Saturday 17 August 2019

Kicked out of the Triple Crown

Having thought about it, there are perhaps two things that bugged the hell out of the IRFU about me in 1981-82

ON TARGET: Tony Ward of the Lions in action during the test series between South Africa and the British and Irish Lions in South Africa in 1980
ON TARGET: Tony Ward of the Lions in action during the test series between South Africa and the British and Irish Lions in South Africa in 1980 Newsdesk

The nightmare I endured in Australia in 1979 when I was left out of the Irish team in favour of Ollie Campbell continued when the squad was announced for the opening game of the 1982 Five Nations season.

The decision to play both Ollie and me in four of the five games the previous season had been most welcome. Newspapers rejoiced, the public was happy and we both enjoyed the opportunity. It appeared neither of us was going to be left out to make way for the other.

Then the bombshell arrived. I was dropped from the opening game of the Championship. Not only that, but I was not even named among the replacements. Was I numb with shock? No, but bitterly disappointed, for sure.

After the squad announcement at the Shelbourne Hotel in the immediate aftermath of the final trial, Ollie came outside to ask if I was all right. Although I tried to hide the hurt, I found it difficult. Right there and then he apologised to me for the way I had been treated. It was totally unnecessary.

There was no explanation given by the management about why I had been dropped. I was playing well, but it would be stretching it to say the decision was out of the blue, given what had gone before.

I vowed to myself that I would never play for Ireland again. I did not attend the next training camp and the media were all over my absence.

Whatever reason was in their devious minds it was not a good enough one to kick me out of the squad entirely. Having thought about it so much over the years, there are perhaps two things that bugged the hell out of the IRFU about me in 1981 and 1982.

The first was to do with my stance on apartheid in South Africa.

I received my first real taste of South African life straight away when I arrived at the baggage area in Jan Smuts Airport, Johannesburg, in May, 1980 on that Lions Tour. The signs glared out at me: 'Black Only Toilets' and 'White Only Toilets'.

The following day I visited a black township outside Bloemfontein with the scrum-half Colin Patterson. It was Colin's idea, not mine.

But the things I saw broke my heart. It was like a different world. The impact was immediate.

We drove around slowly in the back of the car. Colin was snapping photographs from his camera. The houses were made of aluminium and tin. But these were tiny homes. There were thousands and thousands of them everywhere which collectively made up a 'shanty town'.

Doctor Roger Young, a former Irish scrum-half, took me to visit a handicapped children's home in Cape Town. John Robbie, Bill Beaumont, journalists Ned van Esbeck and Sean Diffley came with us.

To see children with terrible illnesses was one thing, but one of the saddest sights I ever saw was in that hospital. It made an impact on me more than anything else on the tour. Accommodation was segregated. Having met us rugby tourists, these severely handicapped kids were returned to rooms and wards clearly labelled according to skin colour: 'Black Children', 'White Children', 'Coloured Children'.

In late January 1981, I received a letter from the IRFU asking if I would be part of the forthcoming Irish tour to South Africa. I was one of the first to steadfastly refuse to be part of it.

My conscience had affected me deeply after the 1980 tour. I vowed never again to return as a player or coach as long as apartheid existed.

The second reason (for getting on the wrong side of the IRFU), was me playing high-profile soccer. The IRFU had long viewed me as a sort of 'golden boy', 'a prima donna', 'a celebrity'.

Certain elements within the IRFU obviously did not like this and wanted to cut me down to size. The newspapers were full of me playing for Limerick United.

When the Limerick chairman Pat Grace, along with team manager Eoin Hand asked me if I could play against Southampton in the UEFA Cup I could have bitten their hand off. I played against Kevin Keegan.

Despite my success on the soccer field, watching Ireland go on to win the Triple Crown in 1982 without my involvement really hurt. Ollie Campbell was at the heart of everything.

Twelve Feet Tall is published by Simon & Schuster on November 16.

Sunday Independent

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