging and I am very pleased that I grew up and had the experience and joy of playing in an amateur environment.

Corkery: At Bristol we had the ex-Wales coach Alan Davies who came twice a week from Cardiff to coach us. Apart from that it was just a weights programme and we were left to our own devices. I remember getting up to 20 stone with a 22-inch neck; I couldn’t move. I was all right if you ran at me. I couldn’t catch anybody, lost all my speed all my flexibility. We were very much the guinea pigs of that era.

The only difference between amateur and pro was that we trained more in the gym. The club felt that the answer to professionalism was that we needed to be bigger, stronger and faster. We trained twice a week as a team the rest of the time we were in the gym. It took a while to refine the thinking on and off the pitch. Lomu transformed what a winger, a rugby player, looked like and that was the benchmark in the early days of professional rugby.

Gary Halpin and Brendan Mullin leave the pitch after the Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeat to France in Durban. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Gary Halpin and Brendan Mullin leave the pitch after the Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeat to France in Durban. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

The last Ireland amateur rugby team

15 Conor O’Shea
He amassed 35 caps between 1993-2000, while playing for Leinster, Lansdowne and London Irish. He was recently appointed as the English RFU’s performance director.

14 Darragh O’Mahony
Four appearances for Ireland including the World Cup quarter-final defeat to France, he is a senior relationship manager with Allied Irish Bank in London.

13 Brendan Mullin
The former Irish try-scoring record holder (17) and Lion won 55 caps, his final appearance in the quarter-final defeat to France before he moved into the world of banking and finance.

12 Jonathan Bell
Between 1994 and 2003 he won 36 caps while playing with Ulster and the Northampton Saints. He will take over as Glasgow Warriors attack coach when the sport resumes.

11 Simon Geoghegan
The most dazzling Irish talent of his generation won 37 caps scoring 11 tries until being forced to retire with an arthritic toe problem, aged 27. He is a lawyer and partner in Rosling King LLP in London.

10 Eric Elwood
Won 35 caps in a Test career (1993-1999) he coached Connacht, the Ireland Under-20 team to a Grand Slam in 2007 and is currently academy manager in the province.

9 Niall Hogan
The Terenure educated scrumhalf won 13 caps, scoring a try in the victory over Japan. He is an orthopaedic surgeon.

1 Nick Popplewell
Capped 48 times, he toured with the Lions and spent most of his club career at the Newcastle Falcons having started with Greystones. He is a property sales specialist with Sherry FitzGerald Haythorntwaite.

2 Terry Kingston (capt)
Captained Ireland in South Africa, his third World Cup, and made 30 appearances in the green jersey. He works in the computer industry.

Gary Halpin and Brendan Mullin leave the pitch after the Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeat to France in Durban. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Gary Halpin and Brendan Mullin leave the pitch after the Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeat to France in Durban. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

3 Gary Halpin
A schoolboy athletics and rugby international – he competed for Ireland in the 1987 World Championships – he won 11 caps and is now head of boarding at Cistercian College, Roscrea.

4 Gabriel Fulcher
He won 20 caps for Ireland, playing for Munster, London Irish and Leinster, has an MA in creative writing and an MFA in creative fiction and is a writer living with his family in Ottawa, Canada.

5 Neil Francis
Started all 36 caps, three as a number eight including his first two and played in three World Cups (1987, 1991, 1995). He works in financial services and is a newspaper columnist.

6 David Corkery
The flanker represented Ireland on 27 occasions and Ireland’s player of the tournament at the RWC in 1995. Retired at 27 because of injuries, he works for the medical company, Affidea Ireland.

7 Denis McBride
He won 32 caps (1988-1997) and was also a Sevens international, part of a squad that reached a World Cup semi-final in 1993. He is a market integration and services manager with the AES Corporation.

8 Paddy Johns
A former Ireland captain, the former Dungannon man won 59 caps (four tries) in a Test career that lasted more than a decade (1990-2000). He is a dental surgeon.