Popplewell left none the wiser

FIVE NATIONS David Hughes on the one constant in the Irish team's roller-coaster ride
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Unpredictable and underdogs, Ireland come to Twickenham this Saturday the same as they ever do. If it is discomforting for the opposition never knowing quite what to expect from the boys in green, it's no less disquieting for the Irish that they never know either.

The postscript to the 1996 campaign is liable to read plus ca change. A state of high optimism before the first game, quickly giving way to suicidal pessimism, highlighted by some sort of new record in defeat (usually at Parc des Princes) and rescued by an improvement in the second half of the season.

Whereas others, most notably England, rumble along in a straight line, Ireland lurch and bump along a roller-coaster. Many fall off along the way, and only four players have survived from the Twickenham victory of two seasons ago.

No one has suffered more bumps and bruises, more shocks to his equilibrium, along the way than Nick Popplewell, the 31-year-old, careworn 38-cap veteran who made his debut in 1989. Which is why he believes the pattern can be repeated this Saturday with an Irish win. "Oh of course, yeah, definitely," he says.

"Because I think we can beat anyone on occasions, I've never gone into a match thinking we're not going to win it, although it seems most of the time that's the way it happens. I think England are in the same position as they were two years ago. They'd won matches and were under pressure to score tries."

"We blocked them out for the first 20 minutes, then we blocked them out for the first 40 minutes, they started trying to create things out of nothing and it didn't really work. The back row had a superb game and all of a sudden, out of nothing, it became a dogfight in the last 10 minutes and we came out with a win."

When beating England in '93 and '94, Ireland won only one other championship match, against Wales naturally. Ireland being happiest when underdogs has become a cliche, and one Popplewell struggles to reject.

"I think that's too much of a generality. It does work out that way but England beat us last year we were underdogs. I can't put a finger on it, through all the years I've been there. I wish I could."

Clearly, an enduring career in an Irish shirt has made him none the wiser. It has even reduced him to tears, most memorably in the moment of victory against Wales at Cardiff Arms Park in 1993, coming as it did after 11 successive defeats. You would cry at times, too, if you were an Irish rugby player.

His bleakest moments in an Irish shirt came after this season's opening defeat to the Scots, and here we are on the not-so-merry roller-coaster again. "I really felt this was the year we going to do something. I had a piss-poor game to be honest with you and I felt responsible for a lot of it and then for the first time in three or four years I felt that I was genuinely under pressure."

On a personal level, he is adamant that that will not happen again next season. The cause was a lack of match practice brought about by joining Newcastle this season and the resultant 120-day ban from competitive rugby. "Unfortunately it's the reality of the new world." But the same new world has granted him a four and a half year contract and with it the promise of full-time professional rugby.

On a general level he remains at a loss to explain it all. "I don't know the reasons. Up to now I suppose you could say that we might have been better prepared on this or that but those excuses are now gone.

"We seem to be prone to starting the season very poorly. We tried to avoid that by playing a couple of matches before we went into the Five Nations. They went really well, and then history says the rest. We just collapsed against the Scots, got worse against the French and I suppose you could say we beat a poor Welsh side. We just seemed to be going forward most of the time, which certainly helped fatties like me."

A self-deprecating wit is a necessary buffer, especially this season. Popplewell apportions blame for the latest anti-climactic campaign squarely on the shoulders of the senior players, "including myself".

Hence his desperate desire to play at Twickenham, despite a worrisome if slight hamstring tear but he is confident of being declared fit. "It's happened to me before and as people will tell you I don't ever sprint on it anyhow. I don't need it as much as someone like Geoghegan."

Mention of Geoghegan recalls his match-winning try at Twickenham two years ago. That, and Peter Clohessy's first-half tackle on Philip de Glanville constitutes Popplewell's abiding memories of the game. "Claw's tackle on De Glanville set the trend for the whole day. Out of nowhere Claw cut De Glanville in our 22. Jaysus, splintered him altogether and as so often happens a big tackle just gets people in the right frame of mind."

It may well require some similar moment of inspiration to trigger another formbook-tearing Irish performance. And who knows if it will, least of Ireland.