The Breakdown | ‘My nature was to overstep’: Willie Anderson's memoir holds back little

A few years ago the former Ulster and Ireland captain Willie Anderson had a chart above his coaching desk at the Ulster academy detailing four types of rugby person. In descending order, the first three were Warriors, Winners and Waverers, with the fourth category also starting with a ‘W’ and ending with an ‘S’. Now, in his unsparingly honest autobiography, he has undertaken a similar exercise and invited readers of all creeds to decide which personality boxes he ticks.

Anderson’s absorbing new book Crossing the Line, is certainly not your average rugby yarn, the subject matter ranging from Irish sectarianism, survivor’s guilt and forgiveness to passion, love and South American prison cells (more on that later). It also revisits some classic rugby moments, not least when Anderson and Ireland famously confronted the All Black haka in 1989 and went nose to nose with the fearsome Wayne Shelford. With New Zealand set to play South Africa this Saturday, how would Anderson, now 66, respond to a pre-game haka these days? A throaty Ulster chuckle rumbles forth. “If I was going to do it this weekend I’d probably kill about four or five cameramen. The referee would be trampled as well.”

The big man is joking but to dismiss characterful former players of his ilk – “my nature was to overstep the mark” – as a throwback to a different era is to miss the point. As someone who has frequently battled the odds and butted heads with authority, Anderson is a perceptive graduate from both the school of hard knocks and the university of life. As a consequence he firmly believes that today’s earnest young pros need to be more inquisitive about the world beyond the their training ground and gym. “It is all rugby. They come from school and play rugby, if they’re lucky, until they’re 30. They have no breadth. When I was working in the Ulster academy there’s no doubt you were in a bubble of unreality. That’s why I’ve always encouraged guys to take a course or a degree. Some guys get stuck in a bubble and find it difficult to cope when they come out.”

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What do they know of rugby, in short, who only rugby know? Anderson is convinced rounded people make better players and argues that off-field communal fun is intrinsically linked to on-field ambition. “I think today’s young players still enjoy it because they don’t know any better. But whenever I was going on trips with the Under-19s or the A team and I’d ask them to get up and sing a song together, they couldn’t do it. I think that part of rugby – the camaraderie, the craic, the enjoyment – is essential. These days in the All-Ireland League they play the game, jump on the bus and go home again. Where’s rugby going to?”

It is an open-ended question not helped, in Anderson’s view, by the poverty of the rugby during this summer’s British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa. “If you just see people kicking the ball up in the air and ruck, ruck ruck – and you can go for your tea and come back and they’re still doing it – it’s not inspiring to children. I was inspired by the 1973 Barbarians v All Blacks game. I’m sure a lot of kids were back then. That’s the way I want to see rugby played. That might be idealistic but let’s give it a go. That’s why I was so disappointed this summer. Is that a great advert for rugby football for the next generation or two? I would have to say it’s not.”

Nor will the future be bright, in his opinion, if the majority of coaches continue to preach from a similarly unimaginative gospel. His guiding light with Ulster and Ireland was the late Jimmy Davidson and the latter’s passion for the game still inspires him. “He was by far the greatest mentor I had. He’d say to us: ‘Guys I want you to go out and express yourself, I want you to go out with a smile on your face.’ That’s what rugby should be about. It’s easy to organise a team to be robotic and play in whatever numbered formation you want. But that’s not coaching. Coaching is coaching guys to play the game that is in front of them. Today’s game, I feel, is very pattern organised. Look up and play the game.”

Anderson, who did not win his first cap for Ireland – “I thought I’d blown it” – until the age of 29, could certainly never be described as dull, whether leading the charge to the first ruck or the bar afterwards. Crossing the Line rattles along in similarly lively vein, though one or two stories failed to make it past the censors. “There were things I couldn’t put in the book because they would have been quite embarrassing for people but the craic we had was mighty. I am so glad we didn’t have telephones or social media in those days.”

Willie Anderson in training with Ireland in 1993.
Willie Anderson in training with Ireland in 1993. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

With the assistance of his top-class ghostwriter, Brendan Fanning, however, he also goes into deeply sobering detail about the darkest of days, not least the car accident that killed an 11-year-old local boy, Glen McLernon, in 1992. Anderson, who was on his way back from dropping the former All Black Andy Leslie off at Portadown station, was not speeding when the collision occurred and was absolved of any blame, but the tragedy left a permanent mark on all concerned.

His grim spell in confinement in 1980 after misguidedly “borrowing” a flag from a government building in Argentina, at a time when the military junta were showing little mercy, was another hugely testing period. Similarly character-forming, immediately after the aforementioned 1989 New Zealand Test, was being told that a good mate had been killed by an IRA bomb two days earlier. Anderson suspects the resilience needed in such moments is less easily bred these days – “I’m not too sure society is allowing some of these players to have it” – and also feels some Test teams should be less passive the next time they face an All Black haka. “As Jimmy Davidson used to say: ‘There’s no point these guys coming to our stadium, doing the haka and everyone clapping them. Let’s turn that around.’ It’s iconic and I think the haka is magnificent. But in fairness you should be allowed to respond in some way and say: ‘You’ve thrown the gauntlet down but we’re picking it up and going towards you.’”

There is much more thought-provoking material in the pages of Anderson’s educational, sometimes wince-inducing memoir – “It’s maybe reflective of who I am. I wanted it to be an honest account, I didn’t want it to be sycophantic” – not least on how rugby has straddled the Irish political divide. “During the Troubles, rugby was a beacon of light. Rugby transcends all political divides. At my local club and school both religions play together which should be the way it is.” Ultimately, though, his warm-hearted book is a rollercoaster of self-discovery. “Rugby gave me everything: it gave me friends, it gave me travel, it gave me honours and and defeats but above all it showed me life.” Amen to that.

Crossing The Line by Willie Anderson with Brendan Fanning is published by Reach Sport.

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