Ireland’s Rugby World Cup History, Part 1 – 1987

The ninth edition of the Rugby World Cup will get underway in Japan on Friday, September 20th when the hosts take on Russia in Tokyo, while Ireland’s adventure begins two days later on Sunday morning against the Scots in Yokohama. An Irish side has competed at each of the previous eight tournaments, with a feeling of foreboding and Deja vú each time we reach the quarter-final stage.

Last Friday I looked at the background to the very first Rugby World Cup and the reasons why it took until 1987 to hold the first official tournament. 

Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a look at how Ireland have performed in each of the eight previous tournaments. This week I’ll focus on that first tournament in 1987, hosted jointly by Australia and New Zealand.

As one of the founder members of the International Rugby Football Board (IRFB), Ireland were one of seven teams that automatically qualified. The other six board members were England, Scotland, Wales, France, Australia and New Zealand. South Africa also had a seat on the IRFB board but were not invited due to a sporting embargo caused by the pro-apartheid policies of their government.

The IRFB also issued invitations to nice associate members to bring the tournament total up to 16 teams. Argentina, Canada, Fiji, Italy, Japan, Romania, Tonga, United States and Zimbabwe all made the trip to Australia and New Zealand for the inaugural competition.

Ireland were drawn in Pool 2 alongside Wales, Canada and Tonga. However, disaster struck before their opening game when their coach and former international player, Mick Doyle, suffered a heart attack at the official opening dinner in New Zealand. He was admitted to hospital in Auckland to recover and fortunately, the Kerryman made a good recovery and was back in charge before the end of the Pool stages. He later retold a story of a call he received while recuperating from the then Taoiseach, Charlie Haughey, who said to him “it must only have been Guinness withdrawal symptoms”, while Doyle retorted that it was a good job it didn’t happen while at home in Ireland given Haughey’s governments propensity for closing down hospital wings.

Ireland lost their opener to the Welsh on the 25th May in Wellington by 6-13, Mark Ring got the only try of the game for the Welsh and two Jonathan Davies drop goals made sure of the result. Ireland’s only scores coming from two Michael Kiernan penalties. 

Five days later they were in action again, this time in Dunedin against Canada. It was a to prove a comfortable 46-19 win for the Irish with Keith Crossan (2), Michael Bradley, Brian Spillane, Trevor Ringland, and Hugo MacNeill accounting for the tally of seven Irish tries, while Michael Kiernan converted five of the tries and also added two penalties. Canadian hooker, Mark Cardinal, crossed for their only try, while Wasps player Gareth Rees kicked three penalties and a drop-goal. 

Before their final pool game, just four days later against Tonga on the 3rd of June, the Irish squad had to move camp from the South Island of New Zealand to Brisbane in Australia. Despite the tight schedule and travel time, the Irish enjoyed another convincing win in front of only 4,000 at a rather empty looking Ballymore. Irish centre Brendan Mullin ran in a hat-trick of tries and Hugo McNeill added another two as the Irish outscored their Tonga opponents 5 tries to nil. Three conversions from Tony Ward and two penalties also added gloss to Ireland’s 32-9 win.

Second spot in Pool 2 gave Ireland a tough quarter-final assignment against the winners of Pool 1. In the key match in that pool the co-hosts Australia had beaten England 19-6 to seal top spot. So for Doyle and his squad, it was off to Sydney to take on the formidable challenge of a quick and skilful Aussie side.

Ireland were up against it and needed a good start over their more illustrious opponents, however, it was the home side who struck first after there minutes. A fired-up Philip Matthews launched himself into the air in an attempt to block down Nick Farr-Jones’ garryowen and as he turned his body away from Farr-Jones he caught him square in the face with his hip.  Match referee Scotland’s Brain Anderson awarded a penalty to the home side, which Michael Lynagh duly converted. An example of how refereeing has changed since 1987 is illustrated by the fact that an almost carbon copy of this incident saw CJ Stander receive a straight red card after catching Patrick Lambie during Ireland’s 2016 tour to South Africa. 

The injured Nick Farr-Jones was replaced at scrum-half soon after by Brian Smith, who would later go on to represent Ireland. Andy McIntyre got the games first try after both Michael Bradley and Hugo McNeill spurned chances to clear the ball. The substitute Smith added a second try off the back of a 5-meter scrum a few minutes later and it was to get worse for the Irish when their defence was torn open by Matthew Burke for a third Aussie try. At half-time Ireland were 24-0 behind and a rout was on the cards. 

Things got worse before they got better, as another Lynagh penalty after the break increased Australia’s lead. Ireland finally broke their duck when Michael Kiernan converted a penalty to take the bare look off the scoreboard. Quick hands from the Australian backline saw Matthew Burke cross for his second try before a late mini-revival from the Irish side. Hugo MacNeill gave the travelling fans something to cheer about with cheeky dummy creating space to run untouched under the posts after a cleverly worked move off the back of a tap and go penalty from 5 meters out. Ireland added a second try late in the game from Michael Kiernan, which came after a great bursting drive from prop Phillip Orr and a strong carry from Philip Matthews. 

Little did we know at the time, but quarter-final exits were to become a familiar theme in Irish rugby.

As for the victorious Australian’s, they would fall at the next hurdle. The co-hosts went down by 24-30 against the French in the semi-finals. While in the other semi-final, our pool opponents Wales, suffered a heavy 49-6 defeat to the All-Blacks.

New Zealand became the first side to lift the Webb-Ellis Cup after defeating France 29-9 in front of an adoring home crowd at Eden Park, Aukland. Grant Fox was the star of the show with a conversion, a drop-goal and four penalties. 

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