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Legends of the Jubilee Cup: John Gallagher (Oriental-Rongotai)

John Gallagher playing for Wellington against Queensland on 18 April 1987 in the South Pacific Championship – the forerunner to Super Rugby. The Reds won 27-25 that day, but Gallagher won many matches for Wellington in the 1980s. PHOTO: Evening Post. 

John Gallagher came to New Zealand from England in the 1980s and spent several seasons playing club rugby for Oriental-Rongotai, the Wellington Lions in 88 matches between 1984-90 and the All Blacks in 18 Tests and 23 games between 1987-89.

He is currently a director of a property company in London but is still actively engaged with the game. We recently caught up with him to find out more and for some reflections on his career.

Are you still active in community rugby and do you still follow your former teams?

Up until 2019 I was head coach for the Kent (Men’s) rugby team in the top tier of the English County Championship. It is an amateur competition, taking players predominantly from the third Tier of the English national club leagues. It’s similar to Heartland rugby in NZ. I stopped to spend more of my leisure time following the rugby career of my youngest son, who is now currently playing for Munster.

I keep an eye on the Wellington Club rugby scene, particularly Ories of course. I remain a big Wellington Lions, Hurricanes and All Blacks follower.

Rewinding the clock, tell us about when and how you first came to New Zealand and the circumstances that saw you stay?

A school friend of mine, Tony O’Malley had played for Ories in 1983. He had a successful season helping Ories win the Hardham Cup and topped the Wellington Club Rugby individual points scoring table. I met Tony later that year back in London and asked him if he was going back to Wellington. He said that he had his eyes on touring Canada with Kent Rugby and so would I like to go back NZ in his place!

I then received a call from Clive Currie (Ories head coach and former All Black) in January 1984 to gauge my interest. I had already been accepted for the London Met Police training school but I managed to postpone it until I returned from NZ. During my initial stay in Wellington, I was clear in my own mind that I wanted to stay but obviously I needed to secure residency. The Wellington selector/coach Ian Upston, spoke to me and wanted to find out if I wanted to stay before he selected me. After representing Wellington, securing residency was easier and I then applied for the NZ Police. I then returned to London, said my farewells and joined in May 1985, attending Porirua Police College.

You were mostly a fullback, at least at the highest levels, but you also played centre at club and provincial level?

It was only when I arrived at Ories that I had a run of games at fullback. Prior to that I had played most of my rugby at centre/wing and first five. My coach at Ories was former All Black full-back Clive Currie so learning the fundamentals from one of the best, was the best start I could have hoped for.

What were some of the early memorable matches that you played in during your Premier/Senior A career for Ories?

My first senior 1 [Premier] match was away at Porirua in the first round of the Swindale Shield in 1984. We won 22-0 and I picked up 15 points including my first try. We also had a hard-fought victory over local rivals Poneke in the Jimmy Grbich Shield in front of a packed house at the Polo Grounds. We qualified for the Jubilee Cup for the first time in a while, so my first season in Wellington got off to a great start.

The following season, 1985, because of my Wellington rep commitments I did not play a number of regular season club fixtures. But I do remember Ories beating MSP (away), Petone (away) and Wellington (away) all in the Swindale Shield. I played in the MSP and Wellington matches but unfortunately not in the Petone match, as I’d been called up for the NZ Combined Services to play against Waikato on the same day.

What were a couple of memorable matches or highlights that you played in during your time for Wellington?

Beating Auckland at Athletic Park in 1984 [22-18]. I was only 20 and playing centre (against Joe Stanley), in front of our back three of Bernie Fraser, Mike Clamp and Allan Hewson. I’d only been in the country for five months! Auckland were demolishing everyone in 1984 under coach John Hart, everyone expected us to lose by 20 points, if we were lucky!

Auckland and Canterbury both at Athletic Park in 1986. They had been the top two teams in the NPC in recent years. We beat them both and I had strong performances at fullback. Wellington went on to win all of their ten matches and were crowned National Provincial Champions for the first time since 1981. On the back of that, I was selected as a utility back for the AB’s tour to France at the end of the year.

Above: Part of the sports pages of the Dominion the morning after Wellington had beaten Auckland 23-12 and taken a major step towards winning the 1986 championship.

