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'I'm not sure I'd have wanted to be a professional' - Paul Kimmage meets rugby legend Mike Gibson


Mike Gibson: 'If I played rugby and were injured or played badly, it didn't affect Moyra; it didn't affect our children because on Monday I was earning money in a different field, a different life' Photo: Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Mike Gibson: 'If I played rugby and were injured or played badly, it didn't affect Moyra; it didn't affect our children because on Monday I was earning money in a different field, a different life' Photo: Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Mike Gibson playing for Ireland, Rugby. Photo: Connolly Collection/SPORTSFILE

Mike Gibson playing for Ireland, Rugby. Photo: Connolly Collection/SPORTSFILE


Mike Gibson: 'If I played rugby and were injured or played badly, it didn't affect Moyra; it didn't affect our children because on Monday I was earning money in a different field, a different life' Photo: Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Francis 'Sammy' Davis is a man of order and routine. He leaves the house each Saturday morning for the bookies on Sundrive Road, orders a pint in The Stone Boat and arrives home at lunchtime as my grandmother prepares his bacon and cabbage.

He takes his copy of The Irish Times, circles the bets he has made with a pen, and begins rolling some old papers to set the fire. The Five Nations Championship is starting that afternoon. Ireland are playing for a Triple Crown at Lansdowne Road. He lights a Players Navy Cut and spends the afternoon with an ear to the latest from Kempton on the radio, and shouting at his black and white TV:

Knock on!

Knock on!

Knock on!


It is my first conscious memory of rugby, and the first time I hear the name of one of the greatest - some say the greatest - ever to have played the game.

I was two years old when Mike Gibson made his astonishing debut for Ireland in 1964, nine when he cemented his legend with the Lions in 1971 (the only side ever to beat the All Blacks in a Test series on their home turf), 17 when he played his last game for Ireland in 1979 and 28 when the notion of interviewing him was first suggested in 1990: "Now that's a superstar! What's he doing now? We never hear of him these days?"

Inquiries were made but the word was pretty definite: Mike Gibson was a private man. He did not engage with the press.

Eleven of the 15 Lions who starred in that first Test in '71 have written memoirs or collaborated with books but there was never a Mike Gibson story. You would meet or read about his team-mates - Willie-John, Barry John, Gareth Edwards, Andy Ripley - and they would speak of him in glowing terms but the man himself was a mystery.

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He was married to Moyra. He lived in Belfast. He worked for Tughans. His son, Colin, played rugby with Gloucester. His daughter, Jan, played hockey for Ireland. He loved golf. That's all folks. No trespassing please.

And then I got lucky.

It started in December with a chance meeting on the deck of the Titanic in Belfast at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards. A mutual friend made the introduction and we conversed for 20 minutes about the only thing I did not want to talk to Mike Gibson about - doping and the Tour de France. And then he was gone.

A few weeks later I got an email address for Colin and broached the subject of an interview with his dad. A phone call followed. And then another. And another. Mike wasn't keen but agreed to sleep on it for a couple of days. A week later, I travelled to his home near Bangor, on the shores of Belfast Lough, and played my final card: "What if we just suck it and see?"

He made some coffee and we retired to the drawing room. Three hours later, Moyra returned from town and suggested we break for lunch.

"It's wild out there," she said, shaking the rain from her coat.

"It's fun in here," he laughed.

We were set.

1. Father's music

The monk in hiding himself from the world becomes not less than himself, not less of a person, but more of a person, more truly and perfectly himself: for his personality and individuality are perfected in their true order, the spiritual, interior order, of union with God, the principle of all perfection.

Paul Kimmage: Mike, let's start with the great mystery: I've been trawling the newspaper archives for interviews you've given since you retired and the only thing I could find was a round-table discussion you had once with Jack Kyle and Brian O'Driscoll in The Irish Times.

Mike Gibson: That was when?

PK: February 2007.

MG: And the previous one?

PK: That's all I could find. You've never written a book?

MG: No, people have asked about books but I wouldn't be interested in that.

PK: The question is why?

MG: I probably get more pleasure out of other people, out of spending time with other people. I'm interested in different things. I happened to play rugby but that's it. I'm happy being quiet and just moving on with my life, so I've never sought interviews and so on. I did enjoy that evening with Brian and Jack Kyle but I don't think I made a great contribution.

PK: You used the word 'recluse' when I phoned last week, or a misplaced perception of you being a recluse. There's certainly a perception of you being anti-media.

