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Rugby greats hail unifying force of World Cup in Ireland

Rugby greats Irwin and Carr hail unifying force of the game

By Jonathan Bradley

A Rugby World Cup in Ireland would be a fitting tribute to how far the island has come, a former international player whose career was ended by injuries in an IRA bomb atrocity has said.

On April 27, 1987 Ulster players Nigel Carr, David Irwin and Philip Rainey were travelling in a car along the main Belfast to Dublin road a month before the inaugural World Cup when their lives changed forever.

They had been about to pass the car in which Lord Justice Maurice Gibson and his wife Cecily were travelling when a Provo landmine was detonated.

The IRA had been targeting Northern Ireland's second most senior judge for three years, and seized its chance when Gibson, who was returning from holiday via Dublin, had been left by his Garda escort at the border, but before his RUC escort could pick him up.

The attack made headlines around the world. The New York Times described how the "judge's car almost disintegrated in the force of the blast".

Given that his injuries were less severe, it is Irwin who can recall the horrifying scene with the greatest clarity.

He remembers the searing heat of the explosion hitting him "like a thousand light-bulbs", and the isolation of waiting for police to arrive at the scene while he heroically returned to drag his unconscious team-mates from their vehicle.

"It was an incident in life that makes you reflect on what is important," he said.

"Clearly life itself is important after an incident like that and things like rugby and sport pale into insignificance. We were very lucky and fortunate - Nigel, myself and Philip. Although we were involved, we were very, very lucky. I suppose being a doctor by profession, day in, day out, I see people with illnesses and losing life and you certainly do appreciate the simple things in life after something like that.

"I played with a 13 on my back because I felt it was lucky for me, not unlucky. That's the way I've always thought.

"Now, you could argue that we were unlucky to be in the bomb, but I would say I was lucky to come through the bomb."

Carr, who had even more reason to curse fate, echoes a similar sentiment despite having had his career ended by the injuries sustained in the blast.

A combative back-rower, one of the best this province has ever produced, Carr would miss out on the World Cup, and ultimately have to admit defeat in his efforts to get back to the top of the game.

"It was a conscious decision," he said of his outlook.

"The other way... it would be easy to be bitter and let it eat away inside you. It would be easy to think: 'I missed out on a World Cup, I could have toured with the Lions in 1989, I could have done this that or the other'. But who knows? I don't want to feel that way, that something has been stolen from me.

"I'm much happier, and genuinely do look at it in a way that, for all the thousands of people who were murdered here, thousands of people maimed and injured, I'm still here with all my fingers and toes. I had a rugby career, I played in a championship winning side.

"I was blessed in a lot of ways to have played with so many good players and shared some of that success. I was a good player, I'm not that modest, but there was a lot of good fortune.

"The camaraderie and the good times, I've had all those and more. I look back with satisfaction about what I achieved rather than what might have been."

While Carr missed out, Irwin played twice in that first World Cup. He revealed that tentative steps have been taken to have a 1987 squad get-together this side of the border.

"I've already heard some of the players from the south saying they want to have a 30-year reunion for the first World Cup team and they would like to have it in the north - because of that incident they thought it was appropriate to have it up here," he said.

"It's in the early stages now, but it's certainly a nice gesture that they felt it was appropriate to have it up here in recognition of what Philip, Nigel and I went through as part of going down to the south to play for Ireland. Clearly the whole situation is a lot different now, socially Belfast is one of the places to come to with all the attractions that it has."

Later this year Ireland will find out if it has won the right to host the 2023 World Cup, and for Carr the arrival of the tournament for the first time would show just how far we've come since players were caught up in bombings or visiting teams refused to travel for safety reasons.

"In terms of something like a World Cup, wouldn't that be fantastic?" he said.

"It's something to again emphasise that all-Ireland aspect. For those of my generation, when people were being bombed and shot on a weekly basis, it's very different now for people of a younger generation to recognise what that was like at the time.

"Going down and playing rugby on an all-Ireland basis brought people together from all different persuasions and communities. I think rugby has been great for Ireland, and long may that continue."

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