1995 was when Rugby went global. The tournament was always going to be played out with the spotlight of the International media on it due to president Nelson Mandela bringing the apartheid era to an end and along with with it South Africa’s sporting isolation.
The tournament surpassed all expectations, Jonah Lomu burst onto the stage and became Rugby’s first superstar. Spoiler Alert: The Home side went on to beat the All-Black’s in the final and Nelson Mandela presenting Francois Pienaar with the Webb Ellis trophy became the defining image of the tournament. So what was Ireland’s part in all of this?
Pool C Campaign
For the first time at a Rugby World Cup, Ireland were in a group that they were not guaranteed to progress from. They were drawn in Pool C alongside New Zealand, Wales and Japan. First up were the mighty All-Blacks at Ellis Park in Johannesburg.
27th May 1995: Ireland 19 New Zealand 43
It was a World Cup debut for 20 year-old Jonah Lomu, who at 6ft 5in and weighing in at 18 stone was unheard of for a winger at the time. But Ireland were about to get an up-close glimpse of his pace and power.
The game started well for the Irish. Former hammer thrower, Gary Halpin, crashed over for the games first try as Ireland took an early lead. But that would be as good as it got for Gerry Murphy’s side as New Zealand clicked into gear. Two Andrew Mehrtens’ penalties got them back to within a point of the Irish, before a brief reprieve when New Zealand had a try disallowed due to Andrew Little having a foot in touch. Then Lomu showed his immense power bursting through three Irish tacklers to score his first of seven tries at the tournament.
The second All-Black try arrived shortly after when Brendan Mullen saw an attempted kick on the edge of his own 22 charged down by Frank Bunce who gathered to score. Denis McBride gave Ireland a glimmer of hope with a try just before half-time after a great break from Simon Geoghegan. At the break, Ireland trailed by 20-12.
A second Lomu try followed after the restart after he was put into space by Kronfeld and this spelt the end of the Irish challenge. Lomu was denied his hat-trick after making a dazzling break from his own 22 and bursting past four would be Irish tacklers. Simon Geoghegan made a try-saving tackle 5 yards out only for Lomu to pop the ball up to the onrushing Kronfeld who scored.
David Corkery grabbed, what was by that stage, a consolation try for Ireland, before a late try from Glen Osborne added a gloss to the scoreline that somewhat flattered the All-Blacks after a brave Irish performance.
31st May 1995: Ireland 50 Japan 28
Next up for the Irish, four days later in Bloemfontein, was a 50-28 win over pool minnows Japan. Tries from David Corkery, Neil Francis, Simon Geoghegan, Eddie Halvey and Niall Hogan as well as two penalty tries saw the Irish outscore the Japanese by seven tries to four. Paul Burke took over from Eric Elwood at out-half for this game and nailed 6/7 conversions as well as a penalty.
4th June 1995: Ireland 24 Wales 23
Ireland were back in action in at Ellis Park, Johannesburg just four days later for a Pool C decider against Wales. The Irish were quietly confident having won the corresponding Five Nations clash in Cardiff the previous March 12-16 with Brendan Mullin scoring the only try of the game.
Wales had also enjoyed an easy win over Japan, before being beaten by New Zealand 34-9 in their second pool encounter. A 6th minute Nick Popplewell try off a lineout maul, converted by Eric Elwood, gave the Irish a great start. They stretched their lead when Denis McBride race under the posts after some dubious Welsh defending. Elwood’s conversion saw Ireland lead 14-0 before the half-hour mark. A Neil Jenkins penalty got Wales off the mark and an Adrian Davies drop goal just before the break left the scoreline Ireland 14 Wales 6.
After the interval, a Jenkin’s penalty brought the arrears to just 5 points. But just as Irish fans started to sweat, Eddie Halvey crashed over after good work from Paddy Johns to make it a two-score game once again. A Jonathan Humphries try for Wales on 73 minutes, which Jenkins converted, meant a nervous last few minutes for Irish fans. Elwood’s penalty on 78 made the game safe, before a Welsh try with the last play of the game made the final score of Ireland 24 Wales 23 look tighter than it really was.
Ireland’s reward for escaping their pool was a quarter-final meeting with a French side that had topped Pool D with three wins from three. Tonga (38-10), Ivory Coast (54-18) and Scotland (22-19) were all beaten to set up a second meeting of that year against an Irish side they had convincingly beaten in Dublin by 7-25 the Five Nations back in March.
11 June 1995: Ireland 12 France 36
The quarter-final took place in Kings Park, Durban and had a lunchtime kick-off at 1:10 pm local time. An Elwood penalty after 2 minutes of the game gave Ireland an early lead. France answered back with a kick of their own from the boot of Thierry Lacroix after 6 minutes. This pattern was to be repeated again three in the next thirty-five minutes of play as three more penalties apiece for the kickers left the scoreboard reading 12-12 at the interval, but Elwood’s fourth penalty on 38 minutes was to be the last time as Gerry Murphy’s side troubled the scoreboard as they never really got going after the break.
Four more penalties from Lacroix, as well as two tries in the last ten minutes of the game, firstly from Phillipe Sanit-Andre and then a last-minute intercept try from Emile Ntamack gave the French a comfortable win in the end. Once again there was an anti-climatic feel to an Irish World Cup campaign, this time they didn’t even have the comfort of a heroic defeat to cling to.
It was to be Ireland’s final game of the amateur era as within two months the game went professional. After the tournament, the IRFU replaced Gerry Murphy with their first full-time Head coach, New Zealander Murray Kidd.
Ireland’s World Cup History
An Irish side has competed at each of the previous tournaments, with a feeling of Deja Vú each time we reach the quarter-final stage. In the build-up to our first game against Scotland on September 22nd in Tokyo, we’ll take a look at how Ireland has performed in each of the eight previous tournaments.
Previously in this series, I looked at the background to the very first Rugby World Cup and the reasons why it took until 1987 to hold the first official tournament.