Wednesday 25 April 2018

Tony Ward: Colm Tucker was a giant and a gentleman whom I was proud to call my friend

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Sometimes the news of someone's passing hits you particularly hard. On Thursday evening when I got home I switched on my phone to find an unusually high number of missed calls, each one having come within minutes of the other. Immediately, I feared the worst.

Some of the numbers I could identify and with Limerick the common denominator, I knew it was a case of who rather than what. Colm Christopher Tucker had moved on to join Mossie Keane and Micky O'Sullivan from the close-knit Munster squad of '78 in the big rugby nursery in the sky. It cut me deep because, like so many others, I hadn't realised just how poorly Colm had been of late.

This was a real kick in the gut. Like Maurice Ignatius before him, Colm was one of the great indestructibles; or at least that's how it seemed.

We first became friends in the summer of 1975 when an enlarged Munster squad came together for pre-season training in Limerick ahead of that season's inter-pro series. Immediately we hit it off. For the best part of the next decade, he made my life hell at club level, but with Munster, Ireland 'B', Ireland and on the Lions tour to South Africa in 1980, our careers ran parallel.

In every squad there tends to be not so much cliques as little groups who identify and mix more easily with each other. It tends to be props and hookers or wings and full-backs, perhaps the back-row or half-backs who socialise together.

Not so with Munster. Right from the get-go I found Colm easy and engaging company.

We may have appeared to be the best of enemies when, along with Johnny Barry and Eddie Price, he terrorised me, Shay Dennison, Larry Moloney, Johnny McDonnell and the rest of the light blue backs in countless encounters between Garryowen and Shannon in the '70s and '80s.

To face Colm on the charge, whether with ball at boot lace or ball in hand, was hell on earth. He was the original dribbler, with extraordinary control over the ball on the run. It was a facet to his game surpassed only by his impact when running down the out-half channel with ball cradled in both arms.

It related back to the soccer days of his youth, when he was renowned for attempting to execute a 'Beckham' strike from the halfway line in almost every game from the kick-off. It was an extra string to his bow he carried into battle for Shannon.

Dare Terry Fitzgerald even hesitate over a long-range penalty, up would step Colm, ready, willing and more than capable of giving it the full welly.

Way before the modern-day gym culture he was gifted with the most athletic physique. He had a big chest, big strong thighs and natural ball-carrying athleticism. When he hit, he hurt, but never with malicious intent.

Invariably, a big hit would be followed by him whispering: "That was great Wardy, well done, now get back up there". It wasn't sledging; he actually meant it for getting in his way. Pride alone got me back on my feet.

By contrast, if you were lucky enough to be on his side he promised to look after you and always did.

And while they may have been great rivals at the time, he idolised Shay Deering. A miserly 11 Irish caps between them says more about the system of selection than anything else. Take any No 8 you care to name and put him between Tucker at six and Deering at seven and you had a world-class back-row.

It is a travesty that Colm, like Shay, played so infrequently for Ireland. Yes, he was unfortunate in his timing given he was up against John O'Driscoll, Fergus Slattery and Willie Duggan in their prime, but in a senior career spanning some 14 years, the fact he only amassed three caps is a crying shame. They get that in a month now.

His first Ireland 'B' appearance was when we played Scotland 'B' in a televised game at Murrayfield in December '77. Colm was at blindside with Alan McLean at openside and Donal Spring in between. The front-row included Gerry McLoughlin and Ciaran Fitzgerald as captain.

We won 7-3 and while a few of us went on to senior level soon afterwards, Colm had to wait another year. That big day finally came on January 20, 1979 at Lansdowne Road, when along with McLoughlin, Mike Gibson and future Tanaiste Dick Spring, he ran out for Ireland in a match we drew 9-9 with Les Bleus.

A second cap followed in Cardiff a fortnight later but there was to be just one more -- when he came off the bench in Paris in 1980. Infamously in that game, an 'F' instead of a 'T' began his surname in the match programme.

It did, however, pave the way for his greatest representative honour when he was named as part of the Lions squad to tour South Africa in the summer of that year.

He played in the back-row in the last two Tests at Port Elizabeth and Pretoria alongside O'Driscoll (another rival he admired so much) and Jeff Squire. He was a brilliant tourist and brilliant company, hugely popular with every member of that touring party.

In playing in a winning Lions Test side he had achieved the ultimate ambition of every player in this part of the world, but Colm was always first and foremost a Shannon man. Beating us in that '77 final (as he so often reminded me) meant so much to him.

He played (winning six Senior Cup medals), was a selector, coached and was president of the club. It was a commitment to Shannon RFC that extended over 40 years. His son, Colm Jnr, played for Ireland Schools and also coached at the club, with Colm and his wife Ger two of his most loyal and ever-present supporters.

I am finding it hard to get my head around going to Limerick to bid farewell to Colm today. I will miss his regular phone calls so badly. While he had at all times a unique and wonderful sense of humour, he could by contrast be trenchant in his views, particularly where the IRFU, the Branch and Shannon RFC were concerned.

Any perceived injustice and he was on to me arguing the parish cause. And boy could he do that. He was a passionate man with a big heart. As rivals, as team-mates, as part of the wider rugby community, we will miss him so much, but nowhere will he be missed more than in the bosom of the family he loved so dear.

To Ger, to Rachel, to Colm Jnr, to Richard and to the extended family, we offer our deepest and most sincere condolences.

I am proud to have played with and against a Limerick rugby giant, but more than anything I am proud to call him a true friend, one who made life better for so many people he encountered along the way. Not a half bad legacy.

Thanks big man. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam dilis.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport