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Ireland's Japan hopefuls must beware the ghosts of 2007 warns Rory Best

Poor show: Ireland’s Neil Best is tackled by Italy’s Sergio Parisse
Poor show: Ireland’s Neil Best is tackled by Italy’s Sergio Parisse
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Having waited 53 years to see the national team return to Belfast, the capacity 14,000 crowd had to wait well over the 80 minutes for the win.

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While today's World Cup warm-up between Italy and Ireland promises to be a low-key affair, when these sides last met for the same purpose 12 years ago in Ravenhill, it proved to be anything but.

Given the disastrous tournament that followed, the so-called Golden Generation failing to reach even the usual stumbling block of the quarter-finals, the game has gone down in lore - right there with Bordeaux hotels, Namibia and Mikaera Tewhata's sucker punch on Brian O'Driscoll - yet it was significant even before hindsight granted it such status.

"The interest was huge," recalls former Ulster and Ireland flanker Neil Best who would win the last of his 18 Ireland caps at the subsequent World Cup.

"The first game in Belfast in more than 50 years, it was sold out in a few days."

Games at Ravenhill used to be commonplace - Ireland's 1948 Grand Slam was won at the home of Ulster Rugby - but ceased in the 1950s, the final straw allegedly coming when a number of the squad for the Five Nations game against Scotland in 1954 had to be persuaded to stand for the playing of 'God Save the Queen'.

The incident that can be seen as the genesis of the great 'Rose of Tralee' farce at the 1987 World Cup, and indeed the writing of 'Ireland's Call', was brought to mind more than five decades later when the issue of political symbols was seemingly no less contentious for those looking to make an issue of the side's Belfast return.

Even in post-Troubles Ireland, as soon as the Lansdowne Road redevelopment made such a fixture likely, the rumblings about anthems and flags predictably began, a saga that dragged on long past the game with Ulster Unionist peer Lord Laird accusing the Ulster Branch of "blatant anti-Britishness".

In the end, the kick-off ceremonies consisted of 'Ireland's Call' and the flying of the IRFU and Italian flags, the latter seemingly liberated from a local restaurant on the day of the game.

Through all the hubbub, the players had far more pressing issues to be concerned with during their week's training at Campbell College. The side narrowly missed out on the Six Nations title earlier in the year, prompting O'Driscoll to embrace the unusual pre-tournament pressure.

"We have to be one of the top four or five who can actually win it," he had said.

By the time Belfast rolled around, it was already becoming clear that things were going awry. Over-trained and under-cooked, many frontliners had been rested for the summer tour to Argentina and, when they returned, a defeat to Scotland and scratchy performance in a bruising encounter against Bayonne did not augur well.

"It's funny the things you remember about games," reflects Best. "(I remember) the weather was mint and Sergio Parisse going mental when somebody pulled (Martin) Castrogiovanni's hair but I don't seem to remember the result."

It was so nearly unforgettable.

Hometown favourite Andrew Trimble - playing 13 thanks to O'Driscoll's injured jaw - had gotten over for an early try but Italy led in the final seconds thanks to a late Matteo Pratichetti score. With the clock red, Ronan O'Gara saved Ireland's blushes but it was a match-winner blighted by controversy and taking some four minutes for referee Nigel Owens and his TMO to finally award Ireland the 23-20 win.

A cursory glance through some of the autobiographies since written by the squad tells much about how the win was viewed.

"The performance was a shambles," wrote O'Gara later. "We were flat. No spark. Dead."

Eddie O'Sullivan admitted later: "I knew we were in trouble the night we played Italy."

As for the World Cup that followed?

"I think we just try to forget that '07 ever happened, right throughout," says current Ireland skipper Rory Best wryly.

But what can the current crop take from such experiences ahead of today's first warm-up and the big trip to Japan?

"I think the big thing that we learned is that you can't presume that everything is going to be alright when you get to the World Cup," continues the man who, while sitting out today, is the only survivor of the 2007 crop in Joe Schmidt's current group.

"You've got to attack every moment. I think in '07, probably the biggest mistake in hindsight was leaving 15 people behind when the rest went to Argentina (on the summer tour). It kind of made a statement, 'This is our starting team, the rest of you are playing for 16 spots' and that isn't good for a squad.

"We would be going to games and really the attitude of those warm-ups was, 'Right, if we don't get any injuries, we're a really good team when we have this 15 out', or this 16 or 18 or whatever number we could lean on.

"And that was brought into the Italy game, which we should have lost, but then the first two games against Namibia and Georgia, they were games where we really should have made a real statement and all that happened was we played c***.

"You don't really know what you're going to do at a World Cup until you do it, and then you hope it's right."

That was his first World Cup, as he prepares for his last, and the final days of his career, the soon-to-be 37-year-old senses a different energy.

"I think that the fact that the squad is so competitive helps," he says. "Boys are going to be coming out going, 'Right, this is my chance to be out in front, I'm going to put my hand up and say, I want to be in that squad and put the pressure on people who are playing the next week and the week after that'."

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