An integral part of the Ulster team that dominated Irish rugby in the 1980’s winning 10 consecutive interprovincial titles, Anderson played 78 times for his province and 27 times for Ireland and was to skipper both sides.
When leading the Irish team in 1989 he famously linked arms with his teammates and marched up to the New Zealand line to challenge their skipper Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford almost nose-to-nose in the middle of the Maori Haka.
His actions threw the Irish supporters into an unprecedented frenzy and made for an exhilarating atmosphere, but as he told the News Letter today, “we won the dance but lost the game” - going down bravely 6-23.
However the last five years have seen the professional era come to full maturity in the Irish game, with the latest of three victories over the Blacks 29-20 in Dublin on Saturday
The Irish dominated the contest from the start and were well worthy of only their third win over the New Zealanders, following on from the historic Chicago breakthrough in 2016 and the second victory at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin in 2018.
His playing days may be long over but the third victory over the All Blacks was still a special moment for him.”A third victory is fantastic,” he said. “It was a great performance on Saturday.”
He watched the first victory in Chicago very closely which he said was “very emotional” and was at the last victory in Dublin.On Saturday was also at the match with his wife, Heather.
All three victories were “absolutely heroic performances” and “none more so” than Saturday just past. He rejects any suggestion that his response to the haka has earned him a long line of pints in rugby circles since 1989.
“I don’t know about that but in the last wee while I have actually had the opportunity to frame it and use it for charitable purposes,” he said.
One signed photo of the event was auctioned in Holywood recently and raised £2,500 for former Scottish lock Doddie Weir, who is battling Motor Neurone Disease.
“So it is nice to be able to use it in that way, because I have got a few of them here signed.”He adds: “Anybody who was at that game would still tell me it was the greatest emotion that they have ever felt at a game and certainly it was one of the greatest atmospheres that I have ever played in.”
Asked if he reflected on his Haka confrontation during Ireland’s three victories over the All Blacks, he affirms that he did.
However he immediately notes that if they had pulled the same stunt in 2021 they would “probably have trampled over a couple of photographers and a referee as well”.
”But I do reflect on it and certainly I admire the haka. They had no problem with us throwing down the gauntlet.
“I know I got a bit of stick from some of the blazers [rugby administrators] but at the end of the day it was something that [Ireland coach] Jimmy Davidson was instrumental in trying.
“He just wanted to psychologically change the crowd, because even on Saturday the crowd clapped the Haka. But Jimmy wanted the crowd to clap our response to the Haka instead, which worked. I always said, ‘We won the dance but lost the game’.”
He would dearly love to have been on a team which beat the All Blacks.
“Oh there is no doubt about that. I saw [former Irish centre] David Irwin there at the match at the weekend and we would love to have had the opportunities to play on a side which beat the All Blacks. There is no doubt about that.”
A key difference in the Irish teams of today, he notes, is the professional era fitness of all 15 players. Another key factor on Saturday, he says, was the influence of the 13 Leinster men “all playing off the same hymn sheet and absolutely at the top of their games”.
Yet he was also disappointed with the All Blacks on Saturday.
“I think they underestimated the Irish intensity and speed and I think they looked a little bit jaded, but that is not to take away from a magnificent performance by the Irish who played so well and didn’t allow the All Blacks to play.”
His autobiography was launched in September, covering such unlikely incidents as facing down Argentina’s infamous military junta after a tour prank in Buenos Aires that went spectacularly wrong.
“It has done very well with the critics and great feedback from a lot of people who have read it. But it is not just about rugby - only about 40% of it is. It is about all aspects of life.”
He was going to give a talk on the book at Sperrin Senior Integrated School in Magherafelt today, with a particular focus on highlighting life lessons on resilience.
Integrated education is a subject close to the heart of the former teacher, he adds.
“Big time. I used to play rugby and gaelic as did my son.”
He adds: “Overall it is an honest account of my life with highs and lows and family life. I really wrote it for my grandchildren. A lot of people have said my wife comes out of it as an absolute Saint, so it is not just about rugby football.”
:: Crossing the Line by Willie Anderson is available in bookshops now.
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