Sir Brian Lochore.
Letterkenny Rugby Club only got to spend a single afternoon and evening in his company. But that short time was plenty long enough for us to establish that this was a very, very special man.
Fourteen years ago, our struggling club was discussing the best way to approach the illustrious All Blacks with an invite to open their new ground in 2006.
It was, to put it mildly, an audacious proposition. Some would say outrageous. That the biggest rugby team in the world would make a long journey north from Dublin, in the middle of a test match tour, to visit one of Ireland’s smallest clubs, a club that was way off the established rugby map.
Our biggest recurring fear, repeatedly voiced as preparations were being made to issue an invitation, was that the visitors would be completely underwhelmed by the club that greeted them. If indeed they actually made the trip. Back then, our facilities totalled a couple of very muddy fields in the throes of redevelopment. Alongside these sat a tiny changing room building, no bigger than the average household garage. Top tier sport, it most certainly was not.
It was agreed that if we were lucky enough even to have our proposals entertained, we would try and manage expectations from the outset. Our proposition was that the biggest rugby team in the world were being asked to lend a much-needed helping hand to one of the very smallest. That sounded OK to us at least but we remained worried that the All Blacks wouldn’t grasp just how small we were. Until they arrived and it would be too late. In the end, it was a risk we just had to take.
When the visit was eventually given the green light by the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU), Sir Brian (a former All Black who was an assistant to the coaching staff) accompanied the players. The former lock was revered in New Zealand for leading his country to victory as coach in the inaugural Rugby World Cup in the 1980s, and for being an All Black captain of very significant renown long before that in the late 1960s. But he wasn’t a household name in Ireland.
Sir Brian’s job was to look after the players who made the journey to the North West as part of the NZRU delegation. And it was clear, as they sat alongside and interacted with him on the coach, that the likes of Joe Rokocoko, Conrad Smith, Tana Umaga and Jerry Collins very much looked up to this former great.
Fast forward to Letterkenny Rugby Club’s ground at the Glebe, 13th November 2013. It’s mid-afternoon on a wet and overcast day. Rugby media from all over the world have just witnessed the All Blacks arrive on a pilgrimage to the county where their revered first captain Dave Gallaher was born more than a century before. Jerry Collins, now much-missed, had just memorably smashed a bottle of champagne into a million pieces on a large engraved Donegal granite rock for the perfect picture. To this day, that rock tells visitors that they are entering Dave Gallaher Park, named in memory of the greatest All Black captain of them all, born just five miles down the road in nearby Ramelton in 1873. The visiting rugby party had just gotten safely back on the bus before the rain arrived. The driver was struggling furiously, cut after cut, to get the long coach turned and out of a tiny car park jammed with satellite broadcast trucks, media vans and cars belonging to various VIPs including the New Zealand Ambassador to Britain and Ireland, various NZRU, IRFU, and Ulster Branch officials, not to mention local politicians and various reporters.
As the bus went forwards and backwards repeatedly, Sir Brian suddenly stood up from his seat at the front of the vehicle. “Look lads, look at that tiny little clubroom,” he said loudly, turning to the players, these superstars of the global game. Even though the visit had gone better than anyone could have hoped for up to that point, the sole Letterkenny RFC representative on the bus experienced a swift return to earth. Here it came - our lowly place in the rugby firmament was something just too obvious to escape the notice of such illustrious guests. Not a chance of it. “You’ve been in the changing rooms at Twickenham, with all their luxury, you’ve been in the Millennium Stadium and you’ll be back in Landsdowne Road in a few days’ time,” Sir Brian continued, “but it’s places like that where we all started out. Places like this are the heart and soul of our game whether it’s New Zealand or Ireland or anywhere else for that matter and it’s right that we are here to support it.”
There may have been a ceremony that followed in Letterkenny Institute of Technology’s cavernous arena, attended by thousands, who gave such a warm welcome that All Black captain Tana Umaga became too emotional to speak. There was an impromptu training and skills session involving All Blacks and kids who were pinching themselves at being so close to and interacting with legends of the game. There was the sight of Joe Rococoko and Jerry Collins taking pictures of the crowd that thronged every vantage point to welcome them to Ramelton later that evening. When you see the celebrities photographing those who turn out to welcome them rather than the other way around, you know you are part of something memorable. And there were dozens and dozens of other unforgettable moments on a day that was special for everyone involved, including Sir Brian, who enjoyed it thoroughly and told us as much on several occasions.
But nothing was as special as knowing that the reason the All Blacks made that trip to the very edge of the rugby world, bringing no less than four All Blacks captains with them, was not for PR. It wasn’t for headlines. Yes, it was an opportunity to pay tribute to Dave Gallaher, an Irish-born founding father of the All-Blacks. But, as Sir Brian so memorably and unequivocally said, the trip was made to support a club doing its very utmost to promote the sport we all love in a place where it was struggling. And the All Blacks, led by the late great Sir Brian Lochore, made that unexpected trip to County Donegal because they wanted to support rugby people.
Rugby people just like him.