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Matthews haunted by World Cup woe

Big read: Philip Matthews

By Michael Sadlier

Some 24 years on and it still gnaws at him. Not continually, but from time to time the memory elbows its way into his thoughts.

Philip Matthews was just minutes away from leading Ireland into the barely believable environment of a World Cup semi-final.

But just as Lansdowne Road was celebrating Gordon Hamilton's dramatic try and Ralph Keyes' superb conversion, the opportunity to beat Australia crashed and burned with Michael Lynagh somehow tumbling over the line in the dying moments.

"I've never got over the experience," said Matthews of how his second and last World Cup campaign came to an end. "I was thinking about it the other night. From such a high to total numbness and disbelief. It was really a case of 'what happened there?'"

As fate would have it, the 55-year-old is not the only family member to have tasted the deep hurt of dramatic defeat in high-profile sport.

Matthews' daughter Hannah was part of the Ireland women's hockey side which recently lost out to China in a nerve-shredding penalty shoot-out with qualification for the Rio Olympics the available prize.

And the despair of that reverse clearly lingered as the hockey squad then went on to lose heavily to the USA, a result which ended any prospect of making the Olympics.

"She won't ever get over that," said the former Ulster player who was capped 38 times for Ireland.

"And I know she will lie in bed at night and be thinking 'what if', just as I still do. For me, you think, if only that ball hadn't done that. And you think wouldn't a semi-final at Lansdowne Road against the All Blacks have been amazing.

"Then you go, 'no, that never happened'. Yes, but it was there, if we'd only hung on.

"As for Hannah she will never get over her experience, and I've never got over mine."

You wonder if being beaten by the Wallabies, who were the eventual winners back in 1991, has in any way offered him something by way of consolation. Matthews laughs before answering: "Not really, no."

Fair enough. He will be sitting down to watch today's opening outing for Ireland against Canada with his sons and won't be attending the games or indeed working at them - he does stints for the BBC as a co-commentator.

So, the conversation naturally drifts towards Joe Schmidt's class of 2015 and whether the former ultra-physical flanker believes that Ireland can finally boldly go where they never been before by making a semi-final and even the shoot-out for the Webb Ellis trophy.

"It's possible, but it can't be taken for granted," said Matthews, who won his final Ireland cap in 1992 and was a key part of Mick Doyle's Triple Crown winning side seven years earlier.

"Ireland have got to top the group and it comes down to ourselves and France vying for that preferential quarter-final.

"That game against France (on October 11 in Cardiff) is the last group stage game but it will be looked at as a knockout game and a must-win."

And should Ireland negotiate this hurdle then an opportunity opens up which could result in Schmidt and co being there on the last Saturday in October at the Twickenham final. The hype is building, but Matthews urges caution.

"Making the final is a possibility. If Ireland can beat France then, yes, there are two games to negotiate and it can be done," he said.

"Can I really see Ireland in the final? Anything is possible, but it's a huge leap to say that anything is probable."

Ireland's record really isn't great in this tournament and Matthews argues that the pressure of expectation will be more intense than anything even current skipper Paul O'Connell will have experienced before, even that of 2007 when a highly fancied Ireland imploded.

"There is a different pressure now because there is all that weight of expectation," he said. "The public and media are saying semi-final at least. Nobody talked of such things when I was playing.

"In some respects it's great to have people talking about you in that way. But you can't let any of it seep in to take any edge off your game."

As for Ulster's contingent at the tournament, Matthews zooms in on rising star Iain Henderson as a key figure.

"There's a point where certain players announce themselves on the world stage," he said of Henderson, who is due to start in today's game alongside the soon to depart O'Connell.

"This is also a chance for him to show that he can be a leader and a dominant character."

Mention is also made of Rory Best's influence as an on and off-field leader and the skills-set which Jared Payne possesses, though Matthews feels that the latter needs more attacking opportunities and also potential rivals for that No.13 shirt.

And he reckons Australia are the ones who could topple New Zealand's bid for back-to-back titles.

"They (Australia) pulled off a win against the All Blacks which they (New Zealand) quickly reversed but the key is that Michael Cheika (Australia coach) knows he can do it now and the squad know they can do it," he said.

So it all ends up where the conversation started, with Australia featuring heavily.

His time has been and gone and it's fine to talk about things as they are now. It's just that Matthews and Ireland could have been contenders had fate not conspired so cruelly against them that day back in 1991.

And that still hurts. Deeply.

Matthews factfile

Born: Gloucester on January 21,1960

Age: 55

Educated: Regent House and Queen’s University Belfast

Position: Blindside flanker

International career: Played and captained Ulster and Ireland and won 38 caps for the national side between 1984 and 1992. A Triple Crown winner in 1985, he also played in the 1987 and 1991 (pictured against Zimbabwe) World Cups

Today: Lives in Dublin and is President of the National College of Ireland

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