MG: Well, I'm certainly not anti-media but I don't seek things. And if you asked me to comment on rugby now I'd say, 'My view is not worth much', because I'm not au fait with the current demands of the game and I would just prefer not to comment.

PK: Sure, but the thing I find puzzling is how engaged you are by other people. I watched you at the Sports Personality Awards and Rory McIlroy was there, and Tony McCoy was there, and Martin O'Neill was there, and I could see you were mad interested in them.

MG: (Laughs) Well, as you are.

PK: Yeah but it's my job.

MG: I love listening to sportsmen. I met Martin at a dinner last night (The Belfast Telegraph Awards); he got the 'Hall of Fame' and he was so humble about it. He's a good man, bright, sharp, and a great career as a player - never mind his achievements thereafter. I said to him: 'I must have a lengthy luncheon with you and I want you to start with Brian Clough. Tell me about this man.' I'm going to go down to Dublin when he's over with the Irish team and we'll have a lengthy lunch.

PK: There's a great photo of you in Gareth Edwards' autobiography playing golf with Gary Player in South Africa.

MG: Oh yes, brilliant days, now there's a guy who could give you a few mental lessons. He was 80 years of age in November and probably does 80 press-ups a day on two fingers! He is so driven and enthusiastic. There's not a dull moment in his day.

PK: It was on a Lions tour to South Africa in '74 when you played with him. He had just won the Open?

MG: He did, and I have a photo of myself holding the Open trophy.

PK: Have you met Rory?

MG: Yes, he plays out here (Royal Belfast) occasionally. In fact I was shopping in Sainsbury's last week and his father, Gerry, came towards me pushing a trolley. (Laughs) I said: 'Is this what we've come to now?' He was saying he was off to America in a couple of weeks and that Rory won't be back until after the Masters.

PK: Did you watch Rory as a kid?

MG: I saw him playing in a qualifying tournament at Kirkiston, I was caddying for a fellow, and the course was really bouncy and hard. He would have been 15 years of age and he was four under after eight. But even then he looked the part. He just hit the ball differently. It just sounds different. It's not the game we play.

PK: Is golf your biggest sporting passion?

MG: Yes, I love it.

PK: What did you play to?

MG: Five was my best.

PK: And now?

MG: I'm off eight.

PK: That's impressive.

MG: No, it's very hard work, it really is. I was saying to Gerry: 'When Rory is back and has a bit of time, we will go out with him and he can repair our games.' He said: 'What's your problem?' I said: 'I've lost distance.' And he laughed: 'He can't do anything for you.'

PK: What's it like being Mike Gibson at 73?

MG: I feel very content to have reached the age of 73. It's a time maybe to look back on what you've experienced . . . but it's not a terribly easy question.

PK: Content is good.

MG Yes, I think I've been extremely fortunate in everything I have had in my life; from a very early stage I've had the correct influences, people who have shaped my life. You ask what it's like to be 73 but I am thrown right back to when I started sport, and the influence of my father and my mother. I was passionate about soccer. I used to read all the soccer results and see how the teams went and my father would ask me questions about the scorelines.

PK: You're Cameron Michael Henderson Gibson?

MG: That's right. My father was Cameron and I carry that name.

PK: How did you become Mike and not Cameron?

MG: (Laughs) That was the tradition, the standard thing, they always used the middle name. I was always Michael, and it's still Michael - unless I'm booking Ryanair and have to be Cameron, because it's the first name on my passport.

PK: You were always Michael?

MG: Yes.

PK: And it became Mike when you played rugby?

MG: That was journalists.

PK: They shortened it?

MG: Yes.

PK: Because I noticed - I think in Barry John's book - an exchange between you and he calls you Michael.

MG: Right.

PK: What was your mother's name?

MG: My mother was Josephine. My grandfather (Jack Walker) played soccer in the First Division with Bury and was selected, and played, for Northern Ireland. But after the match it was discovered that he was born in Scotland, and he never played for Northern Ireland again.

PK: So that's where your interest in soccer came from?

MG: Well his days had passed obviously when I arrived but my uncle, my mother's brother, was captain of Belfast Celtic during their great era. He then played for Glenavon and I used to travel around with my parents and watch Glenavon playing. So it was quite an early age when I was introduced to sport.

PK: Any sport on your father's side?

MG: No. My father was very keen on sport but unfortunately he had a road traffic accident when he was 19. He was on a motorcycle and an uninsured motorist came straight across the road and hit my father and took his right leg off. So that was the end of his rugby and so on but two years later he won the captain's prize at Donaghadee, which I think was a special achievement.

