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'I'd loved to have played for Tyrone - I'm so proud of them winning last week's All-Ireland'

Irish rugby legend sees parallels with Tyrone’s All-Ireland winners and his all-conquering Ulster team of the ’80s.

NOVEMBER 18, 1989. A winter’s chill, a scudding wind and the Haka. A moment he will never forget and will never be allowed to.

If you weren’t one of the 53,000 in Lansdowne Road who saw it live, you may well be among the 4.3 million YouTubers who have watched it since, big Willie Anderson ignoring protocol to move within an inch of Wayne Shelford’s face.

You formed a picture of him then and words like crazed and warrior underlined the image. Yet that’s only a tiny part of his story. The rest is brilliantly told in his new book, Crossing the Line, written with Brendan Fanning. “Jeepers Willie,” his sister, Heather, said last week after reading it. “I didn’t even know half the things you went through.”

Few did.

“You need to read the book to the very end to understand what the life was about,” Anderson says. “The thing is it wasn’t always plain sailing for me.”

That’s quite the understatement.

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As a child he failed his 11-plus, the cruel entrance exam that divides the North way more than the border does. He’d later have to re-sit his O Levels (Northern Ireland’s equivalent of the Junior Cert) before finding solace and an identity on a rugby pitch. Even so, he was still mistreated.

Ulster Schools ignored him. “And that only made me work harder,” he’d say, his devotion to the gym accompanied by a thirst for knowledge but also a thirst for a pint. Then there was this yearning to teach. He’d find work in education; then be made redundant when cutbacks hit in the mid-‘80s.

If losing his job was tough, losing his freedom was worse. A prank on a rugby tour went wrong. He’d thought it funny to nick an Argentinean flag, knowing he already had a Canadian one hanging on his bedroom wall in Belfast. “It was meant to be a funny story to tell.” The only problem was Argentina was then governed by a humourless military junta and the flag Anderson lowered just so happened to be from the Department of Information. Only bad information flowed through a place like that.

So the price of an Argentinean flag was a couple of weeks in the slammer with nothing but his fears and the smell of a fellow inmate’s shite for company. A further three months under house arrest in Buenos Aires tested his character in a way 15 All Blacks performing a war dance never could.

He emerged from it all a different man, grateful to those who’d helped, apologetic to those he’d hurt. By now he was a shining light on an Ulster team who’d start the ‘80s in a slump and end it as Ireland’s stand-out side, conquerors of the grand slam touring Australians in 1984, winners of nine straight interprovincial titles. “We weren’t afraid of anything,” he says of that team.

It was just as well. Ulster then was a troubled place, one set of politicians angry, the other angrier. But while the front page of every newspaper told a story of failure, the back page was filled with success. Ulster Rugby spent years unbeaten; Northern Ireland’s football team qualified for successive World Cups; Barry McGuigan, Joey Dunlop, Denis Taylor and Alex Higgins won world championships in their specialist sports, a subtle way of reminding tone-deaf politicians that a role model didn’t need to wear a balaclava or a sash.  

Still, being in the public eye brought unwelcome things to your door. After serving a little time in Argentina, he had to spend time as a pariah. He was 29 before the Irish selectors considered him worthy of a cap, reinforcing the belief that in those dark, amateur days, it was often harder to get off the Ireland team than on it.

So, on 10 November, 1984, Willie Anderson from Sixmilecross, Tyrone, the son of an Orangeman, stood in Lansdowne Road as the Garda band played Amhrán na bhFiann. It was his first cap for Ireland. A week later a letter arrived in the post.

brian-spillane-willie-anderson-nigel-carr-and-brendan-mullin Anderson stands for the national anthem. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Dear Mr Anderson

The other Saturday when I was with a group of people, a loud cheer arose when it was announced that the Ireland Rugby Team was beaten again. You do not realise how much the Ireland Rugby Team is reviled. There are tens of thousands in Northern Ireland who actively hate this team. It all comes about by the reason that the Ireland Rugby Team stands to attention for the Soldiers Song and plays under the Tricolour. Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein and the Irish Americans would be proud of you all. This anthem glorifies, praises and honours the IRA.

Yours truly, Anti Ireland Rugby Team.

He knew it was coming. He read it, and immediately thought about where rugby had brought him, beyond Ulster’s borders to clubhouses in Dublin, Limerick, Cork and Galway where the players sang the same songs and drank the same pints. In fact, it allowed him travel further afield, to Argentina and Romania. “One country was run by fascists, the other by communists. Human rights didn’t exist in either place. It opened your eyes. Life is too short to allow narrow attitudes.

“Like when I was coaching the Rainey (a school in County Derry), we had eight Protestants on our team and seven Catholics. This was in the ‘80s. They were all great friends. Sport is about unity, not division. That’s what makes it so great. I’m a rugby man but I’m also a Tyrone man and what the county team achieved last Saturday (winning the All-Ireland football championship) just makes me so proud.

“As a cub, I was so envious that all these boys were allowed to kick a ball on a Sunday when we weren’t even allowed to whistle.

“I think it’s an incredible sport. I admire their tenacity, their training, their hardness. You give me a Gaelic footballer and I’d easily be able to make a rugby player out of him because the majority of them are as hard as nails.

