Legendary Irish rugby player Willie Duggan died earlier this week. Photo: @IrishRugby via Twitter

I was 20, looked and felt about 15, and found myself running out on the famed turf of Lancaster Park in Christchurch, New Zealand, in front of a full house.

I was wearing the green jersey of Ireland, but was scared. Scared stiff. You see, our opponents that day were Canterbury, the legendary Kiwi province. Fear was present because of the memories from the British and Irish Lions match against the same opposition four years earlier.

As a schoolboy rugby fanatic, I had watched the film of that game with horror. The Lions had swept all before them on the tour up to that game and so the locals decided on, shall we say, an aggressive approach.

The result was an encounter that has gone down in rugby history as “The Battle of Canterbury”.

It ended in a narrow win for the Lions but also ended the tours of both their likely Test props, Ray McLoughlin and Sandy Carmichael, with battle injuries.

Irish flank Mick Hipwell once told me that it was the dirtiest game in which he had ever played. There is a famous picture of himself squaring up, boxing style, to the local pack. It was exhilarating but very violent.

On the other side of the tunnel when we ran out in 1976 were most of the Canterbury players who had played that Lions game, including Billy Bush, Tane Norton, John Ashworth and the hardest of the lot, Alex “Grizz” Wyllie.

Hence the fear of being maimed for life, in addition to being exposed as a coward, if and when the fight started.

Early on, Wyllie took the ball in the loose and made a charge straight at me. The term “wounded buffalo” springs to mind with the memory. Maybe wounded grizzly is more apt! This was the moment when death would certainly come and life memories were certainly flashing.

Just before Wyllie arrived at the kill, he disappeared. There was a massive smack and a grunt as he was hit at shoulder height by a blurred green missile. Irish No8 Willie Duggan met him shoulder to shoulder and the All Black went down.

In that moment we realised we could compete and although we lost, it reduced the All Blacks to mortal status once again.

They also played rugby and it was a tough but clean game. Willie saved my life.

That moment came back vividly this week when the news of the death of Willie Duggan broke. He was just 67. He was an Irish legend and one of the toughest No 8s of all time. Ask the Springboks of that era.

Stories of his prowess and humour abound. Never one for conventional training and conditioning, he favoured a cigarette and a bottle of Lucozade before a tough session.

Before a Test match, you could see and smell the smoke in the loo rising from his cubicle.

He said he had a nervous disposition. Once, at Twickenham, as he ran out, he handed his unfinished fag to the referee, Alan Hosie of Scotland. The moment was caught forever on television.

He was sent off against Wales but always denied the claim. He recounted that the ref had “asked him to leave the field” and as he was buggered at the time, he agreed.

When told he would be quicker if he gave up cigarettes, Willie retorted that with all that speed he’d be offside at all times. So he smoked.

We had our differences but he was a genuine legend for Ireland and the Lions, and a great character.

Would he have relished the professional game today? I doubt it. He was of a bygone era.

Hard men are necessary in rugby. Today there is no fighting but that physical hit, whether tackle or surge, is just as important as it always was.

When Schalk Burger ran at an opponent or Duane Vermeulen cut someone in two with a tackle, you could feel the lift it gave to their side.

They call it enforcement today but this term has been misunderstood and abused.

Too many, Bakkies Botha included, used the moniker to infringe the law and it often punished their own team.

The real hard men played clean but tough and lifted their teammates in the belief that the opponents were just humans.

One day you are the youngest in the dressing room and seemingly the next, you are a grandfather and your teammates are dying.

Smell the roses.

* Robbie is a former Transvaal, Ireland and British and Irish Lions scrumhalf.


Saturday Star

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