The Irishman who conquered the rugby world
By Damian Dolan
Had life turned out differently for John Gallagher, he might easily have been part of Willie Anderson’s bowed line of arm-linked green jerseys as it’s dragged, somewhat reluctantly in some cases, towards the All Blacks Haka.
It’s 18 November 1989 – the scene for this moment of sporting theatre is the middle of Lansdowne Road.
A World Cup winner with the All Blacks just two years earlier, John is now a member of the all conquering New Zealand side which won all 18 of its games on that ’89 tour.
Born in London to Irish parents, however, it’s not too big a stretch of the imagination to envisage John running out for Ireland that Dublin day, had he not accepted a flippant offer to try his luck playing rugby for Wellington in New Zealand.
Just three years later, he was in the All Blacks team which beat France in the inaugural Rugby World Cup final in front of 50,000 at Eden Park in Auckland.
In November 1989, however, he was part of an All Blacks Haka led by captain Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford being advanced upon by Anderson, and roared on by an appreciative Lansdowne crowd.
It would be the last of John’s official 18 Test appearances for the All Blacks, during which he was never on the losing side.
Now 56, he has stayed in regular contact with David Irwin, who played centre for Ireland that day.
“Dave was Ireland vice-captain and he was egging Willie on!,” John told the Irish World.
John recalls how in 2015 the three of them reenacted the moment in a pub during the Barbarians 125-year anniversary celebrations.
“Half of the bar was with me doing the Haka and the other half with Willie and Dave, and driving towards us. It was brilliant.
“Buck, who led the Haka that day, thought it was fantastic. Ireland accepted the challenge.”
Not that it did them any good. John scored the last of his 13 tries in a 23-6 win. But it was certainly entertaining and provided one of the all-time great responses to the Haka.
This was a pretty special All Blacks team. It included the likes of Grant Fox, Zinzan Brooke, Ian Jones, Sean Fitzpatrick and John Kirwan.
The other highlight of that 1989 All Blacks Tour for John was playing against Munster at Musgrave Park in Cork.
John’s mother’s family grew up a “stone’s throw” from Thomond Park. She still lives in Limerick.
“All of my Irish family came to watch the game,” recalls John.
“Being an All Black playing against Munster was special after their great win over the All Blacks at Thomond Park in 1978.
“The All Blacks have never been able to forget it, and nor should they. It’s part of rugby folklore.”
There was to be no repeat, though, of ’78. The All Blacks winning by 31-9 on their 1989 visit.
Not surprisingly John’s mother is “delighted” at her grandson Matt’s impending move from Saracens to Munster for next season.
“As a family we’re really pleased for him – it’s a chance for him to pick up his Irish roots again,” said John.
While John’s mother Ann is from Limerick, his father Sean came from Derry.
Going to school in Blackheath, and growing up in south-east London with his two brothers, John was “very aware” of his Irish background.
It was at St Joseph’s Academy secondary school where he played rugby for the first time. A keen Arsenal fan up until then, he’d only played soccer.
When he was older, he worked for two years in the local Irish pub just up the road from the school, the Sir John Morden.
“There was a huge Irish contingent in south-east London and we were very much part of that through the social clubs,” said John, for whom holidays back to Ireland were a regular occurrence.
It was inevitable perhaps then that he found his way, eventually, to London Irish RFC, through an ‘old boy’ at John’s school, Tommy Hennessy.
Tommy, who also played for Munster, was Irish’s first-team prop.
John’s only senior London Irish appearance came on the club’s Easter trip to Dublin in 1983, which coincided with Ireland hosting England in the Five Nations.
Ireland won 25-15 with Ollie Campbell “playing a tremendous game” and scoring 21 points.
The next day, London Irish had a double-header against Clontarf. John was playing for the club’s Under 19s, as a curtain-raiser to the senior match.
“Tommy called me over during the game from the sideline and said ‘you’re doing too much running – you need to conserve your energy. We can’t find our full back and we need you to play’.
“I said, ‘when was the last time you saw him?’ Tommy said ‘at 3am this morning in Leeson street’.
