Monday 9 December 2019

My baptism of fire with the late great Moss Keane

England and Lions rugby legend Peter Wheeler has played with the best but it's memories of the colourful Irish lock that brings the broadest smile to his face

Peter Wheeler
Peter Wheeler
Willie Duggan
Moss Keane
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The old warrior slides his eyes around the Shelbourne Hotel bar, drinking deep memories that come to him now in gentle ripples. His first time here, Peter Wheeler was an England player peering out at St Stephen's Green from an upstairs window under conditions that felt like some form of courteous house arrest. It was February of '77, the Troubles still spitting their hatreds randomly and gardai with machine guns patrolling the bedroom corridor outside.

Four years earlier, John Pullin's famous "We may not be very good, but at least we turn up" remark, endeared the England rugby captain to an Irish audience deprived a possible Grand Slam in '72 by Scotland and Wales refusing to fulfil Five Nations fixtures at Lansdowne Road.

Yet, to be an England player visiting Dublin in the '70s was to feel like some kind of moving target. They beat Ireland that day in '77 by a single try (worth four points at the time) to no score, and Wheeler would tour New Zealand that summer with a Lions squad lent colour by the maverick personalities of Moss Keane and Willie Duggan.

He finds it impossible not to smile at the simple mention of those names because Wheeler went on two Lions tours and always found it strange that, for all the imagined hostility between the nations, Ireland and England players seemed instinctively to gravitate towards one another on tour.

Four years ago, a call from Fergus Slattery alerted him to Keane's rapidly declining health, and they arranged a fourball with the great Kerryman while he was still well enough for golf. Their fourball was completed by Duggan.

Wheeler thinks back to those days on tour now, and a part of him pines for the simple, uncomplicated fun of it all. He has spent the past two decades of his life in rugby administration as chief executive of Leicester Tigers and on various boards (Premier Rugby Ltd and the RFU Council) while the game wrestled desperately for a professional model palatable to all. The experience has, he admits, been "scarring" at times.

In '77, rugby was simply a hobby taken rather seriously. They played with homicidal intensity, but the memories seem dusted with endless laughter, too. That tour lasted three months, the players on expenses of 75 pence a day. For the first week, he roomed with Keane, or "Rent a Storm" as the tourists christened him. "If ever there was a baptism of fire, that was it," chuckles Wheeler. Duggan became one of the Lions stars of that tour, playing all four Tests despite his famously bad back and a stubborn adherence to the philosophy that training took the "edge" off his game.

Now 66, Wheeler went to South Africa in 1980 too and, at a meeting in Twickenham last Monday night, Bill Beaumont told him how Syd Millar had been in touch about a reunion dinner being organised for that tour next year. "My God, is it 25 years?" gasped Wheeler. "No, Peter," sighed Beaumont. "Thirty-five!" He escaped the game relatively lightly, needing a hip operation some years back, but surviving with largely robust health from an era that took a sometimes cavalier attitude to players' wellbeing. Keane, after all, played the first Test of that '77 tour just four days after being concussed in a midweek game. Substitutions were only allowed for injuries then, and Wheeler remembers an incident in which Lions prop Clive Williams was initially refused permission to leave the field despite a cruciate ligament injury.

Wheeler was capped 41 times as hooker for England, yet one of his favourite rugby memories is of winning the Hong Kong Sevens with the Barbarians in '81, the first Northern Hemisphere team to take that crown.

Sevens rugby, however, has been a kind of guilty secret of the professional game. Wheeler, who retired to become a non-executive director of Leicester on July 1, admits that his club routinely incurred RFU fines for not making front-line players available for the Premiership Sevens competition played out over four consecutive weekends every season.

"You know Richard Cockerill (Leicester coach) would say, 'You want me to win the European Cup and you want me to win the Premiership and you want the players available for sevens, too?' You could see where he was coming from."

Yet, the decision to make sevens rugby an Olympic sport has altered mindsets profoundly. Hence Wheeler's presence in Limerick this week to help launch the inaugural Limerick World Club 7s, which will bring some of the most exciting rugby talent from north and south of the equator to Thomond Park next month.

"With sevens rugby going to be in Rio," he says, "there's just a feeling that you can't really ignore it now. In some countries, Olympic sport gets a lot more funding and people will see perhaps that the odds of getting, say, a bronze medal in women's rugby might be a lot easier than trying to get it in the 1,500 metres!"

Some of the biggest names in club rugby – such as Munster, New South Wales Waratahs, Western Province, Blue Bulls, Auckland, Stade Francais, Saracens and Fijian specialists Daveta – will, thus, be in Limerick for next month's two-day festival. And Wheeler believes the city can impart a unique atmosphere to the sevens game given the place rugby holds there.

To this day, he remains particularly touched by the memory of Leicester's Heineken Cup victory at a soon-to-be bulldozed Thomond Park in November of '07. That win brought to an end Munster's 12-year, 26-game winning streak at the old fortress, yet Wheeler remembers only kindness in the aftermath. "We went down the town after," he recalls "and, everywhere we went, the people couldn't have been more gracious, buying us drinks, telling us we deserved the win.

"That's what I think is really exciting about Limerick – the chance to put its own flavour on this tournament. What that will be, nobody knows."

Peter Wheeler is in Ireland to launch the inaugural Limerick World Club 7s, which takes place in Thomond Park on August 9 and 10

Peter Wheeler: the game of life

Born: South Norwood, London, November 26, 1948.

Capped: 41 times for England.

Test debut: England v France at Twickenham, February 1, 1975.

Last Test: England v Wales at Twickenham, March 17, 1984.

Career: Appointed chief executive officer Leicester Tigers 1996, and then retired on July 1, 2014.

Current: Shareholder Limerick World Club 7s; non-executive director Leicester Tigers.

Hobbies: Golf and opera.

Favourite quote: "I only went to the opera once and decided I must not go again or it would consume my life" – politician Enoch Powell.

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