Willie Anderson: ‘I wouldn’t have been a violent man . . . But I could rise to it’

Former Ireland lock’s book mixes light and dark of remarkable career on and off the pitch

There is a stark line in Willie Anderson’s new book that contains multitudes. It reads: ‘Argentina destroyed Mum.’

It’s a reference to the summer and autumn of 1980 which the big Tyrone man spent in prison and under house arrest in Buenos Aires for the cardinal offence of stealing the national flag of the Office of the Security of Information. It was a late night prank-turned-nightmare.

Anderson and his rugby companions were the owners of documents that made them prize possessions: passports issued by HRM the Queen in the years when both countries lurched towards a disastrous war.

“There’s a few generals from the junta who’d happily have you executed,” the man from the embassy told them on his first visit and things deteriorated rapidly after that. Ultimately, Anderson was deemed the culprit and he spent October and November alone in Argentina in a strange legal twilight zone.


The incident was hugely publicised at the time. It was a perfect storm of the kind of banter-driven high spirits which had informed rugby culture for a century, fragile international diplomacy and the pure eccentricity of the mammoth overseas tours which defined rugby in the amateur era.

Serial letter writer

He became a pawn between the military government and a Thatcherite administration not overly concerned with the fate of a hardy lock from deepest Tyrone. (Years later, at a tournament in Bermuda, Anderson would bump into Denis Thatcher and tell him: “If your missus had asked me in 1980 I could have told her there was going to be trouble over that place.” Thatcher did not laugh.)

His options were not promising: he faced a probable two years in jail or, the embassy explained, he could try to get himself smuggled underneath the floorboards of a bus bound for Uruguay. Visits were brief, information was sketchy and Anderson kept his sanity by becoming a serial letter writer, including those to his future wife Heather, which are included in the autobiography. He was freed in late November and the event could be compartmentalised as a frightening moment in the young life of a garrulous and carefree farmer's son from the Ulster interior.

But for his mother Evelyn, sitting at home in the farmhouse in Sixmilecross, the worry was of a different nature. As if it wasn’t enough to have raised her children through the violence that swept Ulster in the 1970s, now her child had fallen prey to an unknowable entity. She began drinking, quietly and ruinously, just to get through the days when she was waiting for word, any word, from that infernal country.

“When things are traumatic you put it into a room. You can’t shut the door but you can’t open it wide either or you would be consumed by it,” Anderson says now. “My sister and brother told me about the effect it had on our mother: she did start drinking through those four months of worry and anxiety.

“I feel guilty about that. And I feel guilty that two guys put their jobs and reputations on the line to come down to the police station with me. And Carlos [Guarna, official liaison for the rugby tour but ultimately Anderson’s saviour] put his neck on the line for me. I was lucky it wasn’t a year later when things became even more tense. The Argentine people were amazing. But I was glad I got that out. A lot of people felt they had heard this story before but maybe didn’t realise the reality of it.”

The high drama and intense claustrophobia of the experience was one of the contradictions of Anderson's fast and adventurous life which has, almost accidentally, been shaped by rugby. The book was not his idea: Brendan Fanning, the Sunday Independent rugby writer, had a sixth sense that Anderson's was a story that should be told. (The writer plays a cameo: their first meeting, late at night, in a bar led to a rugby "debate" to which Anderson took exception.)

The collaborative process was clearly helpful to Anderson: it wasn’t that he ever lacked introspection, more so that like most people, he was reluctant to dwell on the more extreme experiences of his life. For the most part, he was very fortunate in the people that surrounded him. His wife Heather comes across as a remarkably strong person and Anderson laughs at the suggestion that he got lucky when they decided to toss a coin to decide whether they should press on together or go their separate ways. What if the coin hadn’t come up heads?

“Well I think it would have been best of three in that case! Or five!”

Retired now, Anderson is a hugely warm and engaging man, even in the sterile limitations of the ubiquitous Zoom call. He’s in high form when we speak, enjoying the reception of the book and content to mind the “house and the dogs” while Heather and Chloe, their daughter, head to Paris to attend a fashion show by their son, Jonathan, whose incandescent talent has now registered in the front row of the haute couture set.

If it's a safe bet that Willie Anderson had never met the likes of Anna Wintour, the regal Vogue editor, then it's absolutely the case that Anna Wintour had never met the likes of, in his own words "this hairy-arsed farmer's son from Sixmilecross." But he was never one to be intimidated by personality and bounded up before one of Jonathan's shows.

“She was a bit startled all right,” he recalls in the book. “So was Jonathan, who saw his career passing before his eyes.”

