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Friday 3 February 2023 Dublin: 10°C
# sliding doors
The year that changed Irish rugby forever
In the 1990s, Irish rugby was a byword for failure, but within six months of the new century a new era had dawned. Twenty years on, The42 reflects on the most important season in Irish rugby history

brian-odriscoll-1932000 Billy Stickland / INPHO Brian O'Driscoll leads the celebrations after Ireland's famous win in Paris in 2000. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Chapter 1: Five go on an adventure

HE HADN’T SLEPT well. Then again Eddie O’Sullivan rarely did in match-weeks, his nights interrupted by surges of adrenaline, the need to check and recheck an image from memory’s scrapbook. So in the early hours of St Valentine’s Day, 2000, the then Irish assistant coach made his way down to the team video room and fast forwarded his way through tape after tape, stopping intermittently to press pause and rewind, intrigued by Gregor Townsend’s recurring habit of slipping reverse passes infield whenever he ran into midfield traffic.

At two in the morning, O’Sullivan returned to his room – not for some long overdue sleep – instead to get a notepad and pen. These were early days in the world of video work. Mervyn Murphy had just been named Irish rugby’s first-ever video analyst and after delving through the archives, he and O’Sullivan knew they could present a compelling case to a squad who were just after shipping 50 points at Twickenham.

There was one problem. This was still the blue of the night. In more ways than one, the dawn had yet to arrive, the players still in their beds, the team still in a slumber. The tutorial would have to wait.

What O’Sullivan didn’t know then was how engaged his audience would be. The younger crew, Brian O’Driscoll, Denis Hickie, Girvan Dempsey – and uncapped quintet, Shane Horgan, Simon Easterby, Peter Stringer, Ronan O’Gara and John Hayes – had a thirst for knowledge. Then there were the old-timers, Galwey, Wood and Clohessy – who sounded more like a firm of solicitors than a team of enforcers. They’d grown sick of losing.

So too had the remaining cast members – Anthony Foley, Kieron Dawson, Malcolm O’Kelly – determined to make sure this latest chance wouldn’t also be their last.

“I remember Warren bringing a sports psychologist in to speak to the team before the 1999 World Cup,” Dawson said. “He straight up asked us: ‘who here expects to win the World Cup’? Keith Wood was the only one to put his hand up. The feeling in the room was, ‘Keith’s only doing that because he knows it’s the right thing to do’.

“But by the end of the 2000 Six Nations, you could definitely sense something had changed. Put it this way, when we got to Paris (for their first win over France in Paris since 1972), we’d a new mentality. The feeling that day was, ‘why should we lose’?”

To the outside world, the answer was blindingly obvious. All Ireland did back then was lose, collecting eight wooden spoons in the 20 years leading up to that defining 2000 season; in contrast to the two Grand Slams, four championship titles and five Triple Crowns they’ve won since. Today, Irish rugby – save for its allergy to World Cups – is held in high regard; Leinster being serial podium visitors; the national team having posted more top-half finishes in the Six Nations this century than any of their rivals.

But 20 years ago, they were an embarrassment, winning just 12 of their previous 56 games in the Five Nations, scoring just three tries in the 1999 championship.

As the fireworks screamed into the night sky to signal the turn of the century, you’d have had to conduct a serious search to find anyone who could have predicted the turnaround that was just weeks away from unfolding. Warren Gatland, their young Kiwi coach, had overseen a disastrous defeat to Argentina in the World Cup, following on from his record of one win in seven Five Nations games.

“One of the newspapers had me mocked up in a picture behind bars, for crimes against Irish rugby,” Gatland said. “So it was pretty personal, the criticism.”

keith-wood-1522000 Patrick Bolger / INPHO There was "war" in Ireland training ahead of the Scotland match. Patrick Bolger / INPHO / INPHO

It’d get worse. A 50-18 defeat to England on the opening day of the 2000 season intensified the attacks. “At Twickenham, we’d stuck with a lot of players who’d been in the World Cup squad but after the loss, we all knew it was time to make changes,” Gatland said. “Had we lost to Scotland at home, I would have resigned.”

From a distance of a couple of decades, it isn’t hard to picture a sliding-doors moment. Had Scotland beaten them again, it’s hard to imagine how Gatland could have re-launched his career to become a three-time Grand Slam winner, coach of the British & Irish Lions, and two-time World Cup semi-finalist.

More to the point, where would Irish rugby have ended up? “I was the sixth head coach in the 1990s,” Gatland said. “Irish rugby needed stability, structure.”

O’Sullivan, his newly appointed assistant, would provide some, arguing the case for a radical change in personnel and tactical approach. “I didn’t see the point in us having all these brilliant ball-players, O’Gara, O’Driscoll, Hickie, Shaggy (Horgan), if we didn’t have the gameplan to complement them. To play a fast game, we needed mobility in the pack.”

