Ulster great Willie Anderson recalls jailtime in Argentina over flag gaffe

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Ulster Rugby has produced many charismatic and colourful characters throughout its long and illustrious history but none more so Willie Anderson.

Whether facing down Argentina’s infamous military junta after a tour prank in Buenos Aires that went spectacularly wrong or eyeballing the legendary All Blacks captain Wayne (Buck) Shelford during the haka at Lansdowne Road, which led to a change in the International Board Rules, Anderson never took a backward step.

An integral part of the Ulster team that dominated Irish rugby in the 1980’s winning 10 consecutive interprovincial titles, Anderson played 78 times for his province and 27 times for Ireland and was to skipper both sides.

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Now retired from the professional game, although still doing a bit of coaching at Rainey Endowed School, Anderson has charted his fascinating rise from farmer’s son to captaining Ireland in a new warts-and-all book, Crossing the Line.

Rugby great Willie Anderson provides a fascinating insight into his legendary career in his new book Crossing the Line.Rugby great Willie Anderson provides a fascinating insight into his legendary career in his new book Crossing the Line.
Rugby great Willie Anderson provides a fascinating insight into his legendary career in his new book Crossing the Line.

The book not only deals with his rugby career but his life away from the game.

“From the outset I wanted it to be completely honest because that is the way I am, I want the good, the bad and the ugly, there is no point writing something sycophantic,” said Anderson.

“I want it to be something that my grandchildren can read and say he was a maverick, but he had a vision, a drive, determination but he was honest and respected.”

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In 1980 Anderson signed up to go on tour to Argentina with a little-known team called the Penguins.

Having made his Ulster debut the year before, Anderson was joined on the plane by the likes of David Irwin and Frank Wilson.

After a game in Buenos Aires against Banco Nacion, who had renowned Pumas out-half Hugo Porta in their ranks, the Penguins left the post-match reception to head into the capital for the nightlife.

A year earlier Anderson had toured Canada with Stranmillis College, taking a flag home as a souvenir, and he thought he would do the same in Buenos Aires after spotting an Argentine flag on a government building. However it ended in near disastrous consequences as Anderson explains.

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“I was playing for Dungannon at the time, I had just left Stranmillis, I was just coming back from a match to the hotel, we went out again for another beer, but we weren’t drunk or anything.

“Buenos Aires was probably the safest city in the world at that stage because it was under military rule.

“We just saw a flag and me and another fella took it and went back to the hotel. The next thing there was army and policemen with machine guns coming through the door to try and get the flag back.

“I was there for three or four months: it was a fairly tough time and you think you mightn’t get home at all, you think you have to do jail or even worse, some generals wanted us executed.”

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Anderson and he co-accused spent time in jail and as the others were allowed home, he was basically put under house arrest awaiting trial.

“I was writing letters home and I felt very guilty about the two or three guys that went down with me all having UK passports.

“I just ran every day, I would have got up and got a bite to eat then go for a run, go for walk or just write letters.

“In fairness a lot of the Argentine folk were fairly kind and couldn’t believe that I was still there at the end.

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“I was on tenterhooks to the very end because I knew if I was sentenced for two years and a day I’d have to serve 10 years.

“My lawyer was always being threatened because he was representing a UK citizen; I was glad it wasn’t it a year later, but the tension then was high and gathering over the Falklands.”

Anderson was sentenced to two years on conditional release, however the story did have a silver lining.

“It is one of those things, the girl that wrote to me and I wrote to her (Heather),we have been married now for 38 years so it was a happy ending.”

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November 18th, 1989 has become an iconic moment in Irish sporting history for the thousands in attendance at Lansdowne Road and the millions that have viewed it on YouTube.

Ireland were facing the mighty All Blacks, however the game isn’t remembered for any sweeping length-of-the-field try or a dramatic last minute drop goal.

The All Blacks, as in those days, recorded a routine victory over their hosts but the game is etched in the memory for an incident that occurred before even the first whistle was blown.

Anderson would captain his country for the first time while Ireland coach Jimmy Davidson came up with a plan to unsettle the All Blacks by confronting the haka.

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“It didn’t really sink in at the time but certainly the honour was unbelievable, to be captain against the All Blacks went beyond my dreams,” enthused Anderson.

“I was so proud to represent my country and stand for the anthem because I knew if I done that on the pitch, I had achieved my goal and dream.

“Jimmy Davidson was instrumental in ensuring we got the applause and not the haka.

“That was significant, and it was one of the greatest atmospheres I’ve ever played in.

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“Jimmy had it planned most of the week, he told the players that we were going to link arms and move forward and eyeball the player in front of us.

“I seemed to be pulling a few guys along with me at that stage. It was a fairly iconic moment in my career, and anybody who was at the game still remembers and reminds me of it.”

In Monday’s News Letter: Glory days with Ireland.

Crossing the Line is written by Brendan Fanning and published by Reach Sports.

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