It’s a long way from the Newlands Stadium in Cape Town, South Africa to Tuam Stadium in the heartland of North Galway, especially if you go via The Twickenham Stoop, the Vélez Sarsfield in Buenos Aires, and a few laps of MacHale Park in Castlebar, but Gavin Duffy has played in them all, and in doing so, has rather silently compiled one the most compelling sporting CV’s of any Irish man or woman these last two decades.
He has done so living amongst us, like the lead character in the TV show The Americans —- hiding in plain sight.
Duffy’s modesty may well be his downfall. Everything is met with a smile and a shrug; a rather dismissive “it is what it is”.
What it is exactly, is quite something. The highlights of his biography would be impressive if spread across three men.
Ballina by birth, he played in a Leinster Senior Cup final for Roscrea and All-Ireland minor final for Mayo within six months of each other in 1999.
Leaving school, Duffy was faced with his first big fork in the road; he was offered a place in the IRFU Academy, which, in the early days of professional rugby meant a chance to train, play and study full time. The only downside was it meant no gealic football.
“That was a tough decision. Playing for Mayo was such a big deal for me, but I figured if I could give professional rugby a go and it worked, well great, if not, I could always refocus and get back playing football”.
The next big decision point came with the threatened extinction of Connacht Rugby in 2003. Duffy was only 22, and took a gamble, leaving home for London and Harlequins.
There, he rubbed shoulders with World Cup winners Jason Leonard and Will Greenwood, as well as All Black great Andrew Mehrtens. His versatility as full-back and centre was a blessing and a curse, especially when it came to Ireland. He was perennially involved in Eddie O’Sullivan squads, and toured South Africa, Japan and North America all while still “exiled” in London.
Listening to Duffy describe the moment of his first international cap would quickly dissolve any cynicism you might have about, well pretty much anything.
“We were playing South Africa in Cape Town. I remember seeing my dad in the crowd during the anthems. I came on after around 18 minutes, and just as I was about to come in, Shane Byrne was towelling off a ball before a lineout and said to me ‘this is why you’re here’. I genuinely remember it being one of the greatest feelings of my life. More so because I knew how hard I’d worked and that I deserved to be there”.
Hearing somebody recount such a landmark with such clarity and self-awareness is a rare and wonderful thing. Sportspeople will always tell you they regret not enjoying the moment more, not realising this is as good as it gets. Not so Duffy, and far from rest on it, he used it as fuel to achieve more.
The emergence of Mike Brown at Harlequins in 2007 — a World Cup year — forced Duffy into another career rethink.
“Eddie called me and basically said ‘you’re not playing so how can I pick you?’ The chance came to go back to Galway before the end of the season, so I went straight in and played the last four or five games for Connacht”.
Not for the first time, backing his gut instinct worked. Duffy toured Argentina that summer, playing both Tests. He made O’Sullivan’s World Cup squad, coming off the bench in their loss to Argentina. Despite it being a difficult experience, he looks back with some pride at having at least played. It made him even more determined to make the 2011 squad.
Four years is an age in sport, however, and form, injuries and changing coaching tickets complicated his ambitions. If missing the World Cup squad in 2011 was a bitter disappointment, Duffy could hardly have known one of his best sporing summers lay just around the corner.
Just as his Connacht journey ended, Mayo manager James Horan called him out of the blue and invited him in to train, citing “no expectations”.
Just as with his first international cap, Duffy is once again wide-eyed with wonder recounting how much being in with Mayo meant to him.
“To be part of that was an unbelievable privilege. Maybe it was my ego, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. To see the unity of effort with those players was like nothing I’d ever seen. I was used to lads playing for all sorts of different reasons; for contracts or to be picked for international teams, but these Mayo boys were only playing for one thing; to win an All-Ireland. That was all that mattered. It was incredible to be there. The evening Kerry beat us in Limerick (2014), the devastation in that dressing room was like nothing I’d ever seen before.”
His love of football and want to prove himself were huge factors in his decision to play with Salthill, but surprisingly, not the primary one; “honestly, it was the realisation that I’d lived and played rugby for the best part of a decade in Galway, but had few friends of my own here, as the guys I knew from rugby inevitably move away. One of my oldest friends, Cian Begley, was always pushing me to play, so going to kick ball for Salthill was an easy choice. It has been one of my best experiences.
“We had a league match at the end of last year. We had 15 lads. The opposition had twice that. We somehow won and, honestly, it was an unreal feeling. it reminded me why I played and loved sport in the first place”
Duffy is far from a novelty act.
“Gavin is the most positive influence I think I have ever seen on a training pitch,” says Maurice Sheridan, Salthill Knocknacarra’s co-manager.
“He has a great awareness of when others or slacking or in need of a lift. His application and concentration is an incredible example to others. He has been a blessing to Salthill.”
“It’s just me, Finian Hanly and Ruarí McTiernan and a great bunch of young fellas, ” Duffy says of the current seaside set-up. When I put it to him are the young lads impressed — he faced off against the great Percy Montgomery — he laughs and quips “those boys don’t even know I ever played rugby!”
Duffy is a little bemused at both the reaction to Ireland’s loss to Japan last weekend and the ‘lazy’ narrative about rugby’s place in Irish sport.
“This notion of rugby being exclusive is certainly not accurate, especially in Connacht. It is not a schools based game down here. It’s based in the communities, in clubs like Creggs and Claremorris, so I think that narrative is lazy.
“Jack Carty is a great example of that, and personally I hope youngsters — wherever they’re from — look to him and want to emulate him as I did with Liam McHale and Eric Elwood”.
Ever the optimist, he sees the glass half full for Joe Schmidt’s men in Japan: “Ireland are a lot like Mayo have been the last few years; all the focus has been getting to a quarter-final and winning; just as Mayo wanted to get to August and have another crack at Dublin. You could watch Mayo in June and despair; losing to Galway or Roscommon, stumbling through qualifiers and you’d be justified in thinking ‘they’re way off it’.
“Yet, they’d get to Croke Park and be different beasts. It’s not a strategy per se, but it doesn’t happen by accident either. Losing to Japan shouldn’t happen,” he adds, “but they knew for the last couple of years that beating Scotland was the key to getting a shot at New Zealand or South Africa in a quarter-final. That can distract you, but it doesn’t mean they won’t be ready when they get there.”
Trust a Mayo man to have such blind faith.
Duffy hopes he follows the lead of his own parents when encouraging his three young children to find their passion.“Growing up, I was just mad for sport. My dad was heavily involved in the rugby club and with Ballina Stephenites. So that’s what I wanted to do most of all — play rugby for Ballina and football for Mayo”.
Not every day, though. Duffy remembers a Saturday when he had a game to play but his mind was elsewhere: “We had an underage game somewhere in north Mayo and I didn’t want to go. Ireland were playing England — it was the game that Simon Geoghegan scored the try — and I just wanted to stay and watch it. His mother was having none of it.
“She gave me a bit of a lecture in the car about how, if you commit to something, there’s a responsibility that comes with that. You owe it to the others. It stuck with me. Even now, with Salthill, there’s some evenings I’m just not feeling it in terms of going training, but that message stuck”.
His journey is not over and continues on the much less glamorous surrounds of Tuam Stadium tonight against the might of All-Ireland club champions, Corofin.
Those who tog beside him may never know nor care that their teammate has tested and tasted so much, but they should know that he regards every opportunity to play and contribute a privilege, one he has never taken for granted.