'I think Ireland [will win] but it will really depend on how we function at scrum-half.' Morgan Treacy/INPHO
History Boys

'Suddenly you're in a situation where it's like, 'Jesus, lads, we're winning''

Nick Popplewell tasted victory against the All Blacks but had more tough days after facing the haka.

IN THE 38-YEAR stretch between 1978 and 2016, only one Irishman tasted a rugby union victory against the All Blacks – Nick Popplewell.

It came in the second Test of the 1993 Lions Tour, and New Zealand did what they usually do after defeat – won the following game to claim the series. Popplewell went on to face the All Blacks 11 times with the national team, the Lions, Barbarians, and a Leinster challenge match at Lansdowne Road in 1989, featuring one Warren Gatland at hooker for the visitors.

“It’s not pretty viewing. I actually thought we did better than that.” We are watching a YouTube video of a 20-year-old Jonah Lomu savaging Irish players – forwards and backs – at the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

New Zealand cruised to a 43-19 pool stage victory, but it was a taste of what was to come from a player who would end the tournament as a global phenomenon – arguably rugby’s first true superstar and the natural bridge between the amateur and professional eras.

Lomu never won the World Cup but he won the respect of every opponent – including Ireland, and Popplewell, that night in Johannesburg. “We stayed in the same hotel as New Zealand and myself, Gary Halpin and Gaillimh (Mick Galwey) were in the lift. The lift door opened and in this fella came. We kept on looking up and thinking to ourselves; ‘jaysus, who’s yerman?’ There wasn’t a lot of video analysis back then – I don’t even know if he’d even played that much for New Zealand before the World Cup. But he was unbelievable.”

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Younger rugby fans may not be fully knowledgeable about Popplewell but the proof of his standing in the game was his selection as one of only two Irish players on that 1993 Lions Tour. A series that got away, according to the starting loosehead prop Down Under.

“We were robbed in the first Test by an Australian referee, Brian Kinsey” (he awarded a controversial late breakdown penalty against Dean Richards, allowing the All Blacks to slot the winning penalty), explains Popplewell. “If you don’t win the first Test on a Lions Tour, you’re not going to win the series.”

And so it proved, with the second Test serving as the highlight of the Tour, before the All Blacks stormed back to claim the decider, 30-13. The Tour was notable, however, for the lack of Irish involvement. Despite being a far cry from today’s lofty standard-bearers, Ireland had finished the season strongly, yet it was just Popplewell and Galwey who were selected in the initial touring squad.

“Not long before the Lions squad was selected, England came over to us and didn’t perform, while we performed really well, and beat them (Ireland winning 17-3 at Lansdowne Road in the final game of that year’s Five Nations Championship). Simon Geoghegan was left in the cold, and he was obviously a superstar in our time; he was very frustrated. It was the ultimate accolade, playing New Zealand in New Zealand.

“Earlier that season, he had told the squad we weren’t taking it (rugby) seriously, saying ‘you’re drinking too much and not training enough’. There was a meeting between players and management that got quite heated and it was left up to (full back) Jim Staples to save the day and say, ‘just calm down here’,” reveals Popplewell.

The story goes that Geoghegan’s outburst had made its way to the newspapers and some Lions selectors were allegedly less than impressed.

“The price he (Geoghegan) paid was that he didn’t get picked for the Lions, which was ridiculous. No disrespect to some of the players who went, but Simon was streets above them.”

Simon Geoghegan 18/11/1995 Simon Geoghegan in full flow on the Irish wing in 1995. © Billy Stickland / INPHO © Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Popplewell was fully braced for what awaited the Lions, as he travelled with Ireland the previous year on a Tour that incorporated six warm-up games against Provincial Kiwi sides, before two Tests against the hosts.

The build-up didn’t always go to plan and featured two heavy defeats; 38-13 to Canterbury, and 62-7 against Auckland just a week before the first Test versus the fearsome hosts. Which made what happened on that Saturday in Dunedin even more surprising. Featuring no less than five Test debutants, tries from Vinnie Cunningham and Staples saw Ireland race into a 12-point lead. It was cut to three entering the final quarter before the inevitable happened; a Kiwi victory, an Irish moral victory.

“Numerous players had cried off (before the Tour),” explains Popplewell. “The unfortunate thing was, we had another Test after it – so we angered them! If we could have gone home after that, it would have been great (New Zealand won the second Test 59-6). They woke up after that (the first game) – when you’re playing New Zealand in New Zealand, in the back of your mind, you get the feeling that everybody has a bounty on their head. They are tough old tours.

“Suddenly you’re in a situation where it’s like ‘Jesus lads, we’re winning’. There was no plan in terms of shoring it up and being defensive. After the match there was huge disappointment, because there was a chance of winning the game.

Nick Popplewell Walter Little Ireland V New Zealand World Cup 1995 Ireland's Nick Popplewell holds off Walter Little of New Zealand at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. © Billy Stickland / INPHO © Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“It was a fairly poor Irish side I played on. We never had any huge expectations of beating the All Blacks but at the same time, we weren’t sitting in the dressing room saying ‘let’s keep this below 30 points’ or anything like that.

“Like winning the lottery, there’s always a small chance something could happen, but by and large, if you suddenly leaked some tries, you’d look around and see five or six heads had dropped. When you’re playing New Zealand, if you lose even one person out of the 15, the gates open,” explains Popplewell.

Popplewell’s last game against the Kiwis was a heavy 63-15 defeat at Lansdowne Road in 1997 – “I don’t remember much of it – I think I’ve erased it from my memory!” – so what is it that makes the All Blacks the standard bearers of world rugby?

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“It’s their number one sport and it always has been. To the general public it’s just rugby, rugby, rugby. We now pick up players at an early age – 15, 16 sometimes, but New Zealand have always done that, even 30-odd years ago when I was playing. They’d put them into academies and groom them even at that stage. You’d have to say hats off to the Union; back then it was always them, Australia, South Africa and maybe France who were acting professional, even in my (amateur) playing days.”

Like 52,000 other golden ticket holders, Popplewell will be under the lights at Aviva Stadium this Saturday night, and is predicting Ireland to turn ‘once in 111 years’ into ‘twice in 113’.

“I think Ireland are going to win. I have to say that! No, I think Ireland, but it will really depend on how we function at scrum-half (in the absence of Conor Murray), but I think Ireland will win a tight game.”

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