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My Life in Rugby: John Gallagher – 1987 New Zealand world cup winning full-back

John GallagherDespite what Brian Moore and Jonathan Davies might have said at the time, the New Zealand team that won the 1987 World Cup was in no way professional.

We were just as amateur as the other teams – I was still a policeman – but back then we were bigger, faster and stronger. People came to training already well-conditioned so we could then just work on our skills and because we took the game very seriously, it translated into us being professionals.

I originally went out to New Zealand in March 1984 for a six-month stint after finishing school in Blackheath.

I was playing for Oriental Rongotai and labouring in the day. After that six months the All Blacks went away on tour taking six Wellington provincial players with them and I was selected to play in their place, but once they came back I managed to stay in the team by switching to outside centre.

I went back to England with the intention of a quick return but I needed the help of the club’s chair- man Don Bond who was also the top civil servant in charge of immigration in New Zealand, which was a handy coincidence!

The following year I joined the police force but on the pitch I dislocated my ankle and broke my fibula. I spent the summer convalescing and I managed to get fit for the start of the 1986 season.

I took the whole year to get up to speed and got picked for the All Blacks tour to France but I didn’t get on and had to wait to win my first cap until the first game of the 1987 World Cup against Italy.

That first game was a pretty low-key affair – with Eden Park only selling 20,000 tickets in a 50,000 seater stadium. But the interest grew and by the time we got to the semi-finals they were all sell outs.

Then afterwards we found out that the final was beamed to over three hundred million people and that was a lot for 1987.

It wasn’t weird for me to represent New Zealand even though I was born and bred in Lewisham in London. To me it was normal because I had immersed myself in New Zealand culture. I trained in the evenings with my club and province and played on Saturdays, it all become a routine.

I always wanted to get better and I felt that every time I went up a level, the transition was actually easier because I was surrounded by better players.

But I chose to come back to England at the start of the 90s as all my family were over here and I was a little homesick, as well as skint! On top of that Leeds  rugby league offered me a five-year contract and a big signing-on fee which was too good to be true given my circumstances at the time.

The first few months went well but then I got a neck injury and returned too quickly. After that I never really got going again. I did play one season with the London Crusaders which was great fun but when rugby union went professional I decided not to take up an offer I had from Harlequins.

I was 30 and my mother had always asked me when I was going to get a job in the real world, so I moved into teaching and I am now headmaster at Colfe’s Prep School in London.

I kept on playing semi-professionally with Blackheath and in 1998 I played for the Ireland ‘A’ team against Scotland in Donnybrook which made my Irish grandmother very proud.


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