In their own words: Ireland’s rise to a world rugby powerhouse

Donald McRae talks to players past and present ahead of the start of the Six Nations

“It just wouldn’t happen today,” Willie John McBride says on a rainy morning at home in Ballyclare as he explains the vast differences between the gleaming powerhouse of Irish rugby today and a ramshackle sport which he only began playing at the age of 17. Four years later, in 1962, as McBride remembers, “I was in the Lions Test team. Remarkably, I survived.”

McBride not only survived. At 78 he remains the godfather of Irish rugby and a lock forward who won 63 caps for Ireland and played a record 17 Lions Tests. He also provides a perfect starting point for a journey through Irish rugby as McBride’s story shows how much Ireland and the game have changed. Despite past sectarian conflicts and multiple identities, there is a new cohesion among the four rugby provinces and the national team.

“You feel that unity and its importance even more now,” McBride says. “This Ireland team are unifying the country in the north and south.”

After winning the Grand Slam last year and having beaten New Zealand twice in three matches, Ireland are many people's favourites for the World Cup. Coached by Joe Schmidt, they feature the world player of the year in Johnny Sexton and outstanding team-mates including Ulster's Jacob Stockdale, Munster's Conor Murray and Leinster's Tadhg Furlong. Ireland will face England at home with serene confidence in their opening Six Nations game on Saturday February 2nd.


The contrast with McBride’s debut against England, in February 1962, is stark. His first cap came in the midst of an 11-match winless slump stretching from February 1961 to March 1963. “We ran out with nine new caps at Twickenham and were beaten 16-0 – which was a hiding because a try was only three points.”

In his third match for Ireland, against France, McBride played the last 30 minutes with a broken leg. “Unbelievable,” he chuckles. “I remember removing my boot and two guys ran on with a sponge and water. They rubbed it and said: ‘You’re all right’. You didn’t come off in those days unless you were dead. Afterwards I was taken to hospital and had plaster of Paris in Paris – up to the knee.”

McBride hopped back from Paris on his own – catching a plane, train and two buses before hobbling up the hill to his flat. “It was not the kind of care they’re given today.”

Beyond medical support, money and attention to every detail of their rugby lives, McBride argues that the current internationals are luckiest in one particular regard. “I believe we have the best coach in the world, by a long way,” he says of Schmidt.

"I know him quite well and he's a guy for whom I'd give everything. There is talk about the World Cup but Ireland don't get carried away. We beat the All Blacks and move on. That's Joe's character and in the last 15 minutes against New Zealand he brought on players who were just as good as those they replaced. Murray is a super player. Young Stockdale is another. I like Iain Henderson at lock. Ireland have few weaknesses."

This is high praise from McBride, who spends longer lamenting the ills of the modern game. He feels the ethos and camaraderie of rugby have been lost and he mourns the slow death of club rugby. Where clubs were once the lifeblood, the provinces of Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connacht now dominate. Their best players are contracted to the Irish union – which means their focus is on European and Test rugby. Unlike their exhausted counterparts in the English Premiership, the cream of Irish rugby often miss mundane Pro 14 games.

McBride sighs. “Somebody said to me: ‘This game is about five different things. Money, money, money, money and money’. Professional rugby sucks all the good players out of the club scene. They have destroyed this part of rugby.”

Everyone else among the dozen people I interview accepts that, to compete with England’s massive player pool and financial power, Ireland needed a structure that would allow the national team and the provinces to thrive. Leinster are European champions and Munster and Ulster offer key players to Ireland. All three Irish provinces qualified for the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup last weekend. In contrast, only one English club, Saracens, reached the knockout stages.

Rory Best, Ireland's captain, just like McBride, is a Protestant from Ulster. Yet even amid these fraught days of Brexit, seething with talk of Irish backstops and hard borders, Best does not face the pressures McBride endured during the Troubles. "You always got the cracks against you," McBride recalls. "That bloody Ulsterman. Why is he captain of Ireland? Up here they'd say: 'Why are you captaining that crowd?' I was pretty headstrong so I ignored it."

