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'Gatty gave us fake tan to make us look tough - we were like 6'6" Oompa-Loompas'

Paul Wallace lit up the 1997 Lions tour but also thrived for both Munster and Leinster in Irish rugby’s bitterest rivalry.

Paul Wallace (r) with brother Richard (l) in 1998.
Paul Wallace (r) with brother Richard (l) in 1998.
Image: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

Updated Jan 23rd 2021, 3:34 PM

IT WAS THE morning of the first test of ’97. When Jim Telfer started talking, Paul Wallace fixed his eyes at the lurid carpet and didn’t dare to blink. The truth, the task, the spittle, the reality, delivered in Telfer’s gravelly voice, rattled his senses.

You’ve heard the speech by now. “This is your f***ing Everest boys.”

Few believed Wallace would even leave base camp. Up until this point, he’d only 12 caps to his name and just two wins against Tier 1 opponents. “They don’t respect you,” Telfer taunted his pack, all the while knowing their ability exceeded their reputation.

A week and a series win later, after Wallace had tamed the menacing, massive-shouldered Springbok prop, Os du Randt, he’d get the ultimate accolade. “Wally was our player of the tour,” argued Fran Cotton, the ’97 Lions manager. It was a stunning rebuke to those who regarded him as a lightweight in the land of the giants. “I wouldn’t have read much of the press down there; it was parochial, garbage stuff,” Wallace says. 

He is describing South Africa 1997 and how it felt to carry that pressure of being a Lion, to enjoy those spikes of adrenaline. “The truth is that I was overconfident going into the first test,” he says when reflecting on that moment in the hotel function room when Telfer told them the Springboks would target their scrum. “Up until that point on the tour, everything had gone perfectly. I’d Johnno (England’s ’03 World Cup winning captain, Martin Johnson) scrummaging behind me; four of the English back five were in that pack, whereas with Ireland we never had the same power.”

It just so happened that the Springboks had even more strength. “The first two scrums, I got truly shown up,” Wallace recalls. “Two penalties given against us, we were 3-0 down and just before the third scrum, Johnno didn’t even have to say anything, he just gave me a look.”

That was the defining moment of his career. Rather than wilt under pressure, he backed himself, returning to what he was good at. “Scrummaging is a form of wrestling, all about putting a guy in an awkward position, not just hitting (him with) power.” The third scrum was a dream. “Put it this way, if it hadn’t been, you wouldn’t be making a phone call to me now.”

From that moment on, the Lions had the dominant set-piece, Wallace getting his shoulder in the right place to wheel the scrum around and allow Matt Dawson break away for the match-turning try. “There was a point to prove,” he says.

“There was a fear factor in the room (on the morning of the first test) when Jim spoke. The tension ……… look, it was phenomenal. You could see in the faces of the experienced lads – Johnny, Lawrence (Dallaglio), Tim (Rodber), Richard (Hill) that this was the biggest game they’d ever played in.

Jim was such a great orator; he instilled mental toughness in us. So too did Geech (Ian McGeechan, the head coach in ‘97). He probably doesn’t get as much recognition as Jim for that but his passion, we fed off that. I loved it, loved the demands, the expectations, the size of the thing.”

Annoyingly, the glory was fleeting.

keith-wood-1997 Wallace (r) with Keith Wood (l) and Jeremy Davidson. Source: INPHO

He’d play on, enjoy a more than respectable career with Saracens and Leinster but internationally, he was cursed, his best years coinciding with some of Ireland’s worst. Forty six times he played for Ireland, 25 times he lost for Ireland; many of them in harrowing circumstances.

Paris, 1998 was the worst. They’d a 13-6 half-time lead, had outwitted the French, ‘playing way better than the team did in 2000 when Brian (O’Driscoll) got his hat-trick’.

It should have been a pinnacle, instead it was a nadir. “I’d a perfectly good try disallowed; Jim Fleming (the referee) had his back to me when I went across. That would have got us home and dry.” They should have held on in any case but a shocking decision by Warren Gatland to substitute Wallace, Keith Wood and Paddy Johns in the dying moments contributed to a messy line-out, a soft French try, another loss.

We’d been waiting since 1972 to win there. It was the most disappointing day of my career.”

