Willie Duggan: A ferocious, ruthless rugby great

Obituary: The Ireland captain hated training, loved cigarettes, and still won 41 caps

Willie Duggan: a talisman for club, province and country. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

William Patrick Duggan
Born: March 12th, 1950
Died: August 28th, 2017

Willie Duggan, who has died aged 67, was an outstanding rugby player, among the finest produced by Ireland, and a talisman for club, province and country, propelled by an uncompromising ferocity.

The intensity with which he approached matches offered a stark and at times amusing contrast to his pathological dislike of the training regimen, which he claimed tended to take the edge off both his enthusiasm and his game.

His preferred method to "warm up" ahead of training was to turn on the heater in his car and smoke a cigarette. He claimed that smoking calmed his nerves, so he sparked up before matches, at half-time and after them. He once handed the referee Allan Hosie a lit cigarette as he ran out in a game against England, at Twickenham in 1982. The television cameras are reputed to have caught the Scottish official, in his first international in charge, trying to put out the Irishman's cigarette as he emerged from the tunnel.


Acknowledged by friend and foe as a hard man on the pitch – he was sent off alongside the Wales secondrow Geoff Wheel in a Five Nations game in 1977 – Duggan operated in an era when the boot and fist rather than the whistle were used to penalise transgressions, facilitated by the unseeing eye of limited camera angles and touch judges who simply ran the line.

All Blacks: Willie Duggan scores against New Zealand in 1977. Photograph: Central/Hulton/Getty

His philosophy is perhaps best exemplified by an observation after the second test between the All Blacks and the British and Irish Lions in 1977. “It was a game we had to win, and when I say it was physical it came to fisticuffs, and whatever had to be done was done.

“It was what I would call a good old-fashioned game of rugby, where the referee didn’t get involved. I believe there shouldn’t be a referee on the field. Let the lads sort it out themselves.”

The ruthless edge should not camouflage Duggan’s rugby acuity, that ability to be at the nub of the action, one that marked him as a brilliant number eight.

Playing his club rugby with Blackrock College, Kilkenny RFC and Leinster, he won 41 caps for Ireland, making his debut on January 18th, 1975, against England at Lansdowne Road. He finished his international career at the same venue, against Scotland, in 1984 – 39 matches at number eight and two as a flanker, all of them in the starting team.

Lineout: Willie Duggan wins the ball as Moss Keane, John O’Driscoll and Fergus Slattery look on. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

He was an integral part of Ireland's 1982 triple-crown-winning team, playing alongside his great friend and clubmate Fergus Slattery and John O'Driscoll in one of the national side's all-time great backrow units. He captained Ireland in his final season in the green jersey.

Duggan toured New Zealand with the 1977 Lions, playing all four test matches and scoring a try in the third. The tourists lost the series 3-1, despite the domination of their forwards. The impression Duggan left on his hosts can be gleaned from the warm tribute following his death on the New Zealand Rugby Union website.

Born in James's Green in Kilkenny, he went to Kilkenny CBS primary school before, aged eight, being dispatched to board at Rockwell College, where he spent nine years.

I've just got L'Équipe. There's 24 photographs of Rives, and you're in 22 of them

He embraced a variety of disciplines, partaking, according to the school’s almanac of 1967, “in debating, weights, billiards and horse riding as well as taking first place in the college high jump and pole vault. Like many Rockwell attendees at the time, he was also enlisted in the FCA and at the time of leaving was listed as an FCA Private 3-star.”

He won a Munster Schools Rugby Senior Cup medal, but although seven of his team-mates were selected for the provincial side, he wasn't. In later years he helped out with coaching the senior team and quietly donated a bagful of his international jerseys. In 2016 he was bestowed with the Rockwell College person-of-the-year award.

Back home Duggan hurled as a teenager for Dicksboro GAA Club, losing a Junior A county final to Ballyhale Shamrocks, and wore the black and amber of Kilkenny in a Leinster Under-21 hurling championship match.

In the picture: Willie Duggan gets the better of Jean-Pierre Rives of France in the 1984 Five Nations. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

The former Ireland rugby selector Dave O'Leary persuaded Duggan to join Blackrock College. In Tom English's book No Borders, Playing Rugby for Ireland Duggan recounts a lovely story about a victory over France in his debut Five Nations season.

“Those French packs, they weren’t exactly clean. I wouldn’t say they were any worse than we were, but there was more of them at it. Before that game a great mentor of mine, Dave O’Leary, phoned me up and said, ‘Willie, there’s a blondie lad playing for France at the weekend, and the French absolutely love him.’

“He was talking about Jean-Pierre Rives. Dave says, ‘L’Équipe are going to be watching every step this fella takes, and there is going to be 25 photographs of him in their paper. If you’re in 18 of the 25 photographs, you’ve had a great fecking game.’

“Dave rang me a week later. ‘Willie,’ he says. ‘I’ve just got L’Équipe. There’s 24 photographs of Rives, and you’re in 22 of them.’ That was Dave’s way of measuring how well you played.”

On his retirement Duggan went into the family firm, Willie Duggan Lighting, founded by his father, Billy, in 1935, and currently a very successful third-generation business. In 2010 he was elected to the Guinness Rugby Writers' Hall of Fame, a fitting accolade for a man who gave so much, body and soul.

He is survived by his wife, Ellen, son, Willie jnr, daughters, Helena and Monica, and granddaughter, Jo.