Friday 27 April 2018

Neil Francis: Willie Duggan was an exception to all the rules - an exceptional man

Willie Duggan thrived as a player because he gave and took punishment most of us would rail at

Willie Duggan. Photo: INPHO
Willie Duggan. Photo: INPHO
Willie Duggan tackles Wales' Mark Douglas. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I'm not sure who was responsible for building those old dressing rooms in Stradbrook, perhaps a long lost cousin once removed from the Marquis de Sade. The long corridor with the dressing rooms at the perpendicular was right at the apex of the prevailing north wind. During the winter the 20-metre dash from the shower room to the first dressing room cut to the bone.

Just past the door on the right was the noticeboard - team selection - a quick glance just to make sure that they weren't messing with me. Job Langbroek, John Cantrell, Ned Byrne, Kevin Mays, Neil Francis, Des Hanrahan, Fergus Slattery, Willie Duggan. What a pack! Des Hanrahan, capped by Leinster, was the only non-international in that eight. Serious grunt, real power, yet curiously a team that starkly underachieved in the silverware department. Scrumhalf of the day, Declan Molloy, had an unenviable task, not only had he to fight the opposition team for possession of the ball but his own pack as well. Trust is essential in team sport - just don't give the ball to the backs.

I had played my first year of SCT rugby as a 15-year-old and now I was playing senior rugby at 18 years of age. Another quick look at that team-sheet - Fergus Slattery and Willie Duggan - Five Nations champions, Lions Test winners. Pretty trippy stuff for an 18-year-old.

I opened the dressing-room finding it empty except for the familiar face of HP MacNeill wandering lonely as a cloud. Hugo grimaced as he stood up to offer me a hand of congratulations.

"Well done, Frano."

"Thanks Hugo, eh hard luck last Tuesday."

Last Tuesday had been the Varsity Match played in December in Twickenham. Hugo had been the Lions' Test starter at fullback for the tour of New Zealand in the summer of 1983 and the previous season had scored a memorable try at Twickenham while beating England en route to the Championship.

Hugo was captain of Oxford University that year and it was a matter of regret that he picked up a knee injury in an invitation game a week or so before the Varsity game.

It was obvious from the moment he led his team onto the field that Hugo wasn't even remotely close to being fit. Rob Andrew, playing for Cambridge that day, saw the heavy strapping on MacNeill's knee and kicked adroitly all afternoon and had Hugo hobbling from one side of the pitch to the other. When you are injured, even simple chores elude you. It was a disastrous afternoon and Oxford were thumped. Hugo shouldn't have played and did himself a disservice by trying to play.

One by one players filtered into the room. Everyone had watched the match, saw what had happened and passed on their commiserations - genuine mutterings, a tap on the shoulder and some sober reflection on the events of the day by the injured combatant.

Dara Coakley arrives in, cynical little bollix. Dara had spent a life sentence in UCD doing dentistry and then medicine, no love lost for any of those "Trinity shites". Dara's sense of fair play prevailed and his empathy for Hugo's travail on Tuesday was genuine.

The dressing-room is nearly full now as Fergus Slattery arrives in. He throws a nod to Hugo which the body language interpreters would have defined as "shit happens". Not everyone is in the room when Bomber Browne pipes up for a 15- or 20-minute pep talk. He is about to punchline when the door bursts open. The dressing-room gets an awful lot smaller as Ned Byrne and Willie Duggan arrive. Willie has a cigarette in his mouth; he surveys the room and fixes his gaze on Hugo.

"Hey Hugo."

Here it was, the final seal of approval, imprimatur Rex.

"I heard you made a total c**t of yourself in Twickenham last Tuesday."

The dressing-room disintegrated! Willie had graduated magna cum laude in straight-talking from the University of 'This is the way it is'. It took about five or six minutes before order was restored. In fairness to Hugo, he took it with good grace. Nobody in that dressing-room could have said such a thing and got away with it apart from Willie Duggan. No quarter asked or given.

Subconsciously I may have embellished everything that we thought we knew about the man by re-telling this story. He was 20 minutes late. He had a fag in his hand coming into the dressing room. He used profane language as a matter of course. He said and did simple things which immediately were immortalised into popular rugby culture. Surely his legacy demands a little bit more introspection?

Primarily, we remember Willie Duggan for what he did on the pitch. The first senior match I played in with him was against St Mary's in Stradbrook. It was a pathologically violent game, an undercurrent of nastiness which as an 18-year-old I wasn't really equipped to deal with. In Willie's world there were no passengers so he didn't say a word to me in the dressing-room. The philosophy was that this kid looks after himself or he shouldn't be here.

I won five lineouts in a row, three of ours, two of theirs, and got onto the ball early. This was easy. What's all the fuss about? I got caught at a ruck and took several well-placed boots and you could hear the yelping in the car park. The next lineout brought more GBH as I was driven five metres out of the line, the sound effects this time were somewhere between a yodel and Maria Callas in C minor. I looked around for support - blank faces!

The next lineout and somebody was crawling all over me and pulled my shoulder down but I still managed to win it and as I turned to control the ball my assailant had his hand clasped onto my chin and was trying to jerk my head around. Milliseconds later a fearful crack of contact and a splash of claret. That was the thing about Willie, his mere presence on the field normally worked as a deterrent. He never saw the need to issue a warning.

