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'His arrival into Irish rugby was like Lomu's impact at the '95 World Cup'

Remembering a famous win over England, seeing Brian O’Driscoll emerge as a star, Paddy Johns was a shining light in Irish rugby’s darkest decade.

Paddy Johns' biggest days in an Ireland shirt were against England.
Paddy Johns' biggest days in an Ireland shirt were against England.
Image: EMPICS Sport

PADDY JOHNS SCENTED blood. The previous year, when Ireland beat England at Lansdowne Road, there’d been a shock. “They came to Dublin expecting to walk over us and get all their players picked on the Lions,” Johns recalls. “But, instead, we battered them.”

Twelve months on, March 1994, Johns and his team of improbables were in Twickenham, trying to stay relevant, a challenge that would persist throughout the decade. Grim times led to a pre-game pact: if we are going to lose, then best go down swinging.

They’d one target in particular. Kyran Bracken, born in Skerries, had committed the cardinal sin of declaring for England. And now here he was, at Twickenham, red rose on his chest, ball high over his head, staring into the eyes of a couple of zealots.

“I was trying to unsettle him,” Johns remembers. “Mick (Galwey) had grabbed hold of him and had swung him around.  It was a line-out, Kyran had grabbed the tap down, his arms aloft. All I could see were his ribs. I went low to put in a tackle. But Mick had the same idea. He didn’t get Bracken but he certainly got my nose. I hit the deck. There was blood everywhere.”

Bracken wasn’t hanging around to offer sympathy. He took the ball from one end of the field to the next while Galwey and Johns examined the scene of the crime. “It’s busted,” Galwey said.

Welcome to Irish rugby in the 1990s. Someone, at some time, always had their nose out of joint.

**

simon-geoghegan-england-v-ireland-1921994 Simon Geoghegan scores the winning try in '94. Source: © INPHO/Billy Stickland

Over a quarter of a century on Ireland are back at Twickenham, this time in the Autumn Nations Cup. The circumstances are different; the stands are empty, not filled with raucous, merry, drinkers, a consequence of the pandemic. Ireland’s opponents, multi-cultural, powerful, athletic, dominant, are remoulded. These days a poor man’s Mourinho coaches them, someone who isn’t afraid to stick the boot in metaphorically.

“I was thinking the other day about what Rassie Erasmus said, Ireland being soft, and honestly, I hardly think the players will be one bit bothered by that,” says Johns. “But what Eddie Jones said, ‘Ireland being the United Nations’, taunting (Andrew) Porter about his scrummaging; that’ll motivate them. Without question, England have hardened up in the last couple of years, Jones opting for players who are a lot more physical.

“People have said they’ve bullied Ireland in the last few matches. Well, there’s the motivation for us. It’d be lovely to see the Irish pack coming up with an answer to that.”

As yet another competition is added to rugby’s congested calendar, we will hear about the withering of tradition, but today’s match at Twickenham is a reminder that although the game has been transformed from a hobby into a business, something hasn’t been lost. When Ireland go to London, there is always hope, always possibility. There is proof: England lost that day in ‘94.

“No one gave us a chance,” Johns says.

paddy-johns-30111997 Come and have a go if you think you are hard enough. Johns in 1997. Source: © INPHO/Billy Stickland

And with good reason. England had beaten New Zealand the previous autumn; Ireland had lost eight of Johns’ first 11 internationals.

He made his debut in 1990, aged 22. “I found out on the radio, listening to the sports bulletin, living in digs in Dublin at the time. ‘There is a place in the team for debutant Paddy Johns, from Ulster’. ‘Yesssssss’, I said. All you’d ever thought about, for the previous ten years or so, was about to happen.”

And then for two years nothing happened.

Twenty-two when he won his first cap, he was 24 when the second came along. Dunedin, 1992. Jim Staples scores one try, Vinny Cunningham two and is inches away from gathering an intercept and racing away for his hat-trick. New Zealand win 24-21, another near miss to add to a lengthy list.

