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'This deathly silence...' An oral history of Ireland and Australia's World Cup 91 quarter final

Michael Lynagh, Gordon Hamilton and Nick Popplewell recall one of Ireland’s most famous World Cup moments.

Gordon Hamilton scores a try to level the game Gordon Hamilton's famous try put Ireland on the brink of a famous win. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

FOR FOUR MINUTES on October 20 1991, Ireland dared to dream.

24-years-ago, defeat was a familiar feeling. 5 Nations whipping-boys, Ireland welcomed a stylish Australian side to Lansdowne Road for a World Cup quarter final, an expected captain’s run for the Aussies before the serious business of New Zealand in the last four.

It went down as a classic, and despite the pain of defeat, the game has always had its charm.

To tell the story we’ve enlisted the help of three men who each played their part that day. From Ireland; loosehead prop Nick Popplewell and openside Gordon Hamilton, a man whose career was defined by his role in the day’s drama.

And from Australia; Michael Lynagh, the character responsible for turning a potentially historic day into one of the most famous “nearly moments” in Irish sport. The legendary outhalf spoke to The42 about the game following the release of his autobiography, “Blindsided”.

Nick Poppelwell on the break Popplewell scored two tries as Ireland beat Zimbabwe 55-11 in the pool. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Ireland found themselves in the quarter finals after a second place finish in Pool 2, while Australia had run riot against Wales in their final game of Pool 3 to make it three wins from three.

Nick Popplewell: “We’d been playing reasonably well. We’d played Japan and Zimbabwe, and lost to Scotland. We’d a good win against Zimbabwe and I scored two tries, each over the space of two feet probably.”

Gordon Hamilton: ”We’d been through a 5 Nations, and I think we’d drawn one game and we were just back from Namibia where we lost twice as well. The feeling was that we were better than that. Most of those games had been close, and there was an underlying feeling that we were better than the results.

“We felt we should have beaten Scotland in Murrayfield in the pool game and then Japan and Zimbabwe, out of the 10 games I played for Ireland they were the only two I won!”

Michael Lynagh: “We were spluttering along in the opening game and played well against Wales. Against Samoa and Argentina we didn’t really hit our straps, which probably isn’t a bad thing.

“We were staying in the centre of town, so there was a lot of activity around. There were a lot of Australians in town and there’s always a bit of a buzz in Dublin for a test match. I remember going to the old Lansdowne Road which has a great character to it.

“All during the week we’d meet Irish people on the street and they’d be saying, ‘oh, don’t beat us by too much,’ and things like that and, ‘go easy on us!’.”

Popplewell: “We took a break before the quarter final, we headed away for two or three days to Sneem for a change of scenery. You were still trying to work, the likes of Dessie Fitz would have been on his laptop, you’d work to do.

“You would have been taking calls, and at the time I was selling furniture in Bray, and the deliveries had to go in and come out so you’d be just checking in to see that things were running smoothly.”

Ciaran Fitzgerald Head coach Ciaran Fitzgerald takes training. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Hamilton: ”We’d had a couple of nice days down in Parknasilla, a part of the world I’d never been in. Fitzy (Ciaran Fitzgerald) was a good coach from a team point of view, he was a real team man and had organised a couple of things for us; we were fishing and playing golf and even played a bit of Gaelic in a field in Sneem.”

On the morning of the game the forwards took a quick lineout session, before the squad left their team hotel in Finnstown and departed for the Berkeley Court. When they returned that evening, it would be to either collect the bags and return to Finnstown House, or collect the bags and go home.

Popplewell: “We took the long bus journey from the Berkeley Court to Lansdowne which probably took around a minute and a half. The atmosphere was very upbeat. I was always very nervous before matches though, I’m sure I was getting sick, but we’d nothing to lose.

“You’d be doing boot checks and stuff, the final check on studs. The referee would come in to the changing room, so people would probably produce different pairs of boots to make sure that studs would be ok – not nitpicking on Mick Galwey and Peter Clohessy.

“I’m sure it hasn’t changed, you’d have two pairs of boots. We had one pair of boots for all weather. If the ground was quite wet, you used to have what they’d call the ‘Munster studs’ in them, which were probably an inch and a half long and quite sharp. They gave you a bit of extra purchase for scrummaging and ‘stuff’.”

Neil Francis Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The match was barely five seconds old when all hell broke loose. Neil Francis was in the thick of it, trading blows with Willie Ofahengaue. The tone was set.

Hamilton: “We just got stuck into them, Nick Farr-Jones was carrying an injury. There had been a discussion with the likes of Matthews, Dessie Fitzgerald and Brendan Mullin that we’d highlight a couple of weaknesses. We all felt that we could rattle them and upset Farr-Jones early on which we did.

