If there’s a nicer man than Philip ‘Chipper’ Rainey in Irish rugby, I haven’t met him.
The former Ballymena, Ulster and once-capped Irish international full-back — he won his cap against the Wayne Shelford-captained All Blacks in 1989 — was at La Mon Hotel and Country Club last Thursday evening for a reunion of the province’s heroes of 1984.
And with Ireland hosting Australia this weekend, this seems a particularly apt time to recall what those men achieved 25 years ago, almost to the day.
The significance of November 14, 1984 is that it was the date on which Ulster beat the touring Australians 15-13, having trailed 13-6. Rainey carved his name deep into the annals of rugby history and folklore by kicking a long, difficult penalty to clinch victory late on in a pulsating match played in horrible conditions.
“With the passage of time that kick gets longer, the ball gets heavier and the weather gets worse every time the story is told,” he smiles.
It is typical of him that he lavishes praise on the others and plays down his own part in a remarkable win.
“Our forwards were magnificent,” he said. “At times they were taking a real pounding and were being pushed back in the scrum, but somehow they kept managing to win crucial ball. A lot of it was pretty scrappy, but wee Rab (Brady) and Bruno (Ian Brown) made what they could of it.
“Rab kept ramming it up the touchline and getting up to put pressure on the Australians. Keith (Crossan) did a great job in helping him in that, too.
“I’m lucky in that I’m remembered as the guy who got the winning points, but the forwards and, in particular, our half-backs, were the real heroes.”
He is a refreshingly honest man, admitting that at the time he did not fully grasp the importance of the occasion or the extent of the achievement. He admits, too, that Ulster made a lot of mistakes.
“Personally I remember parts of the match for all the wrong reasons. I missed a tackle that cost us a try, for example. Other parts — good parts — I recall because I’ve seen video recordings of them.
“We did some stupid things — like taking a quick line-out in our own 22 when the ball was really wet and slippery. We knocked it on, too. Looking back we nearly threw that game away because of our own stupidity,” he concedes.
“But that is the way that team played. There was a real sense of belief. There was a real desire not only to win but to enjoy playing the game.
“We didn’t just want to play mundane, boring rugby. We wanted to see how well we could play and we wanted people to enjoy watching us.
“And it wasn’t a team in which anybody had a go at you for trying something adventurous; they were far more likely to have a go at you for not trying it!
“Jimmy Davidson was a coach who encouraged us. He was the sort of man who would write to you, offering advice and suggesting something different if what you’d tried before hadn’t quite worked.
“He invested his time in us, as players, and we, as players, had the highest regard and respect for him. It was a two-way thing.
“As well as playing together, we socialised together. These weren’t just guys you played rugby with; these were your pals. That is where rugby always has been such a very special game. You can’t buy that.
“And that’s why I’m glad I played when I did. I’m not sure the guys playing for Ulster now are going to be meeting up in 25 years time for the sort of night we’ve just had.
“When today’s professional players talk about rugby, they talk about the game. When older guys — I’m in that bracket now — talk about rugby, they talk about the fun they’ve had and friendships they’ve made.
“Looking at the recording that David (Irwin) and Jim Neilly put together, do you know what really struck me? We played some great rugby. In fact, from one to 15 we were bloody good!
“Every player contributed. We used to tease Bruno that his shorts were as white at the end of a match as at the start.
“That’s because Willie Duncan —like Bruno, from Malone — was his minder. He looked after him.
“So while you’d see the likes of Nigel (Carr) or big Phil (Matthews) making their way off the pitch — Nigel swathed in bandages, Phil mucked to the eyes — there in the midst of the big guys was wee Bruno, as clean as if he’d never played.
“But when we beat the Australians, he kicked four penalties.
“As I said, I’m lucky in that I’m remembered for landing the kick that won it, but it was a real team victory.”