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FEATURE The day Martin Johnson turned right

The day Martin Johnson turned right
1 year ago

The underrated coach, who has shaped his days and nights around rugby, who played for Munster as a young man but who had to wait until his late 30s for recognition, who ended up as an assistant coach for the Lions, who helped revolutionise Irish rugby, who made a conscious decision not to be bitter towards his ex-employers after his time as Ireland coach came to an end, clasps your hand and greets you like a long lost friend.

The truth is we had only met a handful of times over the years, yet because he has a curious nature, our conversation quickly moves from a Grand Slam showdown to a discussion about politics and then back to rugby again.

Eddie O’Sullivan is a generous man, generous with his time and also his emotions. As an international coach, he felt a need to portray himself as strong, a tough man, yet there’s an empathetic side that some people don’t see and others choose not to.

There’s some things that continue to annoy him, though, and the events of a Sunday afternoon in March 20 years ago are on that list.

He was 44-years-old then, just shy of 18 months in the job, when he brought an Irish team into a Grand Slam decider, their first in 21 years. But this was a good bit different to 1982 when Ireland tamely lost to France in the Parc des Princes. The 2003 game was in Dublin for a start. And it was against the England of Johnson, Dallaglio, Hill, Back, Wilkinson and Robinson who’d finish that year as world champions. “No weak links anywhere,” recalls Shane Byrne, the Ireland hooker for that game.

O’Sullivan knew as much. A year earlier, in just his second game as head coach, Ireland had been pummelled at Twickenham.

Now they weren’t just plotting their downfall but also chasing history. Fifty-five years had passed since Ireland had last won a Grand Slam, and the excitement levels were reflected in the fact a quarter of a million people were milling around Dublin’s streets that afternoon, all bar 53,000 of them looking for a ticket.

Landsdowne Road
Landsdowne Road was packed with Irish fans hoping for a first Grand Slam since 1949 (Photo By David Rogers/Getty Images)

As the team coach crept towards the stadium chants of “Ireland! Ireland!” drowned out the din of police sirens.

Byrne, the hooker, was sitting two rows from the back, with his headphones on, music in his ears, history in his head. Then as the crowds swelled and the voices got louder and louder, he switched off his CD and took in the view.

He’d never seen anything like this before, not for rugby, not in this town. When he made his debut just a couple of years earlier, it was on the edge of the rugby world. Dinamo Stadion, Bucharest. Romania versus Ireland, 1,900 people there to watch it. Now there were 1,900 people outside Paddy Cullen’s pub in Ballsbridge.

By the time the coach pulled into Lansdowne Road, the butterflies were playing hide and seek in his stomach. “You had to douse the hype, calm yourself down.” If only it was that easy.

Kick off was still over an hour away. But before then there was a red carpet saga involving Martin Johnson and Mary McAleese, the then Irish President.

O’Sullivan won’t forget that incident in a hurry.

His team talk had been delivered, his game-plan honed across a week on the training field.

Now, as he took his seat in the old West Stand, he was told there was a problem.

“A phone was passed to me,” says O’Sullivan.

England, who had blown their chances of a grand slam on the final day of the 1999, 2000 and 2001 championships, before losing just one game in 2002, knew they were at a crossroads. One path led to success, the other to months of introspection.

An IRFU official was on the other end of the line. “Johnson won’t budge,” O’Sullivan was told.

“From what?” O’Sullivan asked.

“From the red carpet.”

O’Sullivan remembers scratching his head.

The IRFU paid him to coach a rugby team. Now he was asked to be a diplomat.

England, who had blown their chances of a grand slam on the final day of the 1999, 2000 and 2001 championships, before losing just one game in 2002, knew they were at a crossroads. One path led to success, the other to months of introspection.

So they weren’t prepared to move, either emotionally or physically.

The protocol was for them to step left after they walked down the tunnel.

Johnson went right.

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson caused a minor diplomatic incident when he refused to move his squad at Landsdowne Road (Photo By David Rogers/Getty Images)

Ireland’s team, meanwhile, were still in the tunnel waiting to get the go-ahead from the IRFU official. Also waiting was President McAleese. England had invaded Ireland’s space; O’Sullivan was told to sort the problem out.

“Think about it, you’re prepping for a grand slam decider, you’re a coach, you’re considering all the things that could happen in a match, knowing your concentration has to be at its fullest because so many things can go wrong in a game of rugby, so many broken things have to be fixed. That’s where your mind is,” says O’Sullivan. “You aren’t thinking about guys having to move to another part of a carpet.”

Yet even though it should never have been his issue to solve, he had the responsibility of addressing it.

“It was an impossible situation,” he says. “England wouldn’t move and we weren’t going to take on England’s position on their side of the carpet because that would have been ridiculous. Nor were we going to stand in front of them because in that scenario we would have been standing with our backs to our President. So I’m considering all these options when this fella is pleading with me to make a quick decision. ‘Right,’ I said, ‘we’ll go to our normal side but beyond where they are’.”

This may seem inconsequential from the distance of 20 years but the visuals were awful. An Irish President was required to walk down a stretch of carpet to shake the hands of every English player and then step onto the Lansdowne Road mud to greet the Irish team.

