Donal Lenihan: A memorable year when I embraced the Rising Sun and won a cap at 59

Donal Lenihan: A memorable year when I embraced the Rising Sun and won a cap at 59
Donal Lenihan (top right) looks on as the Lions’ Robert Jones (9) tackles Wayne Smith of the Rest of the World team at Cardiff Arms Park on April 16, 1986. The Rest of the World beat the Lions 15-7. It was only in 2019 that the match received test status and its players got their caps. Picture: Mike Brett/Getty Images.

I thought my days of accumulating caps finished a long time ago, but not so. Thirty-three years after featuring for the British and Irish Lions as part of the IRB’s centenary celebrations in Cardiff, test recognition yielded just that.

The 1986 Lions were due to tour South Africa but for the first time, World Wars apart, since the ground-breaking pioneers trekked to New Zealand and Australia in 1888, the tour was cancelled due to the apartheid regime in the country.

In its place, a restricted Lions squad of 21 was selected to play a “Rest of the World XV” made up exclusively from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and France with all their best players available for selection.

At the time it was made clear by the Lions management and committee that, in the absence of the Springbok tour, the game carried Lions test status. For some reason, this was lost in the succeeding years and not designated as such when the game was referred to in subsequent publications covering the history of the Lions.

In 2005, the Lions launched their tour of New Zealand with a game against Argentina back in Cardiff. The Lions players selected were afforded test status, despite the fact that Argentina were forced to pick a side shorn of up to 20 of their first-choice players due to club commitments, primarily in France, as the game was outside the international window.

When a reunion of the 1986 Lions squad took place in London the following year, the issue surrounding the status of the IRB centenary game became a live topic of debate among the group. The game was officially recognised as carrying Lions status in 2012 when the Lions board allocated an individual number to every player who had donned the famous Lions jersey, dating back to that inaugural tour in 1888.

While I was fortunate to have played for the Lions prior to 1986, on the 1983 tour of New Zealand, and subsequently on the 1989 tour of Australia, for those who only played in 1986, being allocated their individual Lions number was special.

For one in particular, Ulster and Ireland flanker Nigel Carr, that confirmation was hugely important.

His playing career was tragically finished by an IRA car bomb that killed Lord Chief Justice Gibson and his wife while on his way, with other Ulster members of the 1987 Irish World Cup squad, to a training session to Dublin.

On paper that Rest of the World XV was probably one of the strongest teams the Lions ever faced. Six of their squad — John Kirwan, Serge Blanco, Michael Lynagh, Nick Farr-Jones, Danie Gerber, and Naas Botha — along with their coach, Brian Lahore, went on to be inducted into the IRB’s Hall of Fame over the years that followed.

Scotland’s Colin Deans captained the Lions that night at a packed Cardiff Arms Park. He sat on the bench behind Lions captain Ciaran Fitzgerald for all four tests against New Zealand in 1983. With replacements only allowed on the field for injury back then, he never featured in the series.

With Deans and Carr leading the charge, Trevor Ringland and I joined them on behalf of the 1986 squad, tasked with making our case to the Lions board. After two years and much interaction, on April 16 last — ironically 33 years to the day the game took place — we were finally afforded the opportunity to right the wrongs of the previous three decades.

The Lions board was represented by a group of former decorated Lions from each of the home countries in Tom Grace, Gavin Hastings, Jason Leonard, and Gareth Davies, along with new CEO Bill Cleverly, and gave us a very fair hearing. It was clear they were impressed, a bit taken aback even, by the strength and delivery of our presentation but the passage of time made our case more difficult.

Expecting a response within days, we heard nothing and feared the worst. Then, out of the blue last June, I received a call from Leonard in his capacity as newly elected chairman of the board with confirmation that test status was indeed confirmed. A few days later a letter headed “1986 Lions V Rest of the World” arrived in the post.

“The board has now gone through the due diligence process and after careful consideration, due to the unique circumstances, have made the decision to retrospectively award test status to the above match. We will update all digital records and any future official publications to show the match was a Test”.

