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'It was rugby's Wild West!' - The difficult early years of professionalism

Irish rugby stumbled into the new era back in 1995, but gradually got to grips with professionalism.

This is part of The42′s Class of 95 series, a week-long examination of professional rugby in Ireland.

Ireland beat Wales in Rugby World Cup in South Africa 1995 Ireland celebrate a win over Wales at the 1995 World Cup. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

RUGBY WAS OFFICIALLY declared ‘open’ by the International Rugby Board on 26 August 1995, just over two months after South Africa had won the third World Cup on home soil.

So began the professional era, although some adapted more comfortably than others.

There had been many signs of the game going professional for years before the official confirmation in 1995, with so-called ‘shamateurism’ an accepted part of the sport at the top levels, but Irish rugby was far from being ahead of the curve.

Ireland did eventually catch up with the rest of the world, of course, with significant achievements at provincial and international level following.

The journey to that point was a difficult one, with the IRFU often dragging their heels. We spoke to four people involved in the sport in those early professional years to hear about their memories of a whirlwind time in Irish rugby.

Brendan Fanning has been rugby correspondent for the Sunday Independent since 1996, but has been reporting on the sport since the mid-1980s. His book, From There to Here, provides an outstanding account of Ireland’s transition from amateur to professional rugby.

Paul Wallace played in the front row for Ireland 45 times from 1995 until 2002, and also helped the Lions to their 1997 success in South Africa. He played with UCC, Munster, Blackrock and Leinster, before moving to Saracens in 1996. His brothers, Richard and David, also played for Ireland.

Tom English is BBC Scotland’s chief sports writer, having previously worked as rugby correspondent for the Sunday Times Ireland between 1996 and 2004. His book, No Borders: Playing Rugby for Ireland, is the ultimate history of Irish rugby – told by the men who have been there and done it.

Paul and Richard Wallace France v Ireland rugby 1998 Paul Wallace [right] with his brother, Richard. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

Niall Woods played on the wing for Ireland nine times from 1994 and 1999, as well as for Blackrock and Leinster, before a move to London Irish after the game went pro. Having also played for Harlequins, he subsequently headed the Irish Rugby Union Players Association for eight years and now runs sports management agency Navy Blue.

As early as the 1980s there were signs of the professionalism of the Southern Hemisphere nations, while Australia showed their quality in winning the 1991 World Cup.

With pool wins over Zimbabwe and Japan, Ireland qualified for the quarter-finals of that tournament under Ciaran Fitzgerald, agonisingly losing out to the Wallabies on a 19-18 scoreline in Dublin.

Despite that near miss, it was clear that nations like Australia and New Zealand were taking big strides towards the inevitability of professionalism.

Brendan Fanning [BF]: I remember going on the tour to New Zealand in 1992, when Ciaran Fitzgerald was talking about the need for us to train properly.

He wasn’t saying Ireland needed to go semi-pro or anything, but he was saying we needed to keep up to speed with the Kiwis.

Paul Wallace[PW]: We’d have been aware what was going on in the Southern Hemisphere.

Guys were getting paid and we also would have seen a lot of the Welsh rugby, with rumours that some guys were earning boot money of £300 or £400 a game, and we were amazed.

BF: The Aussies saw what was coming down the line. They were getting milled by rugby league and Aussie Rules taking their players because they could give them money. So, the Aussies started giving their lads jobs and creating trust funds for them.

Ourselves and Scotland were shutting our eyes to all of this, saying it was dreadful and insisting amateurism was the way ahead.

Niall Woods 5/3/1999 Niall Woods was a place-kicking wing. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

Niall Woods [NW]: The union weren’t ready, they didn’t want it to be pro. I remember having a discussion with a union official in 2004/05 and even then he was telling me that most of the people he was reporting to didn’t want players to be paid for playing for Ireland.

That’s 10 years on and Ireland were winning things by then. There were still fellas on committees who couldn’t get their heads around it. But then it’s hard for people to change from what they know.

The IRB’s announcement came in August 1995 and the IRFU were very much on the back foot as they stumbled into a new era.

Wins for Ireland over Japan and Wales in the pool stages of the 1995 World Cup had seen them qualify for another quarter-final, this time under Gerry Murphy, but they were defeated by France.