“Thomas, my son, played it (Gaelic football) since he was 11. I remember him playing a championship match in front of 2,000 people and those fans were giving it loads. It wasn’t a case of ‘come on chaps, do your best’. It was fierce passion, raw; it reminded me of what we had playing for Ulster.

the-tyrone-team-celebrate-with-the-sam-maguire-cup Tyrone celebrate with the Sam Maguire. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“Tyrone have that same desire. I’d loved to have played (for Tyrone). Near the end of my rugby career, I did train with a club side in Magherafelt because I knew it was good for my running, my handling, my kicking, just for basic toughness. I just wish I’d had those skills drilled into me when I was a cub.”

***

With Anderson there has always been so much to understand, so much to explain. He’s a Protestant from Tyrone whose obsession was to play for Ireland. He was 29 when he finally did so, the season Ireland won the Triple Crown under Mick Doyle. Four years later, Doyle’s successor, Jimmy Davidson, made him captain. His first Test as skip was that day against New Zealand.

“When I was a cub, maybe 11 or 12, I fell in love with this game. When I watched it on TV and when I saw players standing for the anthems, I had an ambition, a dream like a lot of other kids had at that time. I said to myself, ‘I am going to do that; I want that, I’ll get there’.

“To fulfill that dream, it meant standing for the Irish national anthem in Lansdowne Road. So that song was part of my dream. And for a lot of people of my religion, they cannot understand that.

“But the thing is we had respect for players from Leinster, Munster, Connacht, for their values, for what they stood for as people. There was never a mention of politics whenever we were in (Ireland) camp together. The one time they realised what we lived through was when Davy (Irwin), Philip (Rainey) and Nigel (Carr) got caught in that bomb (in 1987 en route to an Ireland training session).

nigel-carr-and-willie-anderson Carr and Anderson in action for Ulster. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“That brought it home to those (Leinster/Munster/Connacht) guys. They seemed to realise, ‘woah, our team mates could have been wiped out there’.

“That was a big, big turning in some guys’ views.”

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Carr’s career-ending injury was also a turning point in terms of Ireland’s results. They went to the inaugural World Cup without their star flanker, before losing their coach, Doyle, to ill health on the eve of the tournament. So no Carr, no Doyle, no chance? That wasn’t how Anderson saw it. He expected Ireland to make the semis. “The reason Ireland lost so many games in those days was because we weren’t fit enough. We might have had seven whose fitness was up to scratch– but you didn’t have 15. It sounds ridiculous but that is the way it was.”

Ulster was a refuge, later a source of hurt. He won 78 caps across 13 seasons – ‘these days that’d be the equivalent of about 300’. Yet despite all those caps, those nine interpro titles, that team isn’t feted the way it should be. “Whenever we played the All Blacks in 1989, we literally didn’t have a full set of tracksuits. I mentioned this in an interview and The Belfast Telegraph and Smithwicks sorted us out with (tracksuit) tops.

“We beat Australia; we won nine titles in a row. Most of us played for Ireland. Out of that team you had lots of very talented communicators, very talented people who would have loved to have contributed to the professional era, whether it was with the academy boys, whether it was to do talks, or just to be brought along to Ravenhill.

“When professional rugby arrived, it was like Cambodia, in that everything was day zero from that day forward. My son has a brick in the wall (at the Kingspan Stadium) for his contribution to Ulster Rugby (Thomas played for the province for a period in the noughties) but the guys (who beat Australia in 1984) just aren’t properly recognised.”

Recognition in Belfast finally arrived for Anderson in 2016, after a coaching career that had taken him from the IRFU to Dungannon, London Irish, Leinster and Scotland, finally saw him work with the province he loved. “When I went in originally (as academy director), I just couldn’t understand the mentality. I can’t say there were no values. There were. It’s just they were different to what we had. I aired this. I said, ‘We need to get back to what it means to put on that jersey. You are only borrowing that jersey for the next person to wear. You have to honour it’. A lot of guys didn’t understand this.

“But we had a great group of academy guys that Dan (McFarland, the current Ulster head coach) has brought through. Mike Lowry, James Hume, Tom O’Toole, Dave McCann, Marcus Rea – they were put through a process that this is what it takes to play for Ulster. We drilled it into them. Michael Lowry is an exemplar of it because he was just an amazing kid on and off the pitch. I could see the seed growing.

michael-lowry Lowry is a product of Ulster's academy. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“It was great to work with them; great to be back but when you are 65, your time comes to an end. You move on.”

But there’s one thing he will never move on from.

On 2 December 1992, he was on the road home, driving through his village, when a boy ran out through a gap between a tractor and a bus. Willie slammed on the brakes but the collision was unavoidable. Distressingly, the boy died the following day.

“It was a tragedy. ……..a tragedy for both families,” Anderson says. “It affected both families. The toughest thing I had to do (in relation to his autobiography) was to write to his father for permission to insert some detail about it for the book. I think about it every day of my life. Not a day goes by without me doing so. It did shape me positively and negatively.

“People have to read that chapter of my book to understand that.”

The boy’s name was Glen McLernon. The greatest rugby autobiography ever written is dedicated to his memory.

* Crossing the Line, by Willie Anderson and Brendan Fanning, published by Reach Sport, is available in all good book shops

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more>

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