The Mole remembers the first time he saw Martin Johnson play. It was in Donnybrook in 1993 in the A international. Johnson had already been capped that season and would go on to play two of the Lions’ tests against New Zealand a few months later. There was already talk that he was one to watch but what sticks in the Mole’s mind was seeing the full England team walk past on their way to the stand. They were all in their civvies with no tracksuits and certainly no iPods.
Wade Dooley stood out because he was enormous, although not as tall as Martin Bayfield. Jeff Probyn looked small and old and Barnesie looked unfit. Happier days. In those days the A internationals, which might have been called B internationals at the time – Granpa Simpson moment – served a purpose. They provided potential internationals, and those out of favour but in contention, an opportunity to showcase their ability at a level closer to international grade. The A teams did not get the same opportunity to prepare as the full team but the standard of player was higher than most would have been accustomed to week in, week out.
However, this was in the days of amateurism when the All Ireland League was the highest domestic standard available. Deciding who could make the step up to compete at international level was difficult to judge and Ireland’s results during the 90s point to the fact that the transition often proved too much.
The very same English players mentioned above, and their Irish opponents, all had jobs to go back to on the Monday. Ackford and Dooley were coppers, Probyn a furniture restorer while Barnesie sold mortgages and played for Bath.
A lot has changed since then and it’s difficult to see what the point of the games is. All of the provinces play at a higher level than the Wolfhounds will attain because they get to train together more frequently. Will Ian Madigan be picked for the Wolfhounds? Who cares, he’s scored a bucket of tries this season and his game is on display on a regular basis playing for Leinster. As the Wolfhounds is effectively a scratch team, most of the players will find it a drop in standard as they play a simpler pattern with players they are less familiar with. The provinces must view the games as a nuisance, a potential source of injuries for their players and a disruption to training.
The excitement of being a salesman on the road and getting a call telling you that you have made the A team – only one step away! – is no longer relevant in professional rugby. Its time these games were done for.