Murray Kidd took over as national team head coach after that tournament.

PW: We got a small payment just after the World Cup, but it was Mickey Mouse money. Under £10,000 to have have you on a contract, but you weren’t a full-time professional because people still had jobs.

Halfway through the 1995/96 season it happened where guys went fully professional.

Tom English [TE]: It had happened in other countries, but not really in Ireland. We were professional in name only. The game was a shambles in Ireland. The Garry Ringrose generation, what they have at Leinster and Munster, there was none of that back then.

BF: I remember ringing the late Bobby Deacy, who was honourary treasurer of the IRFU at the time. The IRFU had decided we were lucky we had the four provinces, so we didn’t have to go creating any new franchises in Ireland.

Gary Halpin celebrates Gary Halpin gives the All Blacks the finger after scoring a try at the 1995 World Cup. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

There was a brief flurry of pressure coming from the clubs to say they would take on the professional game, some in the AIL had designs on the clubs being the model.

The IRFU insisted it was the four provinces, but then didn’t resource the provinces as they might have.

TE: In 1996, the provinces were an also ran. Nobody cared about the provinces. It was all about the clubs.

While some signed on to contracts with the IRFU, the lure of England proved irresistible to many Ireland internationals at the dawn of professionalism, with a raft of Irish players moving across the water.

Having spoken to Bristol and Newcastle, Wallace eventually agreed to join Saracens, while Woods signed for Clive Woodward’s London Irish after spending the first year of professionalism in Ireland.

PW: My first year at Saracens, as part of my contract I was allowed to play for Leinster.

NW: It was bizarre. When I signed with London Irish, we were able to go home and play with Leinster. It’s completely alien to what it’s like now obviously.

I had had a number of conversations with Clive Woodward at London Irish. I was frustrated playing in Ireland, playing on poor pitches in the pouring rain. I felt I needed a change. I was offered another IRFU contract, just for a year, but I left.

BF: David Corkery was in Bristol, and so was Paul Burke. Bristol basically got pro cricket contracts, tip-exed out some of the cricket details and used them as rugby contracts. There was some crazy money and lads were all being given cars too.

PW: There were people in Ireland who were very professional, but most of those went to England in the early years.

The Irish set-up and provincial set-up, from what I could see, was a bit of a joke really.

Indeed, the provinces generally performed poorly in the early years of the Heineken Cup, as they took their time to adapt to the new competition.

Irish Rugby Training 3/1/1997 Murray Kidd  Irish Coach © Patrick Bolger/INPHO Murray Kidd at Ireland training in 1997.

With Kidd’s Ireland having also struggled, finishing rock bottom of the 1996 Five Nations, he was then sacked in memorable circumstances in 1997. 

TE: I remember being in France and it was when Munster got a pasting by Toulouse in the Heineken Cup. We were saying, ‘If this continues, we’re going to be out of a job.’

We didn’t think our newspapers would see value in having a rugby correspondent because everything was so bad. That would have been in 1997. We were genuinely in fear for our jobs.

PW: The IRFU didn’t buy in. It was sometimes embarrassing because you’d be in the showers after a game maybe and you’d look at the condition some of the Irish players were in…

Over in the UK, you had all the top players playing there and the standard was outstanding. Saracens would have been stronger than Ireland in those early days. We would have hockeyed Ireland, to be honest.

NW: I remember training in June 1996 in Kildare and it was one where we went hiking up the mountains.

The players all engaged Proactive Sports Management, which is Kevin Moran’s company, and they basically advised us not to train because there was no insurance if we got injured. There was a stand-off between us and the management.

We didn’t do the camp, just headed home that Friday afternoon, much to some people’s delight.

TE: I remember the night Ireland lost to Italy under Murray Kidd and I was in the Barclay Court Hotel after the match. The players were all there for the team banquet and there was a rumour going around that Murray was about to be fired. It was true.

He found out he was fired the next day by reading Ned van Esbeck’s article in the Irish Times. That was the first official confirmation. That was what it was like, it was the Wild West. It was rugby’s Wild West!

The full details of his severance package, everything was in that piece. Ned had been totally briefed by the IRFU before Murray had his meeting with the union.

