Donal Lenihan: Match postponements a huge headache but they can lead to lasting memories

A S if the sense of anger felt by the Irish players after the 24-12 defeat to England wasn’t bad enough, those emotions paled in comparison to the frustration within the camp following the postponement of the Italian game last week.
Donal Lenihan: Match postponements a huge headache but they can lead to lasting memories

AS if the sense of anger felt by the Irish players after the 24-12 defeat to England wasn’t bad enough, those emotions paled in comparison to the frustration within the camp following the postponement of the Italian game last week.

From my experience, the cancellation of a much anticipated international is a massive disappointment, even if history tells us it can sometimes work out in your favour.

Ireland v Wales, 1982

Snow on Watergrasshill Cork, January 1982.
Snow on Watergrasshill Cork, January 1982.

With my international debut against Australia safely negotiated the previous November, I looked forward with relish to my debut in the much heralded Five Nations Championship, as it was back then, against the Welsh in Lansdowne Road.

In a calendar with so few internationals annually — Ireland only had four in 1982 — the cancellation of a Five Nations game was devastating.

It shows where the game was at the time that a Test against Australia was deemed a great warm-up for a budding young player before the real thing in the rough and tumble of the oldest tournament in the international game.

When confirmation of the postponement due to heavy snowfalls came through early in the week, I was raging.

The only silver lining was it offered a lifeline for one player in particular, my fellow Cork man, Moss Finn.

Having been recalled to the side after winning his first cap against England three years earlier, it looked like Moss would be deprived of finally exiting the ranks of the “one cap wonders” due to a hamstring injury.

Moss had to leave the field on his debut due to what he passionately describes to this day as “a hospital pass from the Tánaiste”, (the former Lansdowne and Munster full-back Dick Spring to you and me).

Stretching for the pass, Finn was smashed by England centre Tony Bond and badly damaged his shoulder. Mossie was ahead of his time in many ways. A supreme athlete blessed with great power, pace, and sufficient football to perform with distinction in a variety of positions, the pay-off for his explosive power manifested itself in the frequency with which he was afflicted with the dreaded hamstring strain.

I often told him — without a grain of truth, of course — that the typesetters in the Examiner had two printing blocks readily on standby throughout the rugby season in those days — “Finn in and Finn out”.

Given that nobody had even heard of hamstrings prior to this, Moss plowed a lonely furrow for a long time, even paying a visit to the famous Arsenal and England physio, Fred Street, in Highbury. His advice proved invaluable to Moss and our great friend Trevor Barry proclaimed to all and sundry after the visit that “Street put him on the right road”.

Moss got a serious break when that Welsh game was postponed for a week, a time frame sufficient to make all the difference in terms of his recovery. Not only did he make the starting line against Wales but he famously scored two tries which propelled a very good Irish side on their way to a Triple Crown and Championship winning season.

Ireland v England, 1985

Irish winger Trevor Ringland tackles Welsh full-back Gwyn Evans. Picture: Irish Examiner Archive
Irish winger Trevor Ringland tackles Welsh full-back Gwyn Evans. Picture: Irish Examiner Archive

Given that we were already ensconced in the team headquarters at the Shelbourne Hotel on St Stephens Green and had trained on the Thursday afternoon it proved a shattering blow to wake up the following morning to find Dublin gridlocked under a blanket of snow.

I felt for the two new caps, Nigel Carr and Brian Spillane, who learned of their selection three weeks earlier when Mick Doyle took the unprecedented step of naming his side well in advance of the opener against England, such was the confidence he had in the exciting new combinations he was piecing together.

With four other players in Willie Anderson, Philip Matthews, Michael Bradley, and Brendan Mullin also set to make their championship debuts, having won their first caps against the Grand Slam-winning Wallabies the previous November, that postponement proved a blessing in disguise. With two more weeks preparation for a completely revamped side, we were jumping out of our skins for the game against Scotland in Murrayfield.

The disappointment when the news was confirmed at lunchtime on the eve of the England game left everyone flat. There was only one solution: We packed our bags and headed straight for that famous watering hole of The Dubliners, O’Donoghue’s which was just down the road.

I see some things don’t change with Andy Farrell bringing the current squad around to his local in Sandymount last week when their unwelcome news broke.

Let’s just say, not only did we give The Dubliners a good run for their money on all fronts, but with such a new team, any barriers that might have existed were quickly broken down. That afternoon proved invaluable as the foundation was lain on a powerful bond between a special group of players that survives to this day.

The Cork contingent were in good shape but barely made the 6pm train with the party continuing in the dining carriage on the way home.

Michael Kiernan’s dad, Jim, was one of the Irish selectors at the time. He called on me to sing his favorite song, Boolavogue, that famous Irish ballad marking the campaign of Fr John Murphy and his men in Co Wexford during the Irish Rebellion of 1798.

I told Jim I didn’t know the words. “I don’t care, just sing it,” was the reply.

In those days, when an Irish selector, especially one from your own province, tasked you with doing something, you did it. I gave an outstanding rendition on that train journey home, even though I didn’t know a single word beyond “at Boolavogue, as the sun was setting”.

With the England game put back until the end of the campaign, the fixture against Scotland was far from straightforward given they had won a Grand Slam the previous season. Under Doyle’s inspired direction, Ireland successfully launched an all out attacking approach that caught the Scots cold.

Trevor Ringland scored two memorable tries in a 15-18 win. We were on our way.

By the time the England game rolled around at the tail end of the tournament eight weeks later, we were still unbeaten after a 15-15 draw against championship favorites France in Dublin and a 21-9 win over Wales in Cardiff — the first time Ireland had won there since 1967.

While the draw cost us a shot at a Grand Slam, the Triple Crown and another Five Nations championship was on the line.

That it was secured by a famous drop goal from Kiernan in the dying moments made it all the more memorable.

I think my take on Boolavogue might even have got another rendition over the course of that weekend.

Whether or not we would have won that championship had the England game gone ahead as scheduled, we will never know.

For the current squad, not being able to address the shortcomings from the performance at Twickenham by moving onto the next game must be incredibly frustrating, even more so when they sit down and watch England take on Wales in Cardiff and Scotland host France this weekend.

Of the current crop, outstanding No 8 Caelan Doris has more reason than most to feel exasperated. Having seen his excellent performances for Leinster rewarded with a place in the team for the opener against Scotland, he was incredibly unlucky to have his day ended after four minutes after a blow to the head.

Unavailable for the Welsh game due to head injury protocols following that incident, his impressive 20-minute cameo off the bench in Twickenham would surely have led to a recall against Italy.

Right now Doris must bide his time and hope things will eventually come good, just as they did for Moss Finn all those years ago.

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