Even when his life was threatened and an armed guard had to stand all night outside his hotel room door before some Five Nations games, McBride shrugged off the dangers. He witnessed terrifying scenes – especially on Bloody Friday in Belfast. “You didn’t know where to run from so many bombs. Boom, boom, boom everywhere. But it never stopped us playing. Rugby gave us sanity and unity beyond the madness.”

Trevor Ringland’s office in Belfast is a half-hour drive from Ballyclare. The 59-year-old solicitor, who played 31 times for Ireland and won four Lions caps in the 1980s, is an eloquent advocate for this current Ireland team and, more importantly, the force for good that rugby exerts in the south and, particularly, Northern Ireland.

“Absolutely,” he says of the game’s capacity to forge together people from bitterly divided communities. “Rugby shows the way to build relationships on this island. My frustration is that, politically, we’ve chosen methods of alienation, exclusion, hatred and violence. Rugby has always been relaxed about identities. It has an Irishness comfortable with a British aspect to it. And a Britishness comfortable with an Irish part of its identity. The politicians and extremists couldn’t have done it much worse but rugby has shown another way.”

Ringland is a Protestant who worked briefly as a politician before the parochialism became too much for him, and yet this is just one aspect of his identity. “I’m a Belfast man and an Ulsterman. I’m British and I’m Irish. I’m Northern Irish and I’m European. I’m a long-suffering Leeds United supporter [Ringland laughs]. These identities are interchangeable and anyone who demeans any one part demeans me as a person. A multi-layered identity challenges the extremists.”

Ringland withdrew from politics when a unionist party leader refused to accept his invitation to attend a GAA final if a team from the North made it to Croke Park in Dublin. The unionist believed Croke Park symbolised Republican territory. In turn, many supporters of Gaelic football and hurling regard rugby as a Protestant sport. Few Catholic schools in Ulster play rugby but Ringland wants to break down the barriers – as Irish rugby did when the national team played at Croke Park from 2007 to 2010.

The GAA relented on a rule prohibiting the playing of “foreign” sports at Croke Park and allowed Ireland to use its spiritual home. When England arrived at Croke Park in 2007, there was a danger history would swamp the occasion. Thirty-two people were killed in and around Croke Park in November 1920 after bloody battles between Irish Republicans and British soldiers. But rugby and Croke Park found harmony in a different century.

“It was fantastic,” Ringland says, “and the first time I sang all three anthems – the Irish anthem, Ireland’s Call and even God Save The Queen. All were received with impeccable respect. It was incredibly emotional and showed us moving towards a maturing society where we respect the different traditions across the island. We could then support Ireland beating England [43-13].”

Ringland is so passionate because, as the son of a policeman, he played for Ireland during the Troubles in a team of Catholics and Protestants. Some of his team-mates were wounded in bomb attacks and yet none of them shut their hearts to each other. They belonged to a team which transcended bigotry and strife.

“Rugby wants everybody,” he says. “It challenges the extremists who like to box people into ‘them and us’. Our concept is ‘We’. Rugby is a direct challenge to the ideologies of hatred and it delivered during the most difficult times. There was murder and mayhem but rugby shone a light on how we do things differently.

“It’s the same today. Rugby is inspiring and unifying when society is fractured again over Brexit and old hatreds. The Titanic is a good analogy for Northern Ireland, and Ireland. It was a great ship, well built, and the reason it sank was bad leadership. The reason we do badly as a society is through bad leadership. The people are great and you feel that so obviously in rugby.”

At a European Champions Cup game between Ulster and Racing on a sunlit Saturday in mid-January the atmosphere is electric. Men, women and children are united in vibrant support as Ulster help secure their eventual place in the quarter-finals by beating the powerful French club. Alongside a beaming Stockdale, blood streams down Best’s face while the noise reverberates. No English ground can match this setting for European rugby.

Ringland compares Stockdale, who scored two tries, to another lethal finisher in Gerd Müller, the German footballer of the 1970s. I have already interviewed Stockdale and Iain Henderson and they are entertaining and intelligent players who represent a different kind of Ulster to a province once beset by violence and prejudice.

