Pu­mas stalk some of our dark­est days

Ire­land and Ar­gentina have trav­elled long roads since that fate­ful World Cup of 1999

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RUGBY - BREN­DAN FAN­NING

STADE Fe­lix Bol­laert in Lens, about half an hour af­ter the fi­nal whis­tle of a World Cup tie that shaped the fu­ture of the two na­tions in­volved: Ire­land and Ar­gentina. It was 1999, a mild Oc­to­ber night, and for the losers a slightly con­vo­luted tour­na­ment had just ended in the no-man’s land of a play-off be­tween pool stage and quar­ter-fi­nal.

In this busi­ness it’s un­wise to go bat­shit crazy in the press box when the team you want to win — and most of the time you have a vested in­ter­est — is not go­ing well. The flip side is equally true. This is a bitchy busi­ness, and those who break this un­writ­ten rule would be con­sid­ered in­fe­rior. Still, the at­mos­phere in the press room af­ter­wards was fu­ne­real. At the press con­fer­ence coach War­ren Gat­land looked like a kid who had been mugged, and man­ager Donal Leni­han was the un­cle look­ing for who­ever had per­pe­trated the crime.

In Lens that night we had a vested in­ter­est. Any­one who had trav­elled there as part of the Ir­ish me­dia wanted to be writ­ing about a team that was still in the com­pe­ti­tion rather than one turfed out. Rugby in Ire­land at the time was go­ing through some pub­lic grow­ing pains, so from a pro­fes­sional point of view bad news some­times was bet­ter than good news. This had been pretty clear though: get rid of the Ar­gies and get home to crack on with the rest of the tour­na­ment.

The longer the game went on the more ap­par­ent it be­came that it would end in tears. Ire­land had been con­tent to chip away through the boot of David Humphreys. The size­able lo­cal con­tin­gent in the crowd were unimpressed. Lens is not a rugby heart­land. The lo­cals didn’t give a con­ti­nen­tal about good goal-kick­ing. They had come to be en­ter­tained, and this didn’t match the cover price. They sided with the Ar­gies — hardly play­ing stel­lar rugby them­selves — and at the end cel­e­brated like it was a French win. And of course it was.

Typ­i­cally, we were stay­ing some dis­tance away in a crap ho­tel on the edge of an in­dus­trial es­tate. For a fairly high-end tourist des­ti­na­tion France has cor­nered the mar­ket on truly aw­ful places to put your head down. This one was in dark­ness when we got back. The next morn­ing we drove at un­wise speed through a sea of spray and piss­ing rain to get back to Beau­vais in time for the flight home. There were two flights a day to Dublin: very early and very late. The late one would have pushed us over the edge.

The en­tire ex­pe­ri­ence was like telling your­self it was all a bad dream and if you could just wake up and crack on there would be a dif­fer­ent story to tell. In­stead the nar­ra­tive was of how the Pu­mas ar­rived into Ire­land’s base in Finnstown House out­side Dublin, where all the signs sug­gested Ire­land had been ex­pected back there for the quar­ter-fi­nal. Ar­gentina showed up for that one the fol­low­ing week­end, where they lost a high-scor­ing game to France.

For the IRFU, it was a dis­as­ter. A mi­cro­cosm of what Eng­land would feel in 2015, but very painful none­the­less. The sil­ver lin­ing was that the em­bar­rass­ment of it all, host­ing a World Cup quar­ter-fi­nal in which we were not in­volved, woke the union up to the idea that if you weren’t se­ri­ous about pro­fes­sional rugby then it would bite you in the ass at the most in­con­ve­nient mo­ment.

Some­times we won­der how things would have worked out if Ire­land had got over the line that night in Lens. The image of Conor O’Shea all alone out on the wing, flap­ping his arms like a man on a desert is­land shout­ing at a plane, be­came the metaphor for a team that hadn’t any real ideas on how to go about win­ning. Well, other than the 12-man li­ne­out they hadn’t.