“Philip Matthews threw a swing at Willie Ofahengaue which upset him suitably, and Franno (Neil Francis) was then left to continue the fight. It was a good start and that got the crowd behind us. There’s nothing like a bit of the old fashioned style of getting the dig in first and it got us off to the right start.”

Popplewell: ”If it went off, it was all in, fullstop. There was a call – I forget what the call was – but just literally head to the first person and hit. Unfortunately I think I was stuck beside Willie O (Ofahengaue) or someone like that, who absolutely – and I can’t remember ever seeing it – throttled me. I can’t remember but I believe I was concussed for the rest of the match. I remember very, very little after that.”

Franno

Michael Lynagh had the first chance to open the scoring, but pulled his kick wide left.

Lynagh: “I’ll always remember how silent the ground would go in Lansdowne for the kickers, which was quite unnerving. And it’s still there, I know even before the games the announcer asks that you respect the kicker and remain silent, so it’s quite off-putting; 50 or 60,000 people in the stands and everybody is silent. Oh shit, they’re watching me!

“You try not to dwell on it. I was having quite a few issues with goalkicking and the new ball during the World Cup and I wasn’t the only one. It was a difficult time and I did a lot of practice to try sort it out, but it flew very inconsistently. It wasn’t all the ball’s fault though!”

Popplewell: “I would have watched the match afterwards, but all I remember was the intensity of it. You took your head up out of a ruck or maul and just kept running. I don’t think I’ve ever done as much running in my life. As a few people have said, ‘we should have knocked you out at the beginning more often’.”

After Australia dominated the first 20 minutes, David Camepse broke through the middle to touch down. Lynagh’s conversion made it 6-0.

campese 1

Hamilton: “When you look at it, the defence was shocking. Imagine the reaction you’d get now from a defence coach. You realise it really was amateur to the extreme, but we never gave up. Franno was having one of his better games, he was really up for it.

“You leak a score like that and you probably try even harder, although it didn’t stop us leaking another crap try.”

Ireland improved as the half wore on, and two Ralph Keyes penalties brought them in level at the break at 6-6.

keyes

Hamilton: “But Ralphie (Keyes) was important in that, he managed the game well.

“The very amateur approach to things back then was if you had a chance at a breather and three points, you took it. It was slowing the game down, a very old fashioned mentality that was prevalent at the time.”

Lynagh: “They just kept coming back at us. I mean, all through the game we felt pretty comfortable. I thought we had the winning of the game all the way through. We were making breaks and had the possession, but weren’t taking our chances. We looked like scoring tries, but every time we looked up at the scoreboard we could just see Ireland nipping away at our heels.”

Hamilton: ”Half time in those days were so short it was just a chance to get a drink of water and draw breath, but there was a real undertone of, ‘guys, we’re right in it here’. Farr-Jones was gone off at that stage. Whatever was said wasn’t any cleverer than, ‘guys, we’re right in this, keep going’.”

Popplewell: “I would have been reasonably badly concussed, and I think a few of the players just said keep your mouth shut and sit there, and that’s exactly what I did.”

Lynagh with a penalty and Keyes’ dropgoal brought the scores level again at 9-9, before a second David Campese try – converted by Lynagh – put Australia six ahead.

campo try

Hamilton: “No excuses, I guess if we were to do it again we might have defended a bit better, but the plan was just to get straight back up from the kick off and get wired into them again.”

Popplewell: “We could stick with anyone for 50 minutes or so but it was the last 20 where the opposition kind of overtook us.”

Another Keyes penalty brought just three between them, and with just under six minutes to play, Ireland had the feed to a scrum 15m inside their own half…

hamilton try

Lynagh: “There was a little bit of a chip kick through and I just remember watching Gordon go and I thought, ‘Oh my God…’.”

Hamilton: “You’re in robotic mode as an openside, you follow the ball and try anticipate things. I was very lucky that wherever I was running I was able to adjust my line to where Clarkie (Jack Clarke) was running.

“I think Jim Staples’ kick was very speculative but if you were targeting Campese that’s exactly what you would have done. He wasn’t awfully good with the ball in behind him or down at his feet. He definitely didn’t like the rough and tumble, any mistake he made in his career was that kind of mistake.

“I always loved getting the ball in space and in those days it was hard to find those opportunities, and here was one. I hit it as quickly as I could and I checked almost immediately where the support was because if you get the ball and you fail to make the pass you would’ve been dropped.”

“I checked to see who was there and realised there wasn’t anybody, and you just kept going. The line came up very quickly, thank God! I couldn’t have run much further really.”

hamilton try.gif

Lynagh: “And then mayhem broke loose. The crowd coming onto the pitch, the roar. It was a pretty daunting moment. And then Ralph Keyes made the kick to top it off.”

