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Rugby World Cup Ireland v Argentina: Kieron Dawson still haunted by nightmare in Lens

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 16/10/2015

Bad memories: Kieron Dawson shows his dejection after Ireland’s defeat by Argentina in the World Cup back in 1999
Bad memories: Kieron Dawson shows his dejection after Ireland’s defeat by Argentina in the World Cup back in 1999

Lens. For members of Ireland's 1999 World Cup squad, the very mention of the small city in northern France is enough to produce a shudder.

It was there, 16 years ago this week, where Ireland suffered their first Test loss to Argentina, a result that saw them fail to reach the quarter-finals of the tournament for the first time in their history.

While Joe Schmidt's side are favourites to win their last-eight tie with the Pumas on Sunday despite injuries to Paul O'Connell, Jared Payne and Peter O'Mahony, as well as the suspension of Sean O'Brien, back then the men in green were expected to walk it.

Full-back Conor O'Shea called the subsequent 28-24 reverse the worst feeling of his career while then head coach Warren Gatland didn't get out of bed for three days after arriving back home.

For former Ulster player Kieron Dawson, the upset holds similarly bitter memories.

"It was an awful game of rugby, error-strewn and a terrible spectacle," the Bangor man recalled. "I think we were comfortable and had it well under control, but a couple of missed drop-goals and a couple of penalties and suddenly it was a game.

"Argentina were right back in it but I never felt like we were in any danger of losing until 10 minutes before the end when they scored."

It was after that Diego Albanese score that things took a turn for the farcical, the image of a majority of Ireland's team piling into a lineout but still failing to force their way over providing an enduring portrait of a day gone horribly wrong.

"The infamous 15 man lineout," Dawson laughed. "I remember certainly the feeling afterwards was that those last five minutes we were battering the Argentinian line and they killed the game. There must have been eight or nine penalties in a row.

"I hadn't thought about it at the time but it was only after I started to wonder why there hadn't been a couple of sin-binnings and a penalty try."

If the loss shocked the rugby world, Ireland's preparations made what followed all the more predictable.

With a quarter-final against France a reward for the victor, Gatland took the opportunity to rest a few key contributors while the hotel, in an industrial estate outside of the city, left the players thankful for a nearby McDonalds and not much else.

"I suppose the build-up to the whole game just felt like an inconvenience," said Dawson, who is now the coach of Worthing Raiders in England's fourth tier.

"Argentina weren't the rugby force that they are nowadays and perhaps we never thought we were realistically going to lose.

"Just seeing it out was the general feeling in the lead-up.

"I think our local chef knew that whoever won that game was going to play France in the quarter-final and it showed with the food we were given.

"Baguettes from a building site and soup that looked a lot like dishwater are what I remember from the menu.

"We filled a trolley with ham and cheese at a Carrefour one day and made our own lunch… it was the best we ate the whole trip."

Gatland survived the indignity to lead Ireland into the 2000 Six Nations, which duly began with a 50-18 humbling at the hands of England at Twickenham.

In the next game Ronan O'Gara, Peter Stringer, Shane Horgan, John Hayes and Simon Easterby were all handed debuts and Dawson thinks that, at the very least, the Argentina nightmare quickened the arrival of Ireland's so-called 'Golden Generation'.

"In hindsight it was the start of Argentina coming to rugby's top table and they've been able to beat us again at subsequent World Cups but for Ireland it was a watershed too," he said.

"The following Six Nations, we got thumped by England and it was almost as if we said 'right, it's time to make changes' and then we saw all the new caps come in.

"It was a horrendous thing, and one that I've tried to consign to the history of my mind, but it was a big watershed and it was only then that Ireland realised they had to embrace professionalism.

"I survived the cull that followed so there are probably a few others who have worse memories!"

While hugely impressed by Daniel Hourcade's Argentina so far in this World Cup, the former back-rower is expecting a wholly different outcome this weekend.

"The build-up will be very different this week," he said.

"I was there last weekend and the one word to describe Ireland was ruthless. When they got into the French '22' it was a case of not leaving unless they had points.

"It was one of the most impressive displays of ruthlessness that I think I've ever seen at that level. Everyone talks about the All Blacks, but that Ireland performance was right up there in terms of taking chances. It was just so impressive.

"There's some big injuries obviously but with Iain Henderson and Chris Henry to come in, they're two boys who have really impressed when they have been playing.

"The Irish fans have made the atmosphere simply unbelievable.

"I often go to games either with a coach's head on or an ex-player's head on, but it was lovely to just regress to almost being a schoolboy again, to just really enjoy watching my national team playing brilliantly.

"Getting up and jumping around like a lunatic all brought on just by the wave of atmosphere. It was electric.

"I had three Frenchmen beside me and that's the spirit of rugby union in a snapshot."

World Cup QF: Millennium Stadium, Sunday, 1.00pm

Ireland v Argentina

Belfast Telegraph

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