Whether talking about his father's work as a prison chaplain or telling me "Johnny Cash is my idol", Stockdale is exuberant. He also stresses the Irish squad's harmony. "From day one," the 22-year-old wing says, "I felt only friendship from the guys from every province. Our different backgrounds are joked about. That's brilliant. You've got a Protestant from Ulster captaining Ireland. Rory is the most successful Ireland captain ever."

Henderson underlines the new unity. He went to one of the few mixed schools, of Catholics and Protestants, in north Belfast. Henderson is Protestant and his wife, who went to the same school, is Catholic.

“You notice a massive crossover in rugby now,” he says. “After we beat New Zealand in November I felt the impact. I filled my car with petrol in Belfast and three people said: ‘Great game at the weekend’. Before, when you went down to Dublin, it was like you’d flown to the other side of the world. Now when you come back to Belfast you feel everyone’s invested into the huge potential of Ireland in a World Cup year.”

Ringland agrees: “This is the best Irish squad we’ve ever seen. It’s a glorious period for Irish rugby.”

‘The old pride surged again’

I like talking about glory in Limerick with Gerry McLoughlin, the great old prop who played for Munster, Ireland and the Lions. McLoughlin was in the famous Munster team which became the first Irish side to beat New Zealand in 1978. At a time when Munster men believed they had to be twice as good as Leinster players to be picked for Ireland, McLoughlin scored a famous try at Twickenham as Ireland won the Triple Crown in 1982. McLoughlin grimaces when he says the try becomes more outlandish every year as people insist he carried most of the England pack on his back while bulldozing over.

In Jerry Flannery's bar, McLoughlin is more interested in talking about rugby now. "Young Joey Carbery is some player," he says of the gifted No 10 who helped Munster to reach the European knockout stages yet again. "Now there's progress in Irish rugby."

McLoughlin points to Carbery’s arrival as further proof that Irish rugby has entered a new era. Carbery was a Sexton understudy at Leinster. The 22-year-old’s talent was obvious but Sexton couldn’t be shifted; and so Schmidt and the IRFU were not unhappy Carbery moved to Limerick this season.

Munster yearned for his creativity and Ireland needed Carbery playing at outhalf in the furnace of European competition – just in case Sexton sustained injury. Leinster's depth is such that Ross Byrne, in Sexton's absence, could steer them to a convincing win against Toulouse this month.

“It’s not like my day,” McLoughlin says wryly, “but we love having Carbery at Munster.”

McLoughlin, the mayor of Limerick in 2012, stresses how much Munster’s rugby players have lifted the city. “Limerick had a terrible reputation with drugs. But once Munster became a European force the old pride surged again. That’s rugby’s power.”

Niall O'Donovan, who enjoyed having McLoughlin as his economics schoolteacher, straddles the divide between the amateur and professional eras. The current Munster manager played for Shannon, in the same pack as McLoughlin, and also coached that great old club for five seasons. In 1997, while still coaching Shannon, O'Donovan joined Declan Kidney as they took charge of a newly professional Munster. Until then, Munster only played three or four games a year while the clubs dominated every week.

O’Donovan knew Irish rugby had to change. “It’s sad but the club game had to give way. The IRFU got it right and put more money into the four provinces. I remember it changing. We played Saracens in the Heineken Cup in 1999 and took 10 fans with two flags. Then we went to the semi-final against Toulouse in Bordeaux in 2000. The streets had turned Munster red. The place was jammed, the bars were crammed. We outnumbered Toulouse in France. We got to the final at Twickenham and the ground was a sea of red – with three times as many fans as Northampton. Munster lost that day but we won the Heineken Cup twice on magical days.”

O’Donovan then worked as Ireland’s forwards coach from 2002 to 2008. “We had some great days, some horrible days. Typical Irish. Joe Schmidt has had a huge influence in making Ireland so much more consistent and confident but you have to credit the IRFU for putting in good foundations. All four provinces supply depth to Joe’s squad. So it’s sustainable.”

Amid such success, O’Donovan offers a telling reminder. “Rugby is still the fourth-choice sport in Ireland. Hurling, Gaelic football and soccer are still the first three in playing numbers in a very small population. So some weeks at Munster we understand we won’t play our best players. We look to get a longer lifespan out of them as there are just four professional teams in Ireland. England have 12. In Ireland we have a player pool of about 110 Irish professionals. We have to make sure they’re kept in good nick.

