How rugby put Spring in step


MEMORY LANE DICK SPRING: REWIND THE spool of Dick Spring's life and sporting images keep flickering past. Before politics or business, there was sport. Before rugby, there was football and hurling. Before schooling in Roscrea, there was Kerry.

Accidents of geography and birth pointed his sporting life in a single unequivocal direction: the GAA. His father, Dan, won three All-Ireland medals with Kerry, in 1933, 1939 and 1940. The Spring family home in Tralee was a ball's kick from the Kerins O'Rahilly's home pitch.

"We were absolutely steeped. Every chance you got, you played football, mainly in the middle of the street. You played until it got dark. If you were lucky and you had a new ball you could play until later because you could see it in the dark."

At Tralee CBS primary school, there was football. What else? Michael Hayes, one of young Richard Spring's teachers, was moulding future Kerry players.

"He certainly revolutionised Gaelic football in the CBS in Tralee. Personally, I'd say he's the guy who made many of the great Austin Stacks teams that came out in the 70s. He brought a new discipline with him and he certainly revitalised the Austin Stacks club. He was very influential in my life outside of sport too. He often said he saw leadership qualities there and would have encouraged them."

Anna Spring was determined her six children would have the best education. This meant boarding school. Boarding school meant leaving Tralee and football in CBS, leaving behind the kickabouts on Strand Street that outstretched the twilight.

"My mother, who was brought up in 1920s and 1930s Ireland, would have loved to have gone to university. But there was no money in small farming in North Kerry during the economic war. She had a very strong determination that we were going to get a chance."

A choice had to be made: the Cistercian College in Roscrea or St Brendan's College ("The Sem") in Killarney. Oval ball or round: the decision was heavily imbued with meaning for his future sporting career.

"I suppose, had I gone to The Sem in Killarney, I might have carved out a career in Gaelic football for myself. I had no interest in rugby before going to Roscrea."

Thus it continued into 1965, his third year in Tipperary. Dick Spring was Kerry and Kerry was football. A scion of The Kingdom had no place on the brutal, boggy battlefields of schools rugby. He had caught glimpses of the alien game in Tralee, played furtively in the time of The Ban.

"If you went for a walk on a Sunday afternoon by Oak Park in Tralee you could see them playing inside the wall. But The Ban was around and you wouldn't want to be seen looking over the wall."

Then rugby caught him at a loose end. His Roscrea hurling team found their season had come to an abrupt halt in November of his Inter Cert year. Slack months lay ahead. He needed the tension of competitive sport. Rugby came to fill the gap.

"Guys in my class asked me to try rugby. I said it didn't appeal to me. Rugby was slow then: 6-3 was a big score. Then they told me about the great showers in Donnybrook and the big feeds you got after games."

He remembered washing the cow dung off under an icy straggle of water after a hurling match in Abbeyleix. Any vacillation dissolved in the promise of hot showers. Rugby it was, then.

"They put me in as a centre. The first ball I got in play, a pass, I just looked at the posts and put it straight over the bar. I didn't drop-kick it; it was a Gaelic football kick. That was my instinct.

"I played Junior Cup that year and I took to the rugby. I became a bit obsessed with it, to be honest with you, for the next 15 years . . . I was still very keen on hurling and football, but the rugby got under my skin."

His football background was noted and he was played as an outhalf. The pitches were quagmires and running rugby was a distant rumour, but the boy from Tralee became pivotal to Roscrea's Senior Cup team. Leadership qualities began to emerge.

"Let's say it like this: if you had been in sport and hadn't been capable of leading in sport, you certainly wouldn't have been capable of leading in politics, I'd have thought. I'm not inclined to put people in boxes. But there was an instinct for leadership on the sports field.

"One of my good friends slagged me about it once. He said I was a great team player, as long as I was the captain."

Boarding school life was bespoke for a youngster with his sporting bent. More than once he played truant from night prayers, belting around the school handball alley.

"I was a fairly happy camper. On the other hand, I'd say that if you weren't interested in sport, you wouldn't want to be in boarding school. If you are interested, it's great. We used to throw a rugby ball round at lunchtime. Then we togged out later."

There were lessons to be gleaned from the mud. "I enjoyed the discipline of sport. You had to train hard. There was discipline required and that's probably good life training. If you can observe it in sport, you can observe it in other areas of life. I would have been an average sportsperson, but worked hard for it."

Hard work later yielded him the rare distinction of appearances for Kerry in both Gaelic codes and three rugby caps for Ireland. He tells a story of a particular Senior Cup game played for Roscrea, smiling in remembrance at the curious sporting synthesis it threw up.

"We played one rugby game against Newbridge on a pitch on Jones's Road, which is gone now, but was right at the back of Croke Park. I spent most of that day trying to kick a ball into Croke Park. I wanted to tell my father I'd kicked a ball in Croke Park."

They put me in as a centre. The first ball I got in play, a pass, I just looked at the posts and put it straight over the bar. I didn't drop-kick it; it was a Gaelic football kick.