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RUGBYPASS+ Willie Anderson: A life less ordinary

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Willie Anderson: A life less ordinary By Garry Doyle

Do you remember where you were when you first saw it? Seated at home in front of the TV? Or were you one of the 4.3 million YouTubers who typed in haka and ended up watching Big Willie Anderson come closer than anyone to starting a pre-match riot?

Possibly you were among the 53,000 patrons inside Lansdowne Road on that autumnal day, remembering the slow march forward, the noise of the haka drowned out by the guttural roar of a crowd who’d gotten used to Ireland losing matches before a ball had even been kicked. Now, they were being led by a moustached madman who didn’t know the meaning of fear.

Well, at least that was how it seemed, as Willie Anderson, the Ireland captain, grabbed his team-mates by the arm and moved to within an inch of Wayne Shelford’s face, his wild eyes zoning in on the All Black leader.

Fearless? Oh, what people didn’t know was that by then Big Willie Anderson knew fear’s look and smell, alright. Nine years earlier, he’d toured Argentina with a team called the Penguins. If the Barbarians are rugby’s George Michael, then the Penguins were Andrew Ridgeley. Still, they knew how to gather a group of players, how to arrange a few fixtures, flights and hotels. Buenos Aires, 1980, two years before the Falklands War, four years after the Military Junta had imposed their vile rule over the country, was where they ended up.

Still, politics and human rights were not top of Anderson’s agenda in 1980. Getting a souvenir from the tour was.

The night out had been fun. Everyone was drinking, singing and laughing, and as they approached their hotel, Anderson noticed this fine looking Argentinian flag fluttering in the Buenos Aires breeze.

At one point, he had a gun placed to his head. At another, he was strip-searched. A couple of Argentine generals ‘wanted to have me executed’ while others ‘wanted to make sure I served at least 10 years of hard labour’.

“Wouldn’t that look nice on my bedroom wall?” he thought.

“Of course it would,” said his pals from the Penguins.

So, to cut to the chase, Anderson went up the flagpole and the flag came down. Issue over? If only. The flag he’d nicked was from a state-run building called ‘The Ministry of Information’ and sure enough information was quickly passed on to the local police by the night watchman on duty. A stolen flag in a fascist dictatorship was a big deal in 1980 and it’s fair to say the bobbies on duty didn’t quite get the whole concept that an old school rugby player was 50 per cent serious athlete, 50 per cent absolute messer.

Either way, Anderson was 100 per cent in deep shit.

Stealing an Argentinean flag equated to imprisonment. He was in the clink, two Penguins players there to keep him company for daring to help him climb that pole, before a fortnight later, they were both released. That left Anderson on his own, in a country where he knew no-one, facing the prospect of hell.

At one point, he had a gun placed to his head. At another, he was strip-searched. Day-long interrogations were followed by the knowledge that a couple of Argentine generals ‘wanted to have me executed’ while others ‘wanted to make sure I served at least 10 years of hard labour’

Eventually, after two weeks in prison, and a further three months under house arrest, he was released, free to come home. But those three months, denied his freedom, now that is what fear feels like, not the prospect of facing the haka and the 1987 world champions.

Jeremy Davidson
Two-time British and Irish Lion Jeremy Davidson, centre, counts Anderson as a major influence on his career (Getty Images)

“I’m an empathetic person but there is another part of me, a ying and yang,” says Anderson now. “I’m competitive, driven. You have to be aggressive to play the game and I had to get myself right up there emotionally to get to the level I needed to be at to face the toughest players in world rugby.

“It was a mental thing; it came from the fact it took me so long to get to play for Ireland (he was 29 when he made his debut, 33 when he captained Ireland and faced down the Haka).

“As a kid, I didn’t pass the 11 plus exam. I didn’t pass my O Levels, either. I had to go back and repeat (the exams). So rugby, look rugby was where I decided to put down my marker. I said to myself, ‘if you want to do this, you need to be right up there, you have to be everything’.”

Jimmy Davidson (the former Ulster and Ireland coach) shaped him tactically, technically and physically. “Jimmy D taught me how to be mentally tough. He knew I had to be right at the edge to play and a lot of time I crossed the line to get the edge. You had to be whenever you played against so many international teams, particularly the All Blacks and France. If you didn’t meet them fire with fire, you were going to be shredded. It was part of my nature too, that aggression. But I also have a side that is very helpful, very caring, understanding.”

A queue of witnesses is willing to take the stand to back up Anderson’s assertion. Here’s Jeremy Davidson, currently coach of Brive, who Anderson mentored: “There’s a tough side there but most of all there’s empathy. He was very much the most influential man I met in rugby.”

This is Noel Mannion who was dragged along by Anderson to face down the haka in 1989. “The respect I had for him and all the Ulster players who dealt with the death threats to play for Ireland in that period is absolute.”

After the Omagh bomb, which killed 28 people in 1998, it was Anderson who ignored protocol and arranged a fundraising charity match for the victims’ families. That entailed bringing his county’s nationalist Gaelic football team into the unionist heartland of the local rugby club. Those emotional bridges he built then still stand.

Here’s former British and Irish Lion, Nick Popplewell: “Fearless, Willie was fearless. That day against New Zealand, that was my debut. I remember thinking, ‘ah for f**k’s sake, I’m trying to remember the line-out calls here, Willie, and all of a sudden I’m nose to nose with Richard Loe’.”

Still, a point had to be made. Ireland may not have been technically very good, but ‘crossing the line’ – the title of Anderson’s new book – was not something they were going to shirk.

If you haven’t yet read Crossing the Line, then perhaps you should. It’s the finest rugby autobiography your correspondent has ever picked up, not just because of its accurate depiction of the amateur era, but for a million other reasons.