PK: Absolutely.

MG: And if you met him you wouldn't think for one moment (he was disabled). He played his tennis and had a strong mind.

PK: How did your parents meet?

MG: They met at the Copeland Islands just by chance.

PK: Sounds exotic.

MG: (Laughs) The Copeland Islands are just off Donaghadee.

PK: I don't even know where Donaghadee is!

MG: It's around the coast: 'Six miles from Bangor to Donaghadee' is a song. So if you go through Holywood and on to Helen's Bay and Bangor, the next one around is Donaghadee.

PK: Is that where your father was from?

MG: Yes. His father was a doctor in Donaghadee.

PK: And Josephine?

MG: She's from Belfast.

PK: What did your father do?

MG: He was an estate agent, worked in Belfast all his days.

PK: What was your relationship like?

MG: Brilliant. I started by talking about influences. . .

PK: And he was?

MG: He was because he was always there; as an estate agent and self-employed, he would manoeuvre things so that he would be able to attend matches that I was playing in, or that my brother was playing in, and we would talk about the game: 'Do you remember you did that?'

PK: He would analyse it?

MG: Yes. I had a coach at Campbell College who was like-minded and used to question me all the time about the choices I made at fly-half and what my options were. He filled my mind like a computer. At the end of a game he would say: 'Do you remember the time you moved right? What was on your mind?' And it was the same with my father.

PK: You've a lovely calm temperament. Was your father the same?

MG: Yes he was. Mother was the driving force and (a disciple) of getting full value out of what talent and opportunities you have, so it was a good combination.

PK: Soccer was your first love. Did you have an aspiration or dream of playing football in England?

MG: Yes I did. I was very keen on it. I followed the sport as much as you could in that era through the means and medium of the radio. But when I went to Campbell there was only rugby available - soccer was not encouraged - and my father said, 'Just go with it and play rugby.'

PK: Was that a blow to you?

MG: No, I accepted it, because of the tradition there; the ethos at Campbell is one of producing 'the package' - academic (excellence) because that's necessary but also the rounded person who has experienced sport and is socially adept. I wasn't a reluctant rugby player, I loved sport not matter what it was.

PK: When did you realise you were good at it?

MG: (Laughs) Did I ever realise I was good at it?

PK: No false modesty please.

MG: No, it's an interesting thing. I didn't play rugby with any ambition.

PK: Really?

MG: I didn't play with an ambition to play for Ireland, even after I left school. I played rugby because I loved it, and I did my best at it, and prepared for it the best I could. I never thought: 'I really want to play for Ulster.' I was playing for Wanderers and unknown to me two Ulster selectors happened to be watching the game.

PK: Wanderers in Dublin?

MG: Yes.

PK: What brought you to Dublin?

MG: I had done an entrance examination at Cambridge and was offered a place but it was deferred for a year. So I had a decision to make as to whether I had the traditional year out or go to Trinity and keep some discipline in my life.

PK: So you did.

MG: I did, and enjoyed it enormously. I was going to play for Trinity but the captain there, a fellow called Martin Reece, said he saw me more as a fullback. I had no experience at full-back; I had played fly-half all my days and it was going to be difficult for me to change so I said, 'Would you mind if I played outside of Trinity?' He said, 'No, that would be fine.'

PK: So you joined Wanderers?

MG: Well I mentioned influences in my life and this was interesting; my coach had written to Ronnie Dawson and I remember clearly going along to his offices - he was an architect attached to the bank - and we had a chat and he made the biggest decision of my life. He said, 'Right, we'll give you five matches.' And that immediately took the pressure off. I wasn't going into my first matching thinking: 'I've burned my bridges at Trinity. If this goes badly I've no where to go.' I had five matches to prove myself and the first match was a dream.

PK: A common thread in your career.

(His eyes well with tears.)

MG: Excuse me, I get a wee bit emotional about it.

PK: About what?

MG: The impact people make.

PK: Ronnie Dawson?

MG: Yeah.

PK: Giving you those five games?

MG: He picked me up and took me to the ground and after the match talked to me about it. I thought: 'But you're a hooker! And you're asking me questions about what I was doing at fly-half!' But they were obviously the right things to talk about. The match was against Collegians, who had won the double in the North of Ireland, and so it was a demanding game. But nobody knew me and every dummy was bought and I got a write-up in the paper saying: 'Maurice Gibson made an impressive debut.'

PK: Maurice Gibson?

