‘I knew something was wrong when 20 plain clothes gardaí turned up at Irish training’

THE statistician who compiles player data for Easter Sunday’s match programme at Thomond Park won’t have any quirky job specs to attach to the players.

Modern day rugby means that there’ll be 46 professionals on display.

In one sense, that’s a pity. Munster and Ulster have a proud history against each other for well over a century and, despite cultural, political and historic differences, there’s always been a healthy respect and friendship between players from both sides of the border — much of which was forged while united under the Irish rugby jersey.

The professional players of the modern era have no concept or understanding of the pressures brought to bear back in the 70s and 80s on some of our former Ulster internationals, in many cases by dent of their chosen professions.

Of the Irish matchday squad that won the Five Nations championship and Triple Crown back in 1985, tight head prop Jimmy McCoy was a police officer with the RUC, Nigel Carr a forensic scientist whose job description required him to examine the aftermath of a bomb scene and my former second row colleague, Brian McCall, was an officer in the British army.

Someone once asked the dynamic Carr if he was ever frightened on a rugby field. He said when you spend your week examining a bomb scene wearing a high-vis jacket, knowing paramilitary snipers were in the vicinity, then there wasn’t much to be worried about on a rugby pitch.

By virtue of their chosen professions, they were seen as legitimate targets for nationalist paramilitaries and the fact they played international rugby for Ireland not only gave them profile but also unwanted attention.

Even within their own community, there were those unhappy to see their charges standing for Amhrán na bhFiann in front of the tricolour.

McCoy, a great friend and playing companion of mine for years, was one of those who came under more pressure than most. Last week I travelled to Belfast to meet him.

“I got my first cap for Ulster against Munster in Ravenhill in 1978 at 19. It was a big experience for me to meet up with the likes of big Moss Keane. They were always extremely hard, physical games. As an Ulster player, the team you always wanted to beat was Munster. We had a great spell in the 1980s when we won the inter-provincial championship for seven seasons in a row. Ravenhill was a fortress back then with visiting teams from all over the world suffering.”

In those days, the Irish squad would assemble for a weekend international at the Shelbourne Hotel on St Stephen’s Green at lunchtime on a Thursday, train in the afternoon and go to the pictures in the evening. That is exactly what we did on the Thursday before meeting France on Saturday, March 2, 1985. Jagged Edge was the box office thriller at the time and it certainly took our minds off the forthcoming game.

Newry, Co. Down, Feb 28, 1985: The Newry mortar attack was carried out by the provisional IRA on an RUC station in Corry Square, Newry. The attack killed nine RUC officers.

The attack was jointly planned by members of the South Armagh Brigade of the IRA and a unit in Newry. In the early evening, nine shells were launched from a Mark 10 mortar bolted onto the back of a Ford lorry that had been hijacked in Crossmaglen. Eight shells overshot the RUC station in Corry Square, but one 50lb shell landed directly on a portable building containing a temporary canteen. Nine police officers were killed and 37 people were injured including 25 civilian police employees. The death toll was the highest inflicted on the RUC in its history.

Having returned from the pictures and had our traditional tea and sandwich before heading to bed, it was clear something was wrong.

I was rooming with one of Ulster’s finest, Willie Anderson, at the time when his Dungannon team-mate, McCoy, who was rooming next door, came into our room, paled by the news. Word had filtered through of the Newry atrocity. Trevor Ringland, whose father was a chief superintendent in the RUC, was also in the room, visibly shaken. It was a long night.

McCoy says now, quietly: “I always thought my job was my career. I went into the RUC straight out of school. I had great pride in playing for Ireland and had no problem whatsoever standing for Amhrán na bhFiann. People in the police were proud that I was playing for Ireland. They knew that we got on well with everyone in the Irish squad, that there was no political issues between the players. I never met anyone who gave me grief or said that you shouldn’t be doing that. I loved playing for Ireland.”

But he became a target because of it, with urban legend suggesting he actually received a bullet in the post from the IRA? “No, that did not happen,” he insists. “That was the rumour at the time. Information did come into Intelligence in the Special Branch. I was on a neighbourhood beat in Dungannon at the time. People knew me from both sides of the community. I would go into the nationalist estates and of course they wouldn’t be long telling me I played shite for Ireland the last day. It was a bit of craic. It worked the other way in that people got to know you but the week after that mortar attack in Newry, I’m not sure what would have happened but a chap came in when I was on the beat and said ‘stay there’. They came down and picked me up by car and I was told — ‘you’re finished here’ — as there was an IRA threat.”

