The day Willie Duggan became the first player in Five Nations history to be sent off
'IT was something out of nothing. A spur of the moment thing. It never entered my mind it could happen. When it did, I was shocked.
Sent-off playing for Wales at Cardiff Arms Park. It wasn't something to be particularly proud of.' OF course, Geoff Wheel couldn't have expected it. In nearly 100 years of Five Nations history there had been endless tussles and scrapes and countless players 'roughed up' or 'sorted out' but no one had ever been sent off. That changed on January 8, 1977, when Wheel and Willie Duggan were given their marching orders by Scottish referee Norman Sanson for striking. A little bit of the sport had changed for ever.
Dismissals in rugby internationals weren't unique, but they were almost as rare as Ireland grand slams. A decade earlier Irish referee Kevin Kelleher had caused a storm when sending off New Zealand lock Colin Meads for dangerous play against Scotland and back in 1925 Albert Freethy had sent off another All Black, Cyril Brownlie, at Twickenham. With two waves of his arm, Sanson had managed to double the tally.
Depending on where you were coming from it was either a brave or very foolish decision. In several of the match reports that followed, Sanson was berated for his performance, no more vehemently than by former Welsh captain Wilf Wooller in the Sunday Telegraph who saw the referee's actions as an attack on rugby's existing code of honour which allowed - if not encouraged - players to sort out their grievances on the field before spending the evening devouring pints and embracing each other like long-lost brothers.
For others, Wooller's outrage was little more than the "dinosaur's last roar" and it was clear that the old ways were slowly giving way to a more modern, accountable era. "There wasn't much to it," says Wheel, "but it was fair enough really. You throw a punch in front of the referee, what else can you expect? He felt it was necessary and right and he took a stand."
By the standards of the time it wasn't a particularly nasty game and Wheel's act was borne of frustration rather than malice. Thirty eight minutes had passed and the sides were locked at 6-6. Wales were the reigning champions and Grand Slam holders and the plucky resistance they were getting from the Irish was unexpected and not much to their taste.
"There was a fantastic amount of hype about that Welsh team," says Ireland second-row Ronnie Hakin. "With the likes of Gareth Edwards and JPR Williams they had a fantastic back-line, but we were able to hold our own in the forwards."
That's how it was for 38 minutes, Ireland winning most of the forward exchanges, preventing ball from reaching Wales' devastating back line. Hakin and Duggan, to Wheel's obvious chagrin, were dominating the line-outs.
When another Welsh line-out was disrupted, Wheel vented his frustration on Duggan's back-row colleague Stuart McKinney. Duggan reacted by taking a swing at Alan Martin. All under the watchful eye of Norman Sanson.
Wheel, after a vigorous but futile protest, was first to walk. A few moments later he saw Duggan jog past him towards the tunnel. "I didn't know what that was about," says Wheel. "I wasn't involved with Willie Duggan at all.
I didn't even see what he was supposed to have done. We even had a bit of a laugh about it on the sideline.
"We definitely got the best of it. He was having a really good game at the back of the line-out. Willie was a great character and an exceptionally good player. I don't know what he got sent off for but they ended up losing their best player and we won the game easily enough."
That Duggan effectively sacrificed himself for the honour of McKinney wasn't that surprising. "They were very good friends," says Hakin. "Willie was always very protective of Stuart."
It was part of the culture of the game, too, one best epitomised during the Lions tour of South Africa three years earlier when, as captain, Willie John McBride had initiated the famous '99' call where players rushed to the aid of a stricken team-mate by exacting revenge on their nearest opponent, regardless of their guilt or innocence.
Hakin had seen it himself when Ulster played Argentina in 1975 and again when Ireland visited New Zealand a year later when a horrible facial injury suffered by Jimmy Davidson triggered a huge melee that even spilled over into the crowd.
The blows inflicted by Wheel and Duggan in Cardiff were tame in comparison. "It was just one person hitting another in the open," says Hakin. "It wasn't a sly dig in the tight or a belt on the blind side of the referee. It was plain for everybody to see."
In the spirit of the day, what wasn't seen was often deemed acceptable.
"When you went on the field with Ireland you knew you were getting into a war," says Wheel. "It was dog eat dog. There was no malice in it. You just wanted to do the best you could for your country. It was the same for Ireland. One thing you knew about the Irish boys, they were always in your face. I always had great respect for them."
They were men of their time too. Wheel, a 6ft 5in behemoth weighing nearly 17st, was known as Gaffa or, less affectionately, as Geoff the Ripper.
Before concentrating on rugby he'd been nimble enough to play reserve team football for Swansea City and in a 32-cap haul for Wales he was known as one of the game's strongest maulers as well as one its most fearsome competitors. I
n Duggan he was meeting a man carved from the same quarry. Duggan loathed training so much that McBride used to wonder how the Blackrock man ever won an international cap. Once when McBride was Ireland coach, Duggan arrived late for a training session and promptly lit up a cigarette in the dressing-room.
When McBride suggested a warm-up Duggan waved him away. "Sure I've had the heater on in the car," Duggan replied solemnly. "I'm warm enough."
But McBride knew too that once game-time came and they crossed the white line, men like Duggan made up with pride and a fierce bravery what they lacked in fitness.
"They think we're just a bunch of ignorant Paddies from the bog," McKinney once shouted before a game against England. "Let's not disappoint them."
When he retired from international rugby in 1984, Duggan had amassed 41 caps and played four times for the Lions on the tour to New Zealand in 1977.
And if you asked him, Willie Duggan would probably tell you that in his long and distinguished career that he'd never been sent off. "Duggan always maintained he was never sent off," says Moss Keane. "He said to me the referee came towards him and said would he mind leaving the field?
"And Duggan says, 'Sure not at all. I was b******d anyway'."