Regrets, remorse, pride, pain, loss: What being at a World Cup with Ireland is really like

Nigel Carr loved going to Dublin. If Northern Ireland in 1987 was reduced from the friendliest of communities into an angry parochial backwater, then Dublin was an escape from all that, Grafton Street with its bustle and noise, Baggot Street with its pubs.

Regrets, remorse, pride, pain, loss: What being at a World Cup with Ireland is really like

Nigel Carr loved going to Dublin. If Northern Ireland in 1987 was reduced from the friendliest of communities into an angry parochial backwater, then Dublin was an escape from all that, Grafton Street with its bustle and noise, Baggot Street with its pubs.

Way back then Irish teams had a tradition, the backs meeting for an eve-of-match chat over tea, the forwards absconding to the pub. O’Donoghue’s was their preferred haunt, their pint sometimes interrupted by IRA sympathisers, out with the buckets, collecting for the cause. Subtly and quietly, the southern members of the team would protect men like Carr and the serving RUC officer, prop forward Jim McCoy, from seeing this, respectful of the sacrifices these Ulstermen were making to play for their country.

And that is the message Carr has always wanted to deliver. Ireland is his country.

“How could anyone think it isn’t?” he asks now. “I was proud to stand during the Irish national anthem but would hope people (from the Republic of Ireland) would also recognise how big a deal this was, given the community I came from and the times I was doing it at, when people were being murdered left, right and centre. I have changed a wee bit. I don’t quite know why but I feel more Irish now than I did when I actually played. It was a huge honour to wear the shirt.”

He had done so 11 times by the time he collected Davy Irwin and Philip Rainey from their Belfast homes to head south for an international training session on Saturday, April 27, 1987.

A new tournament called the World Cup had been dreamt up a couple of years earlier and despite the initial objections of the IRFU, Ireland were sending a team. If life was a whole lot simpler, the visitor Carr greets at his Newtownards home on this Friday morning wouldn’t be asking about cracked ribs, shattered knees, broken feet and broken dreams. Instead they’d reminisce about an alternative universe, a successful World Cup, when the Welsh team they’d comfortably beaten in that year’s Five Nations championship had once again been defeated in New Zealand.

The conversation would reference Ireland reaching the semi-finals of that inaugural World Cup. But there’s a reason the chat goes along a different course, because on that Saturday morning 34 years ago, Carr, Rainey, and Irwin didn’t even reach the Irish border.

Nigel Carr (back row, 4th from right): Insists it was a great honour to don the green shirt

Nigel Carr (back row, 4th from right): Insists it was a great honour to don the green shirt

Hurt comes in many forms. For Carr, there was the physical pain caused by an IRA bomb that was detonated as he was driving to that training session, an explosion that killed its intended target and left Carr with a broken foot, damaged knee, cut head, and career ending injuries. Physically, the pain has pretty much gone, but emotionally, he’s still sore. In his marrow, in his bones, there is a lingering feeling of regret. What if they’d set off for that Ireland training session five minutes earlier? What if Northern Ireland hadn’t been such a divided and angry place? What if he was remembered as the guy who played for the Lions and starred on the Triple Crown winning team in ’85, rather than as the player who was in that bomb?

“Look,” he says, “three and a half thousand people were killed in the Troubles. Thousands more suffered life changing injuries. Mine were minor. From the start, I made a conscious decision not to be bitter and I never have been. But of course there are regrets. I really wish I could have played in that World Cup. It would have meant everything.”

Thursday morning, blue skies. Eddie O’Sullivan walks down the cobbled street by Athlone’s left bank, totally unaware of the two men behind him, stopping, staring and pointing in his direction, the taller of the two asking the other, “is that yer man who used to be Ireland coach?”

O’Sullivan is one of only seven men to have coached Ireland in a World Cup, a statistic that surprisingly moves him. “I’ve never thought about it in that way,” he says. “Honestly, it felt just like I was carrying the baton after Warren (Gatland) had his go and up until Declan’s (Kidney) turn came. It’s only when you say it, just seven of us have done it that it gets to you a bit.”

