Sport Rugby

Thursday 19 July 2018

Tony Ward: We had our differences but it would be difficult to find a more courageous player than Willie Duggan

Willie Duggan. Photo by Jim O'Kelly/Sportsfile
Willie Duggan. Photo by Jim O'Kelly/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Back in October, not yet a year ago, the sudden passing of Anthony Foley knocked the nation for six. Yesterday morning when Joe MacDonnell, a great mutual friend, rang to tell me that Willie Duggan had passed away overnight the same gut-wrenching feeling in the pit of my stomach prevailed.

Willie may have been older than 'Axel' in years but at 67 was still a young man. As with the sudden death of Tony Keady, outside of the immediate family, it is former sporting team-mates in whatever code and at whatever level who tend to feel the passing most.

Willie and I had a chequered relationship. We were far from bosom buddies but respect was never an issue and, as he assured me in latter years, it cut both ways.

Soul mates we were not and our rugby differences are well recorded but press me to name the hardest, most courageous rugby player it was my privilege to play alongside or against then only Shay Deering fits in a comparable frame.

The Doug had the Deero's courage but that extra ingredient that made him unique and for me the greatest No 8 of them all was a hardness that defied pain. He had no threshold. Yes, he could dish it out but by God could he take it too. If you wanted the consummate scrapper alongside in the trenches then Willie was the definitive warrior.

We all have our individual reminiscences and Willie, much like Moss Keane, has so many more than the rest. My own debut at international level against Scotland in 1978 coincided with the coming together for the first time of the greatest Irish back-row ever assembled.

In John O'Driscoll, Fergus Slattery and Duggan Ireland had its greatest combination in that sector.

We won that opening game in Dublin and a fortnight later were off to Paris on a snow-covered ice rink to face the French. They too fielded arguably their best back row of all time in Jean-Claude Skrela, Jean-Pierre Rives and Jean-Pierre Bastiat. Bastiat was No 8 and the proverbial man mountain - as wide as he was tall.

To cut a long story short, the Doug called me aside the night before the game and asked me to concentrate on an early kick-off and risk a little extra umph to get the ball close to the touchline.

I didn't need to ask why or who specifically was the target. As luck would have it I did manage to get a 22 restart on the meat and suffice to say the Ireland No 8 kept up his part of the bargain!

Such was the nature of the beast, give and take in equal measure and never demand of any other player anything he wouldn't or didn't demand of himself.

He was tough and never stood on ceremony but when it came to endeavour and emptying the tank once he crossed that white line William Patrick Duggan was honesty personified.

He wasn't the greatest trainer but measure that against a 41-cap international career (as well as the 1977 British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand in which he packed down at No 8 in all four Tests) and he was never found wanting.

It fair to say that the manner in which he went about his rugby business (down home in Kilkenny) suggests a different type of preparation to that of myth and legend.

No doubt he would have proved a nightmare for Joe Schmidt and today's ultra efficient brand of coach. One thing that is for certain is that we will never see his like again.

I still can't quite grasp the reality of writing about Willie in the past tense but much like Foley and Ken Goodall to name but two he is now spoiling that great selector in the sky with an abundance of choice for the middle of the backrow. Toss in Mossie and Colm Tucker and there is some pack assembling from that squad of the late '70s and early '80s.

We had our differences but he still saw fit to support me when travelling up for the launch of 'the Good, the Bad and the Rugby' a few years after we had both retired.

Slattery was the catalyst and right to the very end 'Frank', as Willie so affectionately addressed his closest rugby colleague, remained just that.

For Slatts and for everyone associated with the game in Kilkenny and Blackrock the world has lost a true rugby legend.

But for Ellen, for Willie Jnr (a real chip off the old block), for Helena, for Monica and for the extended family including cousin Ned (Byrne) another great Kilkenny, 'Rock and Ireland stalwart, the loss cuts so much deeper again.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Irish Independent

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