“Every little Irish village has a Gaelic football pitch, a hurling pitch, a pub and a church. Hurling is embedded into rural Ireland and rugby can’t replace that. Limerick is probably the only place where rugby is the main sport. We were delighted Limerick won the All-Ireland hurling final last August but rugby is in every corner of the city. Everybody here follows rugby. You won’t find that anywhere else in Ireland.”

O’Donovan still supports his old club and last month he watched Shannon play Garryowen. “There was a reasonable crowd of 400 but it’s hard on the clubs now. Munster can’t afford to let the clubs die. In Leinster many players come through Dublin’s private schools, whereas here the clubs have always been the backbone.”

Keith Wood, the former Ireland captain who was world rugby's player of the year in 2001, comes from Killaloe in County Clare, half an hour away, but we meet at his old school in Limerick. St Munchin's was founded in 1796 and it has a great rugby heritage with five former pupils, including Wood and Conor Murray, having played for the Lions. Wood's three sons are pupils now and he is proud of the fact that, unlike the Dublin conveyor belt of privately educated rugby talent, St Munchin's is not a fee-paying school.

Few rugby players can match the range of Wood’s interests and he remains a captivating presence. Before he takes me on a tour of the school which ends up with us watching his eldest son, Alexander, and his team-mates finish their training session in the gathering darkness, Wood offers a striking analogy – Irish rugby is like a three-legged stool.

“The provinces, the clubs and the schools hold up the game. The professional provincial leg looks perfect. The schools rugby leg is pretty good. The other leg, the club game, is not great – because we’re dealing with nascent professionalism. Rugby has only been professional for 20 years. It’s now time to fix the club leg. It’s when things are going well that you need to do your repair work.

“The board have got so many things right – some by accident, some by incredible planning. They’ve done really well because they have protected the players. Johnny Sexton played 22 matches last year. I played 42 matches some years. We also have Joe Schmidt. I’m not saying Joe is the best coach in the world for other teams, but for Ireland he’s ideal.”

Wood won 58 caps from 1994 to 2003. “I was captain at a time when we changed the coach nearly every nine months. I had six coaches up until 1998 but we weren’t good enough or fit enough. Until Warren Gatland came in there was no consistency of selection. Gatty changed that and gave us a consistent way of playing. We became incredibly hard to beat. There was a big improvement and then Eddie O’Sullivan brought us to a higher level and we won some Triple Crowns [for beating England, Scotland and Wales]. There was a sense something else was coming.”

That “something else” meant that Ireland, under Schmidt, were transformed. “I really like watching Ireland play now,” Wood says. “Sometimes they grind out things which aren’t great, and I like them for that too. I love going to a game thinking: ‘We’re going to win but I want to see how we win it’.

“I was convinced the week before that Ireland would beat New Zealand in November. As the week went on, I started thinking: ‘Jesus, I’m putting the kibosh on it’. And then the game starts and, after 10 minutes, I said: ‘We’re going to win this. You can see it, you can sense it. They’re so in synch’. Of course we won. That’s why Irish rugby, right now, is such fun.”

Wood considers a 22-year-old Leinster lock who has just 12 caps for Ireland. "James Ryan looks a born professional rugby player. My God, he's lost two games in his life. Three losses, tops, in two years. He lost one game for Ireland on tour. And a game against Toulouse. He might have lost one other. These are All Black-style stats. Ryan looks mature, capable, strong, robust, a really good player with an extraordinary thirst for work. He doesn't make many mistakes."

Ryan is a product of St Michael’s College, which has become one of the dominant schools in Dublin. Wood says: “There are 1.5 million people in Dublin – which is a conduit to excellence because so many are willing to pay to get their kids to certain schools. So in Leinster huge numbers are coming through the system. In Munster we would like more players coming through the schools. But there are demographic issues and more poverty in Limerick. I think there are 22 premier schools in Ireland and St Munchin’s is the only one that doesn’t pay its coaches. But they have produced 18 Irish internationals and five Lions. They buck the trend.”

Cohesion and identity

I first met Justin Vanstone at Saracens' training ground in Hertfordshire. Vanstone and four of his fellow Blackrock College rugby coaches spent a day shadowing their Saracens counterparts, including Mark McCall, the director of rugby. It was a sign of the Dublin school's sheer professionalism.

Vanstone is English but he has lived in Dublin for 16 years. He is a perceptive teacher and, when we meet at Blackrock a month later, Vanstone is also a passionate guide around a rugby institution. We begin by walking down a corridor lined with photographs from school teams over the years which have produced so many internationals from Fergus Slattery, Hugo MacNeill and Leo Cullen to Brian O'Driscoll, Garry Ringrose and Joey Carbery.

The current system appears more striking as Vanstone charts the dedication of his schoolboys. “It wouldn’t be uncommon for a boy to be in at 7am for something rugby-based before school. There will be training after school and the boys do night study from 6pm to 9pm. It’s a long day but they wouldn’t be in before seven every morning because we try to get a balance.”

Vanstone stresses that his first-team drives standards. “The boys expect to have the video of our Saturday morning game that evening or early Sunday morning. We create clips they’ll go over before we assess it as a group on Monday. Expectations are high and we don’t want the coaches doing all the analysis. If it’s one-way traffic how can you expect boys to make decisions? Of course early in the season it is coach-led. But we like to step back and hear the boys’ voices.”

Video analysis includes studying the opposition. Vanstone explains that the top schools share their footage. “It’s one of those unwritten rules that, during the friendly season, you do not attend an opponent’s game. But it’s fair game to access videos before the Leinster Schools Cup campaign. To avoid espionage, Leinster video these games and set up a database for us to study each other. It works for Leinster because they get video footage of the best schoolboys. It’s a win-win.”

Vanstone nods when I say it sounds very serious. “I don’t disagree that it’s become very professional with a small ‘p’. But it’s down to the coaches to ensure that the unity, camaraderie and old-fashioned enjoyment of sport remains.”

Tadhg Furlong offers compelling evidence that Leinster are not just dependent on the outstanding private schools found within a six-mile radius of each other in Dublin. Furlong comes from a farming family in the small parish of Horeswood, County Wexford, a two-and-half-hour journey from where we sit at Leinster’s training headquarters at University College Dublin.

The prop is warm and welcoming and full of great stories about growing up in Wexford where he played hurling and Gaelic football as well as rugby. Furlong burst to prominence in the autumn of 2016 when he made his first Test start and, that November, he played in Ireland’s historic victory over New Zealand in Chicago. He has since played for the Lions, in the drawn 2017 series against the All Blacks, and established himself as arguably the best prop in world rugby. One measure of Furlong’s stature is that he has played New Zealand in six Tests and lost only two.

“Rugby is a winter sport and hurling and football are very much summer sports,” Furlong says. “I used to alternate between them. Where I grew up everybody plays GAA. In my primary school class there were only six boys. Every village had their own teams and you’re scavenging for numbers. And playing hurling and football definitely helped my rugby. The space is so big. You definitely get spatial awareness and hurling was so good for my hand-eye coordination. Footwork, too. It’s multi-directional where rugby tends to be more linear.”

The 26-year-old laughs when I mention YouTube footage of his nimble footwork – as a teenage GAA player. “That embarrassing video rears its head every now and again. But we had a good team with our local club and I won an All-Ireland under-14 with Wexford. My dad played rugby and he was also a prop. But he coached me in GAA. He’s a small-town cowboy in some respects. He’d write down a team on the back of a fag packet and tell me to get stuck in.”

It sounds a small miracle Furlong was spotted by Leinster and enticed to their academy in 2013. “Not really. There was a good club scene in Wexford and the Leinster system means if you’re talented you’ll be picked up. Of course the setup and coaching within the Dublin schools are unbelievable. But there are benefits from experiencing rugby outside the Dublin bubble. When you come into the academy you probably have a little chip on your shoulder. You want to prove yourself to lads who had their names in lights from school rugby. The other parallel is, because I never got exposed to the volume of training and weight sessions at school, you see rapid changes in your body and your skills when you join the academy. You get hungry to improve.”