When it came to someone taking liberties with one of his team-mates - well, you could do it once. He had the conscience of a rattlesnake. The punch hit with such force that while this guy was holding my chin I could feel the blow reverberate through his body. I thought for a second that I had been hit.

The game stopped and Willie came over to me.

"Do you see any women on the pitch?"

To my eternal embarrassment I actually looked around.


"Well stop f**king behaving like one."

Those were the first words he ever said to me. I think he was pissed because he had hurt his paw dispensing justice. Very quickly, recognition came about his ability. His game, as Fergus Slattery put it, was about "short-range physicality". Duggan was by a distance the strongest player I have ever played with.

There is a huge difference between weight-room strong and physical-contact strong. By that I mean raw-boned, lean-country-boy strong. Dean Richards and Tim Gavin had the same type of strength. Gary Halpin did prodigious things in the gym, he could dead-lift and bench-press truly phenomenal weights but that strength never translated into something tangible when it came to physical contact. Every time you had Willie take the ball in a maul these granite hands left bruises in your mid-riff.

Years ago in Florida I brought my eldest fella up to pet some animals after a show. There was a yellow python about 10 feet long and the keeper said put him on your shoulders for a photo. The snake weighed a lot more than it looked and I could feel its muscle bulk move within its skin. My over-riding thought was if this snake takes a dislike to me there isn't going to be much I can do about it. These animals squeezed for a living - once they have you . . .

Once Willie got his arms onto a ball-carrier, that was it, there was no getting away from him. Defensively, he was a nightmare, a cul-de-sac, a full stop. He broke up plays, killed ball, and slowed everything down with rare strength. There were plenty of strong back-row players back then but they lacked the guile, instinct and craft that Duggan had. Sometimes self-preservation intervened with instinct when personal danger would be the most likely outcome. Willie had a deep reservoir of courage, his first instinct was to do what needed to be done whatever the consequences.

He was a deep thinker on the game - counterbalanced by the affliction of always being right. Slattery called him "a problem-solver", he had "an innate ability to recognise faults and weaknesses and exploit them".

There were many quality No 8s who followed him. Foley, Costello and Heaslip - all would beat him hands down for athleticism, pace, football, handling ability, yet Duggan transcends the gap between his time and theirs. He was a canny player who had an uncanny knack of arriving where the ball would always seem to be. It is called intuition. Many times players would be yards ahead of Duggan going across the park but would be beaten to the action by this almost extra-sensory perception. He just knew where the ball would be, you can't coach that.

What about now? What chance at being a pro? I couldn't imagine Willie in a pair of lime-green boots or in the gym or ice bins or doing the fitness sessions. When you are a legend of the game, fact and fiction cross the border so many times you don't know what the truth is.

When Willie went on the Lions tour in 1977 he was voted by his peers as the player of the tour. When he came home from New Zealand his electrical contracting business had suffered from his absence. Lions tours are great but then a roof over the house and food on the table took precedence. In Willie's time as an elite player there was no N9. The trip from Kilkenny, even on a good day, took two hours. Newlands Cross to Blackrock could take an hour. Two hours down, two hours training, two hours back. A six-hour road trip three times a week - difficult to do when you are trying to resurrect your business and raise a family. Not surprisingly, he went missing from time to time.

As manager of the 1st XV, Jimmy Smith had the worst job in the world. Track down Willie and get him to come to training. No smartphones, no WhatsApp, no Find my iPhone or satnav. Every Tuesday and Thursday was a soap opera. It was like Dallas without the oil .

"Jimmy, where the f**k is Willie?"

Fergus Slattery maintains that the 20 acres of hilly ground in Dunmore saw an awful lot more action than Willie would let on. You can't play international rugby and not be fit.

The man was a contradiction at times, a simple guy, simple rules, consistent yet complex in many ways. He would always insist on receiving his petrol money to the point of violence but then would endorse the cheque and hand it back to the ladies' committee, who adored him. Willie always insisted on a tub of Vicks in the dressing room before the off. The cigarettes were bronchial dilators, the Vicks would open them up again, the magical antidote.

There is a high tariff for being a hard-drinking, smoking, rugby icon - the physical demise in the last two years were really perceptible. Willie was never going to die of old age in his 80s. I really enjoyed and understood him. He had a great depth of character and force of personality. I really enjoyed a week in Cadiz and Seville with him and Ellen, easy company and a broad range of humour.

I remember especially our last training camp in Kilkenny before the 1995 World Cup. He turned up several times and we met for coffee. At the end of the last session he came over and as the only player there that he knew I introduced him to most of the lads, and there was a sense of universal respect and reverence from every player. Utterly unaware of his iconic status. He had Monica his daughter with him - a tot. Twenty-two years later she would espouse her father's courage by standing up in front of 1,300 people in Kilkenny Cathedral to debunk the myth. Tell the people who he was. You need a special type of courage and character to do what she did, as well as she did. It is in the blood.

Willie was a man's man, no airs or graces. He thrived as a player because he had a propensity to give and take punishment that most of us would rail at. He was a formidable team player and a nightmare to play against.

Florence Nightingale once said: "I attribute my success to this fact, I never gave or took an excuse." That is how Willie Duggan played his rugby and lived his life. An exception to all the rules, an exceptional man.

"We rarely find anyone who can say he has lived a happy life and who, content with his life, can retire from the world like a satisfied guest."


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