Donal Lenihan: A win that changed the course of Irish rugby

Donal Lenihan: A win that changed the course of Irish rugby
RAISING THE STANDARD: Brian O’Driscoll, who scored a hat-trick of tries in the 25-27 victory, is raised aloft after the final whistle in Paris in 2000. Picture: Inpho/Tom Honan

A recent request for a personal auction item to benefit a most deserving cause found me checking the whereabouts of a unique Irish jersey.

After a brief search, I found it. I’m not a great one for keepsakes but a signed jersey presented to me after an Irish win in Paris was different.

Having failed as a player to register an away win over the French, despite five attempts at the electric Parc de Princes, to be part of the management team that finally presided over a victory in 2000 was memorable on a day when Brian O’Driscoll delivered the most famous hat-trick of tries in Irish rugby history.

Last Thursday marked the 20th anniversary of a win that helped change the course of Irish rugby history.

While the win came as a shock to many, it had been coming for a while.

Two years previously we travelled to Paris as no hopers when Warren Gatland, a young unheralded coach with Connacht at the time, was drafted in on short notice to coach the side when Brian Ashton stepped down due to a medical issue.

We lost 18-16, having led 6-13 at the break.

A few weeks after that game, Gatland was confirmed as Irish coach on a full-time basis, while I was elevated to the role of manager.

Having run the French so close the previous year we were quietly confident for the final Five Nations encounter between the two countries back in Lansdowne Road the following year.

Agonisingly, we lost 9-10 when a last-minute penalty from David Humphreys to win the game shaved the post. We were devastated.

That is why the 25-27 win over the French in 2000 meant so much to everyone in the group.

While O’Driscoll’s virtuoso display stands the test of time, a number of other players, in particular Denis Hickie, Paddy Johns and David Humphreys, stick vividly in my mind for a variety of reasons.

I always liked Denis Hickie, as a player and an individual. Like all sportsmen, he’d had his ups and downs.

Ireland’s tour of South Africa in 1998 proved a challenging one for the Leinster winger.

Gatland, still finding his feet in his new role, was implementing a new defensive strategy on that tour.

It was still very much a work in progress when we played an outstanding Springbok side, on their way to a record 17 game winning streak under Nick Mallett, and clearly the best in the world, in the first of two tests in Bloemfontein.

Stefan Terblanche scored four tries on debut opposite Hickie in a 37-13 win. For the majority of those tries, there was little Denis could do but he took it badly.

We backed him the following week but he smashed his cheekbone in a tackle that left him hospitalised. I collected him from the hospital on the morning after the game. His confidence was shattered.

That tour cost Hickie his place in the squad for a period but by the 2000 Six Nations, the first with Italy on board, he was back in harness and playing well.

Noted for his pace and try-scoring ability, his work rate and bravery played every bit as vital a role in the win over France as Brian’s hat-trick.

Leading 16-7 at the time, French hooker Marc dal Maso appeared certain to score under the posts only for Hickie to track back brilliantly.

He made a sensational tackle under the post when diving head-first at the feet of the hooker, wrapping his arms around Dal Maso’s boot laces with scant disregard for his own personal safety.

Given the injury he suffered in South Africa, it was a remarkable effort. Had France scored at that stage, it was curtains for Ireland.

Denis was one of the first players I sought out in the dressing room after the game. He was ecstatic, given this was by far his best win in an Irish shirt.

I reminded him of how low he was in that hospital in Pretoria and how his journey had now come full circle. He smiled as we embraced. Those are the moments that make sport so special and compensate for all the bad times.

Management is so much easier when you are winning, but even then, in the midst of the highs, there are aspects of the job that suck.

Saracens’ lock Paddy Johns had always given everything to the Irish cause. Hard as nails, his quiet demeanour off the field was the polar opposite to his physicality and commitment on it.

