The 1991 tournament was originally supposed to be hosted solely by France. This soon changed due to political wrangling and horse-trading between the Five Nations sides. Political and financial wheeling and dealing led to Marcel Martin of the FFR (Fédération Française de Rugby) declaring that the French were incapable of hosting the tournament on their own. As a result, the games were shared out between the five home countries. Each of the unions got a share of the pie.
From an Irish perspective, this was positive news, both financially for the IRFU, and also for the national team. They would now play two of their pool games at their home venue. Landsdowne Road was also nominated to host a quarter-final and semi-final for the tournament, while Ravenhill would host the pool match.
Ciarán Fitzgerald’s side were drawn in Pool 2 alongside Scotland, Japan and Zimbabwe. Ireland easily dispatched Zimbabwe in their pool opener by 55-11. In a one sided match they were 33-0 ahead at the break before taking their foot off the gas somewhat in the second half. They ran in eight tries to Zimbabwe’s two. Tries from David Curtis, Simon Geoghegan, a brace from Nick Popplewell and four tries from no.8 Brian Robinson as well as four conversions and five penalties from Ralph Keyes gave Ireland a 44 point win. (A Try was still worth 4 points at the 1991 World Cup, the change to five points didn’t happen until an IRFU board meeting in April 1992).
Three days later Ireland were back in action against Japan. Two tries from Connacht back row Noel Mannion and one apiece from fellow back rower Pat O’Hara and full back Jim Staples along with two conversions and four penalties from Keyes saw Ireland win by 32-16.
The Scots had home advantage at Murrayfield for the pool decider between the two sides. Scotland had also enjoyed one sided wins in their other matches, running in a combined fifteen tries in their 47-9 win over Japan and 51-12 victory against Zimbabwe.
It was Ireland’s third game in nine days, but there was no shortage of motivation, as the winners of this game would clinch pool 2 and secure an easier route to the semi-final. Thanks to Western Samoa’s shock 16-13 win over Wales at the Cardiff Arms park earlier in the tournament the little Pacific nation had already sealed the second qualifying spot form Pool 3 and would face the winner of the Pool 2 clash between Scotland and Ireland, while Australia who topped Pool 3 awaited the second place side from our pool.
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The first half went well for Fitzgerald’s men and three penalties and a sweetly struck drop goal from Ralph Keyes off his left foot saw Ireland lead 12-9 at the break. Scotland’s first half points came from two Gavin Hastings penalties and a Craig Chalmers drop goal. Keyes extended that advantage to six points with another penalty after the resumption. However, that was to be the last score for Ireland as the Scots dominated the remainder of the game. Tries from Gary Armstrong and Graham Shiel saw the home-side win by 24-15.
Another crack at the Aussies in a quarter
Thanks to the way the schedule fell Ireland had eight days to recover from that Murrayfield defeat before hosting the hotly fancied Aussies at Lansdowne Road. The southern hemisphere nation were considered to be fitter, faster, stronger and better drilled and were expected to advance easily to the semi-finals. They had a team full of household names such as Tim Horan, Phil Kerins, John Eales, Nick Farr-Jones, Michael Lynagh & David Campese. Incidentally on the Australian bench that day was Ireland’s current high performance director David Nucifora.
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The match started along expected lines as David Campese waltzed in for an early Aussie try after 16minutes which duly converted by Michael Lynagh and Ireland were 0-6 behind. However, Australia failed to build on their early lead and in a repeat of their 1987 meeting scrum-half and captain Nick Farr-Jones had to be replaced inside the first twenty minutes after picking up a recurrence of a knee ligament injury.
A Ralph Keyes penalty halved the deficit for the Irish on 24 minutes and then another strike from Keyes levelled up the game at 6 apiece before the break.
A penalty from Lynagh edged Australia back in front early in the second half, but the Aussie’s couldn’t pull away from a tenacious Irish side, who’s ferocious tackling and superb work rate constantly disrupted the flow of the Australian side. A Ralph Keyes drop goal, this time off his right foot, levelled up the game at 9-9 after 50 minutes.
A second David Campese try after a nice loop move by Jason Little off the back of a scrum gave the Australian’s the lead once again and after Lynagh converted they were ahead by 6 points, Ireland then had their best spell of the game as Jim Clarke was twice denied in the corner by last ditch Campese tackles. Another Keyes penalty ate into the Australian lead and Lansdowne erupted on 74 minutes, when Ireland took the lead for the first time in the match after Ballymena flanker Gordon Hamilton burst onto a pop pass from Jim Clarke to race home from 40 meters out.
After Keyes converted Ireland had a scarcely believable 18-15 lead against their highly rated opponents as the clock ticked into the last five minutes. But just as the Lansdowne Road faithful started to believe that their side were on the brink of history, a last minute Michael Lynagh try broke Irish hearts.
After Ireland’s exit…..
So for the second tournament in succession, albeit in very different circumstances to their previous hammering in Ballymore in ‘87, Ireland had lost out to the mighty Australians at the quarter-final stage. The Australian team were relieved to survive such a close shave and they would subsequently go on to lift the trophy after a 12-6 win over England in the final at Twickenham.