Ieuan Evans: 'It was like a church fete back then compared to now'

Former wing recalls the only World Cup meeting between Wales and Ireland, way back in 1987, again in Wellington

Mike Brown
Friday 07 October 2011 00:00

As World Cup debuts go, it was not the most auspicious of occasions for either Wales or Ireland when they met in Wellington on 25 May 1987. The New Zealand capital lived up to its nickname of "Windy Wellington" and the 17,500 crowd had only one try to cheer, from Mark Ring, in a game that Wales won 13-6 after trailing 6-0 at half-time.

"It was an awful game in terrible conditions," Ieuan Evans, the Wales wing, admitted. "We just managed to scrape a win thanks to a bit of Mark Ring magic.

"It wasn't raining, but it was very windy. Athletic Park was a pretty disturbing place to play because opposite the changing room end there was this big, shaky stand – only the Maoris would climb right to the top because they were the only ones crazy enough to go up there."

The Irish were certainly blown off course that day, and ended up heading home after a heavy quarter-final defeat to Australia, but Wales went on to win their Pool, beat England in the last eight before falling foul of the eventual winners, New Zealand, in the semi-finals.

Both rugby and the World Cup have evolved beyond recognition of the game played in 1987. The All Blacks marched to World Cup victory on home soil as they beat France in the final and Wales ended up third thanks to a play-off victory over the Wallabies.

Rugby Union was in the last throes of amateurism then. Now, with the World Cup back in New Zealand, it is firmly in the grip of professionalism. "For us as players, and indeed everyone involved, it was a real step into the unknown as we headed to New Zealand in 1987 – we simply didn't know what to expect. We were comfortable playing against Ireland, we played them every year in the Five Nations, but travelling 8,000 miles to play in a tournament was something we really hadn't been used to," Evans added.

"We had our laundry paid for and our food provided but that was about it – everything else was down to us. We were used to World Cups in other sports but, in terms of rugby union, we were the trailblazers. Looking back, the World Cup then feels like a church fete compared to what the tournament has become today."

Evans, who went on to win 72 caps for Wales, 28 of them as captain, and score 33 tries, barely touched the ball against the Irish as the gale-force winds hammered the exposed north island city. "I could count on one hand the number of journalists who were there in 1987 covering Wales," he recalled. "And there was minimal TV coverage.

"It's an absolute media circus now because the Rugby World Cup has become a huge event. There is simply no comparison to 1987. Now it's a media frenzy, not only on the back pages, but also on the front. The tournament is in the global spotlight and journalists are looking for things that happen off the pitch as well as on it.

"We enjoyed a few beers back then, but it was an amateur game – it was a completely different set of circumstances. Rugby is fully professional now and has been for 15 years.

"Just look at Wales and their young skipper Sam Warburton. He really sets the tone and he didn't even have a shandy on his birthday this week. The Welsh players haven't been going out drinking, a decision driven by themselves, and it has paid off so far."

But the contrast is even more evident on the pitch. Granted, Wales have their own pocket-rockets in Shane Williams and Leigh Halfpenny, but they are a dying breed. Modern rugby is dominated by power-packed specimens running expeditious times. In 1987, Evans stood 5ft 10in tall and weighed 13 stone. Fast-forward 24 years and the man wearing his No 14 jersey is 6ft 4in and weighs more than 17 stone, the irrepressible George North.

"Sports science was always going to play a crucial role in modern, professional rugby. We didn't have anything like that back in 1987," Evans said. "The Welsh players might not have been very happy about going to Poland for two weeks to train in the Olympic cryotherapy unit in the build up to this World Cup, but they were able to work two or three times a day and it's obviously paying huge dividends now.

"It was difficult for us to train in those early days because we all had full-time jobs. I remember I was working in the marketing department for the National Trust. We didn't train that much before we left for New Zealand. The All Blacks were way ahead of the curve then and were the only team that were truly physically conditioned.

"Players are obviously much bigger today and, if I was playing now, I would have to be a lot heavier than 13 stone. I would definitely have to bulk up."

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