It’s not often you get capped at 59 years of age. In the circumstances, it meant so much more with the passage of time.

Japan and its people the peak of World Cup

It’s impossible to reflect on 2019 without reference to the World Cup in Japan. After all it absorbed seven weeks of my entire year. From an Irish rugby perspective, it was disappointing but my time there offered so much more than just the 13 games witnessed in the flesh.

I’ve been fortunate to have either played in, report on, or commentate from every major venue the game has to offer. From a rugby perspective, traveling to New Zealand, Australia or South Africa, while still enthralling, offers nothing really new or surprising at this stage. I know all the major venues and the big cities intimately.

Japan was different. Only once before had I visited the Land of the Rising Sun, a five-match tour incorporating two tests, with Ireland back in 1985. Much has changed since then — interesting in the context of my reflections on the 1986 Lions, we didn’t receive caps for those tests either — and my memory of the cities visited was pretty vague.

The one thing that survived the passage of time was the warmth of the people, which I remembered as being courteous, very friendly, and considerate. Nothing had changed in that respect, apart from the fact that they were even more kind and obliging than I remembered.

Traveling to all the big cities and visiting the atomic bomb sites and memorial gardens in Hiroshima and Nagasaki only served to reinforce the feeling of a country still haunted by their involvement in World War Two and the horrific suffering endured as a consequence of that.

Donal Lenihan: A memorable year when I embraced the Rising Sun and won a cap at 59

What it also highlighted forcibly was their incredible resilience. That quality has been tested to the full over the last decade after a series of devastating climatic events incorporating tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides, and typhoons that wreaked havoc on the country.

Typhoon Hagibis, which created major problems for the tournament organisers in completing the final round of pool action, served to focus the attention once again on what stoic and determined people the Japanese are.

Ninety-five people lost their lives in the typhoon. A number of the wives, partners and kids of the Irish squad were marooned in their Tokyo hotel rooms during the typhoon, unable to get to Fukuoka for Ireland’s game against Samoa. It was a worrying period for all involved.

The resilience of the local people and tournament volunteers was seen to best effect when within 24 hours of the typhoon the International Stadium in Yokohama, 17 miles down the road from Tokyo, was made ready to host a pivotal pool game against Scotland. It was an incredible effort.

The Scottish Rugby Union let themselves down badly in the build-up to that game, threatening legal action against the host nation at a time when it was clear the worst storm to hit the country in 60 years was brewing.

I watched that pool decider on large screens in the banqueting hall of the Crown Plaza Hotel in Fukuoka, along with 400 other Irish supporters. Having beaten Samoa the previous evening, the outcome of this game would decide who Ireland would meet in the quarter-final.

A Scottish win and Ireland would avoid New Zealand and face South Africa instead. At the time, most viewed that as the better option.

When Finn Russell touched down for the Scots after only six minutes, the room erupted. A Scottish win was on the cards.

The response from Japan was spectacular, a length of the field try of their own that brought everyone to their feet. The mood in the room changed. Two more equally brilliant tries from their electric winger Kenki Fukuoka had the entire banqueting hall in raptures, Irish fans and hotel staff embracing like long lost cousins, willing the host nation home despite the implications for Joe Schmidt’s squad.

The way the Japanese team played the game won the hearts of supporters from all over the world. As things transpired, it didn’t matter who Ireland played in that quarter-final. Their form was such that they were destined for an early exit and the 32-year wait to reach a World Cup semi-final was extended by another four years.

The only disappointment surrounding the tournament, Ireland’s poor form apart, was the failure to host the semi-finals and final in the impressive new Olympic Stadium in the heart of Tokyo. Due to the massive financial burden placed on the government in the aftermath of those natural disasters, the design plans for the new stadium had to be scaled back appreciably.

As a consequence, the Olympic Stadium wasn’t ready in time for the World Cup, the alternative venue in Yokohama proving a soulless monstrosity. Otherwise, the event was a raging success. The opportunity to experience a vastly diverse culture in such a thoroughly welcoming and hospitable environment proved the most endearing take away for all who travelled.

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