He pauses. Five seconds pass, then a sixth, his eyes steering away from his inquisitor. “What’s the word, I’m looking for here? It’s pride. It’s as pure and as simple as that. I’m very proud of that.” Pride and regret. No other words explain Ireland’s World Cup story more succinctly, this 32-year tale of chance, choices and remorse. Over the past few months, the Irish Examiner has spoken to a member from each of Ireland’s previous eight World Cup squads, a coach, a captain, an icon, a bomb victim, and four other men who carried our dreams and lived with the consequences. Each of them knows they can’t change the past. Now, in their middle years, they still have a swagger in their step and passion in their words and given the choice they’d fly to Japan in the morning to once again put their bodies and reputations on the line. But they can’t. They’ve no place to look except the past.

“Worst feeling I got from a World Cup?” Brian O’Driscoll asks, sitting in a cubicle inside a boardroom. “It was New Zealand, 2011. Losing in Lens ‘99 was tough, losing in France ‘07 was worse. But in 2011, I felt we had the players to reach the final. You move on. You get over it. But it still annoys you.”

O’Sullivan thinks the same way about 2007. “I get this sick feeling,” he says, “a feeling that you let so many people down.”

Reggie Corrigan: Recalls the anti-climax of ‘99 campaign.

Reggie Corrigan: Recalls the anti-climax of ‘99 campaign.

Reggie Corrigan knows where O’Sullivan is coming from. In 1999, he was on the rise. Sadly, Irish rugby had yet to escape its decade-long slump. Lens, France. A World Cup quarter-final play-off against Argentina ends in disaster. “The whole thing just felt like a huge anti-climax,” Corrigan says now. “Honestly, the Five Nations seemed to be a bigger tournament then.” By 2003, his view had changed. In Australia, he had a blast, as did thousands of others. “You see, in 2003, you felt like you were part of a World Cup. In 1999, you didn’t. We stayed in Finnstown House in Lucan. The weather was damp, dreary. Okay, we went to Lens for that Argentina game, and straight away you’re thinking, ‘ah France, something new, cultural’. But the hotel was on a roundabout and the food there was shite. There was a McDonalds next door. I ate there. Honestly, the 1999 World Cup didn’t feel like an event but by 2003, the tournament just felt way bigger. There was that unforgettable week in Melbourne when you had the Melbourne Cup on the Tuesday, the Ireland versus Australia International Rules match on the Friday, then our game against the Wallabies on the Saturday where our fans outnumbered theirs — that was an experience I’ll never forget.”

Tommy Bowe got that tourism vibe from 2011: “In New Zealand, there was a convoy of 20/30 camper vans full of Irish supporters following us everywhere. I mean everywhere, training, into town when we’d go for a coffee, appearing at our matches. You could sense their excitement. In England, 2015, we were based in Guildford and we escaped it all. Sometimes it is nice to distance yourself from the noise and keep yourself in a bubble because you don’t want to overthink things. It’s funny in a way, the faraway World Cup felt more like being at a World Cup than the one on your doorstep.”

David Corkery knows all about that. In 1995, he was 21, ‘a bit raw, a bit green’. South Africa was changing but not as rapidly as he was. “My eyes were opened to what real life was like,” he said. “We went to a nightclub after the win over Wales. Entering reception, we paid our way in, and then were told to go through a scanner. At home, you hand in your coats; here it was knives and guns.”

O’Sullivan, meanwhile, travelled to five tournaments, twice as Ireland’s head coach. “You don’t do any site-seeing. Maybe you’d take an afternoon off, go for a coffee but that’s about it. You self-police as a coach. It’s the kind of job you shouldn’t do if you don’t think waking up at 2am to watch a tape of some player or some game is normal.”

