Crossing the Line by Willie Anderson: a perfect distillation of player and man

Matured over 30 years since he retired as a player, this is still raw and uncompromising

Crossing the Line
Crossing the Line
Author: Willie Anderson, with Brendan Fanning
ISBN-13: 978-1914197154
Publisher: Reach Sport
Guideline Price: £20

Most sports biographies are written too soon after the final whistle. The rush to cash in on hard-won, short-lived fame means that many such books lack perspective, focusing instead with wearying repetitiveness on the pressures of being a professional sportsperson: the drudgery of training, the constant injuries, the elation and relief of victory, the gnawing self-doubt in defeat.

Anderson's book is different. Written more than 30 years after he won his last cap for Ireland, Crossing The Line is raw, uncompromising, sometimes brutal and always passionate; a perfect distillation of Anderson the player and Anderson the man.

By today's standards Anderson's international career was only moderately successful. Twenty-seven caps was a decent haul in the amateur era, and he was part of the 1985 Triple Crown winning team, but as a player he is best remembered for the challenge to the All Blacks' haka in 1989 in Lansdowne Road, when he led the team in a Walls-of-Limerick style incursion into the heart of opposition territory during the ritual. Asked if he was scared, New Zealand captain Wayne Shelford said Anderson came so close he was afraid the Irish captain was going to kiss him.

But it's the life lived either side of his days in a green jersey that are particularly interesting. Growing up on the family farm in Sixmilecross, Co Tyrone, meant Anderson quickly acquired the hardness and agricultural strength which no amount of weight-training could provide. His father, like many other Protestant farmers at the time, was in the B Specials; "the support act for the RUC," as Anderson calls them, and he remembers as a teenager firing his father's gun in the fields at home. Anderson acknowledges that a fair few of "the B Men" – though not his father – would have enjoyed causing trouble for local Catholics, thereby further dividing an already fractured community.


His family encounter The Troubles when Tommy Irwin, a farmhand who'd worked for the Andersons and babysat young Willie, is shot dead by the IRA; the weapon used is found on one of the eight IRA men killed a year later in the Loughgall ambush. Anderson is raised in the loyalist tradition, attending the local Orange Lodge, and marching as a boy on the 12th July, though his brief courtship of a Catholic girl is ended by his parents, his father fearing the 17-year old Anderson would be shot "by one side or the other".

As a young man Anderson does not come across as a particularly devout Protestant; what he is devoted to is rugby. And drinking. One of the last players of the amateur era, Anderson recalls in loving detail various nights “on the pish”; the fabled Leeson Street nightclub Strings is one of many watering-holes to receive honourable mention.

The stories of partying, of endless sing-songs and booze-fuelled escapades are from another time, a time before the prying eyes of social media saw everything, but one such laddish "prank" goes horribly wrong when the theft of an Argentine flag in 1980 while on tour in Buenos Aires leads to Anderson being detained in prison and then under "hotel arrest" for almost four months as the charge of "disrespecting a national symbol" wends its way through the Argentine justice system.

Intriguingly, Anderson says one unidentified culprit who climbed up on Anderson's shoulders to remove the flag from its government flagpole beseeched Anderson not to name him to the police for fear he'd lose his job; Anderson respects the omerta. Years later he meets Denis Thatcher. "I could have told your Missus there was going to be trouble!" he says, referring to the Falklands war. Denis doesn't see the funny side – and Thatcher is not the only person who struggles to cope with Anderson's acerbic wit and occasionally fiery personality.

After retiring from playing he takes up coaching, and attains a degree of success as assistant to Matt Williams with Leinster and Scotland, and briefly with London Irish. But he fails to achieve his cherished ambition of becoming head coach of Ulster, despite applying three times; one "blazer" assures him before an interview that while he's alive, he'll make sure Anderson never gets the job. Anderson fulminates against this perceived injustice but accepts his reputation for "overstepping the mark" may have counted against him.

During his time at Leinster one of the coaching staff begs him not to go drinking with the players, but Anderson cannot resist a "session". A row in Café En Seine after the team lose at home in the 2003 Heineken Cup semi-final ends with Anderson drunkenly pushing one of the squad across the bar. He's candid about the many problems his drinking causes, and after receiving a heartfelt letter from his son pleading with him to stop, he gives it up.

One of the bleaker moments is a road accident in which Anderson accidentally knocks down and kills a local boy he’s previously coached. Anderson is acquitted of any wrongdoing, but the grief and guilt stay with him. He’s especially lucky in his marriage to Heather, whose good-humoured loyalty and support sustain him through his darker days. Loyalty matters to him, a lot.

Honoured to play for Ireland – although standing for the national anthem is "an irritant" – Anderson retains a tribal, atavistic fealty to all things Ulster. He name-checks various Northern rugby icons: Stewart McKinney, David Irwin, Nigel Carr, and even the BBC's Jim Neilly ("a great man to fly the flag for Ulster players during commentaries"). His veneration of Jimmy Davidson ("the greatest rugby man I've ever known") is in striking contrast to his views on other coaches such as Mick Doyle ("nailed-on narcissist") and Clive Woodward ("useless") but Anderson recalls that during Davidson's reign Ulster were unbeaten in the interprovincial championship for almost nine years.

As Ravenhill reverberates again to the Friday night roars, Anderson's voice (ably captured here by Brendan Fanning) will surely be heard. Here's one proud Ulsterman who's never had a problem standing up for himself.
John O'Donnell is a Leinster and Ireland supporter. His latest book is Americans Anonymous (Hi-Tone Books), a pictorial and poetic collaboration with photographer Barry Delaney.