Peer pressure

The Anderson family are hugely proud of Jonathan, whose flair for art and design was obvious from an early age. Growing up in the conservative culture of Tyrone, that creativity didn’t have an obvious outlet.

“We knew he had so much drive and talent. We mortgaged the house and helped him out at the start because we knew he had so much talent. I remember being over for a show in London and he says, ‘Dad, I don’t have any money for the models – can you put your card in the wall there?’ So I had to pay the models! And he had so much drive and talent that he turned it around. He has kept his feet on the ground and is not up himself. I think the talent came from Heather’s side– her father James came from Cheshire and designed fabrics and linen. I hope the pride and determination came down my side.”

And when Jonathan came out, the only issue for the Andersons was in convincing people that their son’s orientation didn’t matter a jot to them.

“We just said so what: we love our kids, that is that. It didn’t matter one iota. I think in general it has a way to go. I don’t think it does the person any good to have to keep it in. There is so much depression. I know that Jonathan went through a hard time early on. In rugby, I am sure I have met guys who are gay, but there is such a peer pressure and a rugby macho pressure that they feel they can’t do that. But I hope it is moving on a little bit.”

Anderson's life in rugby did not involve the familiar route of private schools and rugby academies. His size and exuberant athleticism caught the eye when he was in college studying Phys Ed in Belfast and he was fortunate to become part of a superb Ulster side engineered by Jimmy Davidson, the coach whom he reveres. "You could only play in that Ulster side if you were flying fit. We were tested, monitored and did everything with the ball."

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Anderson’s story is that he emerged from the violence of the 1970s completely untouched by sectarianism. His father was a B-Special and practicing Orangeman but Anderson suspects that was out of community solidarity as much as conviction.

“The codes I was given were not sectarian. They were: you help your neighbour and they help you. There was a [Catholic] family down the road and we would have helped them with the hay and that. And then rugby gave me an outlet to see the world. And because we toured so much, you got to see so much of humanity, be it in Kenya or Japan or Argentina. And when you travelled, you were “Irish”.

His and Heather’s best friends, the Glancys, are Catholic. Anderson’s interest in Gaelic football and his years playing with Ireland have convinced him that the similarities between Catholics and Protestants in the North far outweigh their cultural and religious differences.

“Naw, there’s not. And we are praying to the same God! It is a bit like coaching. There are so many great head coaches who have it all. Jimmy Davidson was one – he had a strong desire, but he also had that thing called empathy. And he was able to govern. Whereas we have politicians who are in power but cannot govern. They cannot bring people together. And whether it is going to be an all-Ireland in 20 years time or whatever, we have to get together.

Lost world of hard drinking

“I was talking with Neil Collins there, the All-Ireland winner, and I was asking why Down wasn’t going well. And he said it was just emigration. You have the brain drain from both sectors. Three of my kids are working in London. We have the same concerns. Politics was never my thing. But I think sport is a beautiful unifier and rugby has been that.”

Anderson’s Ireland career spanned the best and worst of times. He was part of the 15 that won the Triple Crown in 1985, a series of victories he feels was largely defined by luck. Two years later came Ireland’s disastrous experience at the inaugural World Cup. Because he went on to establish himself as a highly regarded coach in the professional era, he has a nuanced appreciation of the chaotic preparation behind those amateur campaigns.

He depicts a lost world of hard drinking, high japes and more song-singing than you’d find in the Monteverdi Choir. What also lurks, beneath the surface fun, is a kind of relentless pressure: to perform, to win, to somehow balance real life with the rapacious demands of elite amateur sport.

Anderson was an enforcer in an era when on-field violence thrived: the depiction of the 1988 summer tour to France, in which Ireland achieved an historic win, began with a “bonding” session in the Shelbourne hotel in Dublin.

Anderson was captain of a scratch squad missing most of its marquee names through injury or work commitments. The captain recognised ice that needed breaking. He approached Davidson in the corridors. “Right, you get the waiters to bring in 25 pints every half hour for the next four hours,” he advised the coach.

“And it worked,” Anderson laughs now. “And we went down to Anne McGettigan’s place, Strings, that night. She was a prominent part of our lives at that time. Yeah, it was like the wild west but it honestly galvinised players. If Franno [Neil Francis] had played like he did in that first Test in France he would have got a hundred caps. He was just magnificent.”

Francis was one of those basically assaulted on that French tour. The account of those games makes it seem impossible to have played without resorting to violence.

