Monday 25 September 2017

Sporting life put Spring in his step

The chairman of Ireland's bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup, former Tánaiste Dick Spring, talks about how a life rounded by politics and sport, not just rugby, is linked to the vision of a tournament that will unite this island

Dick Spring earlier this week with Philip Browne and Brian O’Driscoll at the World Cup 2023 bid launch at the Aviva Stadium Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Dick Spring earlier this week with Philip Browne and Brian O’Driscoll at the World Cup 2023 bid launch at the Aviva Stadium Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Some truths will always survive a post-truth era. Sport and politics have always mixed; they simply have to. Saying that one can breathe benignly in splendid isolation of the other is fatuous.

Insist that sport is divorced from politics and you might as well declare that it has nothing to do with life. When it is, in fact, everything.

The wonderful life of Dick Spring has taught him this much in his 66 years, throughout which his sense of family and place have been enriched by sport and politics.

More than a century after the birth in Tralee of his father Dan, a three-time All-Ireland winner with Kerry - in 1940 its captain - and a wonderfully libertarian man who would later become a Labour TD of 48 years standing, his son is chairing Ireland's attempt to hold the third biggest sporting event on the planet.

Dick followed his father's sporting and political steps - also shadowing him via law - and an inviolable strand of indigenous ecumenism can be traced throughout both men's lives.

"My dad was a legend of Kerry football," says Spring. "I wouldn't be sitting here if my father hadn't captained that team because he would never have gone to Dáil Éireann, I would never have been sent to boarding school and I would never seen a rugby ball. My life would have been a different story entirely."

His father was a union organiser when he met Lixnaw girl Anne, a psychiatric nurse. "They went off on two bicycles. I'm not sure there were many such romantic stories during World War II.

"Sport was totally dominant, it was all Gaelic; my uncle had nine county championship medals. My mother was a very strong woman who always regretted she didn't get third-level education. All she wanted for us was a full education, although she was immensely proud of our sporting achievements.

"We lived across the street from the Kerins O'Rahillys pitch, the sergeant would usher us off the street for fear of breaking windows.

"You were really welcome if you had a new football because you could see that in the dark. My poor mother would send for us at nightfall.

Dick Spring in action for Ireland against Wales in Cardiff Arms Park in 1979
Dick Spring in action for Ireland against Wales in Cardiff Arms Park in 1979

"At CBS Tralee and at Austin Stacks, Master Hayes was the main man and during the summer we hurled over at Crotta O'Neills and Lixnaw. No other distractions."

Like Anne, Dan wanted his sons and daughters to get the education denied the parents. St Brendan's in Killarney seemed one obvious choice until a friend mentioned Roscrea.

Introduced

"They suggested it as a good place for the building of a man." When he arrived, he introduced himself to a priest as Richard Spring.

"Anything to Dan?" inquired the priest. "Indeed," the child responded. "Would you like to meet him?" Dan stepped forward and shook hands with Father Andrew Cowen, uncle of future Taoiseach, Brian.

Roscrea meant rugby but not, initially, to Spring. "I didn't see the point of a game where fellas spent all the time wallowing in the mud."

This was, though, a "sporting paradise". So after a few years, he dipped his toe.

"They made an offer that could only impress a 15-year-old. Forget about the cold taps in Abbeyleix and instead enjoy the cold showers in Donnybrook and the feed up in the Castle Hotel.

"I never looked back after that, I still hurled and played football but rugby was taking over. The first day I went out, Father Kevin said, you're a footballer, you can play out-half.

"Now he could have said wing-forward and I wouldn't have known the difference. And he tapped the out-half and told him to go into the forwards. His name? Mick Sherry."

One day in Donnybrook, his side were tied 11-11 with Newbridge in a JCT tie; a penalty was awarded tight to the main stand.

He was urged to go down the line; not for the last time, Spring announced his independent streak, opting for the posts. He split them.

