My Life in Rugby: Wallabies great Michael Lynagh

EVERYONE needs opportunities to get on in life, whether it’s through good luck, good timing or someone else’s misfortune, and I am thankful to the ones that have come my way. My Life in Rugby with Michael Lynagh…

Had I not gone on the Australian schoolboys’ tour to America and the UK in 1981/82 and missed the summer back home, cricket would have probably continued to be my main sporting interest and who knows what would have happened from there? Instead I came back in the January and was selected for the senior Queensland team, coached by ‘Tempo’ Bob Templeton, and never donned the whites again.

Then, there was my first cap, against Fiji in 1984. It was only because Michael Hawker had planned to get married at that time and did not travel to Suva that I got my chance, playing outside the great Mark Ella.

I stayed at centre for the first few Tests of my 72-cap career, including the 1984 ‘Grand Slam’ tour of the UK. There’s all this old footage of the tour and over Christmas they replayed the Wales game on Fox back in Australia. My three boys – all players at the Harlequins academy – said, ‘dad, it’s like it’s in slow motion’. And they were right, the pace of the game was nothing like it is today. The only thing that’s not in slow motion was the scrums, they got the ball in and got it done. I’d love to see that happen now.

I was having a bit of goal-kicking trouble in the first two Tests on the tour, so Roger Gould took the duties on against Wales, but I was given the job back against Scotland and kicked beautifully, scoring 21 points.

I equalled Paul McLean’s Australian record for most points in a match that day.

A few years later, in the semi-final defeat to France at RWC 1987, I broke his all-time Australian record for most points scored in Tests. It’s a record I still hold to this day. Matt Burke came the closest to beating it (he has 878 points to my 911) but none of the current players are anywhere near so it should stand for quite a few more years yet. Saying that, it didn’t really bother me who kicked the goals or scored the points, as long as we won.

The inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987 was a new experience for all of us. It was quite an interesting one because technically we were at home but half of the team – from Queensland – were effectively on tour, as we were based in Sydney most of the time. You had us guys staying in a hotel while the rest, who lived there anyway, went about their business as normal. Our coach, Alan Jones, had a morning radio show, and still does, so we didn’t train until 3pm. We just slept in and went out to the pub more than we probably should.

The semi-final against France was a great game, one of the greatest ever. When I was playing with Philippe Sella at Saracens, I remember him telling me that it was his favourite Test out of the 111 that he played in, and it was one of my favourites too, even though we lost. You look at that try Serge (Blanco) scored and if there had been a video ref, I’m not sure it would have been given – and there was also a knock-on earlier in the move – but we didn’t complain, that was the way it went.

When it came to the next tournament, in ’91, we knew what to expect. We were also much more experienced and hardly had any injuries. It all just seemed to come together really well culminating in us beating England in the final.

We started slowly against Argentina – it was a real struggle to beat them down in Llanelli – and then we had a tough game against Samoa on an absolute bog in Pontypool. We got away with that one. Our pool game against Wales was when we really started to hit our straps; we won by 50. It was at Cardiff Arms Park, our first really big game. Then we went over to Ireland. I still get told quite regularly to this day that I broke Irish hearts with my match-winning try.

After having a couple of tries disallowed for forward passes, we’d found ourselves behind on the scoreboard when Gordon (Hamilton) scored; the crowd went nuts. But the team dug deep and found a way to win. I was just happy to pick up Campo’s pass which rolled along the floor and go over in the corner.

Winning in the manner we did was great preparation for the semi against the All Blacks, on the same pitch. And the first 40 minutes of that match was probably the best half of rugby that I have ever played in with an Australian team. Campo was bang in form. In the second half, they came back at us and we defended and defended. We could attack with the best of them; we could kick, we had a strong forward pack that could compete with any forward pack in the world and we could defend. Whenever we needed to call on one of those qualities, we could do that, which is the sign of a very good team.

Between the ’91 and ’95 tournaments, I became captain. Many times I’d been overlooked for it – I think because people thought I had too much on my plate already with goal-kicking and playing fly-half which was fair enough. Anyhow, Nick (Farr-Jones) and myself had a good partnership and complemented each other well as captain and vice-captain.

When I finally got the call it was a bit of a change for me. I’d never been a demonstrative person in dressing rooms and that didn’t change, but I had to work out how to encourage and empower others in the team to lead, particularly in the forwards. If I stood on the table before a game and yelled and screamed people would say that’s not real, and it wouldn’t have been. You have to be true to yourself, and I was.

I enjoyed it. I don’t think it affected my performance, if anything it gave me a real sense of responsibility.

The last of my three World Cups in South Africa was disappointing; we lost to England in the quarters. But when I look back I don’t think we were good enough or fit enough to win the competition. As painful as it was to take at the time, that realisation has made it easier for me to deal with.

The following year I joined Saracens, but Treviso was my first overseas club. We were coached by Pierre Villepreux. He was all about ‘catch and pass, catch and pass’ and the try I scored in the Championship Final against Rovigo, a brilliant team effort where virtually everyone touched the ball, was indicative of the way he liked to play the game. After the game, I met Isabella, my wife, at a team dinner. Sadly, I had to travel home to Australia the next day – I was playing against Scotland in Sydney the following week – but I came back the next year and we met up again.

Saracens fly-half Michael Lynagh
New beginning: Michael Lynagh playing for Saracens in 1997 against Wasps in the Pikington Cup. David Rogers/Allsport

It was while I was at Treviso during another spell that the offer to join Saracens came in. I remember collecting my mail from the club office and there was a letter from Nigel Wray saying he’d just bought this club in North London and he’d like me to sign for them.

The first year was pretty tough and we didn’t do as well as we could have. Rugby was still getting to grips with professionalism and no one was sure what the best training schedule was. For the second year we trimmed the squad a bit and became more professional, training during the day instead of having half the squad working and half not. We finished second in the league to Newcastle and won the Tetley’s Bitter Cup against Wasps.

I’d announced I was going to retire a few months earlier so there was a lot of added pressure on me because of the realisation that win, lose or draw, this was it. As my last memory of playing, I couldn’t have wished for more.    

– As told to Jon Newcombe

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