Maybe that quar­ter-fi­nal in Dublin against France would have turned into the chore­ographed set-piece War­ren Gat­land had in mind when pre-tour­na­ment he was urg­ing us to get on board the good ship Ire­land. Ear­lier in the year the Five Na­tions meet­ing be­tween the teams had seen Ire­land run them to a point, and but for a nar­row miss from David Humphreys off the tee Ire­land could have nailed it. That was the 15th de­feat in a row to France. You can imag­ine pop­u­lar in­ter­est in a home tie in a World Cup quar­ter-fi­nal against them given the close­ness of the Cham­pi­onship game.

Mov­ing this on a bit, let’s say Gat­land’s dream of a semi-fi­nal against his na­tive New Zealand in Twick­en­ham came to pass. Given that 19 years later we’re still work­ing to­wards the same prize clearly it would have been a first. The Ire­land of 1999 was a long way re­moved from the rugby-friendly ver­sion of to­day.

Ul­ster had won the Heineken Cup the pre­vi­ous Jan­uary but it did noth­ing for them, and the Mun­ster band­wagon was at that point just a wagon. Le­in­ster hadn’t got the wheels on theirs. And Con­nacht were still at the de­sign stage.

For Ar­gentina, that World Cup win didn’t cat­a­pult them into the top ech­e­lon be­cause back then they were still on the out­side, ad­mir­ing the com­fort and warmth of life in­side the Big 8 (the Five Na­tions plus New Zealand, South Africa and Aus­tralia).

A year later Italy would be granted ac­cess to the Cham­pi­onship. But for Ar­gentina they would have to wait un­til 2012 be­fore the door opened for them into an an­nual Tier 1 com­pe­ti­tion: the Rugby Cham­pi­onship.

Mean­time, they were suck­ing hind tit when it came to World Cups in that the Big 8 looked af­ter them­selves on the crit­i­cal is­sue of sched­ul­ing fix­tures. So while we would al­ways have good re­cov­ery time in be­tween each pool game they, along with the other out­siders, were pressed into ser­vice to suit our needs. Re­mem­ber the gut-wrench­ing ten­sion of the Ire­land ver­sus Ar­gentina pool game in Ade­laide in 2003? For Ar­gentina, it was their fourth game in 16 days. For us it was our third in 15.

By 2007 in France, things were im­prov­ing but still the Pu­mas had two days fewer on their match sched­ule than Ire­land by the time the teams met in Paris. More bad blood be­tween two squads who really didn’t like each other.

This time the Pu­mas, still on a high from beat­ing the hosts first up, ush­ered Ire­land out the gate. They took huge en­joy­ment in do­ing so. It was all but the end of Ed­die O’Sul­li­van who was gone at the con­clu­sion of the fol­low­ing Six Na­tions.

Since then the meet­ings have been re­stricted to out-of-com­pe­ti­tion games which Ire­land have hoovered up with six wins from seven. Last year’s con­test, at the tail end of the Guin­ness Se­ries, fea­tured a tour­ing team whose year had in­volved a mind-bend­ing travel sched­ule tak­ing in Su­per Rugby, for the Jaguares, fol­lowed by the Rugby Cham­pi­onship, topped off with a Euro­pean trip.

The Test in Lans­downe Road was their 12th and had in­cluded trips to New Zealand, Aus­tralia, South Africa, Italy and Eng­land. To their credit, in that last Test and run­ning on fumes with the clock al­most into the red, they went from their own line to fin­ish the scor­ing with a mar­vel­lous try for Ramiro Moy­ana Joya.

It was a clas­sic ex­am­ple that the Pu­mas are never beaten. On Satur­day, they will ar­rive with wins over South Africa and Aus­tralia to their credit in the Rugby Cham­pi­onship but against a side who are tooled up to make it seven from eight in this fix­ture since the 2007 World Cup.

Last night in Chicago was the open­ing salvo on Ire­land’s World Cup war but Satur­day with the Pu­mas car­ries all sorts of over­tones that shape how we feel about RWC 2019. Lens is a long way away now but we still get the odd tremor.

Lens is a long way away now but we still get the odd tremor

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