MG: (Laughs) Yeah.

PK: Did it feel good knowing you had done well?

MG: I wasn't under pressure from that moment on and it was a really significant move to play in that company. Kevin Flynn was outside of me, Wal Bornemann played on the wing. Roly Meates was playing up front with Ronnie Dawson and the back row was Ronnie Kavanagh, Gene Kavanagh and Gerry Culliton. They were hard men but nobody said boo to me with Ronnie around the place. So I had a very comfortable introduction to senior rugby and that led to playing for Ulster, and at the end of the season I was travelling reserve for Ireland against Wales in Cardiff (in March 1963).

PK: What was your year in Dublin like outside of the rugby?

MG: I studied at university . . . I didn't have a great social life if that's the question.

PK: What were your impressions of the city?

MG: Oh, I enjoyed it. I had digs out at Fairview and had to cycle all the way across Butt Bridge to Trinity. I had lovely landlords; I had a bedroom and was part of their family.

PK: Was that your first time away from home?

MG: Yes it was.

PK: Was that difficult?

MG: No, because they made it quite easy. There was a distant connection or relationship with my mother's family and they looked after me well. And Ronnie Dawson was a big player, a very special man.

PK: And when you went to Cambridge?

MG: Oh, you couldn't improve on it. It's the most beautiful city. I was in lodgings out by the railway station on Devonshire Road, so that was a healthy cycle in. But it's a town of bicycles. And my life there was one of sport and working.

PK: You were studying law?

MG: Yes, that was my brother's influence. He read law at Cambridge and got a first-class honours degree. We used to talk about cases; he would be driving along in the car and make some interesting point and I enjoyed the nature of his work and the intellectual challenge of resolving problems.

PK: Was your father at the game when you made your debut for Ulster?

MG: Oh yes.

PK: Was it a big deal for him?

MG: Yeah, it had to be. I remember the Varsity match; I was captain of the side and had prepared and was composed: 'Don't get too much fervour into your being because you may have to make a decision in the first minute.' We were standing at Twickenham and the national anthem was playing and I was comfortable and then I looked up in the stand and . . . phhhhhh! Excuse me for emotions.

(His eyes well.)

PK: Your father?

MG: Yeah, and mother. She was as white as a sheet. I thought, 'Oh God help you!' And I started to shake.

PK: Really?

MG: Yeah, it was fascinating.

PK: Did it take you long to regain your composure?

MG: Oh no. You think 'Right . . .'

PK: 'Let's reset.'

MG: Yeah, let's reset and go back, but it was an experience that to this day registers with me because it just gives you an idea of what they put into me.

2. Bread of Heaven

I remember when I first went to Scotland as a travelling reserve for the Welsh team, I watched in silence as Gerry Lewis, our physio and baggage man, handed out a red jersey to each player. There was a silence, a kind of unspoken respect at the act. I watched this unofficial "ceremony" taking place and I made up my mind there and then that one day, as soon as possible, I would like up to receive one of those jerseys. When it finally happened, deep beneath the old Colombes stadium in Paris in 1967, I picked up the jersey, held it lovingly in my hands and kissed the badge. I probably did that before every match I played for Wales.

- Gareth Edwards: The Autobiography

PK: I've read that it was as a result of the Varsity game that you were selected to play for Ireland?

MG: There were probably three games. I played against New Zealand for Cambridge (on October 23, 1963), and that was a great experience. Ronnie (Dawson) had filled me full of New Zealand and I knew everything about them and things went well for me but I didn't think, 'This may have an impact elsewhere.' And then the Varsity match came and that went well also and I was picked for the final trial and again there was a piece of luck. Mick English was (my) opposition and had played probably his best game ever for Ireland that winter against New Zealand but they delayed selecting the team until New Zealand had played Leinster and Ulster: Leinster played them on the Wednesday (Jan 22, 1964) and Ulster played them on the Saturday (Jan 25). I played for Ulster in that game, and played well enough, and that evening during the function they read out the team to play England at Twickenham.

PK: And you were in?

MG: Yeah. I remember Mac Herewini, the fly-half for New Zealand, was sitting at the table and as they were about to announce the side he pointed at me.

PK: I can see you're getting emotional. It was a big moment?

MG: Yes, it was. I was straight home to tell my parents.

PK: In his autobiography, Gareth Edwards tells a story about taking the jersey and kissing the badge and how emotional he was the first time he played for Wales? How did it feel playing for Ireland?