Ireland’s purgatory would persist for another two years. In between times there was another defeat to the French, this time at Lansdowne Road, Wallace again wronged by officialdom. “He (Peter Marshall, the referee) penalised me for offside. I was completely onside.” Thomas Castaignede scored the resulting penalty, Ireland lost by a point.

That was Irish rugby in the 1990s, a story of regret, remorse, defeat and change. It was 1995 when Wallace won his first cap and by the time he picked up his 16th at the Stade de France in March 1998, he was on his fourth head coach.

The glory days – O’Driscoll’s hat-trick in Paris; the 2001 win over France and England in Dublin; the first victory over Australia in 23 years in ’02 – he missed all those. He won 22 of his Ireland caps against England, Scotland, France, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and ended up on the winning team in just one of those games, another talented player unfortunate to have been born in the wrong era.

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paul-wallace-ireland-731998 Wallace was a shining light on a poor Irish team. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“With Ireland in the ‘90s, a lot of it came down to confidence; the psychological baggage wore us down. The turnover in coaching was a big issue. And look, I don’t want to speak ill of any former players but a lot of the Irish-based players back then would testify that they were professional in the sense that they were being paid, but they weren’t really training like professionals.

“Not all players but a lot were meeting up twice a week for a runaround. We had a lot who had the potential to be world class but they didn’t push themselves because they’d jobs, families, etc. Once you went to the English clubs, it was professionally set up. It has turned around the other way now, the Irish provinces being so well run.”

Despite the results, there was fun. When Wallace returned to South Africa in 1998, this time on Ireland duty, he heard Gatland’s suggestion that they rub some fake tan on themselves to appear more muscular.

Only two bothered – Paddy Johns, the captain, and Trevor Brennan. “We got off the plane and the two lads stood up; a pair of 6’6″ Oompa-Loompas, the funniest sight I’ve ever seen on a rugby tour.”

Another trip, another story. Cardiff, 97. They were staying in a hotel off David’s Square, woken at 2am by a fire alarm going off, forced to evacuate the hotel and listen to the chat of the punters as they made their way home from a boozy night. The following day, the Welsh made a fine start and the Irish pack gathered in a huddle.

There was a real anger among us because we all thought the Welsh supporters had deliberately set the alarm off, to make things harder for us.”

The truth was a lot less sinister. “One of the IRFU blazers was to blame; he’d got back to his room after a good night out and lit a cigar.”

By that stage, Wallace was a Saracen. He’d stay there for five years, then return to Leinster in 2001, winning the inaugural Celtic League final against the province he grew up in, the one he’d captained at schoolboy and Under 21 level before making his senior Munster debut in 1993.

leinster-celebrate Wallace celebrates Leinster's Celtic Cup win with BOD and Shane Byrne. Source: INPHO

Crossing the divide, sleeping with the enemy, was an easy choice. Work had brought him to Dublin and returning home for training on a twice-weekly basis ceased to be much fun, especially as he was second, sometimes third choice (behind Peter Clohessy and Paul McCarthy) for a place on the team. “The politics of playing for a Dublin club (he had moved from UCC to Blackrock) meant there was little chance of me getting picked for Munster.”

So he switched and never got around to going back. More to the point, he never lost a derby, whether representing Munster or Leinster. “Initially, I’d say the rivalry was much more pronounced in Munster, at every age level; the classic case of wanting to do one on the big city team.

“I’ll never forget the vocal intensity in changing rooms just before we’d go out, the chip on the shoulder that drove us on.

“But I found in Leinster the rivalry wasn’t as great in that regard until about 2001 – (the year they beat Munster with 14 men in the Celtic League decider). By then, Munster provided the bulk of the Irish team and were getting all the plaudits. Plus, they’d had some great runs in the Heineken Cup and there was a real bitterness within the Leinster squad that we hadn’t been able to do that.

“Once you cross the divide that’s it; the biggest game for me became the Munster game; the last thing I could do was lose to my brothers. 

“But the rivalry has bounced around ever since and I’m sure tonight, it’ll be a bit easier for the Munster guys to get up for it, because they’ll want to knock Leinster off their perch.” 

This is their Everest.

  • The Irish Management Institute/Rugby Players Ireland scholarship scheme allows former players to develop themselves professionally, helping the transition from professional athlete to the work place. Paul Wallace (Strategy & Innovation) received the scholarship and completed the professional diploma in 2019.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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