Here’s an easy one. Who was the first European rugby union to win a tour series in the Southern Hemisphere? And here’s a clue, it wasn’t France or England. Or Wales, Scotland or Italy either. Got it yet?
While Ireland’s playing history – home and away – against South Africa and New Zealand is littered with one failure after another in the amateur days, surprisingly their record against Australia is pockmarked with wins at home and on the road, albeit matches were held less frequently in the BSE (baggy shorts era).
It might be that not many people know this, but Ireland has had four proper rugby tours of Australia – in 1967, 1979, 1994 and 1999. By ‘proper’ I mean old-style tours involving matches against provincial union or state teams as well as one or two test matches against the Wallabies. And, rather surprisingly, Ireland have won two of them and lost two.
Ireland’s fifth tour of Australia begins with the first of three tests on 9 June and it promises to settle a few scores, mark the overall ledger up in favour of one and probably create a few bragging and bagging rights along the way for fans and commentators.
Australia won the first two tests between the countries in 1927 and 1947 in Lansdowne Road in Dublin. On the Australian tour of Britain, Ireland and France in 1958 Ireland got their first Test win on the board. Over the next 20 years the teams met seven times, with Ireland winning six of them, including their first-ever away test in Sydney as part of their first six-game tour of Australia in 1967.
Ireland’s last two test wins in Australia were those of the famous 1979 tour when the Irish team had their most successful winning patch, playing eight games, including two tests, and losing just once against a local representative team, Sydney.
Ollie Campbell, Mike Gibson, Terry Kennedy, Paul McNaughton, Tony Ward, Willie Duggan, Moss Keane and Fergus Slattery were some of the better known names on that tour. Tony Ward was the star name playing outhalf for Ireland. He had been named European player of the year for the second year running. All the running assumptions were that he’d play in a few of the run-up games and start the first test at the helm. A few days beforehand the Irish manager and coach thought different and, inexplicably to everyone, picked Campbell to start.
Ireland scored 36 points across the two tests, with Campbell kicking 28 of them, bringing his total to 60 points for the tour. He was named player of the tour. Ward, by his own admission in his autobiography, never played as well again and laid the blame squarely with the manager and at coach’s door for how they handled what became known in Irish rugby as ‘the decision’.
Campbell returned home the hero of the hour by helping to claim the first individual tour victory by a northern team in the Southern Hemisphere – France had won eight out of nine matches but drawn the first test on a tour in 1972. Ireland’s overall win record stood at six wins to Australia’s three
Campbell and the team were cheered to the rafters. Ireland went on to win the five-nations in 1982, shared it with France in 1983 and won it outright again in 1985. And then the curtain came down and the roof started to fall in.
Two further two-test tours against Australia followed in 1994 and 1999 – Ireland lost all the Test matches and most of the midweek games against ACT, Sydney and New South Wales among others.
Those two tours formed part of what is probably the lowest period in Irish rugby. Ireland played 11 tests against Australia, eight against New Zealand and six against South Africa between 1980 and 2002, and they lost every game. Despite their initial successes in the 1980s, their record in that period against five/six-nations opponents was not much better: three wins from 24 against France, seven from 24 versus both England and Scotland and even losing three from eight against Italy.
From 2002 onwards, when professionalism finally took hold and Irish provinces entered the Celtic League, the fortunes of the Irish provinces and test side changed, first under Eddie O’Sullivan, winning a test again against Australia in 2002 and for the first time against South Africa in 2004.
They moved from being regular wooden spooners in the 1990s to competing at the top in the new six-nations. Then they finally achieved a second grand slam in 2009 with Declan Kidney, 61 years after their first. They remained unbeaten that year, finishing with a 15-10 win against Lions victors and the reigning Tri-Nations champions South Africa.
Of course after Ireland finally won again in 2002 Australia promptly won the next four tests. Another Irish win in 2006 was followed by two Wallabies wins and a draw. Then came the Rugby World Cup pool match in 2011, with both teams meeting on neutral New Zealand territory.
Australia ran into Stephen Ferris and Sean O’Brien for the first time and Will Genia found himself being picked up and carried backwards while his teammates were held up time and again in the famous choke tackle and eventually out of the game. Australia won the next test in 2013 and Ireland won the next one a year later, and the next one again in 2016.
Nonetheless, Australia continue to have the upper hand – 21 wins to Ireland’s 11 (and a sister-smooching draw). But Ireland is determined to close the gap further.
So now it’s the turn of Joe Schmidt to bring the Ireland squad Down Under for a three-test series in June. Expectations are high, with Ireland’s recent grand slam win and record against the Wallabies – except they haven’t won in Oz for 39 years.
Their last away loss was in Brisbane in June 2010 as part of a New Zealand/Australia tour. On that day newcomer outhalf Johnny Sexton kicked all of Ireland’s 15 points in the first half to Australia’s 16 points, but the Declan Kidney-coached team, off the back of a 97-point shellacking from the All Blacks and New Zealand Maori in the previous weeks and down a few key players, couldn’t overtake the Wallabies as Giteau notched another couple of penalties to finish them off 22-15.
Eight years on from Brisbane, both teams are in different places and ranking. Cheika is hoping to fashion a team that can compete and win in the Rugby Championship. He needs a decent scalp on his belt going into that battle.
Schmidt has the Six Nations in his back pocket and a team that is beginning to hum nicely with a mix of old heads and young hearts running a new 12-match streak. Ireland are the current holders of the Lansdowne Cup, the trophy fought between the two sides since 1999.
England, Scotland and Wales have all announced squads with development and player rest on their minds as coaches seek to add depth to their teams for Rugby World Cup 2019. Irish pundits and fans have been making similar noises querying whether players such as Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray, Tadhg Furlong, Christiaan Stander should rest on their summer holidays and let the younger Turks get more time and experience.
Schmidt has faced this before, imposed through injury rather than selection by choice, when he brought a relatively raw squad to South Africa and gave much-needed game time to some new faces including Furlong, Stander, Iain Henderson, Quinn Roux and Kieran Marmion.
Schmidt will want to win the series, but he needs to give more time to the newbies. He’s got plenty of choice this time around and all of them hungry for some tasty wallaby.
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Wider squad choices
Hookers: Rory Best, Sean Cronin, Niall Scannell, Rob Herring
Props: TH – Tadhg Furlong, Andrew Porter, John Ryan, Finlay Bealham; LH – Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, David Kilcoyne, James Cronin
Locks: Iain Henderson, Devin Toner, Jas Ryan, Ultan Dillane, Quinn Roux, Tadhg Beirne
Flankers: Peter O’Mahony, Rhys Ruddock, Dan Leavy, Jordi Murphy, Sean Reidy
Eight-men: CJ Stander, Jack Conan, Jack O’Donoghue
SH: Conor Murray, Luke McGrath, Kieran Marmion, John Cooney
10: Jonathan Sexton, Joey Carbery, Ian Keatley, Adam Byrne
Midfield: Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Chris Farrell, Stuart McCloskey, Rory Scannell, Sam Arnold
Wings: Keith Earls, Jacob Stockdale, Adam Byrne, Craig Gilroy, Alex Wootton, Rory O’Loughlin
FB: Rob Kearney, Jordan Larmour, Andrew
*Injured and not available to tour: Sean O’Brien, Fergus McFadden and Josh van der Flier.