Dawson, O’Kelly and Easterby would provide that but as the team coach sneaked its way through Greystones’ narrow, old streets on its way to the town’s rugby club for training that St Valentine’s day morning, it was far from certain which 15 of the 40 men on that bus would emerge as starters.

“Some weeks,” Hayes said, “you go to camp and you think, ‘nothing’s going to happen here’. But that week was different.”

This is O’Sullivan’s recollection of those sessions: “We let the dogs out. There was war; fellas doing everything they could to make the team; others desperate to hold onto their place.”

Here’s Hayes again: “It’s not like fights broke out between us or that anything nasty happened. But put it this way, I remember Trevor Brennan saying once how in some weeks, certain players were protected, wrapped in cotton wool. You weren’t allowed tackle them. Well, those rules weren’t in play that day.”

This is Dawson’s memory of that Monday morning: “Everyone goes on about how Irish people like a bit of craic, and it’s true, we do. But when it comes to our day jobs, we’re diligent people, who take pride in what we do. After Twickenham, our pride was hurt. We pulled together, said enough is enough.”

This was the day everything changed. With the mud covering the top of his boots and splattering his socks, Gatland couldn’t have been happier. “You’d a sense something was starting,” he said. Five days later, with Kenny Logan’s try putting the Scots 10-0 up after the first quarter, his mood had darkened. “Sure, at that stage it felt like the end.”

Sitting next to him, O’Sullivan may also have had an underlying fear his job was on the line, but this was precisely the reason he’d doubled up on his workload, giving up on the notion of rest to spend those extra hours in the video room. “My attitude was we need to fix this,” O’Sullivan said.

Together they would. Having spent a few years in the mid-90s coaching Ireland’s U21 side, O’Sullivan had learned first-hand about the character of the men he and Gatland were placing their trust in. First there was O’Gara, a kid he’d first encountered at a training camp in Clongowes Wood way back in 1989.

“Everyone else was taller than him but I’ll never forget this tiny little fair-haired fella with his piercing Cork accent barking and cajoling and ordering everyone around,” O’Sullivan says. “I remember turning to Willie Anderson (who was coaching alongside O’Sullivan at the camp) and saying, ‘if this lad doesn’t end up playing for Ireland, we’re doing something badly wrong’.”

Eleven years on, O’Sullivan’s hunch was right; O’Gara being one of five new caps named to start by Gatland. “I’ve never been afraid to take risks,” the former Wales coach said. “With youth, you get a kind of fearlessness.”

shane-horgan-1922000 Patrick Bolger / INPHO Shane Horgan scored on his debut against Scotland. Patrick Bolger / INPHO / INPHO

It showed that day; Horgan scoring a try on his debut; O’Driscoll getting his first championship try; Stringer and O’Gara overcoming a nervy start to get to the pitch of things; Hayes anchoring the scrum, Easterby surprising everyone. “Just before the Christmas, we went up to Ravenhill, Donal Lenihan and I,” O’Sullivan says. “It was Ulster-Llanelli in the Heineken Cup. ‘Check out their No7,’ I said to Donal, as Easterby was playing openside for some reason that night. ‘Is he one of ours?’ Donal asked, noting how Easterby wasn’t a typical Irish name. He didn’t ask anything else; quickly convinced by his quality. Remember in those days, the manager was way more influential on team selection than he is now.”

Battle-hardened and enthused, by Saturday the new boys were defying form and logic to hammer the defending champions. They hadn’t beaten Scotland in 12 years, had scored just three tries in the 1999 championship, yet here they were getting five in a 47-minute spell, a third of their team on debut, the first of 361 caps they would collectively win for Ireland.

“Well, being truthful you didn’t know then was whether they’d win five caps or 105,” O’Sullivan said. “No one could tell. Selecting a new cap for a Six Nations match was a big thing in those days; so to pick five of them for the one game, well that was huge, a massive statement. We all knew it could go badly wrong.”

Instead it went perfectly, O’Sullivan winning kudos within the squad when replacement David Humphreys hacked upfield before scoring after Townsend had thrown one of his no-look passes.

This is what Horgan said in an interview for The Times last year: “I did get my first cap under Warren but it was really Eddie who picked me. The five changes, I felt a lot of that was down to Eddie. What he was doing was really innovative, and I felt he was ahead of Warren in technical terms. But look, as the years pass, you couldn’t help revise opinion of Warren. Look at what he has achieved in his career, it has been phenomenal.”

A four-week spell in the spring of 2000 was when it started.