"I suspect if I hadn't, I would have been expelled. It led to my first headline in your paper. Not 'Spring expelled from Roscrea' but 'Spring kicks Roscrea to victory'."

There was scepticism at home too.

"'Oh, I see your son is off playing a foreign game,'" someone confided to his father. "The pitch where our family had poured blood into, the three of us were kicking a rugby ball and a man told us to 'get out of that with your foreign ball'.

Dick Spring playing golf with Bill Clinton at Ballybunion in 2001 Picture: Steve Humphreys
Dick Spring playing golf with Bill Clinton at Ballybunion in 2001 Picture: Steve Humphreys

"There was a lot of hostility and misunderstanding. My father was very broad-minded, he wanted a balance between sport and study and didn't care if you played hockey or cricket. But it was delicate in a North Kerry voting context. We found that when Arthur played golf too, it was an 'over the wall' pursuit."

But he persisted in his dual life; playing inter-county senior for both the footballers and hurlers.

In 1974, he played the All Blacks twice in a week; the Universities side he captained should have beaten Andy Leslie's men. To finish the week, he lined out in an away match against the Dubs.

"Gay O'Driscoll or somebody hit me a good slap. They wanted to know that they could deal with a rugby fella!"

He left just as Micko Dwyer came in; John O'Keeffe was moved to full-back and Spring went full-forward, which he felt didn't suit him.

"I'm not too sure they were ever comfortable having a rugby player on their team. I preferred hurling but it was neglected then compared to now, you'd finish games in the dark on a field that had never seen a mower."

Rugby was his game now. He had already been sub on the Irish team, then thrived at Trinity and Lansdowne before Munster called.

He would play alongside Donal but not in the famed 1978 coup against the All Blacks; "I don't know why, they picked Larry Moloney."

So he watched in a barrister's three-piece suit; an angry colleague was detained hearing an application for a pub licence from one P ó Sé.

The 1979 Five Nations encapsulated his international career in a matter of weeks; a debut draw with France, grim defeat to Wales, victory over England.

The campaign ended, tinged with regret. Another headline. 'Spring in, Spring out'.

Donal, the injured back-row, had missed the campaign but returned for the last game against Scotland; Dick, however, was dropped.

"That was a regret, we never played together for Ireland. But it was such a thrill. That journey from the Shelbourne Hotel to Lansdowne Road for the first time is a journey I will never forget."

The Welsh match is recalled by many for an infamous dropped ball. "We should still have beaten them. Their lock could never have scored unless he had been offside and the ball bounced over Terry Kennedy's head.

"It was a triple-lock mistake and on the law of averages it wouldn't happen. Ah, time and tides of men. I feel myself lucky."

He was asked to tour Australia that summer - Ireland would famously win 2-0 - but his career was advancing; within two years he was a TD, a year later a Minister.

A serious car crash and, then, a rather less serious ruck in a match, franked his decision to retire.

"I'd see fellas like John Teeling in their fifties playing club, I was determined to play forever.

Figurehead

"I was a Junior Minister in '81, playing against Clonakility and this fella gets me in a head-lock. 'I have the minister's head.' 'Don't worry,' says the other fella. 'I have it too!'"

Time to move on, he told himself. His political life would include a forging of peace and reconciliation on an island that now wishes to host the 2023 World Cup.

He is an apt figurehead, indeed.

"It would be a nice crescendo. I believe the island of Ireland can showcase itself and it will be a 'people' tournament with the whole community involved. We are a very old rugby nation, we have the facilities and it would be great. It will unite all."

Read More: The real work starts now - How Ireland will beat France and South Africa to 2023 Rugby World Cup

Although, one should assume that inclusivity does not mean absolutely everyone.

As we part, I ask would he ever replicate his Ballybunion 18-hole match with Bill Clinton by taking the Doonbeg fairways with the current incumbent, Donald Trump.

"That's not on my agenda," he smiles, sparklingly. "The good thing about golf is you can select your company…"

Irish Independent

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