“There were guys on the team who didn’t have a violent streak. But there were times you had to be near the edge when you played France. Or if someone was pulling you down in the lineout. You had to make the law yourself. It was intimidation. If someone was dropping the scrum you’d say I just give this guy a wee rake in the head here. I don’t condone it. It is a different culture today. I wouldn’t have been a violent man, I wouldn’t be that kind of person. But I could rise to it.”

Only once did he do something on the rugby field on which he felt ashamed: irritated by the success of Geoff Whitehead, the Welsh prop, in repeatedly collapsing the scrum, he ordered Des Fitzgerald to leave a gap on the next collapse. "I followed through and buck rooted Geoff in the head. The truth is I didn't give it a second thought."

As Anderson’s story deepens, it becomes obvious his drinking, disguised in late night sessions and his genuine fondness for the players he coached, was becoming problematic. And at home, he had begun to suffer from severe lows. The cause was – and is – rooted –in a truly terrible accident. In December 1992, he knocked down an 11-year-old boy, Glen McLernon, when driving home. He was helpless to prevent the accident and the inquest established he was blameless but the guilt and trauma has never left. He visits Glen’s grave on every anniversary and sought permission from his parents before including their son’s story in the book.

Hewn in stone

“For me, I found it very hard to get over. I am such a kid’s person. And it changed their family monumentally. I had to change the priorities of my family over my rugby and life. I would tell them I loved them every day and it resonated and it helped me. But that door will never shut. I found it hard to even keep going to the church there. It was a tragedy for both families. And I was very fortunate to have Heather to keep me from jumping over a cliff. We debated long and hard putting it in the book.”

It is little wonder he hurled himself into the new professional rugby culture. Although Anderson was hewn in stone as a player, he became a versatile and open-minded coach. But he spoke his mind. There's a memorable episode when Matt Williams asked him to do regular sessions with the Leinster forwards ahead of the 2001 season. He later heard Eddie Wigglesworth, then the IRFU director of rugby, warned the Australian to be careful: "Matt, do you know what you're doing here? He's told everyone in the IRFU to get f**ked at some stage."

Williams got on the phone to caution his new coach and you can almost hear the Aussie reproach: “Mate, you can’t do that! You can’t go round telling people to f**k off!”

But he did –to his cost. Three times he applied to coach Ulster and three times heard a door slam shut. There’s an implication, never fully voiced, that Anderson never truly escaped his outsider status: that they never quite got over that he was from Tyrone farming stock. And sometimes he was his own worst enemy.

“I probably was. I didn’t really have a filter. I wasn’t part of the diplomatic corps. I had a vision of how rugby should be played and coached. Maybe I just had an authority situation because I never passed my A plus! But I probably didn’t get jobs as well because often they want someone in positions that they can control. That is one side of it.

“The other is: I always felt comfortable with players. Because it was their game. I was passionate and I was honest with them, I would put my arm around them and guide them. I still meet players and get texts from guys at Sullivan (Upper Grammar in Holywood) or Leinster and that to me is my greatest my fulfillment as much as being a rugby player.”

So it’s shocking to learn that as recently as 2005, Anderson was out of work and literally signing on at the social welfare office in Magherafelt. There followed what sounds like an idyllic and, perhaps, health-saving decade back in teaching and coaching rugby locally. Now he’s a grandfather and a dedicated follower of fashion. He has quit drinking, prompted by a clear and heartfelt letter from his son Thomas, the former Ulster professional, which is included in the book.

It’s a hectic story, Anderson’s, full of heart and although he still loves rugby he sometimes struggles to recognise the game that was, for most of his adult life, an obsession.

“We are now producing robots,” cautions the man who was about nothing if not personality as a rugby player. “Go here, go there. And I would look at the great instinctive players within a system yes, but if something happens they are able to make a decision. If we don’t play that way, then our game is dead. It is not attractive to young people. It might be winning but it is not attractive.

“And I just hope that the All-Blacks, the French, Toulouse, Argentina and the Italians, who play with that general type of movement, are able to make those decisions. That goes back to Jimmy Davidson. Go out and play with a smile on your face. Now sticking your head in a ruck 135 times in a match, I am not certain you are smiling,” he says, breaking into the big laugh.

“When you coach kids you want them to do well. But you also want them to enjoy it so they play rugby afterwards. Because there are so many kids in these bigger schools who are driven into the ground and just don’t play rugby anymore.”

– Crossing The Line: The Flag, the Haka and Facing My Life by Willie Anderson with Brendan Fanning is published by Reach Sport [£20] and is available now.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times