It was a job he loved. And hated. It wasn’t just how the role impacted on him. In 2007, his sister-in-law took his children away for the weekend, innocently bringing them to a hotel to watch the Ireland-France match. Half-way through, she whisked them out of there, after a couple of fans in the hotel bar started abusing the team and their coach. “It was a horrible time,” O’Sullivan said. “I don’t like reminiscing about it. I made tons of calls home, reminded them that no one was going to die, that people say horrible things but that it doesn’t really matter. You can’t insulate them from it, though. They’re teenagers. They’ll hear things.”

Ireland at World Cups brought out the worst in us. The team routinely flunked, the public increasingly got angry. France in 2007 was a harrowing experience for O’Sullivan but if he’s looking for solace then at least he knows he is in good company.

“World Cups aren’t something I like looking back on,” O’Driscoll says.

Philip Matthews: Rues host of missed World Cup opportunities.

Philip Matthews: Rues host of missed World Cup opportunities.

Philip Matthews, captain in 1991, is the same. “It was cup rugby, so radically different to a Five Nations match. If things go wrong, you don’t have time to adjust. And sadly, unfortunately, but truthfully, we have rarely been able to win clutch games in the tournament. There’s something deep within us as a rugby nation. Wales did us in ‘87, Scotland found a way to beat us in 1991, when Finlay Calder just went and clocked Jim Staples. They won and got Samoa in the quarters. We lost and were paired with Australia instead.”

Again, they led in that unforgettable quarter-final, this time with just three minutes to go. “Apparently all the Wallaby wives and girlfriends were in tears in the stands, preparing to go home,” Matthews says. “Us being us, we found another way to lose.”

They always did. From Australia in 1991, to France in 1995, the names changed, the script didn’t. “They beat us up,” David Corkery says of that ’95 quarter-final defeat. “Physically, we were no match for them, and wouldn’t have been for any of the top sides. Looking at the All Blacks in the tunnel, before our opening game in the tournament, staring at Frank Bunce, Sean Fitzpatrick, Walter Little, I was shell-shocked.”

It wasn’t the only thing about that tournament that got to him, the institutional racism leaving a 21-year-old Corkman angry and confused. “They say that tournament symbolised a new South Africa, but did it?” Corkery asks.

“One day, standing in a lift at our team hotel, a black chambermaid was screamed at by this white Afrikaner. “Get out,” he shouted. It was cruel. So many things in that World Cup opened my eyes, the racial divide, the extreme poverty, the sheer beauty of the country, the fact we were doing something on a global stage. When I came home, after we lost, and watched the semi-finals on TV, it felt like you were sitting in a cinema looking at a film you had been a part of. The whole thing was surreal.” Within days reality bit. He was back at work in Cork, knowing the £40-a-day allowance he got in South Africa wasn’t going to last long.

“That was more than we got,” Carr laughs, bringing out the commemorative cigar all the players were handed after the 1987 game against England. “I remember Davy Hewitt telling me they used to get a cigarette allowance, ten fags a day (in the 1960s),” Carr says.

By 2003, the cigarettes were gone and so was amateurism. “I think we were on a special World Cup contract, maybe for around €15,000 but I could be way off with those figures,” Corrigan says.

Even O’Sullivan can’t recall the precise details: “Certainly, there were bonuses built in,” he says, “but they weren’t life changing. Put it this way, had we reached a semi-final, I wasn’t going to be moving the family into a new house.”

Tommy Bowe: Sensed the fans’ excitement in 2011.

Tommy Bowe: Sensed the fans’ excitement in 2011.

Anyway, Bowe reminds us, it wasn’t about the money. “We went out there to win.”

If only. Wales in 1995, Argentina in 2003, Australia in 2011 and Argentina again in 2015 were big moments but each time, from 1987 through to 2015, Ireland have routinely failed to win a knock-out game. “It has become a psychological barrier,” Matthews says.

Corrigan isn’t so sure. “We felt we could get to a semi-final in 2003, but it was injuries rather than our mentality that killed us.” Bowe says the same about 2015. “The night before the game, Paul O’Connell broke down when he handed out our jerseys. You could see how much it meant to him. Being without him, Jared (Payne), Seanie (O’Brien), Johnny (Sexton) and Peter (O’Mahony), we didn’t realise it at the time, but it really affected us.”

