Bill McKay one of the all-time Lions legends but that’s just part of the story

Coleraine Academical Institution were the last team to win the Schools’ Cup before the world went to war for a second time a few months after their success at Ravenhill.

By Ciaran Donaghy
Tuesday, 25th January 2022, 2:00 pm

The north-west school were runners-up in 1938 but 12 months later Coleraine beat Methody 16-5 in the final.

Coleraine have only lifted the trophy once since 1939, beating Methody in the 1992 final.

On Saturday, the current crop of Coleraine players will be hoping to book a place in this year’s quarter-finals as they travel to Ballymena Academy in the round of 16.

Bill McKay in the 1939 Coleraine Academical Institution’s Schools’ Cup-winning team. Pic courtesy of Coleraine Academical Institution Museum.

The 1939 Coleraine side contained a young back row James William McKay, more commonly known as Bill or Willy to family and friends.

Not only did McKay play a significant role in his school reaching two finals, he also went on to be part of Irish rugby’s golden generation in the late 1940s and early 50s, helping his country win a first-ever Grand Slam and two other Five Nations championships.

He was selected for the British Lions and Irish side that toured Australia and New Zealand in 1950 - the only man the All Blacks physically feared.

Domestically, he helped Queen’s dominate Ulster rugby along with fellow Lions Jack Kyle and Noel Henderson.

McKay achieved all his sporting success after receiving the last rites while fighting in the jungles of Burma during the Second World War.

McKay was born on July 12, 1921 in Waterford City to parents James and Florence.

James, a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), had been posted to the Munster city and met his wife before the family moved back to Coleraine.

It was a family tradition to drop the first name, so the young James William became Bill.

Being called William had nothing to do with McKay’s birth date, it was just a pure consequence.

At school, McKay showed proficiency in a many different sports.

He made the Irish rowing VIII and was undefeated as a cross-country runner, plus was also a keen footballer.

Coleraine lost the 1938 Schools’ Cup final by 7-6 against RBAI - despite the defeat the CAI magazine described McKay’s performance as outstanding.

McKay and Coleraine returned to Ravenhill a year later this time to face Methodist College Belfast in the final.

McKay was denied a try early on when he was stopped just short of the line.

Coleraine took the lead with Kane crossing for a try which McKay converted.

Hyndman got CAI’s second try with McKay narrowly missing the conversion as his side led 8-0 at half-time.

Coleraine got two more tries in the second half with McKay converting one.

Methody got a late consolation to make the score 16-5 and the trophy went back to the north west.

McKay had already joined the army before the war started, in fact he had lied about his age to join up as he hadn’t turned 18 yet.

During his basic training McKay became heavyweight boxing champion of his regiment.

He was deployed to Iran and Iraq during the Persian Gulf campaigns before joining the Chindits and seeing action in the far east.

Like so many of the Chindits, McKay contracted malaria in Burma and had to be given the last rites and after the war had ended he kept getting relapses of malaria.

Despite seeing action in the Persian deserts and the jungles of Burma, McKay did have time to play in a football match - taking part in a game between the British Army XI v Allies.

The match took place at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground on Saturday, March 15, 1941.

McKay was the only player on the British Army team that had not won an international cap for England.

The Allies side was made of Dutch, Belgian, Czech, Polish and Norwegian troops.

The British Army won the game 8-2.

Like so many servicemen returning to post-war Britain without the prospect of any jobs, McKay decided to pursue education.

He enrolled at Queen’s University as a medical student and resumed his rugby career.

In his first season at Queen’s over 1946/47 the students won the Ulster Senior League and completed the double by beating Collegians 16-11 in the Senior Cup final.

McKay met his wife Anne on placement at the Royal Victoria Hospital.

Anne’s brother, Ted Wilson, was a hooker - he and McKay would play for Ulster together.

The Five Nations resumed after its eight-year suspension due to the Second World War on January 25, 1947.

McKay was one of 14 new caps in the side, full back Con Murphy was the only survivor from Ireland’s last game before the war.

McKay got a try on his international debut, but Ireland lost 12-8 to France.

McKay made it two tries in two international appearances, scoring in a 22-0 victory over England in Dublin.

McKay was part of the Ulster side that pushed Australia all the way at Ravenhill on November 29, 1947 with the Wallabies edging a 10-8 win.

Ireland’s quest for a first-ever Grand Slam started on New Year’s Day 1948 with a 13-6 win over France.

McKay was on the scoresheet again in an 11-10 win over England at Twickenham, joined in the Irish back row that day by Jim McCarthy and Des O’Brien.

The trio became affectionately known as ‘Jack Kyle’s Outriders’ as a key part of their job was to protect Ireland’s mercurial out half and playmaker.

A 6-0 win over Scotland set up a Grand Slam decider with Wales at Ravenhill.

JC Daly’s second-half try sealed a 6-3 victory and Irish sporting immortality for the XV green shirts - McKay was one of nine players to play in all four games.

It was to be Ireland’s only Grand Slam until the class of 2009.

Also, in 1948, McKay won the Northern Ireland One Mile Championship at Balmoral Showgrounds.

Queen’s and Oxford University used to compete for the Londonderry Trophy in athletics and in 1948 McKay faced a young English student named Roger Bannister at Cherryvale in Belfast.

Bannister won the race, narrowly edging out McKay by a few strides.

Many observers at the Belfast venue believed if the Queen’s man had of dipped at the finish line, he could have won the contest.

Bannister became the first man to run the mile in under four minutes six years later.

McKay helped Ireland win the Five Nations Championship in 1949 and 1951, sandwiched between his Lions tour.

McKay was picked for his foraging skills in the loose, his ability with ball in hand as well as his big hits in defence and the ability to pop up with a try that was to make him the leading try scorer among the forwards on the Lions’ 1950 tour.

The Lions wore red shirts for the first time in 1950 and McKay played 16 times on the tour, including all six tests (four against New Zealand and two against Australia).

He scored 10 tries and, despite losing the test series 3-0 to the All Blacks, McKay left New Zealand with his reputation enhanced due to his uncompromising tackling in defence.

McKay is considered one of the greatest Lions of all time.

His career came to a premature end at the age of 31 in 1952, during a match he called for a high ball and his own team-mate ran into him and shattered his patella in five places.

After hanging up his boots, McKay emigrated to Gisborne in New Zealand after falling in love with the place on the Lions tour.

McKay settled quickly into his new life in Gisborne and continued to practice as a doctor, often seeing poorer patients for free.

More than a doctor - part of his duties was to deliver babies and for younger patients afraid of needles or injections so he would have a supply of lollipops or jelly beans to calm the nerves.

Bill McKay - Schools’ Cup winner, Grand Slam winner, British Lion, assault commando trooper and doctor - died in New Zealand on October 15, 1997, aged 76.


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