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17th May 2021

“An absolute header” – Irish rugby stars reveal their maddest teammates

Patrick McCarry

Irish rugby

“He didn’t know what ‘no contact’ was. He was just smashing boys”

Every team had a player, or two, that instantly lights up the place when they arrive.

Be it their actions on or off the field, or on the way to the field, they create a buzz and leave folks shaking their head in disbelief, anger, horror or amusement. The teammates that have everyone remarking, “Did they really just do that?!”

Irish rugby has produced its fair share over the years and though the professional era has led to a general levelling out of the wild-eyed characters of yore, there are still a few out there making waves.

On the latest House of Rugby Ireland [LISTEN from 29:30 below] former Wallabies Scott Fardy and Adam Ashley Cooper both spoke about Nick ‘Honey Badger’ Cummins and the indelible mark he left on everyone he played with.

Nick Cummins of the Wallabies during a captain’s run at the Aviva Stadium in 2013. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

Cummins and Cooper were of six Australian players that were reprimanded for breaking curfew to go on a long night out in Dublin on the Tuesday before they played Ireland as part of their 2013 European tour.

The six players would eventually be suspended for a game on the tour, but both lads featured in a 32-15 victory that left new Ireland head coach fully aware of the task at hand.

“I remembered Nick came in to talk to a few of our lads in the dressing room after the game, and we had our tail between our legs as you guys had beaten us by us by around 20 points. And he was just going on about how great a town Dublin was to go out in for a few beers!”

On the subject of entertaining teammates, closer to home, both McFadden and former Ulster and Ireland star Chris Henry had two candidates that sprung immediately to mind.

“Jeez, there’s plenty of names, for me, to be honest,” Henry remarked. “I think every good team needs to have a few mad headers.

“The obvious one for me was Neil Best – a fan favourite for Ulster, and Ireland.

“The reason why I felt he was the obvious choice was, when Neil was coming up at Ulster, he didn’t come through a typical rugby school. He had to go the hard way, was playing for Malone Rugby Club and was playing so well that Ulster decided, ‘Well, we have to bring this guy in for a trial’.

“He came in for about four or five weeks and, literally, in every training session, he just kicked the crap out of everyone. Whenever there was no contact, he didn’t know what no contact was. He was just smashing boys.

“Eventually with Mark McCall, everyone was going, ‘We have to give this guy a contract’ because he’s too good. Obviously, he went on to play, and every time he played for Ulster and Ireland, with no regard for his own body. The fans loved him.”

Donncha O’Callaghan and Neil Best were two big characters in the teams they played with. (Credit: SPORTSFILE)

While Stephen Ferris tells a great story about Best giving away all his official IRFU kit to a homeless man in Argentina, back in 2007, Henry and McFadden both latched on a tour that was even more laid-back in nature.

“The other story I’ve always loved and remembered about Neil,” said Henry. “Was when we played in The Churchill Cup in Denver, Colorado. It was the Churchill Stag, it was called then!

“He was the captain of that team. The Churchill Stag, as we called it, was always a relaxed tournament, but we had a really good team out.

“Besty, the night before we played the England Saxons, who also had a good team, had us all fired up and pumped up to play this English team. His final words were – before we went out to play – was, ‘Lads, no matter what happens – win or lose, we’re always going to booze!’  

“And for such a big game, for him to be able to pull it off was some going. It motivated us all and luckily we won, and we were all able to enjoy our summer break. But Neil Best, what a guy. An absolute header, but a brilliant teammate.” 

“I’d fully back that up,” said McFadden. “He was a mad individual, but what a guy to have in your team as well.

“I remember that speech vividly, because I think he was playing in Northampton at the time. He was telling us how the English don’t respect us, and this and that. But, obviously, win or lose boys, on the booze!”

Rhys Ruddock gets through Mike McCarthy’s defences, back in 2014. (Credit: SPORTSFILE)

For McFadden, though, one can’t get through a chat about stand-out teammates without mentioning Mike McCarthy.

“You didn’t know, whether you were going out for a coffee with him, or anything, if he was going to do something hilarious,” McFadden recalls of his former Leinster and Ireland teammate.

“I remember one time we were both doing a bit of punditry. The Aviva had this fan studio up in one of the corporate boxes. The idea was it was a virtual chat, but there were also fans in there, watching.

I was being asked a question and was answering it, on the first half. I was half-way through my answer and, next thing, Mike just smashes me to the ground in a tackle. And he starts going, ‘RELEASE, RELEASE!’ to my microphone, standing over me. And I’m on the ground. Everyone was looking, going what’s going on here.

“Then he stands up and starts acting completely normal. They ask him a question and he gives a beautiful, articulate, perfectly spoke answer. I’m like, ‘You can’t just turn into that person, and be this person as well!’

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