MG: Oh dear, immense pride. I didn't got to that stage of being overwhelmed by it but it's like the first time you put on a British Lions jersey, you think: 'Hey! This is important.' And taking the Irish jersey was . . . you put it on and look around and see others in green and then it starts to register with you. Because it's all very well people saying: 'Oh well done. Congratulations. Good luck!' et cetera, et cetera, but there comes a moment in a changing room when you are suddenly alone. All of the people who have been helping you are gone; you've got 15 men standing there and that's when you feel the tension.

PK: You weren't nervous the night before?

MG: No, because I was rooming with Ronnie.

PK: That was my next question.

MG: Yeah, which was a comfort. He did most of the talking, preparing me for all aspects of it: 'You'll go out onto the field, they'll take a photograph and there'll be a reaction from the crowd - and that will be your first feel.' But then you are back in the changing room and there's an anticipatory nervousness. You feel it in your stomach. It's like sitting an examination - you go in and pick up your pen and for those first three or four lines you can hardly control your hand. And it's the same on the rugby field. You go out and they play the national anthems and there's this adrenaline flooding through you, and that's why I made the comment earlier about the need to be composed, because within two minutes I could be making an important decision, or having to deal with a situation, and if I've exploded in the changing room and beaten my head against the wall . . .

PK: That's not going to work?

MG: No, so just leave me alone and let me sit here and think, which is what I used to do. I would close my eyes and prepare by visualising things: 'I'm taking the kick-off. I'm fielding the kick-off. I'm making a break. I'm running right. What's happening?' And it was quite vivid, and very helpful because if you've lived it you're more likely to deal with the situation and not be surprised.

PK: In that interview you did with Brian O'Driscoll and Jack Kyle, you asked Brian if he ever felt emotional in the course of a game?

MG: What was his reply?

PK: I'll read you the passage:

"Do you ever feel emotional in the course of a game?"

"Not during a game."

"How do you feel when you are standing up for The Soldier's Song. Does that not stir you?"

"Of course it does. You feel an element of emotion there depending on what's at stake in that particular game."

And then you said - and this was the really interesting bit - "I remember that playing Wales you didn't need a team talk. You just had to listen to the Welsh national anthem and tears would come into your eyes." So it was just that question of emotion?

MG: Well, I don't think it's a strange thing for me to say that I am emotional about things - and I apologise for (getting emotional) today.

PK: There is absolutely no need.

MG: But to go to Cardiff and listen to that anthem is the most wonderful experience. So emotionally, to get yourself aroused for the game, you don't need a team talk. You could just say: 'Listen lads, you're about to experience something which you will never forget. Draw in on it and draw strength from it. It's for you, it's not for Wales!' And I would feel exactly the same with The Soldiers Song. It's stirring. It's not unlike The Marseillaise. I know it's criticised for its violence but it was a song that was created to try to stir the troops. And I felt the same standing at Lansdowne Road.

PK: That's interesting.

MG: Brian said he didn't (get emotional) but I've cried at Lansdowne Road. I remember Mick Doyle scoring against France in '65 - his first international. He scored a try and we took the lead and it was the noise coming at you in waves of increasing volume and I defy you not to be emotionally affected by it. It's not that it . . . I didn't sob and wasn't ineffectual for the next five minutes, it was just the sheer elation of that moment. We had taken the lead and were playing well and we had a chance in the game and it was just fabulous, really fabulous. So emotion is a powerful driving force I think.

PK: The team had not been on a good run when you made your debut: three Wooden Spoons in '60, '61 and '62, almost bottom again in '63, and then you play this extraordinary game at Twickenham?

MG: Yes, it was a significant big win because we hadn't beaten England at Twickenham since '48 or something. One of my memories of the game is the referee, Gwynne Walters, a lovely man with a real understanding for the game. I'd got a knock and was off the field having treatment with about three minutes to go. We were leading 18-5 and the game was comfortable and there was a breakdown or lineout and he came over to the touchline: 'I think you'd like to be on the field at the end of the game.' And I got up and went on and the game finished.

PK: Nice.

MG: Yes, a nice touch. We had such an opportunity with two home games to pick up a Triple Crown but we lost to Scotland and lost to Wales and it was as if England hadn't happened. And then of all things we went to Paris and that was one of the most significant games for me because I had so little ball. I remember clearly (Benoit) Dauga, a big fellow, tipping the ball from number 8 and (Walter) Spanghero and his colleagues coming around and running towards me and thinking: 'Has the whistle gone? Are we opposing this? This looks like a training ground routine!' Honestly, that was my genuine feeling in the course of that game because they just stampeded at us, and we lost that comfortably.