They say when you first visit Rome, you need to prepare yourself for jaw-dropping moments, how every corner turned leads you to another piece of architectural beauty. Well, this book is a little like that, page after page. The story of his incarceration in Argentina is fascinating; the thought processes behind his haka plan equally so. But there’s so much more.

As a child of The Troubles, Anderson knew what death felt like. A friend of his father’s, who worked on the family farm and regularly sat with the Andersons at dinner, was murdered by an IRA bomb. His Ulster and Ireland team mate, Nigel Carr, lost his career in a separate explosion, as he made his way to an Irish training session. “You lived in the eye of a storm, it swirled around you; and you just got on with it.”

Willie Anderson
Willie Anderson and Nick Popplewell muck about during training (Photo by Rui Vieira/EMPICS via Getty Images)

Anderson won 27 caps between 1984 and 1990 (Getty Images)

Yet he did much more than that. If you had to choose two sportsmen from that era who did more to bring divided communities together in war-torn Northern Ireland, Anderson, a Protestant, would be one, Barry McGuigan, the Catholic world boxing champion, the other.

After the Omagh bomb, which killed 28 people in 1998, it was Anderson who ignored protocol and arranged a fundraising charity match for the victims’ families. That entailed bringing his county’s nationalist Gaelic football team into the unionist heartland of the local rugby club. Those emotional bridges he built then still stand.

On the 27 occasions he played rugby for Ireland, he received 27 letters in the post from angry unionists who objected to him standing for ‘a foreign flag and a foreign (national) anthem’. It only hardened his resolve. Not only would he stand for Ireland’s anthem but also his principles.

“I have written the book for my children and my grandchildren. Yes, I did a few mad things when I was younger, but I had values and a desire to achieve something. I wanted to be honest and respectful, too. I wanted this book to be an absolutely honest reflection of my life, not filled with cherry toppings.”

You could see how Clive prospered in a high-powered environment with so many experienced players. He put that operation together and managed it well. But as a technical coach he was clueless.

That honesty results in a few sacred cows getting a belt. This is what he has to say about Sir Clive Woodward, who he worked with at London Irish in the 1990s: “Clive was a big picture guy who had no idea how to fill in the background. When I spoke to him about rugby detail, about planning and getting everyone aligned, about how we would actually play the game, he just zoned out. No interest. That took me by surprise. When there was no sign of it changing I realised we were on different paths.

“Years later, when I looked at the England set-up for the Rugby World Cup in 2003, you could see how he prospered in a high-powered environment with so many experienced players. In fairness to him he put that operation together and managed it well. That was his strength. But as a technical coach he was clueless.”

Harsh words. Sir Ian McGeechan, who crossed Anderson’s path when the Irishman worked alongside Matt Williams in Scotland, wasn’t spared a bit of bluntness, either. “The SRU moved McGeechan upstairs to replace Jim Telfer as director of rugby, with Matt succeeding him as Scotland’s coach.

“I think McGeechan struggled with the role and all the shite that went with it. He was a coach with a good feel for what the players needed. But Matt found him unresponsive to his demands. So the notion of having Edinburgh, Glasgow and Borders aligned went out the window early, because it would have involved busting a few balls to make it happen. I got the impression McGeechan didn’t have the appetite for that.”

Anderson’s appetite from the day he was first handed a spade at the family farm was for hard work. Fitness consumed him as a player; coaching from the year he led Ireland to face New Zealand’s haka. In time he’d work with Leinster, Scotland, London Irish but the one job he wanted more than most, his beloved Ulster, eluded him. Then finally, in 2016, he was placed in charge of their academy.

Willie Anderson
Anderson spent four years heading up Ulster’s academy (Getty Images)

“In coaching today, everyone thinks you have to be this hard man, this fella who thinks ‘look, my way is the right way’. Unfortunately a lot of coaches don’t understand you can achieve a monumental amount with empathy. They need to trust you and they need to respect you.

“I loved my four years (coaching in Ulster’s academy). I played 78 times for the province across 13 years. In today’s terms, that would equate to 300 caps. We beat Australia. We won nine interprovincial titles in a row.

“We were professional in our approach; professional in attitude, amateurs in terms that we never got paid. We fought harder than everyone else because we knew we had to fight twice as hard as anyone else to get capped by Ireland.

“I had to work like hell after the Argentina episode to get there. But I did get it. That tunnel vision existed.

“We had a passion, a siege mentality. By playing with that group of players, it was like you just believed we would do it. We played to the last second of every game; that was what it meant for me to play for the people (of Ulster).”

It probably saddens me that when I played, there were 15 Ulstermen playing. I’d love to see it again but whether it ever happens again, I don’t think so.

“Too many cubs today, when they hit a speedbump, get a setback early in their career, they stop playing whereas I never got anything easy. I didn’t get picked at representative level as a schoolboy; instead I played adult rugby from 18, surrounded by grown men. It was the making of me. I just kept going to achieve that goal. Playing for Ulster, eventually playing for Ireland, do you know why I put myself in harm’s way, why I was prepared to get badly hurt on a pitch; it was because I didn’t want to let that wee valley down, that wee village where I’m from. We were proud Ulstermen.”

The current Ulster batch is too. However, they aren’t nearly as successful.

“There is enough quality, enough young Ulster players to be in the majority every Friday night. If the coach or whoever says, ‘we are going to bring these cubs through, we are going to put them on and we are going to lose. We don’t mind if that happens. So please don’t you mind. We all want to win but these guys need to learn their trade’.

“It probably saddens me that when I played, there were 15 Ulstermen playing. I’d love to see it again but whether it ever happens again, I don’t think so.”

The good old days have gone. This book chronicles them in all their glory.

Crossing the Line by Willie Anderson and Brendan Fanning is published by Reach Sport

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