After the historic and dramatic 1995 tournament in South Africa, the World Cup in ’99 would always find it difficult to reach the heights of four years previous. Officially the 1999 World Cup was to be hosted by Wales, with the showpiece event taking place in the newly built Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. However, like the 1991 tournament, there were games spread over 18 different venues in England, France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Ireland had undergone a turbulent time since the 1995 World Cup. Gerry Murphy had stepped down after that tournament and was replaced by the IRFU’s first professional head-coach, former Garryowen and Sunday’s Well manager Murray Kidd. His reign lasted under a year and a half and he stepped down after a 29-37 home defeat to Italy in January 1997. Bath’s Brian Ashton was next to take up the Irish hot seat, but a Five Nations defeat by Scotland at Lansdowne Road the following March saw his make a quick exit. Connacht young Kiwi coach Warren Gatland was promoted to the role and almost got Ireland off to a winning start in Paris, only for a late Raphael Ibanez try to win it 18-16 for the home side.
The 1999 Five Nations saw Ireland lose at home to France by a single point (9-10), before winning 23-29 away to Wales (The match was played in Wembley stadium, London as the Arms Park had been demolished to make way for the building of the new Millennium Stadium). But that was to be the highpoint for Gatland’s side as they went on to lose 15-27 at home to England and lost 30-13 in their final game away to Scotland.
The increase from sixteen teams at pervious World Cup tournaments to a twenty team competition this time around meant a change in format. An over elaborate system was devised with five pool of 4 teams each and a play-off round prior to the quarter-finals between the five pool runners-up and the best third placed team. The winners of the three play-off games would then face three pool winners, while in the fourth quarter-final two pool winners would be drawn against each other.
Ireland played host to the Pool E matches, spread between Lansdowne Road, Ravenhill and Thomond Park. Our group contained previous tournament winners Australia, the United States and Romania.
2nd October 1999: Ireland 53 USA 8
First up for a Warren Gatland coached Irish side were the United States. Ireland were already three points to the good when Justin Bishop went over for the first of seven Irish tries after only 6 minutes. The Eagles scrum-half Kevin Dalzell gathered an Irish knock-on and raced home for a try for the visitors before a twenty year-old Brian O’Driscoll then scored his first World Cup try. Irish hooker Keith Wood scored four more tries for the Gatland’s side. While a penalty try, 6 conversions (2 Elwood, 4 Humphreys) and 2 David Humphreys penalties accounted for Ireland’s final tally of 53 points.
10th October 1999: Ireland 3 Australia 23
After an easy pool opener for the Irish there was a much tougher prospect in store against Rod McQueen’s Wallabies. Penalties from Matthew Burke and John Eales gave the visitors a 6 point lead at the break. Humphrey’s got Ireland off the mark with a 52nd minute penalty. However, second-half tries from Tim Horan and Ben Tune decided an encounter which was more memorable for the physicality of play rather than the quality of rugby. Aussie hooker Phil Kearns and Ireland’s Malcom O’Kelly and Trevor Brennan all needed medical attention due to blood injuries in a tough first half. Brennan would go on to trade blows with the Wallabies back row Toutai Kefu in the second half. Despite a stern dressing down from match official Clayton Thomas both men escaped without a card.
After the game Warren Gatland expressed his frustration at the Irish performance: “I was very disappointed with our performance, although we were beaten by a very good Australian team,” said Gatland. “We didn’t really fire a shot. We let ourselves down out there.”
15th October 1999: Ireland 44 Romania 14
Gatland’s side returned to winning ways with an emphatic thirty point win over tier two side Romania. Tries from Dion O’Cuinneagain, Tony Ward, Tom Tierney and a brace from Conor O’Shea along with 16 points from the boot of Eric Elwood and an injury time drop-goal from Brian O’Driscoll saw Ireland coast to victory.
This sequence of results saw us finish second in group E and thereby qualify for a playoff game against Argentina who had finished second in Pool D behind Wales, after wins over Samoa and Japan for Los Pumas.
October 1999: Argentina 28 Ireland 24
The pre-quarter final playoff game took place in the French city of Lens and to this day for Irish rugby fans that venue is synonymous with this match. Ireland went into this match highly confident of victory. They had beaten the Argentines in a warm-up game at Lansdowne rd that August by 32-24 without a host of front-line players and there were expected to win this comfortably.
Indeed Warren Gatland was somewhat over-confident before the game “We have one of the better scrums in the World Cup and we will be looking to dominate them. I don’t believe the Argentina scrum is as strong as it was ten to 12 years ago,” he said. Gatland didn’t start either Paddy Johns or Peter Clohessy as he had one eye on the next round. In an interesting sub-plot Los Pumas were coached by former Canterbury and New Zealand coach, Alex “Grizz” Wyllie. During Wyllie’s time as All-Black head coach (1988-91) he failed to pick Waikato based Gatland in a full International for the All-Blacks. Gatland would end his playing career having started 17 times in non-international matches (mostly mid-week touring games) for the All-Blacks without picking up that illusive All-Black cap.
As it transpired that confidence was misplaced. In a dour game Ireland never found any space and struggled to get the ball out wide as both packs dominated the play. A whistle happy Stuart Dickinson didn’t help matters and the game became a kicking contest. David Humphreys and Gonzalo Quesada struck seven penalties apiece. Ireland held a 6 point advantage at the break, leading by 15-9. However, their discipline let them down in the second half as the started conceding penalties with worrying regularity. The Argentines also had a similar issue giving Ireland’s Humphreys plenty of kicking practice, after 65mins Ireland were 24-18 ahead.
Diego Albanese crossed for the games only try on 72mins, when Quesada added the conversion it put the Argentines ahead for the first time in the match. Another penalty for Quesada five minutes later meant a four point gap and that only a late try would be enough to see Ireland snatch victory. They pummelled the Argentine line in desperation, Paul Wallace came within inches of scoring, but the Argentines held out and Dickinson’s full-time whistle brought scenes of unbridled joy for Los Pumas, while the Irish players and fans lay slummed in shock and despair.
The fallout from Ireland’s exit wouldn’t be immediate, but it would be bitter. Warren Gatland’s tenure as Irish coach survived a post World Cup vote of confidence from the IRFU committee. But it was only a temporary reprieve as the axe fell in November 2001. The timing of the sacking was bizarre given the improvement Ireland had made since the disappointing World Cup exit. Gatland had undoubtedly improved Ireland’s fortunes and while his 18 wins from 38 games doesn’t initially look impressive it was a more successful ratio than either of his predecessors. The fact that his assistant Eddie O’Sullivan was appointed to take over from him only added to the sense that the motivations were political rather than base purely on performance.
Irish World Cup Squad 1999
Conor O’Shea, Gordon D’Arcy, Justin Bishop, James Topping, Matt Mostyn, Kevin Maggs, Brian O’Driscoll, Jonathan Bell, Mike Mullins, David Humphreys, Eric Elwood, Tom Tierney, Brian O’Meara, Paul Wallace, Peter Clohessy, Reggie Corrigan, Justin Fitzpatrick, Angus McKeen, Keith Wood, Ross Nesdale, Paddy Johns, Jeremy Davidson, Malcolm O’Kelly, Bob Casey, Dion O’Cuinneagain, Eric Miller, David Corkery, Trevor Brennan, Andy Ward, Kieron Dawson. Gordon D’Arcy was added as a late replacement for the injured Girvan Dempsey.