Wednesday 21 February 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Duggan seemed to epitomise something quintessential about the Irish character

Willie Duggan
Willie Duggan

Eamonn Sweeney

Willie Duggan may have been the hardest Irish sportsman of them all. Normally when we talk about someone being a 'hard man' we refer to someone who spent their career putting the boot into the opposition. But, in the words of Terence McSwiney, "It is not those who inflict the most but those who can suffer the most who will conquer." He could dish it out with the best of them, but what made Willie Duggan special was his ability to take it.

"He had one of the highest pain thresholds I ever encountered," said Donal Lenihan last week in a tribute after Duggan's death at the age of 67. "What made him unique," said another former team-mate, Tony Ward, "and for me the greatest number eight of them all, was a hardness that defied pain. He had no threshold." "Fearless," said Lenihan. "The ultimate warrior," said Ward.

It's a popular folksy fallacy that real sporting toughness is the preserve of working-class lads and the odd farmer. But Duggan's background was a classic rugby one, he was the son of a business family and had gone to boarding school. He wasn't the first or the last Irish rugby player to prove that the middle class can be as tough as anyone else on the field of play.

There was something of the folk hero about the man, perhaps because he embodied a beloved Irish figure of the time, 'The Man Who's Great But Doesn't Kill Himself'. Duggan usually took the field looking like an unmade bed and there was a kind of insolence about the way he rumbled around the field, as if there were more enjoyable things he could be doing than busting a gut playing rugby. Tales of his dislike for training and fondness for enjoying a smoke on the sidelines were legion and added to the huge affection in which Duggan was held. We admired that kind of approach from our sporting heroes back in the days before wellness, quinoa and pushing the envelope.

Along with the toughness and the buccaneering attitude came the talent of a great player. And Duggan was never greater than during the 1977 Lions tour when he played number eight in all four Tests. Ireland had been whitewashed in that year's Five Nations and when Phil Orr and Moss Keane were dropped after the first Test, Duggan became our sole representative. He was immense and at times in the final two Tests seemed to be waging a one-man war to prevent the series slipping away. In the third Test he crashed over for a try after the All Blacks had enjoyed a whirlwind start, and in the dying minutes of the fourth Test came within inches of scoring the try which would have given the Lions a series-squaring victory.

All Duggan's courage was needed on that tour. Before the era of citing and tell-tale camera angles, all kinds of nefarious activity was permitted when the ball was on the ground and in New Zealand the Kilkenny man received some cruel treatment. It never deterred him. On home ground he was one of the players who seemed to typify an Irish approach to forward play sometimes described as 'Bite, boot and bollock'. The era in which Duggan made his debut was that of McBride, McLoughlin, Keane, O'Callaghan, Slattery and others whose barely controlled ferocity was the defining characteristic of the Irish rugby teams of the time. When foreign commentators said, "no-one gets anything easy in Lansdowne Road", they weren't just being polite. Sometimes they said it with a shudder.

Duggan fitted gleefully into that tradition and carried the torch into the next decade. The glorious Ginger McLoughlin-led cavalcade towards the line in Twickenham in 1982, the English pack in disarray, the Irish thundering forward, seemed like an apotheosis of the Irish forward play of the time. It led to a great try which led to a famous win which led to the Triple Crown which was the high point of Duggan's international career.

In many ways Duggan was an Irish counterpart of Colin Meads, the great All Black who died a fortnight ago. The legend of Meads, stopping at nothing to ensure victory, training by running up a mountain with a sheep under his arm, captured something vital about how New Zealand rugby sees itself. Duggan also seemed to epitomise something quintessential about the Irish character, courage and irascibility in equal measure, a reluctance to take orders being balanced by a willingness to take on any challenge on his own terms. He was a glory when he got going.

Right now I'm smiling thinking about Willie Duggan in the Irish jersey. I bet I'm not the only one who did this the past week. What better tribute could you give this man, this giant?

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