PK: 27-6

MG: Yeah. But that night I remember coming back to the hotel and Tony O'Reilly was there with Andy Mulligan, and we sat on the staircase until about three o'clock in the morning, talking about their experiences on the '59 (Lions) tour to New Zealand and so on, and that to me was just (the ultimate). I've never understood people who do not like to talk about sport. Maybe it's different as a professional because I've seen it with cricketers, they just don't want to know, but my view has always been: 'Hey, I've met somebody who wants to talk about rugby, and if he's keen enough I might learn something.' So it was a very productive weekend for me; I had a real lesson on French play, and O'Reilly and Mulligan were superb.

PK: Did you spend much time with O'Reilly?

MG: He's such a good man, and such a loyal man to his friends and he loves rugby players. I know he is in big business but deep down he's still a rugby player and enjoys their company. I had an Achilles tendon problem in '74 and I played a game and came off the field and Tony was there. He said: "Look, you'll be out of rugby for a while. Why don't you come on down to Naas for a weekend and have a break with Moyra?' Colin, our son, had just been born and we went down to stay at . . .

PK: Castlemartin?

MG: Yeah, and phhhhhh (exhales) I wouldn't like to pay for the path, never mind look after the house but he was really generous and that was typical of him. If I ever needed help or advice about something he would give it. And I am so sorry about his financial problems - well, not so much the finance because that won't affect him, but his loss of reputation which he doesn't deserve.

PK: There were a couple of geniuses on that team, Ray McLoughlin.

MG: You would say a man of few words, or a reluctant speaker, but when he speaks you listen. I remember him as a captain in '65: he was a person who really appealed because he was so keen on organisation and structure way before most people (in the game). He would say: 'This is what we want to do. This is how we are going to do it.' Internationals suddenly became real exercises - you went there and worked hard right through to the Saturday. He was criticised because there were people who couldn't take that approach, whereas I would buy into it every moment of the day.

PK: Here's something Ken Kennedy once said about you: 'Michael was a thinker. He could read the game better than anybody I ever saw. He had the tactical brain to see what needed to be done and the brilliance to carry it out. He didn't drink or smoke and he didn't go out with the lads. He was the first spark of professionalism. He looked at his diet and he had his own sprint coach. He was before his time.'

MG: (Laughs)

PK: You had your own sprint coach?

MG: That was another very important decision. I got fed up with the discomfort you had at the start of a season when you had done nothing for two months and you suddenly reintroduced your muscles to (hard work). So I started to train with athletes and that was such an experience for me because they trained harder than rugby players. I came home here one day and said to Moyra: 'I am shattered.'

PK: Who were these guys?

MG: Just fellows (runners) from Northern Ireland who competed. But it meant I could play on the rugby field knowing I was not going to encounter anything as demanding as I had experienced on a running track. So it meant I could chase whatever had to be chased.

PK: Here's something you once said: "My attitude was, 'Don't compromise your talent in any way; don't do anything that's going to impair your performance'."

MG: Yeah, I think that would be . . . Ken talks about me not going out to drink with the lads.

PK: Was that true?

MG: Yeah, but when I went out - and I'm grateful for this - nobody said 'Come on, you must have a pint.'

PK: They respected that you didn't want to drink?

MG: Yeah, I'd have a lemonade and lime. I just didn't have any tolerance or capacity to drink, but it was never something that separated me from the lads.

PK: Was that unusual? Were there many like you on the team?

MG: No, they were all brought up to drink, but I just never acquired a taste for it. And I didn't want to do anything that would prejudice my game.

PK: When did you first get a sense of being recognised: "There's Mike Gibson!"

MG: The first time I played for Ulster in December '62, but it was a pleasant recognition, it wasn't an intrusion, and it reminded me of my responsibilities - something I'd be conscious of even today when I see rugby players: 'You're representing the sport. Do it well because people will remember.' It's the old story - somebody meets you for 30 seconds but they can form an impression they might carry for a lifetime. And within those 30 seconds it's not difficult (to be nice).

PK: What about your engagement with the press?

MG: Good. I never had any difficulties with the press. George Ace was the correspondent and he couldn't always get hold of me but he always produced an acceptable quote.

PK: (Laughs)

MG: I would read a comment I had made about some situation and think: 'I would love to have said that!' But I never felt wronged and I was grateful for that.