Chapter 2: The Munster fairy-tale

If the year 2000 wins the award for being the most definitive in Irish rugby history, then 1999 deserves a nomination in the best supporting role. After all, it was in 1999 when Ulster became Ireland’s first winners of the Heineken Cup, even if an asterisk was attached to that win, 1998/99 being the season when English clubs refused to enter the competition.

They were back for the following campaign, and it was at Vicarage Road where O’Gara and Munster really announced themselves, beating Saracens to convince everyone, most of all themselves, that they belonged at this level.

“On a personal level, that win, and the victory over (1999 Heineken Cup finalists) Colomiers injected belief into me,” Hayes said. “And I’d imagine I wasn’t the only one. Woody and Claw (Keith Wood and Peter Clohessy) were my front row partners with Munster and were nailed on starters for Ireland, too. My thinking was, ‘right, we’ve been doing alright in Europe, I’m up for this, I’m good enough to step up’.”

He wasn’t alone. By the end of the season, five of the Irish pack and the two half-backs were Munster men, a trend that would continue for the remainder of the decade.

“You can’t underestimate how important Munster’s rise was for Irish rugby,” O’Sullivan says. “They provided the backbone of the Ireland team from one to 10 – all we had to do was put some outside backs with them and we had a team.” That became clear a fortnight after the Scotland win, when Italy – who had won three of their previous four games against Ireland – were defeated even more comprehensively than the Scots. Ireland were on a roll and O’Sullivan knew why.

“Ireland were massive beneficiaries from the Heineken Cup,” the former Ireland coach said, “because now, when you were sitting down to pick an international side, you weren’t going off a fella’s form in the All-Ireland League, but basing it on what the lads were doing against the top club teams in Europe.”

john-hayes Morgan Treacy / INPHO Hayes: "The Heineken Cup put an end to the French mystique.” Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Hayes concurs, saying: “We were no longer looking at French players as some kind of supermen who you played against once a year. I’d say the lads from the 1980s Irish teams would have loved to have got a crack at Serge Blanco at Biarritz rather than just seeing him every second year in a French jersey in Paris. The Heineken Cup put an end to the French mystique.”

Victories over Stade Francais in the quarter-finals and Toulouse – where he scored a famous try – in the semis backed up Hayes’ statement but the success of that season wasn’t confined to the park. Away from it, something astonishing was happening.

Up until that 1999/00 season, Munster’s home games alternated between Musgrave Park and Thomond Park, attendances alternating between low and average. A year earlier just 2,000 paid in to see their win over the now defunct Italian side, Petrarca; 500 more than they managed to get for their match with Neath.

But by the time Stade Francais were arriving in Limerick for their April quarter-final date, sold out signs were posted on the Thomond Park gates. Then in Bordeaux, when they ran out for their semi-final win over Toulouse, the sight of thousands of red Munster flags, flying so far away from home, was astonishing. “That year we played Leinster in Temple Hill,” Hayes said. “I’d say we had 2,000 people there, tops. By the end of the year, you’d look around the stands at Twickenham and Bordeaux, spot a face you knew in the crowd and say, ‘Jesus, I never knew he was even into rugby’. And you knew there was no going back. The crowds were here to stay. And so were we. Up until then, our mentality was ‘ah, we’re just Munster, that kind of thing’. Woody, John Langford, they changed our attitude. That whole season, with Ireland, with Munster, we learned how to think differently.”

A Sunday afternoon in Paris would prove that. 

Chapter 3: The French revolution

Derek One F In Foley is a man with two passions in life; rugby and Echo and the Bunnymen. Neither subject got much space in The Star where we worked together in the 1990s. Instead the editor, a Kerry man, fixated on an imaginary character of his, Anto, a fictional, working class Dubliner, who – marketing people told us – fitted the stereotype of the audience we were trying to reach.

Over pints in the Terenure Inn, Anto’s character would be fleshed out. “It’s not likely that he attends too many Legion of Mary outings,” the editor would tell us. Nor was he much of a rugby man. Reading about football and crime were his things; a bit of GAA in the summer and a bit of horseracing on days ending with a y.

Anto’s sporting epiphany occurred in Paris, sometime around 3.45pm on March 19 2000; Brian O’Driscoll getting a hat-trick, Ireland holding on for their first win in Paris in 28 years.

The following day Anto was reading about it on the front as well as the back pages; and the day after that, he was getting another six pages for his trouble, Damian Lawlor, now a GAA pitchside reporter with Sky Sports, spending an afternoon with O’Driscoll’s parents in their Clontarf home. Rugby was broadening its appeal beyond its traditional heartland.

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brian-odriscoll-1932000 Tom Honan / INPHO O'Driscoll: A star is born in Paris. Tom Honan / INPHO / INPHO

Kieron Dawson: “Running out of the tunnel that day, I remember seeing this huge section of Irish fans in a corner of the ground. That had never happened before.”