Furlong reminds me of Willie John McBride. They are both sons of farmers who came to the game late. McBride achieved prodigious feats, as Furlong is already doing. Yet Furlong, unlike McBride, came into a winning Irish team and he is too professional to echo the Ulsterman when looking ahead to the England game.

When asked for his England prediction, McBride had growled: “We can beat them again. They talk too much. People say: ‘Why do you keep hammering on about how you love to beat England?’ Well, there’s a difference between being British and English. I think England talk a lot of rubbish.”

On a January afternoon of gentle sunshine, Hugo MacNeill, a former Blackrock boy who played for Ireland and the Lions in the 1980s, completes my journey. We stroll through Dublin and MacNeill reminds me that Leinster are the city’s sole full-time professional sports team – and a resounding success as European champions four times in the past 10 seasons.

He nods when hearing how Stuart Lancaster, the former England coach who is doing so well at Leinster, had stressed his surprise to me that so many of his players were born in Dublin, had never played for another club and had no intention of leaving. Lancaster admired their cohesion and identity.

“We’re lucky Johnny Sexton’s experience in French club rugby [with Racing 92 from 2013 to 2015] was seen as negative,” MacNeill says. “It was a key moment when Sexton came home. It encouraged other players to stay in Dublin. We still have to be vigilant because there are massive salaries in England and France. But our European success helps keep our best players. Dublin is also really vibrant now. When I played for Ireland young people felt they had to leave because there were so few prospects.”

MacNeill did a postgraduate degree in economics at Oxford between 1982 and 1984 – while playing for Ireland. He was part of the Irish side, including Ringland and McLoughlin, which won the Triple Crown in 1982.

"The country was low in confidence," he recalls. "My Oxford thesis was on job-sharing during terrible unemployment: 20 per cent were unemployed. When we won the Triple Crown in 1982 this was before Ray Houghton [who scored the goal that beat England 1-0 at Euro 88], before U2, before Riverdance. Ireland was on its knees but our coach Mick Doyle said: 'You can be the best in the world'. We wanted to believe this, but it wasn't easy. The country, however, bought into the idea and there was an amazing response.

“We won another Triple Crown in 1985. The whole county was behind us and you could feel confidence returning. I went to a big business lunch on the Monday, after we won the [1985] championship on the Saturday, and the minister of finance spoke. He said: ‘After this great weekend, we’re delighted one of the Irish team is here’. The place erupted. It was lovely. But we did not build secure foundations. We got the wooden spoon in 1986, and thoroughly deserved it. We got carried away because we weren’t used to success. This Irish team today are used to success and expect to sustain and improve it.”

MacNeill is most interested in Irish rugby’s enduring capacity to produce hope and unity. He remains close to Ringland. The Dubliner and the Ulsterman did commendable work in 1996 when, after an IRA bomb caused devastation in London’s Docklands, they organised the Peace Game between Ireland and the Barbarians – to show that the Irish wanted peace and unity above all else.

“Trevor and I always spoke to each other during the Troubles. We talked and talked, and still do to this day. We wanted to learn about each other’s lives. We also believed the genius of rugby was that when Ireland went independent they kept things together. We are Ireland as one, north and south, in rugby.

“It’s not like football with the Republic of Ireland. It’s more than that. In some of Séamus Heaney’s best poems he talks about the neighbourly, casual slaughter of the Troubles. But rugby gave us a peaceful route. You respected and welcomed differences. Irish rugby always got this right. It still does today.”

I have savoured Leinster’s meticulous planning, Munster’s gritty passion and Ulster’s layered identity and capacity for rugby leadership. A new Irish team are now the best in the country’s history and MacNeill’s belief in them, and rugby, is resonant.

“Hopefully we’ll get through this Brexit mess, and come out the other side,” he says. “These are incredibly dangerous and sensitive times. We need peace and reconciliation. Irish rugby has always given us reconciliation with a generosity of spirit and mutual respect for our differences. It now also gives us a rugby team which might do something wonderful in the Six Nations and the World Cup. Irish rugby is leading the way – more than ever.” – Guardian service