Ginger McLoughlin - Limerick's Rugby Legend
Gerry ‘Ginger' McLoughlin – better known as ‘Locky' in his native Limerick - was instrumental in winning the 1982 Triple Crown, Ireland's first since 1949. Below, ‘Locky' tells of his flirtation with the priesthood, Limerick's rugby rivalries and great players, his call-up to international rugby and the fateful tour to apartheid South Africa which impacted on his teaching career
By Dave McMahon
There are few contenders for the most memorable Irish try of the last 50 years. A generation who remember the days of black and white television will cite Pat Casey's ‘criss-cross' try against England at Twickenham in 1964 when Mike Gibson's searing break gave Jerry Walsh the opportunity to deliver the decisive reverse pass. Gordon Hamilton's superb burst to score in the Lansdowne Road corner against Australia in the 1991 World Cup ranks high in the list – a try that rarely gets the credit it deserves because of Michael Lynagh's instant riposte.
Nearer the present day, the delayed October Six-Nations game against England in 2001 saw Keith Wood score one of the great forwards inspired try's against the auld enemy at Lansdowne Road. A try, indeed, which gave purists as much pleasure as any, with the pack orchestrating the score with military precision. The line-out throw from Wood; Galwey's clean take; Foley's magical hands; Eric Miller doing just enough to create the running channel; Wood's powerful burst through Neil Back's tackle for the touchdown.
And then, you had Locky's try against England at Twickenham in the Triple Crown winning year of 1982 – a different class!
In recalling 1982, it's Gerry McLoughlin's try that represents the defining moment of Ireland's first Triple Crown winning year since 1949. Ollie Campbell's touchline conversion of McLoughlin's try (pictured left) helped Ireland to a 16-15 victory and an ultimately successful Triple Crown decider against Scotland two weeks later. Three generations of Irish rugby heroes had come and gone without Triple Crown success – McBride, Kiernan, Dawson, O'Reilly, Gibson, and Goodall. Gerry McLoughlin's try helped create history, and he isn't slow to trumpet his role in '82.
“At the time, I was misquoted as saying I dragged the Irish pack over the line with me. In fact, I dragged the entire Irish and English forwards across the line that day! Also, I never got the credit for creating the free which led to my try. As Steve Smith was about to put-in at an English scrum, I whispered to Ciaran Fitzgerald that I intended to pull the scrum, which I did successfully with the result that Smith was penalised for crooked-in. After the free was taken, I took over.”
It was a tremendous year for McLoughlin during a rugby career which had its share of heartbreak as well as some glorious highs. “As a young man, I dabbled with hurling and gaelic football as a full-back or full-forward with St. Patrick's CBS. I had no great skill at either code; I simply mullocked and laid into guys. My destiny was certainly never to be a skillful All-Ireland winning hurler with Limerick. Rugby was always going to be my game.
“Brian O'Brien got three Irish caps in 1968 and I regarded him as a hero, so it was always on that I should join Shannon, while my late father, Mick, had won Transfield Cup medals with the parish side. Joining Shannon at 16, my bulk and size immediately saw me go into the front-row where I had Michael Noel Ryan, who had captained the first-ever Shannon team to win the Munster Senior Cup, as a sound mentor.
“Frankly, at the time, I didn't plan on a rugby career as I had other designs on my life. As soon as I entered Sexton Street CBS, my admiration for the role that the Christian Brothers played in Irish society saw me develop a vocation to become a Christian Brother. I spent a 3 year novitiate between Carriglea Park in Dun Laoghaire and St. Helens in Booterstown and was within 3 weeks of taking my vows of poverty, chastity and obedience before deciding that I wanted to opt out.
“Had I taken the vows, I would have entered a world where there was no television, no newspapers and would not be able to take holidays or see my family for the best part of five years. That's the way it was in those days. I was at a young impressionable age and, in the end, I got stage fright and returned to Sexton Street as a pupil.
“At 18, I was in the Shannon senior-cup team and I knew that I had some ability. After Sexton Street, I went to UCG to do my BA and that gave me the opportunity of further developing my rugby skills as I joined Ciaran Fitzgerald in the Colleges senior front-row. I won a handful of senior caps with Connacht who were not very successful at the time. The highlight of my Connacht career came when we ended a near 10-year losing run by beating, believe it or not, Spain by 7-3 in 1973. I played with some decent players in my days with Connacht, Mick Molloy and Leo Galvin were often in the second-row, while Mick Casserly was probably the best wing-forward never to be capped by Ireland.”
After graduating from UCG, and the successful completion of a teacher-training degree with UCC, McLoughlin returned to his alma mater Sexton Street CBS as an Economics teacher in 1973 – and to the front-row in a Shannon senior-team that was about to make it's mark on the Irish rugby scene.
“In those days, the rivalry between Limerick clubs was intense. Young Munster was a proud working-class club that commanded tremendous support and playing against them, especially in Greenfields, was often tougher than the Cardiff Arms Park. Reputations counted for nothing. You ignored hamstrings, cuts, strains and blood – you earned respect against them.”
“Of course, Garryowen set the standard with their huge number of Munster Cup victories. In my time, they had a great full-back in Larry Moloney. Just four caps with Ireland was no reward for his ability. Despite spending 13 years of my life in Wales, the edge between Shannon and Garryowen is deeply engrained in my brain. Time hasn't diminished that rivalry.
“People speak of Limerick rugby and the syndrome of doctor and docker playing side by side. That was certainly the case with Garryowen. Mick Lucey and Len Harty were doctors who played in the light blues three-quarter line in the late 60's. Then, you often had Dr. Jim Molloy playing in the Garryowen pack alongside Tom Carroll who was a Limerick docker. To this day, I maintain that Carroll was both the toughest and technically most proficient prop-forward I ever encountered. Tom was not much more than 13 stone, yet I never got the better of him.
“In my early days with Shannon, we hardly rated on the rugby map. Teams like Trinity and Wanderers didn't want games against us. Garryowen were the standard bearers in Limerick and our aim was to become as good as them. After I returned from UCG in 1973, Shannon, with Brian O'Brien pulling the strings, had begun to assemble a powerful team. Brendan Foley was a fine second-row and an inspirational captain. Colm Tucker was the best ball-carrying wing-forward I ever played with. Colm was good enough to play in two tests for the Lions against South Africa in 1980, yet he was only capped on three occasions by Ireland. That was an absolute joke.
“You would go a long way before finding better club forwards than my brother Mick, Eddie Price, Johnny Barry and Noel Ryan. Later, Niall O'Donovan came through as an outstanding number eight. Noel Ryan, indeed, was such a good loose-head prop that I played all my games for Shannon and, subsequently, Ireland at tight-head, while my entire career with Munster, and a handful of games with the Lions in 1983, was in the loose-head position. Playing on either side of the scrum never presented problems as the emphasis in training with Shannon was always on having a powerful scrummage as a starting-point.”
Just six months after representing Connacht against Spain, McLoughlin won his first Munster ‘cap' in a fiery encounter against Argentina at Thomond Park. That was the start of a long interprovincial career which lasted from 1983 to 1987. An ever-present in the Munster team, the breakthrough to International level proved daunting and is the source of fiery comment from McLoughlin.
“As I was a regular with Munster, I was asked to submit a CV by the IRFU to facilitate any calling to International level. I did all the right things. I deducted a year from my age with the result that my birth date changed from 11 June 1951 to 11 June 1952. I added a half-inch to my height to make sure that I came in as a sturdy six footer. I weighed 13 stone, 11 ounces those days and I remember sticking 7 pounds of lead into my jockstrap at a formal weigh-in to hit the 14 stone, 4 ounce mark. Still, the call to international representation was light years away. Ciaran Fitzgerald knew my correct age, but kept it quiet for years before revealing all to the IRFU one evening when he had a few too many. At that stage, it didn't matter.
“The selection system was just a joke with two Leinster, two Ulster and a solitary Munster selector, with Connacht having no representation at all. To this day, I often wonder how Ciaran Fitzgerald was ever capped. I played some fine rugby for Munster over many years, yet I never came close to making the International scene and I doubt that I would have were it not for Munster beating the All Blacks in 1978. The selectors found it impossible to ignore us after that. I was also very lucky that Brian O'Brien eventually came through as an Irish selector. For years, he kept me in a ‘job', and I kept him in a ‘job'.”
Munster's victory over New Zealand remains the most emotional game of McLoughlin's career. “It wasn't a fluke by any means as that was a superb Munster team. For starters, the usual Cork/Limerick selectorial carve-up didn't apply as twelve of the Munster team picked themselves. We had leaders and quality players all over the field. Wardie (Tony Ward) was under pressure all day, but still managed to kick brilliantly for position; Canniffe gave him a great service; Dennison and Barrett never stopped tackling; Larry Moloney was himself at full-back; Andy Haden might have won the line-out battle, but we matched the All Blacks forwards everywhere else; in the end, we fully deserved our 12-0 victory.
“After that success over New Zealand, I was totally focused on making the step up to International level. I was often asked for tips by budding prop-forwards, but I never revealed anything useful in case the younger man got better than me. You spend all your career striving to get to the top and the last thing you wanted was someone to get ahead of you in the race. I had to be both dedicated and selfish.”
Just three months after beating New Zealand and a successful final-trial outing with the probables, McLoughlin made his international debut against France. He may have been listed as ‘G.A.J. McLoughlin' on the match programme, but Limerick rugby followers still called him ‘Locky' – one of their own! Woe betide the fate of any Dublin hack that resorted to ‘Ginger'.
Nearly 30 years after his International debut, he is still ‘Locky' in Limerick, but the metropolitan media continually refer to him as ‘Ginger'.
But what's in a name? Some 10 years ago an almost fatal blow was struck against the ‘Locky' constituency. With the future of Connacht rugby under threat, a protest march to IRFU headquarters at Lansdowne Road was made. Remembering his youthful days in UCG and that famous victory over Spain, Gerry McLoughlin was at the forefront of the parade with a banner which read “Ginger supports Connacht rugby”. Locky or Ginger? Take your pick.
If the Triple Crown and Munster's victory over the All Blacks were career highlights, McLoughlin's decision to tour South Africa with Ireland in 1981 cast a long shadow over his life.
“I was teaching in Sexton Street at the time and initially got approval from the school to travel. However, just a week before we were due to depart, a change of management took place within the school and my permission to travel was withdrawn. It left me with a very difficult decision to make. I was married with a young family, but I dearly wanted to represent my country. Also, I felt that South Africa were making advances on apartheid. Errol Tobias, in fact, became the first non-white player to wear the Springboks jersey in a full-international against Ireland. In the end, I resigned my teaching position and travelled with Ireland.”
In rugby terms, McLoughlin's decision to travel was justified as he regained his Irish place and played in both tests.
However, it was altogether different on a personal level.
“On my return from South Africa, I was advised that I had a solid legal case against my former employers in Sexton Street but I decided against taking any action as I had a great love of the Christian Brothers and had witnessed the benefits which their dedication gave to generations of children. They were put under severe pressure at the time as apartheid was a political and social time-bomb.”
McLoughlin is far less forgiving when it came to the IRFU post-South Africa. “I wrote to every school in the country and couldn't get an interview, never mind get a job. The IRFU had plenty of people in positions of power, but the support from that quarter was nil. Ray McLoughlin (no relation) and Mick Molloy did offer considerable help at the time. Other than that, I was largely left to fend for myself.” From a remove of nearly 30 years, McLoughlin is philosophical. “It was my decision to travel to South Africa – I had to accept the consequences.”
A part-time job teaching in the Municipal Institute of Technology followed, but that was never going to be enough to support a young family. The painful decision to emigrate to Wales was taken, after recession forced McLoughlin to close his pub – aptly named The Triple Crown – which he owned for five years.
“In all, I spent 13 years in Wales, teaching in Gilfach Goch near Pontypridd during the day and running a pub in the evenings before deciding to return to Ireland. At the moment, my daughter Orla, who is getting married next August, is based in Limerick, while my three sons, Cian, Fionn and Emmet are in Wales where they spent so much of their youth.”
Nowadays, living in Garryowen in the shade of St. John's Cathedral, Gerry McLoughlin enjoys a contented social and political life. “I was elected to the Limerick City Council as an Independent in 2004, before subsequently joining the Labour party. I had always admired the social vision of the late Jim Kemmy, so the move to Labour was a natural progression for me.
“On a professional level, I'm energised by the day job as a social needs assistant at St. Mary's Boys School in the heart of the parish. I'm a lifetime non-smoker and I haven't touched alcohol in the last 14 years. I have a hectic political schedule, but I also find plenty of time to engage in worthwhile community work.
“Recently, we formed an under 13/14 girls soccer club in Garryowen and I'm involved as Treasurer. Also, I coach St. Mary's under-age teens in rugby on Sunday mornings, while I have a similar role in soccer coaching with Star Rovers youngsters. Nowadays, my ambition is to give every child the opportunity to kick a ball.”
The man who once propped against the famous Pontypool front-row confesses to a surprising social outlet: “I had a knee replacement operation in 2004 and that gave me the freedom to enjoy ballroom dancing on at least three evenings a week. It's wonderful for social relaxation”.
Gerry McLoughlin has few, if any, regrets about his rugby career. “In the current era, I might have won 50 instead of 18 caps, but I have the memory of never losing in an Irish jersey at Lansdowne Road and I wouldn't change the Triple Crown success or beating the All Blacks for anything.
Would I do things differently? Possibly. I might have deducted two years from my age if I was starting all over again!”