PK: You didn't court publicity and don't to this day?

MG: No. I could play my rugby (on Saturday) and then on Monday I was back in the office, and back to real life, and this is where I feel for today's rugby player because on Monday they're back to rugby, and on Tuesday it's rugby.

PK: You had a much saner life?

MG: Yes, and a life that wasn't . . . look at Johnny Sexton now! Thirty years of age, earning capacity significant, everything going well for him but all these queries about concussion and his health. What about the future? It's not like being a soccer player.

PK: The money?

MG: Yeah.

PK: He will have to reinvent himself?

MG: Yes, and that's a great challenge for anybody. And that wasn't part of our lives. If I played rugby and were injured or played badly, it didn't affect Moyra; it didn't affect our children because on Monday I was earning money in a different field, a different life.

PK: Which was better.

MG: And much more stable than they have it now.

3. The Lion in Winter

Tim Horan is familiar with those who were king before Brian O'Driscoll and the clear line of succession. When Horan was a boy he was schooled on a video of rugby's 101 Greatest Tries. For emphasis, he says that Mike Gibson must have scored "about 40 of them." Meeting Gibson many years later fulfilled a wish: they shared "a couple of hot chocolates" and chatted, two giants of the game.

- Denis Walsh, The Sunday Times

PK: How did you meet Moyra?

MG: Moyra lived in Shandon Park, and Kensington Road, where I lived, sort of feeds onto Shandon and we met among a group of boys and girls who used to go up to the golf course.

PK: How old were you?

MG: When we first went out?

PK: Yeah.

MG: I was 18 and she was 16. She still hasn't forgiven me for taking her to the Guns of Navarone.

PK: On the first date?

MG: Yeah.

PK: (Laughs)

MG: So any time it's shown on television we have a laugh.

PK: When did you get married?

MG: In 1970.

PK: During the Troubles. What was that like?

MG: It was a very sad experience for everybody on all sides and something that should not have been necessary if the political figures in the '50s had had some foresight. But for some reason people's legitimate demands weren't met and suddenly you were into a turbulent situation where law just didn't apply. It was an appalling experience. I worked in Belfast every day, as my father did, and you just went in every day and tried to get on with life.

PK: And could you?

MG: Yes, within confines. You restricted your activities. I was captain of North at the time and we were due to play in Cork and we got letters saying, 'If you do this the consequences will be serious.'

PK: A threat?

MG: Yes, and we basically said: 'The devil with that, we're going,' but that was just the environment. I played with a fellow who was shot because he bought a second-hand car from a policeman. It was mistaken identity but they didn't need many excuses. So it impacted. You led as good a life as you could, but you were careful in the things that you did.

PK: Did you ever consider leaving?

MG: No, but my father said if he were my age he would have recommended leaving. He was in the heart of Belfast every day and it wore him down. But I never gave it any real thought: this is where you are born and this is where all your mates are.

PK: You played your final game for Ireland against Australia in 1979?

MG: Yeah, in Sydney.

PK: Did you know it was your last game?

MG: Yes.

PK: You'd made the decision?

MG: Well, I had retired you see after (playing) New Zealand in Dublin at the end of '78: I could still play and make decisions but I had lost a bit of pace and if felt like the right time. Father always said, 'Don't overstay your welcome,' and I continued to train and play for my club and then I had this chance meeting with the chairman of selectors at a 'North' dinner in March.

PK: So during the Five Nations?

MG: Yeah. He said there was a doubt about Alastair McKibben for the Scottish game and would I be prepared to come to the training session. I said 'Well don't throw the cap away' and I came down and trained and I was like a new boy. It was like starting afresh.

PK: How do you explain that?

MG: Because you're away from the environment, away from the pressure, you're playing rugby at a lower level and you can deal with situations - I could delay a kick a bit longer and get away with it - whereas at international level the spaces close very quickly.

PK: So you played against Scotland?

MG: Yeah, and that night the same selector said: 'Would you fancy going to Australia with us?' I said I would have to speak to the partners (his law firm) but it was a short tour, and not too demanding, so I said, 'Yes, I'll go.'

PK: And instead of ending your career with ten successive defeats, which you would have done if you'd retired after New Zealand, you finished with a draw and two wins?

MG: (Laughs) Or to summarise the entire exercise: 'You started with a win and you finished with a win and what happened in between is of no importance.'

PK: 81 caps?

MG: Yes.

PK: A record.

MG: Yes, at that time.

PK: How did that feel?

