By Gary Watton
January 30 2014
Sometimes there is a fine dividing line between failure and success, and on such fine margins careers and legends can rise or fall. One notable occasion when a team's adventures ended in glorious failure was the 1981 Five Nations campaign of the Ireland rugby team. Ironically, the Oirish were tipped to excel at this championship, but Tom Kiernan's squad ended up with nul points, when they could easily have taken the maximum of eight. The men in green suffered four narrow defeats, all of which were avoidable. Let's examine the evidence of this post-mortem.
In the event, France helped themselves to un autre grand chelem, but they overcame Ireland in Dublin by a mere nineteen points to thirteen. Both protagonists matched one another with one try and three penalties apiece, but the difference between the two combatants rested upon two drop goals from Guy Laporte. As a consequence, les Bleus were halfway to a clean sweep and the hosts were on the road to an unforeseeable whitewash.
The next hard luck story took place at Cardiff Arms Park, two weeks later, when Wales unconvincingly took both points, with a score of nine against eight. The visitors [still seeking their first Cardiff success since 1967] scored the only two tries of the match, inspired by Tony Ward. However, not even the presence of both Ollie Campbell and Tony Ward could assist Ireland's goal-kicking. Both tries were unconverted and the away team failed to land a single successful kick between the posts. Meanwhile Gwyn Evans slotted a couple of penalties and Gary Pearce broke Irish hearts with the decisive drop goal. Yet again, drop goals had proved the crucial decider.
Another tearjerker occurred back in Dublin when debutant Marcus Rose recorded a try as England won by the slender margin of ten points to six. Ironically, Ireland landed two drop goals this time, but they were outscored by two tries to nil.
Finally, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune produced a ten points to nine reverse at Murrayfield, as both teams shared one try each, while Ollie Campbell kicked Ireland's first successful conversion of the tournament! This time, his opposite number, Scotland's John Rutherford contributed a critical drop goal which condemned the visitors to a grand slump, which might easily have been a grand slam.
Only against England were Ireland outscored in a tries 'contest'. In total, the Irish could only muster 36 points in their four matches, averaging at nine per tussle. However, they only conceded 48 points in reply, averaging at exactly twelve per skirmish. Therefore, a match average of 9-12 scarcely suggests that this whitewashed team were significantly worse than the other competitors. In fact, the nucleus of this team remained intact for the subsequent adventures in 1982 when lo and behold many of the same players [such as Campbell, Keane, MacNeill, Orr, and Slattery] triumphantly obtained their country's first triple crown since 1949! Of course a certain Ciaran Fitzgerald was drafted in as captain, replacing the unlucky Fergus Slattery. In a mirror of the England cricket team, also of 1981, captain Slattery was pivotal to his team, yet he could not buy a victory. This was an identical predicament for one Ian Botham whose captaincy tenure was an unhappy one, which was all the more ironic given that he was probably the most valuable member of the team.
One or two successful kicks on each occasion would have transformed Ireland's 1981 quest for Five Nations glory. In the end, they had to sup from the wooden spoon, which seemed a harsh punishment for a talented team that didn't do itself justice. They even ended up conceding less points in the four matches then any of the other teams, which in itself must be the most peculiar bragging right in the story of the Five Nations. Has there ever been a better whitewashed XV in the history of the Five Nations? I doubt it.
France 8 points [70 for; 49 against] - six tries and four drop goals
England 4 points [64 for; 60 against] - six tries and no drop goals
Scotland 4 points [51 for; 54 against] - seven tries and one drop goal
Wales 4 points [51 for; 61 against] - two tries and two drop goals
Ireland 0 points [36 for; 48 against] - four tries and two drop goals