Hamilton: “Quite frankly, that is a life memory you don’t get that these days. It can’t have been long after that that the stewards became a necessity, and you couldn’t invade the pitch, so it was nice to be playing that long ago that they could.

“I remember Donal Lenihan exhorting us to stick to the task so I don’t think it as a case of us thinking the game was won. I remember thinking there were four or five minutes, we need to keep working.”

Popplewell: “That was the try of the tournament. Gordon was a fantastic player, we’d a really good back row at the time. Philip Mathews, number 6, formidable. Robinson at number eight wasn’t the biggest but Jesus he was clever.”

Rugby Union - 1991 Rugby World Cup - Quarter final - Ireland v Australia - Lansdowne Road Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Lynagh: “The whole team was very focused on what they were going to do. When people get into pressure situations, focusing on the task at hand pushes the enormity of the situation aside. Each person on the the team concentrated on their job and executing the plan.”

Hamilton: “Lynagh was one of their smarter ones. He had them organised, they had a plan. We played into their hands, we didn’t clear the ball properly and let them back into position.”

lynagh

Popplewell: ”As far as I remember, if Saunders got that kick to touch the game was over.

“I can still remember the scrum on the far side, and I thought the ball had been knocked on, because there was no sound. The Irish crowd was so devastated that they’d scored there was no roar whatsoever. To see they’d scored was just…

“I remember seeing the ball being run across the line, and then there was just silence, and I thought, ‘something’s happened here’. And then… the rest is history

Lynagh: “This deathly silence. You think there’s something wrong and then you realise the crowd were just stunned into silence. One of those moments of great relief.

Rugby Union - 1991 Rugby World Cup - Quarter final - Ireland v Australia - Lansdowne Road Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Hamilton: “We should have cut that one out, it wasn’t that difficult to defend. Drift defences in those days were the common form of defence, and we missed the tackle in the corner. I wasn’t too far away from being able to get to Lynagh if you look, and Brian Robinson wasn’t far either. Another second and we could have got to him. That’s history.”

Popplewell: “We were being hockied left right and centre year in and year out. This was the biggest game of our lives, and we were within a whisker, and you can say in the simplest of terms we blew it.

“We were just numb, to play with that intensity wasn’t something we’d done that often, and we were just physically knackered and emotionally drained.

“I remember after the match, I think we went over to Wanderers –  Philip Mathews organised it – so we went over to the bar there and just literally had a few ‘sherberts’. We were just shell-shocked.”

Hamilton: “We were all devastated, it was a very quiet changing room, just another game that we could have won and we lost.

“Life just went on, on reflection, which was quite strange.

“I was working in a family business that was going through a very tough time and I was extremely conscious that I was away for so long and it was a case of getting back up the road on Monday morning and getting back up to the desk and that was the way it was.”

Popplewell: “Straight back into work. My poor old boss John was still paying me for the six or seven weeks I was away, and we were a small business.”

Lynagh: “We were so relieved ourselves, and it was an emotional dressing room afterwards.

“Conceding that try and executing our plan in the last few minutes was the catalyst for the rest of the World Cup. In the semi-final our first 40 minutes was fantastic, and almost a direct result of the confidence we took from playing under-pressure rugby against Ireland.”

Australia would go on to win the tournament, defeating New Zealand 16-6 in the semi-final at Lansdowne Road, before a 12-6 win against England in Twickenham on November 2.

Nick Farr-Jones and David Campese lift the Webb Ellis trophy Nick Farr-Jones and David Campese lift the William Webb Ellis trophy. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Hamilton: “Then in a bit of generosity we got invited to the final, and we all piled over there and shared a hotel with the Scots. They’d been knocked out by the English and they arrived in kilts and Australian jerseys.

“My kids kids just laugh at the amateurish style of play. I get more abuse for being crap than I do praised about being involved, and that’s a great leveller in all respect.

Lynagh: “I go over there quite a bit now and it’s something I get reminded of – in a very good nature – every time I’m there. If I had a euro for every person that told me they were at that ground I’d be very rich. I don’t know what Lansdowne Road held that day, but it seems like a lot more people that day tell me they were in the ground.

“I was over in Ireland a few months ago and I made a good natured bet with one of my colleagues as to how long before someone there mentioned the game. I said it’d be within an hour of landing, and he after the hour.

“We landed in Dublin and the first person I spoke to was the customs officer, and he said, ‘you won’t be coming into the country Mr Lynagh, because of what you did in 1991.’

“It only took five minutes. My colleague paid up!”

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Neil Treacy

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