The weekend after that game against France — incidentally it was the last occasion before this season the teams drew — McCoy missed training. We were told he had the flu and was doubtful for the game on the following Saturday against Wales in Cardiff.

So, the flu? “Well, not quite. I was in the process of getting things sorted out. I was guided by the authorities. I had the minders there and I was shifted from Dungannon to Bangor.”

The irony was while in Dungannon as a community officer he was building a rapport with both sides of the community while the shift to Bangor rerouted him to normal policing.

Did anything ever come of the threat? “No, I never questioned it. You were told you had to move and that was it. I never really thought about it or wondered if I was lucky to get out of it. Sometimes when we travelled down to Dublin for squad sessions, we would be met by Garda special branch at Dundalk and escorted down, or at the train station in Dublin if we travelled by rail. There was a stretch of road close to the border called ‘no man’s land’, the army watch towers were around there and it was seen as the most vulnerable area but I didn’t want to put the police in a compromising position by having to escort me”.

Would you be nervous travelling through there? “I would be a wee bit nervous travelling home, especially after you had played a game on Saturday.”

IT’S not a nice feeling when you discover someone has targeted you or your family for special attention. I was forced to think about Jimmy again when, after Ulster won the European Cup in 1999, Warren Gatland and I were the subject of a letter sent to the IRFU offices in Lansdowne Road from a loyalist paramilitary group who thought we hadn’t picked enough Ulster men on Ireland’s upcoming tour to Australia. They helpfully informed the management team they knew where our families lived when we were away on the tour.

It was a bit amusing at first until the IRFU passed the letter on to the gardaí, who confirmed the authenticity of the note. That helped concentrate minds and offer clarity on what my former team-mates had to live with over a sustained period in their desire to play for Ireland.

McCoy would have known most of the police officers who were killed in Newry. “Oh yes, I would have trained with them so it was very tricky, but it was my job. Sport was my release and I just loved getting away and rugby offered me that.”

In those days, armed Special Branch were stationed outside the bedrooms of the army and police representatives in the Irish squad and these would often be brought to training in unmarked cars. In time, we all got to know the Garda lads and they almost became part of the team. On match day, their numbers would grow and they would all find their way into the players’ bar on the night of the internationals. It became the hottest ticket in town.

That too changed after the events April 27, 1987. Three of the Irish squad en route to Dublin for a World Cup squad session, were injured in a remote controlled bomb blast that killed Lord Justice Maurice Gibson and his wife Lady Cecily Gibson.

McCoy recalls: “I well remember the day of the blast involving David Irwin, Nigel Carr and Philip Rainey. I travelled to Dublin by train that day but I knew something was wrong when about 20 plain-clothes gardaí turned up to the Irish training session at Merrion Road.”

It left McCoy with a decision to make: “And it was left to me. The authorities never got in touch with me about playing or not. Maybe it was me being pig-headed, thinking nothing would happen to me, the same as when you play rugby and never think about getting a serious injury. Maybe I should apologise for that attitude, I don’t know. At that stage, it was just a relief for me to play rugby. I often wondered did they (the provos) think I was travelling down the road with the boys that day but clearly the target was Lord Justice Gibson. I don’t know was it a blessing but I always thought that if they wanted to get me they could have got me.”

Thankfully those days have been consigned to the past. So to Sunday. “The game reminds me a bit of the final back in 1999, as it has generated a lot of excitement up here. This Ulster side wants to get to the final, full stop. I think if all the Ulster players are fit, then it will be a cracking game against Munster.

“John Afoa makes things look simple. He just locks out that scrum. He can bring his opposite number down when he wants to and is in control. As you know, scrummaging is personal. People said I wasn’t a great scrummager and that I just wanted to get about the field but I never backed away from it, even if I was getting a hard time of it. Every prop gets in trouble in the scrum at some stage. It’s all about how you handle it. That England front row that destroyed Ireland recently were mangled against France last season but learned from it and came back.

“This one could be very tight. You could end up with O’Gara winning it again for Munster with a drop goal or penalty at the end.”

Hard and all as that might be to stomach for Ulster, such concerns are relative. Certainly in the context of a period not that long ago.


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