Brian Ashton came in as Ireland’s head coach before the 1997 Five Nations. But still, Ireland’s rugby structures were in a dire state.

inpho_00011618 Brian Ashton with Keith Wood in 1997.

With Pat Whelan acting as manager, the team stumbled, drawing criticism and even a bizarre incident involving English.

Ireland finished bottom of the Five Nations again in 1997 and 1998, with Ashton walking away from the job during the latter tournament. Warren Gatland was his successor.

BF: In 1997, we sent a development tour to New Zealand and Samoa. Brian Ashton was the new national team coach and he took the tour.

I had a story in the Sunday Independent about two of the four provincial coaches pulling out. Brian was in bits because the IRFU had promised him provincial coaches.

TE: That tour was a shambles from start to finish. It was great craic but it was a shambles.

Then there was my incident with Pa Whelan [in 1998]. That almost embodied the 90s. Loads of players were briefing me off the record. I had four or five players and a coach briefing me off the record about his divisive influence in the squad.

I had written a couple of very critical pieces. It was awkward because he lived 20 metres up the road from my parents and still does. One night after an All-Ireland league match, I was in Limerick in a pub with my pals. Pa was in there too.

I went into the toilet and he came in after me and threw a couple of digs. That’s why it was like rugby’s Wild West. There was weird stuff going on all over the place.

As the game in Ireland was struggling desperately to come to terms with professionalism, that’s the kind of stuff that happened on the way.

All the while, the Irish players based in England – including Wallace and Woods – were learning and improving.

Nonetheless, the IRFU were beginning to put the squeeze on players to return home if they wanted to play Test rugby for Ireland.

NW: I was a better player for going away. I loved it. It was difficult at times, but I played my best rugby over there.

I had opportunities to come back but I was enjoying it so much. It did mean that it was making it harder for me to play for Ireland.

Paul Wallace 6/9/2000 Paul Wallace in Saracens colours in 2000. Source: Allsport/INPHO

PW: The fact that you had Michael Lynagh and Phillipe Sella at Saracens showed what they were about and where they were going. It was fully professional.

But I ended up breaking my leg on a frozen pitch in a European Cup match with Saracens against Ulster in 2001. It was a bad break, back-to-front-itis. With a broken leg, I wasn’t sure what my recovery was going to be like. I had an offer to go to Sale.

I went back to the IRFU and had a meeting. I wasn’t being selected in the Irish squad at that stage and I had thought it was around 60/40 in terms of players at home being favoured.

They said, ‘It’s 90/10, Wally.’ I had to make a call between playing for Ireland and making more money in the UK, so I came back to play international rugby.

In the meantime, the IRFU had finally begun to catch up with the rest of the rugby world and positive strides were being made on home soil.

Ulster won the 1999 Heineken Cup, while the emergence of a crop of hungry players in Munster kick-started the southern province’s European odyssey, one which captured the imagination of new rugby supporters.

Still, Ireland had their struggles. They were fourth in the 1998 Five Nations, before a humiliating defeat to Argentina at the 1999 World Cup meant they missed out on the quarter-finals. 

Warren Gatland was making an impact, however, as Ireland rose to third and then second in the 2000 and 2001 Six Nations. Eddie O’Sullivan was next into the hot seat and by 2004, Ireland had won their first Triple Crown since 1985.

TE: I think it started with Munster really. In 1998, they made the quarter-finals, when they lost in Colomiers. When they started to make strides, that’s when it all started to turn.

I remember Mick Galwey bawling his eyes out on the pitch after the first time they had won in France. There was a bit of hope and, of course, Munster went on to bigger things.

Peter Clohessy and Mick Galwey 8/1/2000 Munster's Peter Clohessy and Mick Galwey. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

PW: I think Munster’s run really lifted everything. I know Ulster had won in 1999, but it was Munster that really drove Irish rugby forward, bringing the confidence into the national side.

BF: With Ireland, it had kept limping along until Argentina in Lens at the 1999 World Cup. Things had to change.

Gatty certainly got more resources in the wake of 1999. Eddie came in and that helped, he was able to drive things in after that. Eddie was the right man in the right place. He was a good guy to get in because he knew where it was going. Lens was embarrassing.