Depth was an issue back in 1999 too, Warren Gatland’s decision to rest Paddy Johns proving to be one of the worst he’s made in his stellar career. “We’d 12 or 13 really solid players,” Johns says. “But we probably had chinks that opposing teams exploited.”

Argentina did so that night, repeating the trick in 2007 and 2015. “Honestly, losing to Argentina in 2015 wasn’t as bad as the defeat to Wales in 2011,” Bowe says. “The Welsh just wanted it more than us.”

O’Driscoll shares Bowe’s anger. “Wales had a plan and we didn’t react to it,” he said. “People have said I should have done more as captain but at the same time you have to trust the tactics that have worked for you in the past. Ah still, it’s a sore point.”

Back in Newtownards, Carr is massaging a sore point in his neck. “It’s been bothering me lately,” he says, explaining how the soft-tissue damage from the explosion has left lingering effects over the decades. Emotionally, too, he has suffered, deciding a year after the bomb to leave his job as a forensic scientist. “You’d get called to examine scenes of explosions, where booby-trap bombs had been left in cars,” Carr says. “Sometimes dead bodies had yet to be removed from the cars. That affected me. A lot of men prefer to portray themselves to be strong, tough guys. I was like that once. But having gone through something like that, recognising the impact it had on people, I couldn’t help but be empathetic, a bit more tearful than I used to be. I left that job, went and did something a bit different.”

David Corkery: Was ‘a bit raw and green’ in South Africa, 1995

David Corkery: Was ‘a bit raw and green’ in South Africa, 1995

Corkery too left his job in a solicitor’s office to join a new profession, rocking up in Bristol as a full-time rugby player. “At the ‘95 World Cup, there was all this talk in the team hotels about (Australian media tycoon) Kerry Packer coming in with a £150,000 contact for the top 30 players in each of the rugby playing countries. A world league was going to be set-up. We knew the figures were pie in the sky. But still, when the game went pro, you felt you had to give it a go.” Within six years, his rugby career was over. Depression then set in. Recovery took time.

For O’Driscoll, Bowe, O’Sullivan, recovering from their respective World Cup losses has also been a slow process. “I coached Ireland in 68 tests and you’re remembered for the two you lost in 2007, to Argentina and France,” O’Sullivan said. “You move on. You have to. If you consume yourself with what-ifs, well that’s the road to insanity.”

For Matthews, there is the wish he could have played in a professional era, the knowledge his fitness only peaked on a Lions tour and in those two World Cups. “A case of unfulfilled potential,” he says of that era. Corrigan, however, is happier. “We had the best of it,” he says. “We were paid to play the game we loved, and got to have a few beers without having to worry about camera phones, Twitter, Facebook. We mixed with fans. I’ve this box at home filled with newspaper clippings and photographs – that kind of stuff. Look, life goes on. You don’t live in the past. Possibly you don’t appreciate the things you have done, but now I’m thinking about it, jeez, I’m proud. I’m more than happy.”

So, amazingly, is Carr. Pictures of his children hang from the wall of his living room. His eldest was born in 1990, three years after the bomb. He regrets the fact he only got to play three more games of rugby after it, wishes he could have gone to New Zealand, but as he pours his second cup of tea of the day, he points to his hands. “I’ve still got the use of these. I could easily have come out without a leg or an arm. I could have been killed. I don’t want to be consumed by hatred. What good would that serve? It’s not hard to think of myself as a lucky man.” The “lucky” man is 60 now, his moustache tinged with grey.

Like everyone else, life has been periodically kind and cruel to him, but as the years pass he can see himself reaching a stage where he’ll forgive the people who pushed that button and brought an end to two people’s lives and one man’s dream.

“You move on,” he says as we indeed move from the house to a garden awash with sunshine and memories: “Do you know,” he says, “not going to that World Cup, it’s a shame. But I can’t complain. I got to come home, two others didn’t.”

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