I was Ireland captain when Johns won his first cap, beside me in the second row, against Argentina in 1990. Ten years on, he was on the bench in Paris that day, backing up the experience offered by Mick Galwey and the athleticism of Malcolm O’Kelly.

Gallaimh’s presence was important to the team at that stage but having the capacity to introduce someone with Paddy’s workrate and experience entering the final quarter was a huge plus.

Struggling to stay in touch at 19-7, we needed fresh legs and introduced Johns a little earlier than planned on 54 minutes.

Six minutes later, Paddy’s enthusiasm got the better of him and he was yellow carded at a vital stage in the game. It was just about the last thing we needed.

Warren and I were raging with him on the sideline, even if the decision by referee Paul Honiss was harsh.

Anthony Foley, who was having a thundering game at No 8, moved up to cover the second row against a powerful French scrum that had the best front row in the game at the time in Christian Califano, Del Maso and Franck Tournaire.

Somehow we managed to survive the 10-minute spell without suffering too much damage. Johns returned to the coalface from the bold boy’s chair and Drico worked his magic once again, incredibly scoring his third try with six minutes left to put us within a point at 25-24.

I’ll come back to that in a minute.

One of the more unpleasant tasks of management is telling players they haven’t secured a place in the side. On the eve of our game at the Stade de France, 1997 Lions second row Jeremy Davidson was outstanding for the Ireland A side against their French counterparts on his way back from injury.

While we were keen to name an unchanged matchday squad for the final game of the championship against Wales in Dublin, Paddy’s yellow card, coupled with Davidson’s positive performance, prompted a change on the bench.

Warren asked me to relay the bad news. I spent a morning trying to get Paddy on the phone, left several messages but couldn’t get through, which was a bit strange.

The squad was announced later in the day but still no word from my former second row partner.

Later that evening my phone rang. It was Paddy.

He apologised for not getting back to me and, oblivious to the announcement of the squad for the Welsh game, was bubbling with excitement.

“Donal” he said, “this is the best day of my life. We’ve just had twins”.

I wasn’t expecting that.

After a brief pause, I came straight to the point. “Paddy, I’m about to spoil the best day of your life. You’re not in the squad for the Wales game”. Suffice to say, he wasn’t best pleased.

Given the day that was in it, I felt even worse.

The emergence of Ronan O’Gara, who won his first cap in the 44-22 win over Scotland two games earlier, meant that Ulster captain David Humphreys was also on the bench.

Having battled with Eric Elwood for years to secure the regular starting slot, he knew he had another fight on his hands to regain the coveted No 10 jersey.

That said, his experience and game management remained vital, at a time when Rog was learning his trade at this level. Humphreys played a vital role off the bench with 30 minutes to go in closing out that pivotal win over the Scots a few weeks earlier.

Despite being on the scene since 1996, he was one of those players who needed reassurance every now and then of just how good he was.

A smart operator, he rarely missed an opportunity to influence a game off the bench.

Having already slotted a penalty soon after his arrival, the contest was reduced to a one point game after O’Driscoll’s sensational third try, a magnificent one-handed pick-up at full tilt before rounding French full-back Emile Ntamack, father of current out half Romain.

At that point, I feared a hat-trick of our own — a third successive defeat against the French by two points or less. Then came a lifeline when one of the French forwards dived in at the ruck. Penalty Ireland.

With the stadium clock frozen on 77.14, Humphs lined up a challenging kick from the left hand side of the posts, 41 metres out, 18 metres in from the touchline.

For a right legged kicker it’s gettable but the demons of that miss at the death in Lansdowne Road 12 months earlier must have entered his mind. I looked at Gatland and can say with certainty it definitely crossed ours.

Struck confidently, Humphreys kick bisected the posts. Leading by two, with a minute to play, Peter Stringer eventually kicked the ball dead after 80 minute’s of spellbinding rugby. Ireland had won in Paris for the first time in 28 years.

A gloriously satisfying day with a special group of young men, marked perfectly with a unique Irish jersey.

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