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'I was wired': Ex-Ireland skipper on infamous All Blacks haka row

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Jim O'Kelly/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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Former Ireland skipper Willie Anderson has revealed how ex-All Blacks captain Andy Leslie unwittingly gave him the idea to infamously confront the haka by marching forward towards Buck Shelford’s team in Dublin in 1989. The 66-year-old Irishman has just written his autobiography, Crossing The Line, and graphic details of the now 32-year-old Lansdowne Road bust-up are contained in it.


Anderson created headlines around the rugby world when he led a V-shaped Ireland advance over the halfway line which resulted in them going nose to nose pre-game with Shelford’s New Zealand.

It was an incredibly raucous piece of theatre but what has now emerged in a book that is being published this month by Reach Sport (click here to purchase) is that the seed for Ireland’s confrontational approach was planted by Andy Leslie, the ten-cap ex-All Blacks skipper who went on to live in Limerick in the early 1990s where he coached Garryowen in the early days of the All Ireland League.

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The strong culture that binds the Black Ferns
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How to handle the haka was on the top of the to-do list of Jimmy Davidson, the Ireland coach at the time, and how Munster had lined up directly opposite the All Blacks at Musgrave Park in 1989 dominated the conversation between the coach and Anderson on their drive home from that match in Cork.

In the end, though, what Ireland decided to do with the haka for the subsequent Test match versus the All Blacks stemmed from a casual chat with Leslie. “In the week of the game we got some interesting insight from Andy Leslie, the former New Zealand captain,” wrote Anderson in The Flag, the Haka and Facing My Life, the entertaining book of his life and times written in collaboration with Brendan Fanning.

“Jimmy knew him [Leslie] well from Ireland’s tour to NZ in 1976. Andy was in town leading a supporters group and we met up for a chat. Off his own bat, Andy mentioned how the All Blacks loved it when teams wouldn’t meet the challenge of the haka full-on. Better still if they conceded ground. ‘It’s like we’re taking your territory – that’s the mental advantage,’ he said.


“Andy wasn’t giving us advice. He had no idea what we planned, but the moment the words came out of his mouth I could hear the wheels spinning in Jimmy’s brain… The plan was to link arms on the halfway line, look them in the eye, and stand our ground. I was wired. From the moment the All Blacks were getting into their wee shape my focus was locked on Shelford. I started shouting at him: ‘We’re gonna bate ye! We’re gonna bate ye!’

“Then I started inching my way forwards towards him. He had the loosehead prop, Steve McDowell, sharing the leadership role. They were out in front with the rest of the team spread out behind them. Shelford was already halfway to ‘Kamate Kamate’ land with his nostrils flaring and eyes bulging. And I was en route to joining him.

“The march forward was spur of the moment stuff. It just felt right. They were able to stomp their feet and make all sorts of gestures and we had to stand there and admire them? No, I wasn’t having that. But it rattled some of our lads who weren’t sure how this was going to end Davy (Irwin) and Phil (Orr) managed to find a balance between supporting the cause and not starting World War 3!

“Not easy in the circumstances. If anyone had taken my lead it would have been mayhem,” reckoned Anderson, the no-nonsense second row who was capped on 27 occasions by Ireland before embarking on a varied coaching career that included stints with Dungannon, London Irish, Leinster, Scotland and his native Ulster.


“I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. It was incredible how quickly the mood escalated. In an instant, the crowd were on board and my heart was beating out of my chest. Thankfully we hadn’t made contact before Shelford got to the last line, by which point the crowd were going mental. I was nose to nose with him. McDowell was pretty close to Nick Popplewell, a few yards to my left, who was winning his first cap.

“As it all broke up Sean Fitzpatrick was hovering with a menacing look on his face. We didn’t budge as the All Blacks broke up to take up their positions for the kick-off. That wasn’t planned either but the wee pause added dramatic effect. Then we broke ranks and I waved my arms to encourage the crowd as we went to receive the kick. The noise was incredible. Honestly, I’ve never been as pumped in all my life. My adrenaline rating would have been off the charts.”

Ireland’s confrontation of the haka ultimately didn’t work in their favour as the All Blacks ran out winners on a 23-6 scoreline. “When the media asked me about it I said New Zealand won the game and we won the dance,” continued Anderson. “On the day they recovered quickly enough to win well. That’s what good teams do, and they were excellent.”


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