“So I ended up playing my one and only game for the London Irish first-team about 20 minutes after playing a full 80. I never slept so well in my life on the ferry back.”
Had life taken a different course, he might have enjoyed a long and successful career with London Irish – and that would have opened the door to Ireland.
“Because I was playing for London Irish at the time, if I’d stayed in England then I would have gone through the Irish route,” he said.
“But nobody had picked me up by the time I left, so I thought ‘what have I got to lose?’
In March 1984 he left for New Zealand – he had just turned 20 years of age.
It was only meant to be for “six months”, but it was seven years before John returned to London.
Another contact from school, Tony O’Malley, had been playing rugby in New Zealand for the Oriental Rongotai Football Club in Wellington. They wanted him to return for another season.
John bumped into Tony at a friend’s 21st Birthday party and enquired if he intended to go back.
“Tony said, ‘no, do you want to go? They’ve asked me to look for somebody’. So I said yes,” recalls John.
Before his first season of rugby was out, John had been selected to play representative rugby for Wellington.
John returned to the UK and followed his father, Sean, into the police force. His brother Michael joined up at the same time, and went on to serve as commander in Brent.
But John still had the New Zealand bug and returned to the country.
He worked his way back into the Wellington team at centre before a change in coach saw him moved into the fullback spot.
His rise thereafter was rapid; qualifying through permanent residency his All Blacks debut came on the Tour to France in the autumn of 1986 featuring in four matches – although he didn’t play in either of the two Test matches against France.
He won his first Test cap the following year at the inaugural Rugby World Cup hosted jointly by New Zealand and Australia.
In his second appearance he crossed four times in a 74-13 hammering of Fiji. He scored another try in the quarter-final win over Scotland, watched from the stand by his father, Sean.
He started the All Blacks’ emphatic semi-final victory over Wales, and the final which saw New Zealand crowned rugby’s first-ever World Cup winners with a 29-9 win against France.
Just over three years after arriving in New Zealand, having previously played only one senior club game and no underage international rugby, John was a World Cup winner.
“If it wasn’t true people wouldn’t believe me,” he says laughing.
He returned to the UK in 1990 after making 88 appearances for Wellington and playing 41 times for the All Blacks in all matches.
Leeds simply made him an offer he couldn’t refuse to switch to Rugby League and turn pro.
Professionalism was also on the horizon for Rugby Union. But while Ireland’s provinces took the plunge after the 1995 World Cup, England remained amateur for another year.
John found himself without a club in 1995. His league career was over and he accepted that he’d most likely “severed all ties with the prospect of playing union again”.
He was training at Harlequins, where Dick Best was now head coach, but not able to play matches.
Out of the blue, he got a phone call from Tommy Hennessy, who was now a selector for the Irish Exiles.
Tommy suggested they ‘test the water’ and that John come up to Sale and sit on the bench for the Irish Exiles against Connacht.
“On the back of that I got invited to go to an Ireland training camp to select a side to go to the USA before Christmas (1995),” said John.
“I wasn’t selected and thought ‘well, that’s that’, but one day in January (1996) at the school I was teaching at in London, the headmaster was waiting for me with a newspaper.
“He said ‘I suppose you’ll want next week off?’ Why I asked. ‘You’ve just been picked in the Ireland training squad for the Five Nations’ he replied.
On the back of that, John was selected to play for Ireland A against Scotland A at Donnybrook, the day before their respective senior teams’ opening Five Nations clash at Lansdowne Road.
The Ireland A team included Keith Wood, Simon Mason, Shane Byrne and Alain Rolland.
But it would not lead to a senior Ireland cap, despite Murray Kidd’s Ireland team winning just one of their games in that year’s Five Nations – against Wales in Dublin.
“I was chatting with the (Ireland A) coach at the hotel afterwards and he said ‘are you available for the rest of the campaign? I said yes, but they never called me,” laughs John, who moved into property after his teaching career.
“So I played one game for Ireland A, we had a great win and that was it.
“But I was 32 at the time and there was a good young centre coming through, Rob Henderson.”
What might have been. But who knows, maybe Matt will now go on and win that Ireland senior cap. And if he can be a World Cup winner like his father, then we’ll also celebrate that one.