Willie Anderson recalls ‘dream come moment’ in Ireland debut
To win 27 caps for your country in the days when the international calendar isn’t as jam-packed with fixtures as it is now is an achievement, to reach that number of appearances after making your Ireland debut at 29 is remarkable.
But that is exactly how Willie Anderson’s career in a green shirt panned out.
In his new book Crossing the Line, Anderson reflects on his Ireland debut, which come against Australia at Lansdowne Road on 10th November 1984.
The Wallabies arrived in Dublin a week after putting England to the sword at Twickenham.
Anderson was one of five debutants in the Ireland side - Ulster flanker Phil Matthews, Willie Sexton, scrum half Michael Bradley and centre Brendan Mullin were the other new caps.
Having been in an Argentine prison four years earlier, to represent his country was a dream come true for Anderson.
“The Argentinian situation didn’t help me, but I had the drive and determination to keep going even though I was 29,” recalls Anderson.
“I was very fortunate that Ulster were magnificent at that stage and winning everything around us, we had a fantastic team with brilliant players and guys that are my friends for life.
“That catapulted a lot of us onto the Ireland side. I was very fortunate to be one of those guys and to get my cap against Australia was a great moment and a dream come true in some ways because it was something I’d dreamed about when I was a cub, but then I’m sure 14,000 or 15,000 other cubs had dreamt it as well.
“It was lovely. I had my mother and father there, my brother and sister and my wife and it was just a very special day.
“When you get a taste of it you want more, I was very fortunate I tracked well.”
Ireland lost the game 16-9, however four days later Anderson faced Australia again this time for Ulster at Ravenhill in what was one of the greatest results in the province’s history.
Philip (Chipper) Rainey kicked a late penalty to give Ulster a 15-13 win over Australia who would beat all four home nations on the tour.
“Jimmy Davidson was so instrumental to so many people in that group and whether they admit it or not he was the catalyst, the mentor, the motivator and a father figure.
“He was so passionate about the game and how it should be played and how we should be respectful of everything we did in the game.
“He was the one that definitely motivated and was instrumental in my playing for Ireland.
“Australia was a special day especially for Phil Rainey to land the final kick, that group of players were outstanding throughout the whole of the 1980’s and I know you can look back with rose tinted glasses but the friendship, the camaraderie, the never say die attitude and just the talent was unbelievable.”
Anderson couldn’t bear to watch as Rainey lined up the potential match winning kick.
“I don’t think I was looking at it, I think I was looking the other way and just wanted to hear the reaction of the crowd.
“It was just magnificent and it was just one of those days, it wasn’t a spectacular game in the sense that it was raining but it was just fantastic to see so many people at Ravenhill.
“We were very close against Australia in 1981, I was very fortunate to play against that Australian side for Ulster, Ireland and the Barbarians at Cardiff Arms Park.
“They were a brilliant side and beating them was spectacular.
“They had so many talented guys, the Ella’s, Andrew Slack, (Simon) Poidevin there were some players on that side, I got to know quite a lot of them in later years and became friends.”
A strong core of the Ulster side including Anderson that was on duty against the Wallabies helped Ireland win the Triple Crown in 1985, beating England with a late drop goal in the final game to seal the title.
“A lot of the Ulster boys were playing tremendously well and got onto the Ireland side which was the probably the catalyst to the team, Mick Doyle was playing the type of rugby we were playing,” Anderson said.
“We rode our luck, we were points down in games particularly against England, I gave away a penalty near the end and I’m glad Rob Andrew missed it.
“To win it in the last minute was fantastic, it was very special to do it.”
England was meant to be the first game of the championship but inclement weather in Dublin meant the game was postponed and the Ireland team went to the pub for a team bonding session.
“O’Donoghue’s certainly helped it, it helped us all gel together because there were boys from all over the place and new faces and it ended up in a sing-song, everybody got on great together and the craic was mighty and we had so much fun together,” remembers Anderson.
“It was something Ulster, then Ireland had, it was a very mobile back row and a mobile second row and the front row guys could all play ball.
“Ciaran Fitzgerald was a fantastic leader as was David Irwin, both magnificent captains.
“It certainly held the crowd in the stadium that day, in those days the crowds unbelievable.”
Anderson played in the first ever Rugby World Cup in 1987, eventually going out in the quarter-finals to Australia.
“I think that world cup showed how far we weren’t prepared for a competition of that magnitude which has now grown expediential,” he said.
“It was a great honour to be playing in the inaugural world cup but I felt or preparation left a lot to be desired.”
Anderson was coach of Dungannon when they became the first Ulster club to win the All Ireland League in 2001.
His coaching career took him to Leinster, Scotland but he never coached his home province.
“The three years I was with Leinster I couldn’t have enjoyed it more, working with Matt Williams, Steve Aboud, Roly Meates and Brett Igoe fantastic guys and tremendously knowledgeable.
“To work with players pf the magnitude that had, the O’Driscoll’s, the Darcy’s, Keith Gleeson, Dennis Hickie and they played the rugby the way I like the game to be played.”
“It’s well written I didn’t get the job at Ulster and it is part of history and that is their decision, maybe they felt I was somebody they couldn’t control or didn’t want to control.
“I was disappointed at the time but I have no regrets, I was delighted at the end of my rugby to be in Kingspan coaching the academy guys, I really enjoyed that last four years it was fantastic.”
Crossing the Line is written by Brendan Fanning and published by Reach Sports.