Beating Wales 38-22 in 1988 and then France 24-23 in 1989, both at Athletic Park.

Was there an All Blacks moment or match or highlight that stands out?

RWC 1987 – Test Debut v Italy at Eden Park. 4 tries v Fiji in the second match at Lancaster Park. Scoring a try in the quarterfinal v Scotland at Lancaster Park in front of my father who had just flown in from London. – And winning the final v France at Eden Park

1989 – Try v Ireland at Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Special as both my parents were born in Ireland and I still have many cousins still there in Derry and Limerick.

Who were some of the characters or memorable teammates you played with, at club, representative and international level?

Club: For Ories in 1984 there was Ash Pointon, Phil Jones, Steve Cox, Lindsay Cunningham, Ian De Terte, Mark Bracewell, Fuka Kitikeiaho, Fau Lealamanua and Eno Liua’ana. All very different personalities but went out of their way to make me feel welcome. Then on the coaching and admin side there was Clive Currie and Don Bond who kept me on the straight and narrow. Not forgetting the Bridge Family; David and Maureen Thurlow,  who I initially lodged with in Miramar South before being sent to Boot’s Fisher’s place in Island Bay!

Rep: In 1984, Murray Mexted was captain of the province and a celebrated All Black. Mex was a superb leader and motivator, but most of all he was prepared to die for Wellington! There was his younger brother Alan, Mike O’Leary, Gerard Wilkinson, a giant lock, with Murray Pierce, Scotty Crichton, Dave Mahanga and Brian McGrattan – making a fearsome forward combination. An All Black trio in the back three of Hewson, Fraser and Clamp, Dave Ngatai in the midfield with me, with Peter Barlow and Mark Gray making up the halfbacks.

By 1986, our coach Ian Upston had retired and was succeeded by Earle Kirton. Earnie was flamboyant and articulate and had a clear view of how he wanted Wellington to play. Forwards to provide the backs with quick, go forward ball. The backs to run from depth into midfield, then with the fullback hitting the blind. He didn’t want the forwards to maul, just ruck! Initially he kept me at centre partnering the new import John Schuster. The Schuster/Gallagher combination in the midfield wasn’t  a success, as Shuey would leave his decision making right until the last moment and I struggled with this, not reading him at all and constantly over running or mis-timing the pass. The solution was to shift me to fullback. Alan Hewson has just retired from Rep rugby and so there was a vacancy at 15. From there I could shadow Shu from depth and anticipate what he was about to do and then support him. Denis Tocker was brought in to partner Shu in midfield, the mercurial Steven Pokere was at 10 with Sos (Neil Sorenson) at 9, Clampy on one wing with the powerhouse Lolani Koko on the other. The forwards were big and mobile. Kevin Boroevich was brought in to captain the side, along with Scott Crichton in the front row, immensely strong and surprisingly nimble on his feet; Murray Pierce dominating the lineout and with a back row of Mark Hudson, Dirk Williams, Fraser Mexted. The 1986 Wellington Reps were a force to be reckoned with.

Wellington 1986.

International: From 1987-1989 the All Blacks remained undefeated. To find myself in the middle of this phenomenal group of players and coaches was brilliant. Auckland were the dominant force in provincial rugby and naturally provided the majority of the players. In fact they were often labelled ‘the 2nd best team in the world’. I could name all of the AB players (as they were household names) but sticking with just the backs…. playing alongside John Kirwan, Joe Stanley, Grant Fox, John Schuster, David Kirk, Terry Wright, Craig Green, Bruce Deans, Warwick Taylor, Bernie McCahill, Craig Innes, Walter Little, Frano Botica, Graeme Bachop, John Timu and Vaiaga Tuigamala was something really special. Kieran Crowley and Matthew Ridge also deserve a mention as two outstanding fullbacks who were constantly putting pressure on the 15 spot. Finally, my All Black captains (a few forwards here), Jock Hobbs, Andy Dalton, David Kirk and Wayne Shelford. All very different, but all very effective.

Who were the tough and memorable opponents you played against, at club, representative and international level?

