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Obituary: Gary Halpin

Irish rugby star and respected teacher who scored memorable World Cup try against All Blacks

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Gary Halpin regretted giving a two-fingered salute to New Zealand after scoring a try against the All Blacks in Ellis Park, Johannesburg, during the 1995 Rugby World Cup

Gary Halpin regretted giving a two-fingered salute to New Zealand after scoring a try against the All Blacks in Ellis Park, Johannesburg, during the 1995 Rugby World Cup

Gary Halpin regretted giving a two-fingered salute to New Zealand after scoring a try against the All Blacks in Ellis Park, Johannesburg, during the 1995 Rugby World Cup

Gary Halpin was remembered last week as one of the great characters of Irish rugby, "a hard man on the pitch and a gentleman off it".

There is little doubt the defining moment of his international rugby career was bulldozing over the line for a try against the All Blacks in Ireland's first game of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, at Ellis Park in Johannesburg.

After he was congratulated by his ecstatic teammates, Halpin turned and gave the New Zealand team the middle finger with each hand, a gesture that seemed unsporting from the most sporting of rugby players.

"Sean Fitzpatrick [the All Blacks' most-capped player] had been winding us up, calling us Paddies," he explained later. "I couldn't believe I'd actually scored a try. It was a rather stupid thing to do - the gesture, not the try - being a teacher. It's kind of embarrassing because I've gone on to meet a lot of those All Blacks since."

Ireland had been awarded a penalty 10 metres from the All Blacks' line, Michael Bradley tapped the ball, Halpin seized it and ploughed through the opposition to score his famous try. Unfortunately for Ireland, the try came after only seven minutes into the game that Saturday, May 27. The gesture, rude or otherwise, may even have galvanised the All Blacks, who ran out 43-19 winners.

It was to be the high point of Halpin's Irish career, in which he won 11 caps between 1990 and 1995.

New Zealand went on to beat England in the semi- final, but lost the final to the home team, South Africa. Ireland went out to France in the quarter final on June 10, which was to be Halpin's last international match.

"You cannot believe how much South Africans hate New Zealanders," Halpin told Off The Ball recently.

"After that World Cup, I took a trip around South Africa and Zimbabwe. I couldn't go into a pub and put my hand in my pocket, the South Africans loved the whole thing that much. Andy Warhol talked about 15 minutes of fame and that was mine. I must have put on two stone in weight."

That Irish team, which brought down the curtain on amateur rugby as an international sport at the end of that World Cup, included Brendan Mullin, Neil Francis, Terry Kingston and Nick Popplewell, with Halpin playing at his usual No3 spot, as hooker.

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Halpin, who died suddenly last Wednesday, only 10 days after his 55th birthday, was from Kilkenny, where he was a star rugby player and athlete with the Kilkenny Rugby Club, Kilkenny City Harriers and Rockwell College, where he went to school.

He played schoolboy rugby for Ireland and captained the Rockwell athletics team, which won a cup at the Irish Athletics Championships of 1964.

As a 21-year-old, he represented Ireland as a hammer thrower in the 1987 World Athletics Championships in Rome, where he threw 63.08 metres. He embellished the story over the years, claiming his throw nearly demolished the podium where the three best field athletes in the competition were awaiting their turn.

He then went to Manhattan College in the United States on an athletics scholarship and set records as a hammer thrower that still stand, and qualified as a teacher.

He was selected for Ireland in the 1991 Rugby World Cup, but did not play in the "almost famous victory" when Ireland lost to Australia at Lansdowne Road by a single point, 19-18 in the quarter-final.

After his international career, Halpin spent most of the 1990s in England, where he was described last week as "the life and soul" of London Irish "on and off the pitch".

His boss, as coach at London Irish, was Clive Woodward, who would later go on to greater glory with England. At the time, Halpin was teaching in The London Oratory School in Fulham, and the two men bonded on both fronts.

"He was fantastic," Woodward said last week. "He taught my two boys at the Oratory School. He was a great teacher and coach. They loved him."

Halpin later played with Harlequins before returning to Ireland with his wife, Carol, and children, Bentley, Leonie and Lenka, to play with Leinster, Wanderers and Blackrock before retiring from the game.

"What a character he was," Brian O'Driscoll said. "A hilarious storyteller and the life and soul of any team he was part of."

Around three years ago, Halpin returned to live in Kilkenny, taking up the role of head of boarding at the Cistercian College Roscrea (CRC) in Co Tipperary, where he was involved in teaching and coaching rugby and athletics. He was also involved with his old club in Kilkenny, coaching the under-18s.

"Although he had a prestigious rugby career, he never boasted about it," CRC principal Gerard Grealish said, which summed up one of the characters of rugby, who could be wickedly funny but always self-deprecating about his achievements as a rugby player and athlete.


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