A rapturous homecoming in Ramelton

RUGBY/All Blacks visit Donegal: A black, cold November evening had set in by the time the famous guests finally reached the …

RUGBY/All Blacks visit Donegal: A black, cold November evening had set in by the time the famous guests finally reached the old linen town of Ramelton, but, after 100 years, nobody was checking the watch.

The journey that began in 1873 when Dave Gallaher and Maria McCloskie sailed Down Under on the Lady Jocelyn came full circle when Tana Umaga stood outside a broad, pebbledash townhouse where the captain of the All Blacks Originals had been born.

The New Zealand captain made the journey into the heart of Donegal with five of his team-mates, and over a long afternoon they behaved with the kind of grace and patience that has become rare in modern sport.

They stood in the rain and cracked a champagne bottle over the granite plaque on a patch of mud that will one day become the Dave Gallaher memorial park. Blond flanker Jerry Collins just laughed when a shower of glass streamed down on top of him along with the bubbly.

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In Letterkenny, Joe Rokocoko, the gifted winger, threw a rugby ball around with children in the gloom and seemed delighted when they got his name wrong. They signed a million autographs and posed for what seemed like every camera in Donegal.

As dusk fell, it became clear the All Black touring party was going to be hopelessly late for the small plane that stood waiting on the windy runway outside Derry. But the players didn't mind. They took tea in Ena Curry's stately bed and breakfast house where Gallaher spent his early boyhood.

"Okay, mind the drain," warned Conrad Smith as they filed out the front door and wandered down through Ramelton's sloping main street, past Shaughnessy's pub where local men drank stout and watched the procession. The All Blacks strolled happily through the drizzle, surrounded by hundreds of locals newly alive to rugby fever.

At the town hall, built in 1878 - five years after the Gallahers had emigrated - the All Blacks were ushered through the wrought iron gates and on to a stage usually graced by local musicals and the bingo announcer.

Children's pictures of Umaga and Dave Gallaher and crayon figures performing the haka decorated the room. An Irish fiddle welcomed them, and when they sauntered on to stage to a thunderous ovation, Jerry Collins grinned like he was having the time of his life.

And you had to remind yourself that these were the superstars of world rugby. Somehow all the imperatives of big time sport - time management and security guards and commercial duties - got lost in the misty afternoon, and the visiting players were quite happy to have it that way. There were, literally, no barricades.

"I know there are only a few of us," apologised Umaga when he stood before a rapturous crowd. "The others wanted to come, but we felt there was an important game to prepare for and they should be resting up.

"And like Sir Brian (Lochore) said, we never thought in our wildest dreams we would get the kind of reception we have received today. Although I kinda had thought that it would involve a lot of rocks being thrown my way. And I am glad that I thought wrong. And so are my wife and children," he grinned.

"But we are truly humbled to be here. Especially as I am one of the few All-Blacks (on this tour) who has stood at the graveside of Dave Gallaher (in Belgium. Gallaher died in 1917 in the first World War). He holds a special place for us.

"To me, the Dave Gallaher Cup (awarded for Tests with France) is pretty much the most important cup, except for the little one we play for every four years. It holds such dear meaning to myself, and it has been enhanced now by coming to Ramelton and to stand in the same house as he lived for his first five years. And I can understand why they moved to New Zealand to be among like-minded people. So I am very happy to be here."

As he spoke, a toddler in an Irish rugby shirt managed to rush the stage and made his way fearlessly to be seated on the knee of the hulking prop forward Neemia Tialata. The ultra-tough front man just grinned as the youngster made himself at home, and as Umaga waved goodbye, he said "and we are definitely gonna have to get a different colour jersey for this kid".

If Umaga was pleased to be talking about something other than last summer's Lions tour, it was understandable. Early in the afternoon, he politely declined to revisit the recent past, preferring instead to shine a light on the last century and Dave Gallaher.

Any lingering doubts that the All Black captain might have had about his place in the public affections of this country melted away in the warmth of this visit to a remote Donegal village. And it was clear from the solemn words of Brian Lochore, the legendary 1960s All Blacks captain who grew up hearing tales of Gallaher's heroism, that yesterday's visit represented something lasting and transcendent to the New Zealanders.

"The reception we have had at every place we visited today has been totally overwhelming. Totally overwhelming. And this has really, I think, cemented the bond between Ireland and New Zealand," he said. "The countries are not dissimilar, I think. The ways we think are very alike."

We can but hope that, come Saturday, the national rugby styles compare just as favourably.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times