‘Gary was not only captain of London Irish – he was the king’

Former team-mates remember the Ireland prop, including that try against the All Blacks

Gary Halpin gives a two-fingered salute to the New Zealand fans after Ireland score a try against the All Blacks in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Gary Halpin gives a two-fingered salute to the New Zealand fans after Ireland score a try against the All Blacks in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

To only associate Gary Halpin with the two-fingered celebration that poked the All Blacks is to miss seeing one of rugby’s rare comets.

“Gary was not really made for mass production – he was a one-off,” remembered Mal O’Kelly on Wednesday after a morning talking to former team-mates.

The Ireland prop from Kilkenny died suddenly at home on Tuesday night. He was 55 years old.

“Gary was not only captain of London Irish when I arrived over,” said O’Kelly. “He was the king of London Irish back then.”

Halpin scored one try for his country. That famous power surge is doused in hilarity all because this wild-eyed “Paddy” went a touch ballistic after barging over Mike Brewer and Jamie Joseph. That it happened in the opening minutes of the 1995 World Cup in South Africa proves it was born from the breaking waves of adrenaline.

And anyway, New Zealand captain Sean Fitzpatrick had been mouthing off to an already supped-up Irish pack.

“I know Gary was embarrassed by the conversation that has continued around an instantaneous reaction,” said Kelvin Leahy, an old friend who played Ireland schools with Halpin in 1984. “It was early in the game, there was fire in the belly. It was out of character, but it happened and it is part of the folklore now.”

Gary Halpin in action for Leinster in November 2000. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Gary Halpin in action for Leinster in November 2000. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

The rumble was a minor subplot in Jonah Lomu’s arrival as the game’s only crossover megastar.

“First time we saw Lomu, myself, Gary and Franno were getting into the lift,” said Nick Popplewell. “It was always the three of us, always laughing. We were staying in the same hotel in Johannesburg. This big fella came in. ‘F***, who is he?’ We were playing them the next day and we had no clue who he was.”

“Yeah, that try,” said O’Kelly, “but did you ever hear about the green Volvo?”

Neck-twisting duel

Skip on to 1996 and a packed Sunbury for London Irish’s neck-twisting duel with the mighty Leicester Tigers. Before a scrum there was a lull in proceedings: “Could the owner of a Volvo licence plate PX45 please come and move their car. It is blocking the ambulance from coming in.”

Halpin turned to Leicester prop Graham Rowntree and asked “could you hold on for a minute there?” As he trotted towards the touchline Dean Richards peered over the other water buffalos to inquire: “For God’s sake, what’s going on now?”

The natives were getting restless so Halpin had to roar into the main stand: “It’s my bloody car!”

The king of London Irish assumed his late arrival before kick-off would ensure that “there would be nobody coming in behind me”.

Gary Halpin: ‘Gary was a family man, very sensitive, very sincere.’ Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Gary Halpin: ‘Gary was a family man, very sensitive, very sincere.’ Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

There is a fly-on-the-wall documentary to rival This Is Spinal Tap about the season Zinzan Brooke took over as Harlequins player coach. The club did make one astute decision by signing a veteran tighthead to scrum down with Keith Wood and Jason Leonard.

The only scene in the hour-long doc that does not belong in the world of David Brent is filled by two bald-headed Irish lads hunkered over a lunch table in west London. Halpin is holding court as the young hooker swallows a smile.

“My impression of the ’Quins in times gone by was that they were a bunch of dorks, you know? But I am very good at changing my coat.”

“Gary now realises he is the dork.”

Halpin’s mumbled comeback split Wood from ear to ear.

Raging bull

Back in Johannesburg, Popplewell is grabbing the raging bull by the collar as he back-pedals from the try line in a state of delirium.

“I first toured with Gary in ’85,” said Popplewell. “He was my room-mate. That was the end of any form of normality. In an era when things were not going well it was great to have him on the bus, basically cheering you up after being hammered, yet again.

“I was only talking to him last week – and it was like being 25 again. The things we talked about. Innocent stuff but unrepeatable. You came away from any meeting with Gary happy. You cannot say that about too many people.”

O’Kelly: “One of the biggest parts of his character came out when people were watching him. We toured New Zealand in 1997. He was our captain but he was also the MC on the bus as we would be moving from one shitty town to the next, with Gazza up top revealing all... Nobody was safe from his tongue-lashing.”

Ireland’s Gary Halpin and Nick Popplewell celebrate the win over Wales in Ellis Park, Johannesburg during the Rugby World Cup in 1995. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Ireland’s Gary Halpin and Nick Popplewell celebrate the win over Wales in Ellis Park, Johannesburg during the Rugby World Cup in 1995. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Leahy played with or against Halpin all the way to the disastrous Irish development tour of New Zealand in 1992.

“I went to Crescent and Gary went to Rockwell so I remember coming across this fully formed man in first year. Thankfully I was eventually able to play alongside him for Munster schools. Then he joined Wanderers and we won a double when it was worth winning a double in the late 1980s.”

A few years ago Leahy was asked about going down to Cistercian College Roscrea. He wanted to stay teaching in St Michael’s College but could easily recommend one name.

“I know they had been thrilled with him down there as head of the boarding school. There is a lot of responsibility and you need a certain type of character. Gary was a family man, very sensitive, very sincere.”

On Wednesday night, after an awful day, O’Kelly texted a link to The Guardian column Halpin penned back in 2010, all about his green Volvo.

“I’ve often wondered what happened to the guy in the ambulance, though,” Halpin wrote. “I always wanted to find that out. I just hope the chap was all right and he’s still with us, that’s all.”

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