We are hustling around to the back of the stand in Ellis Park, Johannesburg, 27th May 1995. It’s early doors in the World Cup and Ireland have just been mauled by New Zealand. The lead story is about the beast unleashed by the All Blacks on the world, a colossus called Jonah Lomu.
But he wasn’t the first man out of the traps that night. That space was taken by Ireland’s tight head prop, Gary Halpin.
From a short penalty move early in the game Halpin had done well to hold Michael Bradley’s pass and barrel over close to the posts.
The stadium was half empty but that generated some noise. As he backpedalled up the field, with Eric Elwood scooping up the ball for the conversion, Gary used the middle finger of each hand to convey a message of unambiguous disrespect to the All Blacks. Oh dear.
So here we are, en route to the press conference, when we happen across the bould Halpin. Head down and scurrying along behind a still apoplectic team manager, Noel Murphy. He gets the head up just about enough to reveal a smile.
"Don’t talk to me, I’m in the dog house!" he says in a shouted whisper. Head back down, he follows on after the manager who has apologies to make.
By that stage we knew what to expect from Gary Halpin. In this business it is unwise to make friends with players, for all sorts of reasons. With Halpin that went out the window in New Zealand in 1992. In keeping with every tour to that country, it was hard going. The weather was muck and the rugby unforgiving.
When you’ve left an Irish summer that may not have been scorching, but at least it was still daylight at 9pm, and swapped it for towns that were dark by 5pm and closed an hour later, it helps to have a few lads with personality. Philip Danaher was a captain who appreciated that.
"Gaz would sit in the front of the bus and keep us entertained," he says.
"I’d say there were lots of lads at various stages who wouldn’t have minded going home, but he would take their minds off it. When you were in his company you were happier. Simple as that."
So his value extended far beyond the field. On that tour Halpin became a sidekick on school visits for assistant coach Gerry Murphy.
It wasn’t a wildly popular chore on any tour, much less one where you're being battered. Murphy would lighten the load simply by introducing Gary to the locals, and then let him at it.
The coach's memories are of school halls full of kids, sitting cross legged and spellbound, while the story teller dipped into his trove of treasures. Halpin was as popular with the staff as the pupils.
He was also clean mad. Gary’s Ireland career didn’t extend beyond the 1995 World Cup. Having been capped first in the hammering by England in 1990, the last off 11 caps came in Durban against France in the World Cup quarter-final. With the game going pro, this fella who had experienced the hard edge of sport on an athletic scholarship to the US, was tailor made.
He became part of the fabric of London Irish in those crazy early days of professionalism. The players were all given company cars by the club: dark green Rovers, pretty cool at the time. Typically they would be more abandoned than parked in the houses nearby where the players stayed. Parking wasn’t really Gary’s thing.
This was best illustrated one Saturday afternoon in the middle of a Pilkington Cup semi-final against Leicester at Sunbury. The ground was stuffed.
Gary had left his particular Rover looking like it had fallen out of the sky. The mystery was how, in the heat of battle, he recognised the registration number being called out over the tannoy. The measure of the man was in how he called a halt to proceedings.
"I remember Graham Rowntree was giving me a funny look, because he could see I was somewhat bemused," Gary wrote in The Guardian, years later.
"So I said to Graham: ‘Could you just hold on for a minute there?’ And off I went. I remember Dean Richards sticking his head up from the scrum and saying: "For God's sake what's going on now?"
He ran over to the stand and hollered up to the team manager to get the keys from his jacket in the changing room, and please move the car which was causing an obstruction. Then he went back to the game, which of course had waited for him. This didn’t faze him. Gary Halpin didn’t do embarrassment.
It allowed him be the person he was: self-deprecating, hilarious, and always helpful. It was easy to understand why he was so popular as a teacher, a career that took him most recently to Cistercian Roscrea.
If Halpin hollered down the corridor at you it got everyone’s attention. Whatever the message it was always worth waiting for. They loved him.
Only a week ago he was telling a Roscrea colleague how he had been moved by the recent death of Dave Egerton, the former Bath and England number eight, who Gary had come across on his debut for the Barbarians. Egerton had gone out of his way to look after him.
It was a simple thing that most people would overlook. Years later the gesture still resonated with Gary.
And the All Blacks? "I remember the incident but we didn’t really make anything of it," New Zealand captain Sean Fitzpatrick told us many years later of the 1995 encounter. "Props don’t score many tries so maybe he was just excited."
Surely Fitzpatrick, fond of a bit of sledging, didn’t let it pass unheeded as the All Blacks ran Ireland off the park? "Yeah," Halpin confided. "At a scrum he goes: 'Where’s the finger now mate?'"
Gary was too busy dealing with the power coming from the New Zealand scrum to come up with an answer. Maybe he was already thinking of the grief coming his way after the match.
Now that the game is over there are countless people across the rugby world who will mourn the loss of such a great character.
Long before the term became popular Gary Halpin was a top man.