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06th Nov 2014

‘Charlie Haughey was covering his ass’ – Ireland’s 1981 tour to South Africa

Fergus Slattery, who captained the Irish side, talks controversies and Springbok apologies

Patrick McCarry

Fergus Slattery played the Springboks five times between his 1970 debut and the victorious British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa, four years later. He won three and drew twice. His final meetings with the South Africans came on a 1981 tour that was so divisive it drew cries of protest from An Taoiseach Charlie Haughey.

Slattery, who represented Ireland and the Lions over a 65-cap career, was playing as flanker for University College Dublin in 1970 when he was awarded his test debut. He was drafted into an experienced Irish team, along with Eric Campbell and Billy Brown, to take on a South African team that had won a Lions test series 3-0 two years before. ‘The positive for me was playing in a back row with Ronnie Lamont and Ken Goodall,’ says Slattery. ‘You couldn’t have asked for two better guys. South Africa’s back row had Jan Ellis, Tommy Bedford and Piet Greyling. They were arguably the best back row in the world but I was happy with who I had.’

Slattery adds: ‘I remember it being freezing cold all week and on the day (January 10). The groundsmen had covered the pitch in straw for a few days as they were worried about it freezing. You dream about making your Ireland debut in front of a packed Lansdowne Road, in the green jersey, on a lush, svelte pitch. There was no f***ing grass when I ran out and, out of courtesy to our guests, we was wearing white.’

Ireland scored a first-half try through winger Alan Duggan and Tom Kiernan’s conversion meant they led 5-3 at the break. Kiernan added a second-half penalty but a converted try from Greyling levelled matters.

Slattery travelled with the Lions to New Zealand in 1971 but missed out on test selection due to illness and, a week before the first test, being subjected to a ‘cheap shot’ punch by Canterbury’s Alastair Hopkinson in a warm-up match. He was selected for the 1974 tour to South Africa and was part of a winning squad nicknamed ‘The Invincibles’. ‘Nine of the 1971 squad toured South Africa and had an expectancy to win in their psyche. As a side we wouldn’t have been afraid of the Springboks,’ he recalls. Lions captain Willie John McBride implemented the infamous ’99’ call during the tour. Unwilling to be intimidated the shout meant ‘one in, all in’ if a team-mate was targeted by an opponent.

Fergus Slattery 1971

Teamed with Roger Uttley and Mervyn Davies in the back row, Slattery excelled on tour as the Lions raced into a insurmountable 3-0 series lead. ‘For the first test South Africa had a selection bias for lads off the highveld. They got rid of them for the second test in Pretoria and drafted in “voortrekkers”. That didn’t work either. Plan C, for the third test, was to bring in physicality so they drafted in all the gorillas from the bush they could find.’

The Invincibles had a rare opportunity to go through the entire tour with victories but drew 13-13 in the final test. Slattery had a try disallowed in the last minute but feels the draw was a fair result. ‘A lot of lads had mentally packed their bags before that game. We had given 100 per cent up to that game and delivered 25 per cent on the day.’

Opportunities to play South Africa decreased in the 1970s and 80s due to the political and social aversion towards the apartheid (racial segregation) stance of its government. When the Irish Rugby Football Union agreed to tour the country in 1981 it caused uproar. As revealed in 2011, upon the opening of 1981’s national archives, An Taoiseach Charlie Haughey and Ireland’s foreign minister, Brian Lenihan, called on the IRFU to ‘do the right thing’ and cancel the tour. The union pressed ahead, insisting it did not make its touring decision lightly.

Slattery says: ‘Politicians are… I’ll put it like this, when the Lions toured South Africa in 1974 the British government sent a statement to its dignitaries and embassies, instructing them not to host events for, or have anything to do with, the squad. After we won, we were met at the airport by three British ministers with an invite to 10 Downing Street. The letter from Charlie Haughey was all about covering his ass. That’s all it was.

‘The blacks in South Africa gave us a phenomenal reception all tour and that is because we were successful and beating the Springboks.’

Slattery grew up in Nigeria and went to school in Penang, in Malaysia. ‘I was the only white kid in school and experienced life there so I know all about racism…,’ he says. ‘I’m totally against apartheid. Playing in South Africa and making contact was the better way of highlighting the issues rather than going to war, which a lot of people seem to do today. No lessons seem to have been learnt from what took place in South Africa back then.’

Ireland sent a depleted side, captained by Slattery, to tour. They lost the first test 23-15 and were unlucky not to claim the second, eventually losing 12-10. ‘We couldn’t get a break,’ he says. ‘Their captain (Wynand Claassen) came over after the second test and apologised. He said we deserved to win.’ Players such as Keith Crossan, Paul Dean and Mick Kiernan emerged on that tour and Slattery feels it forged a team spirit that led to the 1982 Triple Crown triumph.

Slattery is 30 years retired and runs an estate agency. He keeps a close eye on the game and will be in attendance at all of Ireland’s Guinness Series matches. He comments: ‘Joe Schmidt has done a very good job and has maximised the resources at hand. He is not helped by injuries in the back and front row and a lack of backline pace… South Africa are capable of beating the best in the world. I’m not sure Ireland are. If we improve again, in terms of performance from the Six Nations, and bring on more players, I would see that as a positive.’

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