On the 22nd May 1987, an English fullback walked out onto the pitch of Eden Park in Auckland for the first match of the inaugural Rugby World Cup. His kit was all black. John Gallagher would go on to win the tournament with New Zealand, etching himself into the list of All Black greats and beginning a journey that would see him crowned ‘International Player of the Year’ in 1990. He never lost a match wearing that jersey.
Now a head teacher in Southeast London, the man once known as Kipper is remembered as one of the finest players of his generation, and will doubtless be watching with fond memories as the Rugby World Cup returns to New Zealand this year for the first time since its inception. We recently caught up with him to talk about the 1987 World Cup, this year’s tournament, and his reflections on New Zealand…
The Rugby World Cup returns to New Zealand this year, twenty-four years after its birth. What are your memories of playing in the 1987 World Cup?
I have many happy memories. My All Black Test debut in the inaugural match of the RWC, a game which we won 70-6, was obviously special, as were the four tries I scored against Fiji a few days later, which set a Test match record. The quarter-final against Scotland was significant for me, as my father had just flown in from London and was there to see me score a try from the stands. Otherwise, beating France in the RWC final and being crowned world champions was, of course, pretty memorable!
Who was the best player you played with, and against?
There are quite a few contenders, but it was always good to be in the same team as John Kirwan and Buck Shelford. In opposition, Serge Blanco of France was always a special challenge, together with David Campese of Australia.
What is your fondest memory from your playing career?
I am fortunate enough to have many fond memories; making my All Black debut on my mother’s birthday in October 1986 against a French Selection in Strasbourg; winning the first RWC in 1987; being undefeated in my All Black career from 1986-89; being awarded NZ player of the Year in 1989 and International Player of the year in 1990.
My favourite try was against Ireland in 1989 in Dublin, it was special because both my parents were watching as well as all my Irish cousins.
Did you have to learn the Haka when you joined the New Zealand squad? Can you still do it now?
Yes – after the team was named for the Strasbourg match, Buck Shelford (Haka leader) took me to one side and asked me if I had performed the Haka before. I confessed that I hadn’t and so he then gave me a crash course in its history and meaning, together with the words and actions.
After about half an hour I wasn’t exactly well prepared, and he then said ‘Just stand behind me and do what I do!’ I still get a number of requests from the pupils in my school; I tend to teach them rather than doing it myself.
What did your New Zealand team do in between the matches of the 1987 World Cup?
Most memorably, a burger eating competition in a well-known fast food chain just outside Napier in the North Island. I was the surprise winner, destroying the reputations of Zinzan Brooke, Andy Earl and Michael Jones in the process.
We were also billeted with families in the Wairarapa; our Coach, Brian Lochore, was from that area and he got all of his farmer mates to put us up for a few days. It was complete escapism for me (completely different to Southeast London), but it also gave all the players a real insight into what the All Blacks meant to the rural communities of NZ.
What five words would you use to sum New Zealand up?
Friendly, beautiful, peaceful, fresh and creative.
What’s your favourite thing about New Zealand; what do you miss most?
The fresh air.
Where is your favourite place in New Zealand?
Wellington – when the wind isn’t blowing!
What should be on visitors’ ‘To Do List’ when they make their trip to this year’s World Cup?
Queenstown – Milford Track; Martinborough Vineyards in the Wairarapa (the Alana Estate Pinot Noir is especially good there); Bluff Oysters (South Island); visit a Marae to experience some traditional Maori culture. There’s also plenty of choice on the east coast of the North Island, as well as Lake Taupo (NI) and Fox Glacier (SI).
How much do you value specialist local knowledge about a destination that you are travelling to?
It can be the difference between a good trip and a great trip.
How do you think this year’s World Cup will differ from that in 1987? What should fans expect?
It will be much more commercial, many more spectators making the journey from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. With the recent earthquake in Christchurch, I feel the international rugby community will embrace the efforts that the host nation have made, and there will be a very strong bond of fellowship.
Rugby has changed drastically over the past twenty-four years; how is it different now?
In 1987, the game was amateur and the All Blacks were definitely an unknown quantity. They had lost their hold on the Bledisloe Cup as well as being well beaten by France in Nantes in ’86. The team had also been split by the rebel tour to South Africa, which also divided public opinion. What’s more, the average age of the team was 24!
Now the game is professional. South Africa and Australia are frequent visitors to NZ and know how to win there. Events such as the Autumn Test schedule in the Northern Hemisphere means there is a wealth of knowledge about all of the leading squads.
The All Blacks have had great opportunities to claim their second World Cup victory, especially in 1995 and 2007. There will be very high expectations on all of the young men who don the All Black jersey, but they wouldn’t want it any other way!
Who’s your pick to win this year’s World Cup? And your outside bet?
Well it’s New Zealand again – although I’ve said that every time since ’87! I have it on good authority that Japan could be worth a bet, but not until 2019. After Ireland’s display against England in March, they demonstrated that they have everything required – except consistency – but if they can get through their group and put three top quality performances together, they could be worth a shout!