By Damian Dolan
Matt Gallagher has some pretty big boots to fill. The 23-year-old Saracens fullback, who joins Munster next season, is the son of All Blacks World Cup winner John.
By the same age, John Gallagher was helping New Zealand to victory at the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987. He scored five tries in the tournament.
An accomplishment made all the more remarkable by the fact that John was born in London to Irish parents, and only arrived in New Zealand a little over three years before finding World Cup glory.
Announcing his signing, Munster head coach Johann van Graan couldn’t resist making reference to Matt’s “great rugby pedigree”.
The player himself is keen to make his mark at Munster, having won an Under 20 World Cup with England four years ago.
The move to Ireland is a signal of his desire to one day pull on the green jersey of Ireland – the country of his grandparents.
“That’s the way I’m going to go, but obviously I need to be good enough,” Matt told the Irish World.
“First and foremost, I need to play well for Munster, and the rest will take care of itself.”
As for the inevitable comparisons with his father, Matt’s “used to it”. It “happens all the time” he says.
“It’s pretty cool that he won the World Cup – it’s a helluva story! He’s shown me his medal and All Blacks jersey – but he’s still just my dad really,” he said.
“I just take one game at a time and play as best I can, and if I can get anywhere near his career it will be good.”
Gallagher’s Irish family heritage helped sway his decision making. His grandmother, Ann, still lives in Shannon Banks in Limerick.
Saracens and Munster’s Champions Cup meeting at Thomond Park in December allowed him to pay her a visit.
“I’ve been able to see her more times in the last few months, than I’ve been able to in the last couple of years,” he says.
She’s always saying to me ‘are you sure you want to come? The lads here are all massive farmers boys’. I said ‘it’s alright Granny, I’m sure I’ll be able to take care of myself’.
“She’s mad into the rugby. She loves watching it. She loves Munster, the All Blacks and Ireland – they’re her teams,” adds Matt.
“And I could tell that he (dad) wanted me to go. Irish bias! He’s really happy for me.”
Matt’s departure from Saracens was officially announced after the club’s relegation from the Premiership was confirmed in January, for salary cap breaches. The move to Munster, though, had long been in the offing.
A month before the club was sensationally hit with its initial 35-point deduction, in November, Matt went over to take a look at the set-up at Munster, accompanied by his father, John.
“It was pretty much settled in my head what I was going to do,” he says.
“Munster is a great club; I’m going from one big European club to another. It made sense and it’s all worked out well.”
Matt was one of three big signings announced by Munster at the end of January – the others being South Africa World Cup winning duo Damian de Allende and RG Snyman.
“I’m really looking forward to it – I’m excited about the challenge,” added Matt.
“I wasn’t getting as much game time as I wanted, due to the calibre of player we had at the club.”
Matt found himself vying for the fullback jersey with the likes of Alex Goode (England), Liam Williams (Wales), Sean Maitland and Max Malins.
“I felt whenever I did play, I played well. But I couldn’t really maintain a strong place in the squad. So Munster really appealed to me,” he added.
Van Graanis’ aim is to get Munster back on top in Europe, and Gallagher wants to be part of that, having been involved with Saracens since the age of nine.
The club’s salary cap breach is the elephant in the room – Matt is candid and open about the whole messy affair. It was a tough few months for everyone at the club.
“When we got deducted the 35 points we had a clear goal of what we wanted to do, which was to stay in the Premiership. We’d take one game at a time and get the points back as quickly as possible,” said Matt.
The club’s first game after the deduction was Gloucester away – Saracens won 21-12 at Kingsholm.
“It just summed up Sarries; we didn’t have all of our internationals but we went out there and proved a lot of people wrong. It was a bit of a release,” he says.
“We used it in that first game to psyche everyone up. It was like ‘we don’t care what everyone thinks, we’re going to prove everyone wrong’.”
They followed that up by beating Bath at The Rec and began to claw back the deficit on the likes of Leicester Tigers and London Irish.
Europe provided that “clear goal” they needed, until the Champions and Challenge Cup quarter-finals were recently suspended.
In December, Saracens lost 10-3 at Munster, only to reverse that result a week later at Allianz Park.
They secured their place in the last eight with a 22-15 win at Ospreys – despite playing 75 minutes with just 14-men – and with a narrow and tense victory over Racing 92.
The latter coming less than 24 hours after the club’s Premiership relegation was announced in January.
Saracens were due to meet Leinster at the Aviva Stadium on 4 April in a rematch of last year’s final.
Like everyone else, the club is now in limbo waiting to see whether they will get the chance to defend their European crown, and sign off on a high.
The EPCR Board says it “remains committed to completing the 2019/20 Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup season”.
Despite its fate been sealed, Saracens still have nine games to get through in the Premiership – if the season recommences that is.
“We had this one clear goal, to put ourselves in the best position for Europe by playing well in the Premiership,” says Matt, who speaks a lot about the need for the players to have a “clear goal” – a target to focus upon.
Relegation, though, took the wind out of everyone’s sails admits Matt.
“It was mentally draining and difficult to see that clear goal,” he says. “We played Quins the week after we got relegated and we got pumped (41-14) at the Stoop.”
While he didn’t feature in any finals – a testament to the club’s star-studded stable – Matt made 45 appearances for Saracens, having made his debut in the LV=Cup in 2014/15.
His Premiership debut came during the 2016/17 season.
“Although I wasn’t involved in finals, I feel I can still bring something to Munster that will help the club,” he said.
He’ll face stiff competition at Munster, though, from Ireland duo Andrew Conway and Keith Earls, and Mike Haley – Preston born but Irish qualified through his maternal grandmother who comes from Tralee, Co Kerry.
“I need to prove what I can do in training, take any opportunities I get and hopefully I’ll be able to break into the squad,” said Matt.
“I’ve seen how he’s (Mike Haley) gone and thought ‘I’ll give that a go’.
“I’m going to buy into the environment as much as I can at Munster, and hopefully I can get some games under my belt.”
Should he need it next season, Matt will have a shoulder to lean on and an understanding ear.
Rugby is far from off the table for Matt and his father, John, who was thrown into the full media glare when he left the All Blacks to accept a lucrative offer to return to England in 1990 and play Rugby League for Leeds.
“He’s really good to chat to about dealing with pressures and the mental side, because he was only 23 when he won the World Cup,” said Matt.
“He understands; especially when he moved to Leeds to play professional Rugby League. I know he’s always there to give me advice.”
Matt is clearly intent on making his mark at Munster.