Gerry Thornley: Ireland's shambolic first Rugby World Cup steps

Michael Kiernan recalls Ireland’s preparation for the inaugural 1987 competition, an event the IRFU didn't want to enter

Ireland kick-start their preparations for the World Cup in the first of four warm-up games today as they seek to boldly go where no Irish team has ever gone before, ie beyond the quarter-finals.

That has been their lot in all previous eight tournaments, but in being inducted into the Rugby Writers' of Ireland Hall of Fame at the annual Guinness RWI awards last Wednesday night, Michael Kiernan quipped that his 1987 vintage were the first Irish team to reach the quarter-finals when losing to the co-hosts Australia.

Out of little acorns and all that. The World Cup has long since become the biggest gig in the global game but, at the time, the inaugural tournament of 1987 didn’t exactly capture the imagination of the public or indeed the IRFU.

Kiernan is Ireland’s fourth highest points scorer of all time, with 308 points in 46 Tests over in a decade of Test rugby from 1982 to 1991, including that first World Cup in New Zealand and Australia.


I suppose you have to take into account the game was completely amateur

Back then though, they had no preparation to speak of, for ask him for his abiding memories of that tournament and he immediately responds “the build-up was atrocious because we weren’t allowed play for about two months beforehand”.

In actual fact, the IRFU decided that none of the Irish squad were to play even a single match for their clubs in the seven weeks between their concluding Five Nations game of 1987, a 15-11 win over Wales in Cardiff on April 4th, and their opening World Cup match, a 13-6 defeat by the same opponents in Wellington on Monday, May 25th.

“Their logic was that they didn’t want anyone to get injured,” reflects Kiernan. “I mean, the best way to get injured is probably not to play for two months and then go straight into a big World Cup game.”

Looking back, such a decision does seem ludicrous but there you have it. Fearing the onset of dreaded professionalism at every turn, the IRFU, along with the WRU, had been against the concept of the World Cup from the outset.

They had even written to the players to tell them not to train together in the build-up to the inaugural tournament, on foot of which then captain Donal Lenihan organised clandestine scrummaging sessions in Lansdowne.

The coach, Mick Doyle, suffered a heart attack at the opening gala and after lengthy off-field deliberations, it was decided that the Rose of Tralee would be played as the squad's adopted, compromise 'anthem' before their games.

“I suppose you have to take into account the game was completely amateur,” says Kiernan, “and the Union did not want to take part in the World Cup. They were dragged in kicking and screaming. ‘Okay, we’ll go, because we can’t be the only ones not to go’.”

Windy Wellington

“It took us 36 hours to get to New Zealand, or at least it took me and the other Cork-based players 36 hours to get to Auckland. The Union wanted to take the route that was most cost effective.”

Just as hilariously, so did the WRU, for Kiernan recalls that the Welsh squad were on the same flight from London.

“I don’t know exactly how many days we landed before we played each other but it certainly wasn’t a full week or anything like ten days beforehand. It was ridiculous anyway.

“We knew most of the Welsh lads from previous Five Nations games and Lions tours, so we were chatting away with them on the flight, even though it wasn’t long before we were knocking lumps out of each other.”

Wales had only avoided the wooden spoon in 1987 by finishing above England on points difference after downing the Red Rose in Cardiff.

However, with Canada and Tonga in the same group, the Ireland-Wales group opener would also go some way toward defining the World Cup for each of them.

Ireland had the elements behind them at Athletic Park on a day when Windy Wellington lived up to its name, and the Welsh players ran energetically off the pitch at the sound of the half-time whistle after restricting Ireland to a 6-0 interval lead courtesy of two penalties by Kiernan.

The attendant pressure of delivering a Five Nations title and Triple Crown in the final game at home to England inhibited Ireland

“It was an awful place to play because it was an open ground and the wind was swirling everywhere,” says Kiernan of a ground, since closed, which overlooked the Pacific Ocean.

Sure enough, the 6-0 lead was an insufficient buffer for the second-half, as a Mark Ring try and two drop goals by Jonathan Davies won a truly awful match.

Just five days later, Ireland played Canada in front of an estimated crowd of 8,000 at Carisbrook in Dunedin, Kieran converting five of six tries in a 46-19 win, and also landing two penalties and a drop goal.

“It was a very comfortable win, but I don’t remember it as being a fantastic performance,” he recalls.

Kiernan didn’t play when Ireland pitched up in Brisbane, just four days later, for a 32-9 win over Tonga.

“Doyler said I was rested but I was dropped,” he concedes freely.

Just four days later again, with Kieran recalled, Ireland lost 33-15 to Australia in Sydney’s Concord Oval in the quarter-finals after the co-hosts raced into an early 24-0 lead.

Opportunity lost

“They murdered us to be honest,” says Kiernan. “We were beaten out the gate that day.”

In losing against Wales therefore, Ireland’s goose was effectively cooked, whereas Wales beat England in the quarter-finals and finished a flattering third. It was an opportunity lost for a talented Ireland team, remodelled by Doyle in the 1984-85 season.

In Doyle’s first game in November 1984, Ireland had actually given the Mark Ella-inspired, Wallabies Grand Slam team its toughest Test of four. Moss Finn had again been the nominated goal-kicker that day, but after missing a couple and going off injured, the ball was chucked to Kiernan. He’d never place kicked in his previous 13 Tests, but landed three penalties from three attempts in a 16-9 defeat and thereafter became Ireland’s goalkicker.

Kiernan converted two tries by Trevor Ringland and landed a penalty and a drop goal in Ireland's opening 18-15 win away to Scotland, and in a bad-tempered match at Lansdowne Road an ill-disciplined French side which scored the game's only two tries, Kiernan's five penalties earned a 15-all draw.

Ireland’s third match was away to Wales, which they won 21-9.

“Beating Wales for the first time in Cardiff for 18 years was huge back then, because it was such a hard place to win,” says Kiernan. “It was the first time an Irish team had linked arms for the national anthems, and it was a very special day.”

“We played the best rugby of that campaign in that match and scored two great tries by Trevor and Keith. The back row were outstanding and everything clicked that day, which gave us huge confidence going forward.”

That said, the attendant pressure of delivering a Five Nations title and Triple Crown in the final game at home to England inhibited Ireland. Kiernan, of course, will be forever synonymous with his late drop goal which secured a 13-10 win.

"It comes up on TV now and then, on Reeling in the Years or whatever, and my young fellas rip the absolute piss out of me. They call it 'Back in the Day'. They think it's hilarious. They look at that the way I used to look at Charlie Chaplin movies."

He still owes a debt to Lenihan, for charging 15 metres into the heart of the English defence off a lineout, and to outhalf Paul Dean, still a good mate and now the Irish team manager, for going to the blindside.

After landing the drop goal, Kiernan turned to Crossan on the left-wing to give him the thumbs up.

“We’d been taking drop kicks in Old Belvedere the day before. We were joking and laughing, and I was saying: ‘Look, this might happen tomorrow. You never know lads’. That’s why I gave him the thumbs up, as if to say ‘Jeeze, I told you so.’ Keith was a great player, but like Deano he couldn’t kick snow off a rope.”

Wooden spoon

The following season, Ireland finished with the wooden spoon, and after winning two from four in 1987, the team underachieved in that inaugural World Cup.

“We played a great brand of rugby and Doyler was a great man manager, but we lost our way a bit,” says Kiernan, who was an ever present in the 1982 Five Nations and Triple Crown-winning team.

“I have very few regrets. In ’82 it had been 33 years since we’d won a Triple Crown. We then won another one and a Championship in ’85, and it would be another 19 years before Ireland won another Triple Crown. To be part of that was a relatively golden era.”

As for that 1987 misadventure to New Zealand and Australia, he says: “We were looking at New Zealand guys advertising tractors on the TV. This was the level of profile and professionalism which they had. They were allowed to endorse products because rugby was so big over there, whereas Irish rugby players wouldn’t have been as marketable, and wouldn’t have been allowed to do so anyway. Now the gap has narrowed because of professionalism.”

He did a little coaching at PBC Cork while his sons, James and Paul, were there, and he also watched their club careers.

James, a winger, has played with UCC and Dolphin, while Paul, a centre, who played in the 2016 Under-20 World Cup, has also played with UCC and UCD. Currently training with London Irish, he is likely to join Lansdowne next season. His daughter, Alison, works in a law firm in London.

Going into this World Cup, Kiernan admits the IRFU and Ireland have come a long way.

“You’ve got to give them credit for that, because you either move with the times or you’re dead, and for a country of our size to do what we’ve done over the last number of years is phenomenal.”

He also has no doubts Ireland have their best coach in Joe Schmidt, and that this is probably the best Irish team going into a World Cup, albeit it's also as tough a potential quarter-final obstacle as Ireland have ever had.

“Sod’s law, isn’t it? The best chance and the toughest draw. They need to be wary of the Scotland game but I think they’ll take care of that and Japan. As for New Zealand or South Africa, who would you prefer?”

Better chance

“South Africa under Rassie Erasmus in the last 12 months have come back and are way more organised than they were. But you’d still have to think that Ireland would have a slightly better chance against South Africa if they get to a quarter-final.”

Kiernan also sees a possible silver lining in last season’s anti-climactic Six Nations.

“Would you not think that if Ireland had had another hugely successful Six Nations, that the burden on them would be almost unbearable? But they need to rediscover what they had and not let their confidence be knocked by what happened in the Six Nations.”

Taking home wins today and in the final warm-up game against Wales, while being competitive at Twickenham and Cardiff, as a threshold between now and Japan, thereafter Kiernan believes this team can go further than any Irish side before then.

"But the key is injuries. There are certainly going to be three injuries at best, and it depends on who they are. If you picked five players you didn't want to lose for the quarter-final against Argentina four years ago, they'd be your five," says Kiernan, in relation to Paul O'Connell, Sean O'Brien, Peter O'Mahony, Johnny Sexton and Jared Payne.

“Your leaders as well. We were dead in the water. But if the leaders and frontline players stay healthy, the sky is the limit.”


1 – Ronan O’Gara 1083.

2 – Johnny Sexton 761.

3 – David Humphreys 560.

4 – Michael Kiernan 308.

5 – Eric Elwood 296.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times