The boys of ‘98

As Ireland prepare for the Triple Crown battle with Scotland, our U19 rugby squad begin an assault on the FIRA World Cup — a tournament that has paid dividends in the past. Brendan O’Brien explains.

THE old Dubliners tune, 'Black Velvet Band' reverberated around the ground in the southwest London borough of Richmond. At the time, Irish rugby supporters weren't presented with too many chances to serenade their heroes and the visiting hordes knew that this was likely to be their last chance to do so on this weekend even if it was only Friday.

Indeed, Warren Gatland's seniors were bracing themselves for a hard day's work in Twickenham the following afternoon. No-one was in much doubt that by the end of it the visitors would be flying back to Dublin with the wooden spoon in their luggage. It would prove to be their third in three seasons.

It was springtime 1998, and what the garrulous Irish fans were cheering with gusto was Brian McLaughlin's U21s, a team on the brink of a memorable Triple Crown.

In fact, each of Ireland's memorable English wins in recent years have shared a number of distinctive coincidences.

Ireland as rank outsiders? Check. Clive Woodward's annoying face and even smug voice all over the place before the game? Check. Someone in the English press blathering on about Irish fire and passion? Check. Iain Balshaw having an absolute shocker at full-back? God yes, check, double check and check mate.

In fairness, Woodward's U21s had every reason to be confident that particular Friday. A win against the Irish would give the ambitious coach's side the Grand Slam, a fact Fleet Street stressed endlessly.

Ireland? Well, they hadn't lost to England in either of their last two games at the level under Eddie O'Sullivan and they now had the small matter of a Triple Crown to play for themselves, though few in the English media felt inclined to mention it.

The Irish skipper was Leo Cullen.

"England was a bit of a dogfight that day," the Leinster and Ireland forward recalls. "There was a big crowd that day in Richmond because the 'A's were the second-half of a double header. England had a few good players like Iain Balshaw, Lewis Moody and Ross Beattie (who went on to play for Scotland). They scored their try about 15 minutes into the second-half but we still managed to control most of the ball and we held out for a 9-7 win thanks to Rog's (Ronan O'Gara's) penalties.

"I remember in the last six or seven minutes we got about eight or nine scrums in a row in their 22 and we just kept the ball in there for ages," the Leinster and Ireland forward chuckles.

"That was back in the days when you could do that and get away with it, of course. Just ate up the clock."

A handful of hours later up the road in Roehampton things got even better when the Irish students clobbered their English colleagues 80-30, running in a dozen tries in the process. Triple Crown number two was in the bag and those dedicated enough to take in a third game in one day could have witnessed Irish rugby's most successful 24 hours in recent history.

Had that been the end of it, nobody would have complained, but all that was just the appetiser for what came the following week in France as the U19s won the FIRA World Cup, beating South Africa, holders Argentina and hosts France in the process.

As important as those three triumphs undoubtedly were, it is their legacy that has proved of greatest significance to Irish rugby and today's Irish team that is chasing its first Triple Crown in 19 years.

Leinster forward Aidan Kearney was a callow Leaving Cert student at St Michael's on Dublin's southside that year and the only reason he was in France for the tournament was because it fell during his Easter holidays.

Kearney's chief memory of the build-up to the tournament was being sat down by coach Declan Kidney to look through videos of some of their main opponents in action and being almost horrified by their sheer size and physicality of what he saw.

"I remember watching the previous year's final between Argentina and France and thinking: 'Jesus, these guys are huge'. I mean, they looked like international senior sides, the two of them. Just massive. You have to remember that some of us, three or four of us, were still in school."

Kidney worked on their minds as much as their bodies. He had taken Ireland to their first ever U19 championships a year earlier and the year's experience stood to him in France. The schoolteacher in him stripped away any complications to deliver a concise easy-to-follow plan for his charges. "All he said was, 'here's out strengths, here's our weaknesses. We're going to play to our strengths'," Kearney recalls.

"When we went out against South Africa we realised we were as big as they were. Some of them had played Super 12 and more were playing just a level below but we had some big guys ourselves. We had a guy called Damien Broughal, myself and Donncha O'Callaghan in our pack, all guys well over 6'3". It was a mobile pack too, we were good at the lineout and we had a set of backs who could run with the ball when we fed it to them."

Sounds familiar.

By the time they returned to Dublin with the trophy, Ireland hadn't just won the tournament, they had demolished Argentina and France in the last two games, limiting them to just three points between them. Irish rugby, or at least Irish underage rugby, had just scaled new heights.

