Fearless Willie Duggan: The hardest man I played with

Hearing about the sudden passing of a former team-mate is always shocking. When the first of many texts started to arrive early yesterday, I was stunned. 

Fearless Willie Duggan: The hardest man I played with

Willie Duggan, just like Moss Keane before him, was always indestructible in my eyes. Now he too is gone.

It is hard to fathom that the two totemic figures from Ireland’s Triple Crown and Five Nations championship winning pack of 1982 are no longer with us.

With Moss we had some notice and, as a consequence, time to say our goodbyes. Sadly we were robbed of that chance with Willie.

Ironically, the last opportunity I had to chat with the great Kilkenny icon was at the funeral of another outstanding Irish No 8, when Anthony Foley was laid to rest in Killaloe last October. Willie had soldiered on many an occasion with Anthony’s dad Brendan and shared in everyone’s grief on another black day for Irish rugby.

The Ireland forward pack from that successful era was as hard and grizzled a unit as you could ever hope to play with and, as a 22-year-old in the infancy of my international career, I couldn’t have been offered a better platform.

Manning the second row with Moss Keane, behind an uncompromising front row of Phil Orr, Ciaran Fitzgerald, and Gerry ‘Ginger’ McLoughlin, you were bursting to take on all-comers. It was thrill-a-minute stuff.

As the boy taken along for the ride with an eight affectionately known as ‘Dad’s Army’ after the famous television series of the time, I couldn’t have served a better apprenticeship, with John O’Driscoll the only other forward on board under 30 years of age.

Key to that was one of the best Irish back-row combinations of all time with Duggan centrally positioned between two fellow British and Irish Lions in Fergus Slattery and O’Driscoll. Slattery was one of the stars of Willie John McBride’s ‘invincibles’ who toured South Africa in 1974, Duggan the only Irish player to feature in all four Lions tests against New Zealand three years later and O’Driscoll, who did likewise against the Springboks in 1980.

Duggan was the hardest man I ever played with. In an era when rucking the body on the deck was legal, leading inevitably to some unsavoury and often undetected use of the boot, Duggan was fearless. He never shirked his responsibilities to clean up ball on the floor, whatever the consequences.

Not only could he dish it out, he could also take it and had one of the highest pain thresholds I ever encountered. He didn’t suffer fools lightly and had no time for bluffers. Some found that difficult to cope with. You had to earn Willie’s respect but, once you achieved that, you felt 10 feet tall. At least that’s the way it was for me when presented with the opportunity of performing alongside someone I admired greatly while still playing schools rugby.

Not everyone gets the chance to play with one of their sporting heroes but I was fortunate to experience that for three memorable years. With due respect to Moss, Willie and I were the two main ball winners in that Irish pack and as a result, we spent a lot of time together doing lineout drills. He was a brilliant operator out of touch and I loved his company and quirky sense of humour.

Duggan was one of those inspirational figures who always made you feel more confident when you surveyed the dressing room in those key moments before entering the battle. He feared nobody and that rubbed off on everyone else.

Stories at the time of his aversion to training were legendary and while there was an element of truth to that, he always presented himself fit for battle when the Five Nations rolled around in January. Not all coaches could deal with that but those who stuck with him and trusted him were always rewarded. It also helped that in Slattery, his inseparable Blackrock team-mate, he had someone at his side who always knew how to get the best out of the raw and unconventional talent that defined the great No 8.

He was fascinated with the newly evolving concept of teams warming up on the field before a game and suggested to me a few years ago after observing Ireland’s exhausting pre match routine that ‘I could do the warm up or play the match but I couldn’t do both’. Indeed!

If Slattery and Duggan were somewhat strange bedfellows — Slattery was a devout trainer and one of the fittest players in the game at that time — Willie and Moss Keane were kindred spirits. Country boys at heart, neither gave a damn for convention and were very much their own men.

They both shared a great love of the GAA and Duggan was a more than competent hurler in his time. I wouldn’t fancy marking him with a hurley in his hand.

On many occasions when Cork and Kilkenny clashed throughout the 1980s and beyond, we would meet up in advance with rugby rarely getting a mention. Duggan had a great appreciation of all sports.

His untimely passing in the early hours yesterday morning has robbed us of one of the most endearing and unique characters in Irish rugby.

He will be missed. My sincere condolences extend to his wife Ellen, son Willie Jr and daughters Helena and Monica.

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.

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