The uniting of Ireland

while there will be no half-measures when the Celtic nations contest a place in the quarter-finals; Owen Slot finds the Irish in buoyant mood as they prepare for their most crucial test
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The Independent Online
ON the morning of Friday 19 May, Gerry Murphy, the Ireland coach, was surveying his team on their practice ground in Johannesburg. The side had been together in the capital for three days, they had adapted to the altitude, their spirits were high and, six days before the World Cup kick- off, were looking good.

When they got back to their hotel on the north-west side of the city, however, they were confronted with a story that threatened to shatter the morale of the squad. Murphy was taken aside by two men: the team's media liaison officer and a reporter from the Irish Times. Had he heard from Dublin, they asked? No, he had not. And so they explained to Murphy that a story had appeared in the Belfast Telegraph that morning announcing that he had been sacked. Gerry Murphy was stunned and Noel Murphy, the team manager, was furious. Both knew that, as pre- tournament own-goals go, this could rank with the saga of the old farts. The offending article was faxed over, a press conference was called, the story was refuted and both Murphys said that this was the last thing Ireland needed.

They need not have worried, however, about the incident's effect on the players. Led by Garry "Gazza" Halpin, the joker in the pack, the players told Murphy he should have been sacked five years ago (he'd only been in charge for two and a half years), asked what flight home he was on, and later presented him with a spoof air ticket. "And that was the end of it," said Terry Kingston, the team captain. The matter was closed. Thus, in characteristic fashion, the Irish overcame a potentially damaging situation.

Today in Johannesburg, they play Wales in what is effectively a World Cup final for both countries; the winner will qualify for the quarter- finals, the loser will be out of the tournament. Despite being pushed close to the limit by Japan four days ago, Ireland are buoyant. Nigel Carr, the former international flanker who is out here as a television commentator, said: "There is a real momentum with this team. There's a lot of commitment to doing well. That may not be unusual, but it can be a transient property with the Irish. This side is functioning really well."

The way the side functions does not immediately suggest success. An All Blacks training session, for instance, is an impressive sight; the players are slick and they speed from drill to drill with a collective sense of urgency, while Laurie Mains, the coach, is an intimidating presence. An Irish session is more a rag-bag collection of routines and you might not even notice that Gerry Murphy is there. You cannot miss the 57-year-old Noel Murphy, though, an extraordinarily unathletic sight with a shuffling gait, his tracksuit bottoms slipping down, and his much- mimicked, high-pitched voice (he is known as "Noisy"). "He takes a bit of getting used to," Gerry Murphy said. "The guys who don't know him very well sometimes don't know what's going on."

The players, nevertheless, have achieved the unity of purpose that Carr says is so important. They are a good blend of old-timers - Mullin, Kingston, Bradley, Francis - and new faces - Halvey, Foley and Hogan. On the team coach, the lads at the back are Simon Geoghegan (back left), Halpin (centre) and Jim Staples (back right). Halpin, though, "the choirmaster", is often up at the front on the microphone trying to persuade his team-mates to sing, or telling jokes. "This group really works," Staples said, recalling the Wales team of 1991 whose miserable pre-World Cup tour of Australia ended in a 63-6 Test match defeat and a punch-up among themselves in the bar afterwards. "I couldn't imagine that happening with us - or with any Irish team."

Ireland, however, started their World Cup build-up, against Italy in Treviso, almost as poorly as Wales had done against Australia four years before. They built a 12-6 lead, but in a second-half littered with errors, they failed to score another point and went down 22-12. It was the botched Italian job from which the Belfast Telegraph story was later to stem, but the team then decamped to Kilkenny for a week at the beginning of which they sat down for, what Gerry Murphy, called "a fair bit of hard talking by all sides". He added: "It was a pretty open discussion, and from there we began the hard task of regrouping from what had been a very, very bad display."

In Kilkenny, Gerry Murphy worked the players extremely hard but, he said, it was the players who dragged themselves out of the mire. "David Tweed, the lock, in particular is a great puller together of people. If we're making mistakes in training, he'll be the one who says: 'Come on, lads, this is rubbish. We'll do this properly.' And Neil Francis is good like that, too." On the fourth day at Kilkenny, the players suddenly turned it on. "We trained for an hour," Murphy said, "and I don't think we dropped a ball once. It was very good, very high-powered and everyone came off the field thinking, 'Jesus, we can actually do this.' The same thing happened on our first Monday-night practice in Johannesburg. For about 20 minutes, it clicked again. The backs were really motoring and handling the ball beautifully."

Five days later, it paid off. Even though they lost 43-19 to the All Blacks, they left the field with their spirits raised. In the early exchanges, the Irish were at their ferocious, furious best, and went on to score three tries and their well-organised pack managed even managed to disrupt the vaunted All Blacks. Afterwards, however, Colin Meads, the former All Black captain, gave them cause for reflection. Interviewed with Gerry Murphy, Meads was asked if he thought Ireland would reach the quarter- finals. Certainly, he said, if they continue to perform as effectively. But, he asked, touching on the perennial Irish problem of inconsistency, can they play like that again?

On Wednesday, they didn't. Against Japan, everything that was good about the All Blacks game was gone; the two performances could hardly have been more different. The Japanese running and ball- handling gave them a real shock and though Ireland pulled away to win 50-28, an upset looked a real possibility for much of the game. In the press conference afterwards, a Japanese journalist asked Gerry Murphy how Japanese rugby could improve. "I'm not sure that getting advice from us is what you should be doing," came the reply. "Maybe it's part of the Irish character," he said later, "but we've never been able to put good games together. It's baffling why a team can beat England, as we did last year, and then two weeks later, against Scotland, play as if they had never met each other before."

Today's game may be Murphy's last in charge - he was due to stand down after the World Cup long before the Belfast Telegraph had written his obituary. In his tenure as coach, this match is the most important, and will decide how he is remembered in the annals of Irish rugby history. The Japanese rate Wales as the better side; the All Blacks fancy Ireland. Murphy believes the outcome depends largely on knowing how to raise the side from their infuriating inconsistency, to reach the heights of last weekend. "If you know the answer," he said, "you can make a lot of money. Or alternatively become the next coach of Ireland."

Ireland v Wales

At Ellis Park, Johannesburg

C O'Shea Lansdowne 15 A Clement Swansea

R Wallace Garryowen 14 I Evans Llanelli

B Mullin Blackrock College 13 M Hall Cardiff, capt

J Bell Ballymena 12 N Jenkins Pontypridd

S Geoghegan Bath 11 G Thomas Bridgend

E Elwood Lansdowne 10 A Davies Cardiff

N Hogan Terenure College 9 R Jones Swansea

N Popplewell Wasps 1 M Griffiths Cardiff

T Kingston Dolphin, capt 2 J Humphreys Cardiff

G Halpin London Irish 3 J Davies Neath

G Fulcher Constitution 4 D Jones Cardiff

N Francis Old Belvedere 5 Gareth Llewellyn Neath

D Corkery Constitution 6 S Davies Swansea

P Johns Dungannon 8 E Lewis Cardiff

D McBride Malone 7 H Taylor Cardiff

Referee: I Rogers (South Africa) Kick-off: 4.0 (ITV).