Friday 22 November 2019

Obituary: Willie Duggan

Legendary Ireland and Lions forward who hated training but who loved a smoke and a pint, writes Liam Collins

RUGBY GIANT: Willie Duggan playing for Ireland in 1984. It was his ability to drink Smithwick’s, his smoking and his colourful personality that endeared him to Irish rugby fans. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
RUGBY GIANT: Willie Duggan playing for Ireland in 1984. It was his ability to drink Smithwick’s, his smoking and his colourful personality that endeared him to Irish rugby fans. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Even in the era of amateur sport, Willie Duggan brought a unique combination of strength, talent and humour to rugby football. At a time when "characters" abounded, Duggan, and his teammate Moss Keane, stood head and shoulders above the pack.

One of the most popular rugby players of that era, on and off the field, he was as hard as nails but had a well known aversion to training and an addiction to smoking, although some colleagues recalled, following his sudden death last week at the age of 67, that he always turned up "battle fit" for the international campaign.

Another legendary Irish player and coach, Willie John McBride, once said admiringly that he was surprised Willie Duggan got one cap for Ireland, let alone played 41 times for his country.

He recalled that when he was coaching Ireland, Duggan turned up late for training, lit up a cigarette in the dressing room and when a "warm up" was suggested, dismissed the idea, saying: "Sure, I've had the heater on in the car coming up from Kilkenny, I'm warm enough".

Watching more recent internationals, Duggan observed the pre-match preparations before remarking, "I could do the warm up, or play the match, but I couldn't do both."

It was his ability to drink Smithwick's, his smoking (memorably once handing his half-smoked cigarette to referee Alan Hosie as they emerged from the tunnel, saying "hold that") and his colourful personality that endeared him to Irish rugby fans and made him one of the most popular figures among fellow players and rugby followers in all five nations.

Duggan, who played his rugby with Kilkenny, Blackrock, Leinster, Ireland and the British and Irish Lions, also had the distinction, along with the Welsh giant Geoff Wheel, of being the first players to be sent off after almost 100 years of the Five Nations Championship, although neither player touched the other.

It happened in Cardiff Arms Park on January 15, 1977 in a dour international between Ireland and the reigning Grand Slam champions. Wheel hit one of the Irish players and Duggan retaliated by hitting a Welshman - and both players were sent to the line by Scottish referee Norman Sanson.

"Duggan always maintained he was never sent off," the late Moss Keane used to say. "He said the referee came towards him and asked would he mind leaving the field and Duggan replied, 'Sure, not at all, I'm bollixed anyway'."

In a season when Ireland failed to win a match, Wales won the encounter 25-9.

The same year, Duggan played a significant part in the Lions tour of New Zealand and although the Lions pack dominated the games and Duggan scored a try, they lost the series 3-1.

Duggan then went on to play a major part in one of Ireland's most glorious seasons, the Triple Crown-winning year of 1982. Under the captaincy of Ollie Campbell, Ireland scored 25 tries and also won the Five Nations Championship, with Duggan playing a pivotal role.

Willie Duggan was born in Kilkenny on May 31, 1950.

He and his cousin Ned Byrne were enthusiastic hurlers and played together at the Christian Brothers junior school in Kilkenny city.

Duggan went as a boarder to Rockwell College in Tipperary and as well as being the school's high jump and pole vault champion, he played with the Rockwell senior rugby team which won the Munster Schools Cup in 1967, the year he did his Leaving Certificate.

He was not, however, selected for the Munster provincial schools side the same year. He was selected as Rockwell Person of the Year in 2016 for his contribution to the college, where he also excelled in debating and snooker.

Duggan joined Blackrock Rugby Club in Stradbrook, Dublin, in 1972 and later in the year, his cousin Ned Byrne, who had earlier won an All-Ireland hurling medal with Kilkenny, also joined the club. Both went on to play rugby for Leinster and Ireland.

Willie Duggan played his first international against England in Lansdowne Road on January 18, 1975. Captained by Mike Gibson, Ireland won 12-9. Duggan always gave total commitment to the team and although his exploits as a 'bad boy' were legendary, there was a certain amount of myth-making involved as competition for places was always intense.

Reflecting on his career last week, one club player said Duggan was often picked on because of his reputation but "he met fire with fire" which was commonplace at a time when, even after a hard match, opposing players would socialise in the bar afterwards.

Former international Donal Lenihan, who was beginning his international career in the twilight of Duggan's, described him last week as "the hardest man I ever played with".

He was part of a legendary Irish pack with Moss Keane, Phil Orr, Gerry 'Ginger' McLoughlin and he played alongside Fergus Slattery and Tom Grace for both Blackrock and Ireland.

His last international match was against Scotland in Lansdowne Road in 1984 under coach Willie John McBride, which Ireland lost 32-9. In between rugby engagements, Willie Duggan worked in the family electrical shop in Kilkenny.

Established in 1935, he became the third generation to take over the running of the business and during his successful stewardship, it diversified, specialising in electrical contracting and lighting and moved to the Hebron Industrial Estate and is now run by his son, Willie Duggan Jnr.

Willie's daughter told his funeral that her father was a romantic at heart; he cried at sad films and rang every bank manager in the country trying to track down his future wife Ellen after they met but he failed to get her phone number. "We never knew you were famous, you never told us, we just thought you had lots of friends and were bad at remembering their names," she said.

Willie Duggan died suddenly at his home in Dunmore, outside Kilkenny, of a suspected heart attack, last Monday. In his death notice, his family said: "Willie would have wanted a party," and asked his many friends to dress colourfully and not in mourning black for the celebration of his life on Wednesday last.

He is survived by his wife Ellen, his son Willie and his daughters Helena and Monica. He was buried on Thursday after Requiem Mass in St Mary's Cathedral, Kilkenny.

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