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There was Australia in ’96,  France in ’98 and ’99, Scotland just about every year. “Every defeat hurt,” Johns says. It was a feeling he had to get used to, 18 of his 20 caps ending in defeat in a two-year spell between January 1996 and November 1998.

“Do you know what it was like?” Johns says. “It was like Crystal Palace going up against Manchester City. We weren’t going to go to Paris and outplay France. We had to get stuck into them because we just weren’t as skilful. Often we weren’t as strong, either. Or as fit. In fact, we just wouldn’t have had the depth,” Johns adds.

“We’d have had 12 or 13 really solid players, but we probably had chinks which good, opposing teams exploited. Teams weren’t stupid. They could pick out a weakness and exploit it. International rugby comes down to fine margins. The days we’d 15 good men out, we did well then. But if we were missing a centre, an outside back, we just didn’t have the cover. It’s not like now, where the depth chart in Irish rugby is impressive. Things were different. They’ve evolved.”

But before the evolution there was revolution. After all those defeats, Johns’ days ended in relative glory, victories chalked up in five of his last six Ireland appearances, coinciding with the arrival on the scene of a kid from Clontarf.

“(Brian) O’Driscoll is the greatest all round player we have ever had,” Johns says. “Almost every trophy we won in those years he played, the Triple Crowns, the ‘o9 Grand Slam, the 2014 Six Nations, it almost always came down to him; a 20-yard burst, a tackle. Think about his two-yard dive over the line against England in ’09. Ireland won that game by a point. He influenced so many big games.

brian-odriscoll-332014 Johns compared O'Driscoll's impact in Paris to Lomu's at the '95 World Cup. Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

“I only knew him as a young fella but as soon as he came on the scene, we knew he was special. He was humble, unassuming. He lit up the Stade de France with that hat-trick in 2000. For Irish rugby, that arrival was like Jonah Lomu bursting onto the scene at the ’95 World Cup.”

Part of him wonders about the games that got away, the 24-21 loss in ‘92 against New Zealand, the France defeats towards the end of the decade, the Australia one in the middle of it. What would have happened if fate had have been kinder, had Johns – a shining light in a dark decade – been born a little later or O’Driscoll a bit sooner?   

“Look, had he been around, we’d have won more, no question,” Johns says, “because the man was class, absolute class. But you play in the time you are allotted and you give your best. I’m glad I got to experience both worlds. I loved being a professional, the training, the regime, but the amateur days were also special. Some of the stories from nights out.”

Life was simpler. “It was not your job; you could let your hair down,” he says. “These days, the players are on the bus and heading up the road an hour after the final whistle. When we played interpros, we stayed the night in Limerick, Galway or Dublin, had a laugh, drank the pints, got to know the guys on the other team. We trained hard, too. It was not a busman’s holiday when we went abroad. But it was fun.”

It remained fun when rugby went professional, Johns packing in his dentistry job to get his teeth stuck into the task Saracens set him. “We all had a choice — it was either do this or be left behind. I was half-way through my international career. I loved it. I didn’t want it to end.”

**

Back in Twickenham, 19 February 1994, 77 minutes on the stadium clock, he did want the end. Ireland were hanging on, 13-12 ahead, with a put-in deep inside their own half. The shove went in. No movement. Seconds passed. Still nothing. “Just keep it in there Paddy,” Michael Bradley, the scrum half said to his No8.

If anything sums up Irish rugby’s mentality back then, that was it. There wasn’t trust in the backline to see the game out. Understandable, too. They scored a grand total of three tries in the ’93 and ’94 championships. Ambition was a dirty word.

These days it’s not but even so Ireland go into today’s game with question marks hanging over them, Erasmus suggesting they are ‘soft’; Jones asking if they have the ability to bring a ‘dominant’ display to Twickenham.

“We had similar questions asked of us way back then,” says Johns.

Their answer was heard all around the world.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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