Irish Rugby & It’s Cricket Connection
Hot on the heels of the Irish rugby team’s incredible win over England at the weekend, we take a look at the long, rich connection the sport shares with our great game of cricket.
There is no fixture more guaranteed to warm the blood of an Irish supporter than Ireland v England – in any sport.
Some of the most memorable days were those when victory was secured over our biggest neighbour – in football it was Stuttgart 1988, in rugby Lansdowne Road 1985, Twickenham 2006, Croke Park 2009 and Aviva Stadium 2015. But another famous win over England was secured far from the lush green fields of these islands, one just as joyful and historic for followers of a sport that has made huge strides here in the last decade – cricket.
In 2011, in Bangalore, India, Ireland were given no chance of beating England before Kevin O’Brien made the fastest century in World Cup history to clinch a famous victory. The sides meet again in early May in Bristol and, for the first time, at the famous Lord’s Ground in London.
Playing for Ireland will be several men with deep links to rugby, including coach John Bracewell, a New Zealander whose father and three brothers played provincial rugby. Rugby is John’s first love and he himself played senior for Dunedin alongside All Blacks Buck Shelford and Frano Botica.
“Whilst I loved it, the truth was that whilst I had reasonable skills I lacked pace”, he admits.
Shortly after arriving in Dublin he had a beer with Joe Schmidt when they discovered they had links back home. As a teacher, Joe taught a boy in Tauranga called Kane Williamson who is current Black Caps captain.“We meet now and again for a coffee and chew the fat about New Zealand sport and Irish sport”, explains Bracewell. “Joe wants to talk cricket and me rugby.
“We do have a couple of commonalities and that is beating our home country – and above all else The Poms. We text before and after each international with a ‘good luck’, ‘hard luck’ or ‘well done’.”
“In New Zealand a lot of Kiwis play both rugby and cricket. The games are completely different not only on the surface but deep down as well. Historically individual cricket statistics are the measure of a players standing, not as in rugby where wins are the measure. “
The coach has a fascinating take on the nature of the sports. “Rugby to me is a true Socialist game, all based on the collective effort to gain glory. Cricket is capitalistic by nature – you are in a community than needs to win but individuals can and are encouraged to stand out.
“The All Blacks have a saying ‘Better People Make Better All Blacks’ this only exists because of the nature of the game itself and of course depth of talent. Natural selection occurs when you have enough good players for every position. Natural selection being you pick the best bloke.”
“The nature of the reliance on the individual star in cricket makes this harder to manage. Ego is king which make it the great challenge for a Socialist coach. Hence the reason I love it.”
For many years cricket and rugby in Ireland went hand-in-hand. The best Irish cricketer of the 19th century, Lucius Gwynn, played in all three games of the 1894 Triple Crown. Fourteen men have been capped at both sports, including Ham Lambert and Kevin Quinn, but the last to do so was Raymond Hunter, who played in the mid-1960s. Ulster coach Neil Doak won 32 cricket caps and was on the bench against Fiji in 1995, but never got on to the field.
Modern schoolboy players have to choose early to specialise, but rugby stars like John Robbie, Jack Kyle and Mike Gibson all played cricket for Ireland Schools. Several current cricketers played rugby for their schools, including Andrew Balbirnie (St Andrew’s), Ed Joyce (Pres Bray) and Barry McCarthy (St Michael’s).
Gary Wilson played alongside Paul Marshall on the Methody medallion side, captaining them to the 2001 Shield, and represented Ulster Schools. “I sat on the bench for both games but played the second half and a good part of the first against a Leinster team that included Johnny Sexton”, he recalled.
“We won the game 18-3, a great result before going down to a strong Munster side in Limerick a week later. We were fairly strong ourselves with both Paul Marshall and Darren Cave in the back line and David Pollock and the late John McCall in the back row. John tragically died only a few months later while playing for Ireland under 19s in the World Cup. He was a fine player and no doubt would have gone on to great things with Ulster and Ireland.
“I’m still a big fan of Ulster and Ireland now and watch their games with great interest. Even though I miss the game itself the physicality of those guys now is something else! I wasn’t the greatest of tacklers even back in my schoolboy days so I dread to think what it would be like now. It’s great to see the fast pace that the game is being played at now and the skill level of even the forwards is phenomenal.”
Batsman Paul Stirling gave up rugby before leaving Belfast High, so the world lost its chance to see a loose-head prop who took goal-kicks! Paul’s dad, Brian, was an international referee for several seasons.
“I was very young when my dad finished up refereeing, around the same time the sport turned professional. He was my primary school headmaster while his good friend and current IRFU President Stephen Hilditch was my secondary school principal so there was never any issue with getting the nod to play sport ahead of my studies!”
In 2000, the first year of TMO, Stirling senior made a historic call to award Dan Luger a try in the 87th minute that gave England an epic win over Australia. “For him to give anything in England’s favour he must have been certain it was a try”, chuckles Paul.
Josh van der Flier made his senior cricket debut at 16 for YMCA, and impressed his captain Alan Lewis – who himself won 121 cricket caps before refereeing 45 rugby internationals. “Josh was a fabulously athletic cricketer,” Alan recalled. “He could bowl at a decent pace. He had that determination to get better and eventually opted for rugby – but he could have been a very, very good cricketer.”
Van der Flier played on YMCA underage sides with fellow Leinster Rugby star Jordan Larmour, while Clontarf’s former Ireland hopeful Jordan Coghlan passed up on a chance of a county career with Hampshire for rugby with Leinster, Munster and Nottingham.
It’s a busy summer for Ireland’s cricketers, and Joe Schmidt will get a chance to see his former pupil play four times in Dublin when the Black Caps take part in a tri-series with Ireland and Bangladesh from 12-24th May. West Indies are also coming to Belfast, in September, and the Ireland Women are hosting South Africa in June.
“The great thing about Irish sports fans is that they will support the country in anything,” says Wilson. “We saw when we played England at Malahide three years ago that the atmosphere can be produced in cricket and I guess it’s just about promoting that as much as we can.
“It’s clear to see how much pride the rugby boys have in wearing the green jersey and when the anthems are played at the Aviva the atmosphere is special with 50,000 people singing along.
“As cricketers we have equally as much pride in playing and it’s our dream that maybe one day we can sing along with even 20,000. If you are into your sport, came and give it a go… plenty of people from outside the cricketing circle or the country have come in and never looked back!”
Stirling reckons the sports have a similar appeal. “I think the spirit in which cricket and rugby are played attract similar personalities and supporters. Playing hard on the field while also enjoying a beer with the opposition afterwards isn’t often the case in other sports.”
Further details of Ireland’s games, and travel packages for Bristol (May 5) and Lord’s (May 7) can be found on www.cricketireland.ie