Paddy Johns: “Until that 2000 season, we were kind of like Crystal Palace playing Manchester United. Going up against France, England, South Africa, Australia or New Zealand – we believed we could beat them but we also knew we had to get straight into it, put teams off their stride.”

Warren Gatland: “We should have won in Paris two years earlier; missed a kick to beat them in 1999; but there was something different in 2000. Brian had no fear; he’d this self-belief, this happy-go-lucky way about him. Some players, the older they get the worse they get, they overthink it more. That side didn’t.”

John Hayes: “Experience sometimes can be a bad thing. So if all you knew about Paris was getting the shit kicked out of you, then we might have been better off going with a group of young fellas who had a bit of enthusiasm about us. It wasn’t just Brian who had no fear of France. None of the new lads did. We’d no baggage, no history of defeats.”

Kieron Dawson: “This was the sort of game Ireland lost in the 1990s. But not this time. No matter what the sport, it’s 20% skill, 80% mentality. Our self-belief had soared.”

Eddie O’Sullivan: “The French had a tendency to look at us back then as the sort of team who’d create a bit of madness for about 20 minutes, knowing that once they’d weather the storm, they’d pull away. But we had a different game-plan; everything was based around getting quick-ball off our set-piece, getting our backs to attack space.”

Paddy Johns: “What a player O’Driscoll was, arguably the best Ireland has ever had. He was a centre, but he’d the skills of a 10 or a 15, and he could tackle like a 7. He was Irish rugby’s Michael Lynagh, our Philippe Sella. We were a different team once he came into it.”

Kieron Dawson: “The booze up in Kitty O’Shea’s that night ranks in the top two of any parties I’ve been at. We partied until 4am in the morning. It was such a historic moment, first win in Paris since 1972; it had to be celebrated even though we’d a game the following weekend. Now, they expect to win over there so it isn’t as big a deal.”

That’s part of the legacy left behind.

Chapter 4: The lasting impact

O’Driscoll and Ireland won something permanent that St Patrick’s weekend. Through the lens of 20 years, you only have to look at the bare stats to figure all this out. Those breakthrough wins over Scotland and France were followed by a first win in seven years against England the following season; first win over Australia since 1979 in 2002; first Triple Crown since 1985 in 2004; first win over South Africa since 1965.

Munster too stepped up a level – that semi-final in April 2000 may have been their first but they’ve been back to that stage of the competition 13 times since, finally reaching their Holy Grail in 2006, inspiring Leinster to get rid of their soft underbelly and ultimately surpass them as the decade came to an end. The sport no longer featured on television four times a year each spring. Everyone wanted a bit of it all year round.

eddie-osullivanwarren-gatland-1732000 Billy Stickland / INPHO O'Sullivan and Gatland: “Before 2000, any Five Nations championship that ended with two wins was considered a successful one." Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“In terms of TV ratings, rugby always had a solid base,” says Niall Cogley, RTÉ’s head of sport between 2000 and 2004. “So, it didn’t really matter how Ireland were doing; you’d a reliable audience who were always willing to tune in.”

Yet by 2018, they were channel hopping. Eir Sport had the rights to the Pro14; Sky Sports for the Australian tour; BT Sport and Sky for the Heineken Cup; Virgin Media had the Six Nations, leaving RTÉ with just the autumn internationals. Still, by the end of that year, five of the most viewed programmes on Irish television were rugby related. “You certainly couldn’t have predicted that in 2000,” Cogley says.

Nor could you have envisaged more Irish journalists than Australian press people filling the seats in the media rooms for the Brisbane and Melbourne tests of Ireland’s 2018 summer tour, all of them making the journey because of public demand.

The provinces and national team are corporate entities now – the IRFU’s turnover quadrupling from the €21.69m turnover posted in their 2000/01 accounts to the €87.5m revenues reported in last year’s figures. Look at Lansdowne Road, Thomond Park, Ravenhill, the Sportsground and the RDS now and compare them to 20 years ago.

The biggest difference, though, is in the trophy cabinet. Five Triple Crowns, four Six Nations championships, 11 Pro14 titles, six European Cups compares to what went before; a Grand Slam back in 1948, no Triple Crown since 1985, one Heineken Cup in 1999 for Ulster and a collection of wooden spoons, 29 throughout history, eight of those coming between 1981 and 1998.

“I’ve no doubt I was part of starting the process and I’m proud of what I did,” Gatland said. “But others built on the foundations.”

O’Sullivan was one of those, winning three Triple Crowns, finishing second four times, but by 2008 he was out of a job. “That’s the thing,” says O’Sullivan, “before 2000, any Five Nations championship that ended with two wins was considered a successful one. By 2008 two wins got you sacked.”

Nothing – save for the team’s capacity to choke in World Cups – was ever the same again.

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