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Rugby World Cup: Willie Anderson can see a world of change in showpiece finals

By Jonathan Bradley

Willie Anderson is eagerly anticipating tomorrow evening's 2015 World Cup opener between England and Fiji, even if the tournament bears little resemblance to the one he took part in back in 1987.

The first global gathering took place in New Zealand, amid much concern that the competition would hasten the inevitable drive towards the professionalism that eventually arrived in 1995.

Anderson can draw few parallels between those nascent days and what organisers say is now the third biggest sporting event in the world.

"We played in New Zealand for that first tournament and I'd been in the team for a few years at that stage," he recalled.

"You worry about jet lag when you're travelling that far but in order for us to get there we were on the plane for 30 hours.

"I just remember my back and being barely able to straighten up whenever we eventually landed.

"We got off and went straight into what was a near two-hour training session in the pouring rain.

"I don't think I got out of bed for a day afterwards."

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While the France squad have already made murmurs about their less than glamorous base in Croydon, and the very mention of Ireland's temporary Bordeaux home in 2007 still brings a shudder from those involved, it's hard to imagine how today's player would have reacted to what met Ireland's first World Cup squad in the southern hemisphere.

"The accommodation was very, very poor but that was a sign of the game at the time," continued Anderson. "There certainly wasn't the money that's involved now.

"I ended up lying on the floor because the beds were that soft and it did nothing at all for your back.

"It had taken off in New Zealand, with sponsorship and the like, but not so much elsewhere. It hadn't really taken off in Australia."

If the relative off-field circumstances of the tournament then and now seem to have little in common, Anderson can see similarities between Ireland's bid for glory this time around and his own 28 years ago.

Back then they were drawn into a pool that also contained Wales, Tonga and Canada, knowing that the victors of the group would likely miss out on a daunting quarter-final meeting with Australia in their own backyard.

"Going over, we knew that the real key game for us was going to be the Wales one," recounted Anderson.

"We lost narrowly but it meant a Brisbane quarter-final against Australia."

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Despite leading 6-0 at half-time, Ireland could not hold on against the Welsh, ultimately losing by a score of 13-6, which forced them into a last-eight tie against the Australia of David Campese and Michael Lynagh.

"We played Tonga in Dunedin after that and won handily enough but it still meant we had to play Australia in Brisbane," said Anderson.

"There couldn't have been more of a contrast when we got there, it had lashed the whole time we were in New Zealand but the sun was shining in Brisbane.

"We had a good game but they were at home and had that bit more skill. It was a fantastic experience but it was bittersweet.

"We went in on the back of what was a good season in the Five Nations and we knew, as Ireland know now for this tournament with the game against France to avoid New Zealand, it was all going to come down to the Welsh match but it wasn't to be."

The fine margins of success and failure were highlighted by the two teams' respective fortunes after that day.

Ireland weren't in the game against the Wallabies, who raced into a 27-point lead before winning 33-15 - the first of Ireland's five quarter-final defeats - while Wales went on to record a third-place finish, still their best at the tournament.

Anderson's Ireland career afterwards saw him become captain, take on the All Blacks and compete in a further three Five Nations championships but not appear at another World Cup and he admits he would have loved a crack at the tournament in the professional era.

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"There's certainly some parts of the rugby in our day that I wouldn't swap for anything. I got to meet so many great players and people," he said. "I'd miss that camaraderie with the opposition.

"The boys now, you go in, have your bite to eat and you're on a charter flight back that night but I'd have loved the time to devote to preparation for a World Cup.

"We were doing our own training at night or in early morning… and a lot of times doing the wrong training.

"I was listening to Michael Lynagh the other day, he was saying about going from your 9-5 job straight to training and then having to find time to do his goal-kicking.

"It was the same with us and lineouts whereas nowadays that's all covered.

"We had Jimmy Davidson who could see down the track to what was necessary in regards to fitness, nutrition and yoga, but it's a different world now."

A few questions for our man Anderson

Q: Who was the best player you faced in your career?

A: Serge Blanco. I had the fortune to play against him a few times, and with him for the Barbarians back in 1984, and he was exceptional. Certainly not the shape Blanco is in now, but back then he could light up the crowd.

Q: What was it like to go up against New Zealand in 1989?

A: I was lucky enough to play the All Blacks in my career and it was a big occasion for me. We didn't play badly at all that day but they were certainly the better side. I always love watching them.

Q:Who would you most like to play with from today's game?

A:Richie McCaw. For a seven he has everything. He can carry, tackle and winning the ball on the ground is really his speciality, but he's just such a leader of men.

Q: Which of your amateur team-mates would have been best suited to the professional game?

A: Nigel Carr. If there is a player today who is fitter than he was then I'd pat them on the back. In terms of ability even more so. He was a big cog in our team and it was sad he had to retire prematurely.

Q: Which Ulster player will make a big impact over the next six weeks?

A: Iain Henderson. If he gets the nod he could be a guy who is one of the players of the tournament. He's a British Lion in the making for me. We don't have too many guys starting and from an Ulster perspective it would be great to see someone like that emerge.

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