Irish success an open secret

Dawson the outsider shows the strength of Gatland's green machine at home and abroad
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Kieron Dawson fell squarely into the curate's egg category last Saturday, as a replacement for Ireland's glory game against England. "Half of you is cheering Ireland," the London Irish flanker said. "But deep down inside, there's a little voice saying 'come on England'."

Amid the maelstrom of mixed emotions, the little voice eventually got its wish, and Dawson appeared for the last four minutes as Lansdowne Road prepared to party. "It was good to be on at the final whistle, to share in the win and take the lap of honour. I'd got a nice little steal at a line-out, too. Being on the bench is a strange feeling. You have a chance to take everything in, which you don't get when you're playing."

So if a replacement's lot is not a happy one, there are compensations. Dawson knows what a special day it was. The lusty singing around the old stadium of "Ireland's Call"; the hairs standing up on the back of his neck as "Fields of Athenry" went up during the second half. And Wood, the captain, leading the triumphal circuit at the end. "I think he slowed it down, making sure that England had to wait to receive the Six Nations' trophy," said Dawson, with a grin.

Only at the after-match dinner, at the Berkeley Court hotel, did Ireland collect the Millennium Trophy, the prize which is on offer each time they play England. It might have made a suitable gift to thrust into Wood's empty hands after England's grim-faced crew received the championship pot. But the Irish needed no baubles. A first win over the English since 1994 was reward enough.

It was, moreover, Ireland's 12th victory in 14 matches, their seventh in the last nine in the Six Nations. In days gone by, before points difference was employed to find an outright winner, Warren Gatland's team would have been hailed as joint champions. "It's amazing that there was so much talk in the media about Gatland being under pressure," Dawson said. At provincial level, Irish teams were unbeaten in the first two rounds of this season's Heineken Cup; they are going strong in the inaugural Celtic League, too. The policy statement made by the Irish Rugby Football Union in 1997, when £3m was set aside to attract players "home" and build a coherent path from club to province to country, appears to have paid off, handsomely. Next in line to test the Irish resurgence are Samoa and New Zealand; a swift England re-match at Twickenham looms in the New Year.

As for Dawson himself, the pain of being dropped after the 32-10 defeat in Scotland five weeks ago was as nothing to the relief that he was playing at all. He was in the thick of a dominant performance against Japan in Dublin last November, when he got a bang on the neck. "I thought I'd got a 'stinger', when you get shooting pains down the arm."

But he was wrong, seriously wrong. The following week, South Africa were the opposition, and Dawson was again the Ireland open-side flanker. "In that game, I couldn't feel my right hand at all for a while. Medical scans showed that a disc in my back had been broken, and pieces of bone were stuck in the spinal canal, causing the pins and needles in my arm. The first prognosis was that I wouldn't play again."

Dawson sought a second opinion, and a third, and a fourth. "I was examined in Ireland and in London, and eventually found out I could play again in three or four months." He returned for London Irish in March, but by then Munster's David Wallace had bolted into the Ireland No 7 jersey, and went on to join the Lions tour as an injury replacement.

Dawson settled for a comeback cap against Romania in June, followed by Ireland's three-week summer training camp in Poland, and he ousted Wallace for the season's opener at Murrayfield. Dawson's contribution to an ultra-competitive back row is part of a healthy battle for places throughout the Ireland side.

Times have changed, and at London Irish, too. Born in Bangor, Dawson arrived at the club as a raw 21-year-old five years ago. Clive Woodward was the coach, and Dawson went into digs with his fellow exiles, Jeremy Davidson and Malcolm O'Kelly. "We had one training session a day, at four o'clock, then it was off to the pub or a restaurant, then to a night-club," he recalled. "It was like an extended tour. The house was paid for, the car was paid for, we were living the high life. Then Clive moved on, Willie Anderson came in, and he liked to train hard, and often." The Irish had potential but Davidson, O'Kelly and several other internationals were attracted home by the IRFU contracts.

One of Anderson's recruits was the South African centre, Brendan Venter, who is now the club's player-coach. These days the high life means a run of four wins and a draw in six Zurich Premiership matches which has lifted the Irish to third in the table. Today they're off to sunny Spain to play Valladolid in the European Shield, and are favourites to win Pool Six.

Dawson has a company car again, a natty model from the club sponsors MG Rover, but he pays for that, and his recently-acquired four-year contract, in sweat. "I'm the same weight now, at 26, as I was when I was 21," he said.

Ireland's progress, he says, can be similarly measured. "I don't think you can say the players have improved greatly in themselves, but the organisation is much better. During the 1999 World Cup all the players were tested for fat-to-body weight ratio. We were tested again this year, and on average body weights are up 10kg while fat-to-weight is down five per cent. The old lifestyle has gone out of the window, and all the players are monitored in the same way."

Even so, there are occasions which demand celebration, as of old. Back to Dublin, last Saturday night. "The older boys in the squad stayed around the hotel," Dawson said, "while we younger ones went off with our partners to Annabel's, a good rugby hang-out. It was nice for once to be in there and able to hold your head up high." It had been a good year for the red roses, but for now, the shamrock rules.