MG: It was a nice (milestone). Tom Kiernan was the most capped when he retired, and Willie-John (McBride), but you always know the events of the future will delete you from the records.

PK: I asked Gareth Edwards once: "If you had one game to take to eternity, what would it be?"

MG: From your entire career?

PK: Yes.

MG: Oh dear.

PK: Really? It's that hard?

MG: It is because every match for Ireland was so exciting . . . that match against France in '65 when Ray McLoughlin was captain . . . and that first Test (for the Lions) against New Zealand in '71 . . . there were just so many. I apologise for not being able to single one out.

PK: No, that's fine.

MG: Did Gareth say the Barbarians game?

PK: No, he actually struggled as well, so I rephrased the question and asked if there was ever a game when he walked off the field and thought: 'This is the greatest moment of my life?'" He said: "I remember the fourth Test in Auckland in '71, sitting in the dressing room with Gerald Davies with our jerseys and the crap still on us. Somebody said 'Hey, we've just won the series!' And we just looked at each other and went 'So what?' That was the immediate sentiment, later we realised what it meant but at the time we couldn't."

MG: That was exactly the feeling I had. It was strange, strange.

PK: How long did it take for the elation to come?

MG: The flight home, and then the crowds at the airport when we arrived in London - even George Ace had flown over!

PK: (Laughs)

MG: He had been sent by the (Belfast) Newsletter to interview us. And then we had the late flight back home to Aldergrove . . . but in terms of significant games - and this again is an emotional thing - it's the first Test in '71 that stands out for me. We were leading 6-3 I think at half-time, and the BBC were taking a radio commentary on the second half. I remember standing in a huddle - and I shouldn't have been thinking of this - but it suddenly came over me, and it was an overwhelming thing that my parents . . .

(His voice breaks with emotion)

PK: They were going to be listening?

MG: Yes, in disbelief, because it just didn't happen. All my life, I had been brought up with that: you did not expect to beat New Zealand. It was a great feeling.

PK: Do you still watch the game?

MG: Oh yeah, although it's a different game. Everything has changed from preparation to the way that it's played. I don't know whether it's faster, because there were a few fast people in our time, but its certainly more powerful. And the contact is at a different level completely, so if I was contemplate playing rugby again I would need a different body. And the whole structure is so different.

PK: Are you engaged by it?

MG: It's funny, you should ask Willie-John - he has just turned off completely. I met him last night at the awards and said, 'What about the World Cup? Did that not interest you?' He said, 'Yeah, a couple of matches did.' So maybe he watches some rugby.

PK: Did you watch the World Cup?

MG: I found it captivating. It was too expensive to actually go but I saw every match on television and thought it was a really good World Cup. And I was happy for Dan Carter because I've regarded him as the best fly-half I have ever seen.

PK: Here's a quote from Tom Kiernan: "If I had to choose the single most outstanding player I ever came across I think I would opt for Mike Gibson, though I would also have to consider Gareth Edwards and Colin Meads. He had all the skills of a great outhalf or centre but he had a phenomenal work rate in addition to these. No praise of mine is sufficient for him."

MG: Tom Kiernan?

PK: Yeah.

MG: Right.

PK: "The single most outstanding player I ever came across." A lot of people say that about you.

MG: That's very gratifying. That's nice of Tom.

PK: How does it feel to be one of the greats of all time?

MG: Well . . . (exhales) I've always regarded Gareth as our champion - the 'man' of our era - but it's very difficult to compare (generations). I don't know how I would have fared against Brian O'Driscoll - he could have run all around me or over the top of me, I just don't know. And what if you gave Jack Kyle everything that's available nowadays? Although he would probably say: 'I'd rather not. There are actually other things in life of more interest to me.' I think he derived more satisfaction out of what he achieved as a surgeon.

PK: Really?

MG: He went off to Zambia and was introduced to a matron as "the rugby superstar who had played 40-odd times for Ireland." The matron said, "I'm not sure that would be uppermost in the thoughts of our patients." And I'm sure Jack concurred. He was a special person. He sent me a copy of his book and autographed it and I was delighted, but I'm sorry that he is not here now because I know so much more about him. Spend time with Jack Kyle and you knew what was important in life: 'Can I help somebody today?'

PK: I think you're a bit like that.

MG: Like Jack?

PK: Yeah, I think you would agree that there are more important things in life than being a great rugby player.

MG: Oh most certainly, that's why I would hesitate to say if I would be a professional rugby player today if it were available to me. I'm not sure that I would.

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