"We destroyed Argentina and France," Kearney stresses. "We ripped them apart. I don't think either of them ever looked like scoring a try against us so you could say our defence was a strength as well, I suppose."

The win had taken Ireland to a new level but the most significant moment in that whole glorious week of success came in the U19s quarter-final in against South Africa. With the game drawn at 17 apiece it went down to penalty kicks which the Springboks won 4-3.

Who was switched on enough to notice varies according to the storyteller, but someone certainly pointed out to some Irish officials that South Africa had used a kicker who had finished the game on the bench, which was against the tournament rules. Ireland's senior side were touring South Africa later in the summer and more than one onlooker swears that the official approached declined to raise the matter lest their future hosts be offended.

"This isn't some auld game out in the wilds of Ballinasloe," came the retort to that. "It's the World Cup. Get up there and lodge a protest." Two days later Ireland were facing the Pumas in the semi-final.

Kearney adds: "Even the 19s the two years after us were fairly close to being very successful," he looks back. "Des Dillon's year were unlucky against New Zealand. It was only two breakaway tries in the last five minutes that stopped them winning against the All-Blacks. The line is that thin, but the year we won and the U21 and Universities won their Triple Crowns showed that there was a higher standard we could reach. It was a question of sticking to that standard."

The knock-on affect of those successes has been nothing short of a revelation. O'Callaghan and Brian O'Driscoll were two of the stars from that win in France and both will be key players for Ireland as they play for the Triple Crown and the Championship against Scotland.

Peter Stringer was the scrum-half in Roehampton six years ago when the Universities went to town on England, while Irish squad member Mark McHugh was his partner in crime at fly-half.

Rich pickings indeed, but it's been the U21 team which gave Clive Woodward an early taste of Grand Slam bitterness that has provided the richest bounty of all.

Aside from O'Gara and Cullen, that side boasted the likes of David Wallace, Marcus Horan, Frankie Sheahan, and Shane Horgan all crucial members in the current Irish senior panel.

In total, that's eight current squad members and three British and Irish Lions. Add in the likes of former Irish international Tom Tierney, Ulster's Paddy Wallace and Kieran Campbell and Sheldon Coulter, Leinster's Kearney and Munster's Frankie Roche and Martin Cahill not to mention the numbers still playing in AIL Division One and the legacy of those three teams is even more obvious.

The story of how Warren Gatland eventually gave youth its head in the wake of Lens and the debacle at Twickenham four months later is now part of rugby folklore in Ireland.

The enduring image of Ireland's coming of age is still Mick Galwey dwarfing O'Gara and Stringer either side of him during Amhrán na bhFiann before the 2000 game against Scotland.

Just like the two Triple Crowns and the World Cup, that new dawn didn't just materialise. Easy to forget now that in the aftermath of Lens some commentators were calling for a trawl of the southern hemisphere effectively for rugby mercenaries that could play for Ireland. One look at Scotland's current plight should make us shudder at that thought.

It's fashionable in most walks of life to knock the establishment, rail at their fumblings and mock their attempts but in this instance the IRFU deserves a pat on the back. IRFU Chief of Development Eddie Wigglesworth was at pains asking for a sense of perspective after the 1999 World Cup, asking that time be given for the Academy and other initiatives to take root.

"Ireland have always been pretty successful underage but since professionalism has come in players are starting to come through more," Leo Cullen points out. "Before, they used to fall through the cracks with their clubs but that's happening less and less now."

It took Donncha O'Callaghan five years after winning his U19 medal to make his bow for the senior side, a lot longer than most of the other stars from the '98 sides. Yet even that serves to highlight the effectiveness of the system set up to nurture young Irish talent in the professional era. "It's a credit to the IRFU for putting such a fantastic system in place," the Munster man believes. "When we came out of the schools we were put into foundation and academy programmes and I know that Frankie (Sheahan) and the older lads were as well. That's where you did lose an awful lot of your players in the past. Fellas might have gone a bit airy-fairy and head away off but that's something that I'd be very thankful to the IRFU for now looking after us and giving us the right advice towards getting our careers up and running."

LATER this week, the latest batch of Irish U19s will launch their assault on the World Championships, this time in South Africa.

They may not win the tournament, but, after 1998, they know that it isn't beyond them. If they want to see exactly how far they can go all they need do is watch the events unfurl at Lansdowne Road on Saturday. The boys of '98. Still raising the bar.

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