This may seem inconsequential from the distance of 20 years but the visuals were awful. An Irish President was required to walk down a stretch of carpet to shake the hands of every English player and then step onto the Lansdowne Road mud to greet the Irish team.

“Let me put it this way,” O’Sullivan says. “Imagine if we’d pulled that trick at Twickenham. Imagine if the Queen or a member of the Royal Family had to walk off the red carpet in their capital city to stand in the mud and wait for the anthems. Can you even begin to consider the outcry that would have followed?”

If that incident annoyed him, then the game that followed was even grimmer, England winning 42-6, running away with it in the last quarter when they emptied their bench around the time Ireland emptied their tank.

After years of waiting for a Grand Slam, Ireland had red faces over the red carpet. “If I was in Martin Johnson’s position I’d have done exactly the same thing,” said Ronan O’Gara in his autobiography. “Their attitude that day was ‘not an inch’.”

Eddie O'Sullivan
Eddie O’Sullivan has led Ireland to their first Grand Slam decider in 21 years (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

This is John Hayes from his memoir, The Bull: “You’d nearly admire Johnson for being so brazen and stubborn about it.”

The following day the Irish papers were full of the story, one columnist, Ger Loughnane, saying Ireland were defeated from the moment Johnson took up his spot. “Well, that’s nonsense,” said O’Sullivan. “We lost because they were a better side. We just weren’t developed enough.”

But they were getting there.

Twenty years on, some context is needed.

This Saturday Ireland are chasing their third Grand Slam in 14 years but back in 2003 they were hoping to win their first in 55. They had beaten Australia the year before but had only beaten England once in nine years and had not defeated the Springboks since 1965. A victory over New Zealand was 13 years away. In short, Ireland were nearly men. “We kind of limped into that Grand Slam decider,” says O’Sullivan. “No one considered us contenders at all.”

“We learned so much from that 2003 defeat… learned so much from England. Like, let’s move on from the red carpet thing. They were gracious in victory.

But after that day they knew they could be.

“We had a gameplan to deal with them,” says O’Sullivan, “and the strategy we worked on in 2003 (the wide-wide tactic) – worked out for us when we won in Twickenham a year later.”

But by then it was different. Johnson was gone from the England side whereas the maturing Ronan O’Gara, Gordon D’Arcy and Paul O’Connell had moved up from the fringes to start in the Irish one. At Twickenham in ‘04, Ireland were ready. At Lansdowne Road, a year earlier, they weren’t.

“The significance of playing for a Grand Slam in 2003 is that we got a glimpse of the big time, what it felt like to experience a big, big match,” says O’Sullivan. “We saw England go on to win a World Cup that year and we felt we could close the gap.”

To do so certain things had to change: “As much as we wanted it in 2003,” wrote O’Gara, “England wanted it more.”

From then on, they had to match that desire.

“And we did,” says O’Sullivan. “We learned so much from that 2003 defeat… learned so much from England. Like, let’s move on from the red carpet thing. They were gracious in victory. Clive Woodward, I’ve a lot of time for him. He spoke after the game in 2003 and was so respectful.

England Grand Slam
England were comfortable 42-6 winners over Ireland and went onto win the World Cup later that year (Photo By David Rogers/Getty Images)

“A year later, when we beat them in Twickenham, he was just as gracious. He came into our dressing room and said we deserved the win. You remember those gestures.”

O’Sullivan also remembers where Ireland was. “Look in the 1990s we lost to everyone, teams like Namibia, Italy, Samoa and Argentina – at a time when the Pumas were amateur while we were supposed to be professional.

“By 2003, we were much better. England won a Grand Slam but after the game, there was a determination from the players to go and do it, too. Eventually, six years later, many of that Irish team did that, under Declan Kidney. And they earned it. That team was talented but also honest, they were true grafters.”

No one typified that more than Byrne.

He was a late developer, not winning his first cap until he was approaching 30.

Other things have changed too. Lansdowne Road is now the Aviva. ‘Little old’ Ireland are now prefixed as The World’s No1 ranked side. O’Sullivan, the coach is now a pundit; Johnson, the indifferent diplomat, is long retired. England, the powerhouse, have long since faded.

That day in 2003, it wasn’t the red carpet that got to him but the anthems that followed. “You’re doing all you can to stop crying like a baby but inside you are balling,” Byrne said, “because the Six Nations, for me, is the greatest tournament in the world. You have over a century of tradition. That sense of belonging, that this is our national team; the rivalries, the history. That day in 2003, it dawned on you that you could add to that history.”

This weekend another set of Irish players have their chance. Once again the red carpet will be rolled out but a different Irish president and different English captain will tread upon it.

Other things have changed too. Lansdowne Road is now the Aviva. ‘Little old’ Ireland are now prefixed as The World’s No1 ranked side. O’Sullivan, the coach is now a pundit; Johnson, the indifferent diplomat, is long retired. England, the powerhouse, have long since faded and Ireland, the fall guys from ’03, have embarked on a magic carpet ride of their own, one that has taken them to New Zealand and back to Dublin.

Again a Grand Slam is on the line. Again it is England. But this time no one expects the rug to be pulled from underneath their feet.

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