TE: The O’Garas and the Hayes and all these guys started to come through, O’Driscoll obviously.

Gatland had come in in 1998 and brought a bit of stability to it, he settled things down with a consistency of selection. Then Eddie comes in and all the players start to emerge.

By 2001/02, it was different. You had people going to Munster matches who had never watched rugby before. People who didn’t give a shit about rugby were going to watch Munster because everyone was going to watch Munster. It was quite obvious that those players were special and that was always going to feed into the national team.

NW: You’d hear stories of Brian O’Driscoll pushing the standards and not accepting dropped balls. It was different to the old days.

Dick Best used to take the water bottles from us in London Irish when we dropped balls in training, which is crazy because you’re making the body more dehydrated. Or you might have to do laps as punishment!

Keith Wood would have been one of the higher standard bearers initially in Ireland and O’Driscoll took it on. Guys wanted to get to his level and match that.

Further Triple Crowns followed for Ireland in 2006 and 2007, before Declan Kidney took on the head coaching role and secured the Grand Slam in 2009, Ireland’s first championship since 1985.

Eddie O'Sullivan and Brian O'Driscoll Ireland finally won silverware with a Triple Crown in 2004. Source: ©INPHO

Munster had near misses in the Heineken Cup before eventually reaching their holy grail in 2006 and 2008, with Leinster taking on the mantle thereafter.

Irish rugby is now at the forefront of the professional game, with Joe Schmidt’s side heading into this year’s Six Nations looking for a third title in three years, buoyed by a first-ever win over New Zealand last November.

Irish rugby has been altered forever, although not all the changes have been for the better.

BF: By a distance, the worst element now is that because so many players come through academies, it’s so much harder to come across somebody interesting. Even if you did, you wouldn’t be given the time to talk to them.

The proliferation of the media has made it much harder to do your job properly. There’s so many of us knocking on the same door now, that the door doesn’t get opened. Back in the day, there was a handful of people covering it.

You could talk to whoever you wanted, whenever you wanted. Now, you have media-prevention officers.

TE: The passion of the club game and the AIL was fantastic and I do miss that. The intensity of the rivalry between the Limerick clubs was just brilliant. The social side of it, a pint, the slagging after games, you’d miss that.

I did an interview with Paul O’Connell when he first started to break into the Munster team and I asked him that kind of question. He said he missed playing for Young Munster U19s, when you’d go out to Co. Limerick and play a game of rugby, but 80% of the game would be fighting.

Loads of shoe, loads of punching, carnage, then you get on the bus with a couple of cans of beer down the back and have great craic. He’d been in the Ireland team and had caps at this stage, but he said he missed that aspect – the social rugby.

I’ve written about Irish rugby for more than 20 years but that was some of the best of it. The social side of club rugby was brilliant.

Paul O'Connell Paul O'Connell missed the social side of rugby in his early years. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

PW: We were in an era where camera phones and social media weren’t around. There’s nothing wrong with a guy going for a couple of pints or a couple of glasses of wine. There’s a difference between that and going off the rails.

Nowadays, if you were seen like that, having a pint, and someone takes a photo and puts it on social media, everyone is going to think the worst. It’s different for guys nowadays.

NW: Rugby is a young professional sport but it’s way ahead of soccer. They would have followed stuff we did in rugby.

I remember talking to Paul McGrath in 1996 about his pre-season training and it was basically meet in the park and go for a jog, with Ron Atkinson smoking fags and watching you.

Rugby had image rights before soccer did. For whatever reason, rugby suddenly moved quite quickly. The IRFU might have been slow and reluctant to do things at times, but they got their act together.

BF: The quality of rugby is way, way better. Rugby back then was a slog-fest played on terrible pitches under terrible laws. It’s a different sport. We knew no different so we thought it was great back then.

For all the problems of the game currently with safety and everything, it’s a far better game and far better spectacle than it was back then.

TE: The rugby is a million times better now. The fitness, the sophistication, the mindset, and all of that is so professional.

Ireland have beaten New Zealand. I remember being at Lansdowne Road when they put 50 points on us. I know there is so much chat about concussion, but this is a better game.

Still, I do wonder if it has lost something.

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