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'Somebody called it the last of the great drinking tours'

Members of the 1994 Irish team recall the the horrific trip to Mount Isa.

The Irish rugby team in the mid 1990s.
The Irish rugby team in the mid 1990s.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from No Borders: Playing Rugby for Ireland.

Soon, Ireland would be heading on a summer tour to Australia and some of the most unforgiving terrain in world rugby.

Keith Wood: That was my first ever rugby tour. I’d never been away with the club or anybody else before that and it was just one great adventure. I was working in the Irish Permanent bank on O’Connell Street in Limerick and it was unbelievably difficult for me to get time off to go away for a month. There were rumblings of professionalism but those rumblings had been there for a while, so was turning pro an incentive in my mind? Not at all. I was 22 years of age and I wanted to play for Ireland. That was the size of it.

Jeremy Davidson: The first place we stayed was Fremantle, a one-horse town in Western Australia. We arrived at the Esplanade Hotel and myself and David Corkery put our bags in our room and then about five minutes later we went downstairs and there was literally nobody there. We were going, ‘Where have all the boys gone?’ We took a walk down the street and the place was empty. Then we heard this awful ruckus coming from a pub and we looked in the door and there was the whole touring party in the bar, lashing the drink into them. Professional rugby was on its way, but amateur rugby had a bit of life left in it yet.

Victor Costello: Somebody called it the last of the great drinking tours.

Shane Byrne: I was a dirt-tracker and it was compulsory to go out on the welly. Then you were beaten out of the bed at eight in the morning to go to a fitness session.

Ireland started the tour by putting 64 points on Western Australia at the WACA in Perth, then shipped 55 against New South Wales in Sydney. They lost 22-9 to Australian Capital Territory in Canberra and 29-26 to Queensland in Brisbane. The next stop was a place that even now sends a shiver down the spine of those who went there — Mount Isa.

Victor Costello: Mount Isa was a deep dark shithole.

Keith Wood: It had a claim to fame — the largest Irish club in the southern hemisphere.

Mick Galwey: It was a game against an Australia XV, just before the first Test. But nobody figured out what the Aussies meant by XV. Turned out that it was Australia A.

Neil Francis: It was a fucking hijack.

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Mick Galwey: I didn’t play in Mount Isa. No, thank God. I was injured. I was there, but I wasn’t playing. It was a horrific place. I never experienced anything like that before. I talk to people and they say they’ve just come back from Australia on their holidays and I say, ‘Did you go to Mount Isa?’ And they say, ‘Where the fuck is Mount Isa?’ And I say, ‘Exactly!

Jeremy Davidson: I remember arriving there. The bus pulled up and we were sort of saying, ‘Well, we’re going to be there soon; shouldn’t be too long.’ There was nothing other than these wee rectangles of boxes that looked like fuck all else on earth. But there we were in this dodgy motel in Hicksville. And the sun was beating down for 22 hours a day. And you’d get up and say, ‘I wonder what it’s like today?’ And your hand would get frazzled in the window. It was terrible. Fucking awful.

I played that day. It was like a scene from a Quentin Tarantino movie. It was an Irish club and the Irish were everywhere. You couldn’t move for all the Irish in this place and everybody was steaming. They worked in copper mines for long periods of time and when they weren’t in the mine they let their hair down big-time. Everybody was pissed.

Mick Galwey: Australia A were seriously strong. Savagely strong. Willie Ofahengaue was playing in their back-row — a horse of a man. He was nearly 19 stone in weight and 6ft 4in in height and hungry as fuck. He was trying to win his place back in the Wallabies team and he was on a mission against us.

Conor O’Shea: I was on the bench that night — it was three days before the first Test — and you’d want to have seen their team: they had Willie O, a young Joe Roff picked from the ACT Under-19s and Pat Howard in the centre. It was a great rugby side. I was on the bench with Michael Bradley and before kick-off Brads turned to me and said, ‘You know what? I’ve a really, really bad feeling about this.’

Mick Galwey: Ken O’Connell had been flown out from Cork as a replacement. He’d just captained Sunday’s Well to win their first Munster Senior Cup in 41 years and he’d been on the piss for two weeks. Then he got the dreaded phone call. ‘Come out, you’re needed’. He arrives and he’s straight into the team in Mount Isa and who is his opposite number? Only Willie O. He ran over Ken about 10 times.

Conor O’Shea: Ken was behind the posts at one stage and said, ‘If I had a gun I’d shoot myself.’

Victor Costello: The Aussies are rough as fuck and they were particularly rough in Mount Isa. It finished 57-9. Not nice. The body language in the hotel wouldn’t have been great. The Aussies weren’t exactly gracious in victory either.

Keith Wood: I was in Mount Isa, but I wasn’t playing. I’d had 17 stitches in my eye so I was spared and then we played Australia in the first Test four days later and that was my Ireland debut. My father had made his debut 40 years earlier, so it was nice. Was I emotional about it? I was and I wasn’t. It was really nice for my mum, that’s for sure. In the match I had Paco Fitzgerald on one side of me in the front-row and the Claw on the other – two Young Munster men and a kid from Garryowen. A cracking fax came in from Clifford Park a few days before the Test, congratulating me on winning my first cap. It said: ‘The two boys have been instructed to look after you. However, we must inform you that this only applies on foreign soil.’ I thought that was absolutely brilliant.

I was hooking against Phil Kearns. I punched him after 10 minutes, just to let him know I was there and he pulled my jersey over my head and beat the crap out of me. They won 33-13 the first week and 32-18 the second week and they were entitled to win because they were a fabulous team. David Campese, Michael Lynagh, Danny Herbert, Garrick Morgan, John Eales. Great, great players. It was a privilege to be on the same field as those guys. And I’d be seeing some of them again soon enough.

No Borders: Playing Rugby for Ireland by Tom English is published by Polaris. More info here.

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