Club: Full Backs: Allan Hewson (Petone) / Evan Hopkin (Wellington Axemen) / Murray Tocker (MSP)

Centres: John Schuster (MSP)

Rep: Full Backs: Kieran Crowley (Taranaki) / Matthew Ridge (Auckland) / Robbie Deans (Canterbury)

Centres: Joe Stanley (Auckland)

International: Full Backs: Serge Blanco (France) / David Campese (Australia) / Gavin Hastings (Scotland) Waisale Serevi (Fiji)

Centres: Denis Charvet (France) Philippe Sella (France)

Any tales from any memorable after-matches or trips away?

Club: In my first season for Ories, as part of our pre-season we went to Napier for the annual Easter Tournament. We had won both our games and then I was introduced to our victory anthem by Ash Pointon, Ories No.8…’My sister Belinda’ and what she did out the ‘winda’ all over our opponents! Very illuminating!

Rep: I played my debut for Wellington on 25 July 1984 v Southland in Invercargill. Wellington’s All Blacks were in Australia and I had been drafted in on the right wing and as goalkicker. Ian Upston was our coach and I think Brendan (Compost) Gardiner was our captain. We won 16-3. In the hotel afterwards we had our team session. I remember tasting my first oyster (Bluff) and Les Hall (team masseur) christening me with my new name…Kipper! I think it was a combination of a punchline of the joke he told, the fact that I was always falling asleep, and the former English Wellington All Black Jamie Salmon, whose nickname was Trout! I think Les probably gave Trout his name too as they were both from the Athletic Club in the Western Suburbs.

International: One of my favourites was after beating Munster in Cork on the 1989 tour, we were travelling to Galway for our next match against Connacht. John Sturgeon (team manager) had arranged that we stop off for five minutes to stretch and have a light lunch in Limerick. So we pulled up at the Young Munster Club to find a fantastic reception waiting for us. This included my 86-year-old grandmother, my parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins! The five-minute stop lasted 5 hours and a few Guinness were downed! I do remember Sturgie, after about an hour, trying to persuade our coach Alex Wylie to leave as we were now late for our arrival time in Galway, but Grizz was having none of it!

How has rugby changed since you were playing?

Tactical substitutions and professional rugby post 1996 have had the biggest influence on the modern game. Players are generally bigger and stronger. Changing the front row on 55 minutes is a popular tactic for many coaches. This allows the defensive side to maintain its shape and be as effective in the last quarter of games as it was in the first. As an outside back, I really benefitted from weary forwards struggling to re-adjust into their defensive line and leaving holes for me to run into.

Your son Matt has been a long-time pro player for Saracens and latterly Munster. With a first-hand perspective, how are things different now to then?

Big focus on diet. Strength and conditioning. Rest and recovery. Player welfare. Player mentoring. Monitoring fatigue levels in training and matches. Individual skills training. In depth analysis of individual and the team’s most recent performance. Analysis of the upcoming opposition. Psychological support. Team building (including interspersed social events that are fun that usually involved Lager at Saracens and Guinness at Munster) – I’m glad that hasn’t changed much!

Social media is something that most of today’s players are involved with where they engage and interact with often anonymous identities. There are many examples that are good and leave a positive or constructive message. Unfortunately, the many positives are undone by a small minority who see it as their right to inflict negativity on players who are only trying to do their best. I’m glad I played in the 80’s!

The last word – who is going to win the 2022 Jubilee Cup?


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3 thoughts on “Legends of the Jubilee Cup: John Gallagher (Oriental-Rongotai)

  1. Mr Gallagher was a governor at the primary school attached to the secondary school I was teaching at in London. I was obviously in awe but also determined not to be an over enthusiastic fan boy. I would seem him around and just acknowledge him with a nod (“Yes, it’s you… World Cup winner… but I’m not going to mob you”). Anyway… I may have over compensated as I think he started to think I was ignoring him. In the end, he ended up coming up to me (Eastern Counties U18s 1991-1991 don’t you know) as it was so awkward and introduced himself. A top bloke. Rather wish I’d said hello earlier as I moved away shortly afterwards and our nascent friendship never got a chance to blossom.

  2. What a great story and the legacy of ORIES..a club I am proud of,played with “boots and Bridgie” and Merrick in the 60s.

  3. I have many a fond memory of John & the Ories crew. Lovely article to read. We still proudly have one of your 15 jerseys. Love to catch up some time!
    Danielle (Beau) Bridge

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