Coleraine Inst made it big in Japan 25 years ago... now school rugby team is reuniting to honour an old friend
Ulster schoolboys reform to remember pal they lost to cancer, writes Stephanie Bell
Twenty-five years and what feels like a lifetime has not diminished a single memory of the euphoria felt by a group of Ulster schoolboys as they boarded a flight to Japan for a unique rugby trip.
In a first for any school, north or south, the 21 teens from Coleraine Inst's First XV spent two-and-a-half weeks in the Far East in 1989, where they found themselves thrust into the world of minor celebrity, having their every move followed by TV crews.
Now one of the team has spent months scouring the world for the original squad members, who will be reunited for a special anniversary dinner in Coleraine next month.
Barry White (42), who now lives in Leeds, is grateful to the wonders of social media for allowing him to trace his former schoolfriends for what he hopes will be a night of pure nostalgia.
Barry, who celebrated his 17th birthday in Japan, has renewed contact with all but two of the team. Tragically, one of them – Oliver Turkington, from Moira, known to his pals as 'Turkey' – passed away in 2007, aged just 35, after a seven-year battle with cancer.
Oliver was 18 years old when the squad took off from Heathrow and was widely acknowledged as the standout player of the four-match trip.
With the agreement of his brother, Bruce, the 25th anniversary dinner will be held in Oliver's memory, with proceeds split equally between Cancer Research UK and rugby development at Coleraine Inst.
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The other untraced player, Graeme Houston, remains on the missing list – in spite of the best efforts of Barry and other teammates.
It is their hope that Belfast Telegraph readers will be able to help in the search to make the special evening complete.
The dinner is to be held in the school on Saturday, September 13, with former British and Irish Lions legend Willie John McBride the principal speaker.
Willie John's son, Paul, was a boarder at Coleraine Inst and was the tour captain in Japan.
Barry is married to Valerie (39), a communications consultant, and they have two children, Jamie (6) and Charlotte (3). He works as a parliamentary assistant and office manager for Kris Hopkins MP.
Tracing 20 people after 25 years has been a time-consuming task, but Barry is thrilled at how the event is shaping up.
He says: "Many of us probably have a lot less hair and are a bit bigger than we were back then and most of us haven't seen the others in years, so it should be a fantastic night.
"I had the idea to do something for the 25th anniversary about 18 months ago and started to search for everyone in January.
"People are travelling some distance to be there – I found old boys in the Caribbean and Australia and there are a couple in Scotland.
"It was easier than it could have been, because of social media, but unfortunately we still can't find Graeme, in spite of our best efforts."
Graeme was originally from Portstewart and is believed to have moved to Newcastle, Co Down, with his family in his teens. He is thought to have worked in a family business for some years, but efforts to trace him have so far proved fruitless.
Oliver Turkington, though, will be very much the focus of the event. His brave battle with cancer was featured in the Belfast Telegraph in 2005.
He had been diagnosed with a rare aggressive tumour and told he wouldn't live to see his 30th birthday. He had his leg amputated from the calf down in 1999 and, after secondary tumours were found in his lungs in 2000, he was told he had between six and 12 months to live. But he defied all the odds and lived for another seven years.
Barry says: "I knew Oliver had been diagnosed with cancer and he fought it for some time. We all hoped he would come through.
"I remember getting a phonecall to say he had passed away.
"It was terrible. He was a big, strapping, good-looking chap, who was incredibly fit. We really want him to be very much at the fore of the night.
"Because Oliver was a scruffy b****d, black ties and ball gowns have been ruled out. The official dress code will instead be lounge suit, top shirt button open."
Bruce Turkington, Oliver's younger brother, said that he and his family had no hesitation in throwing their full support behind the event.
"I know Oliver would have been delighted – and probably a little embarrassed – to know that his friends were getting together in his name," says Bruce.
"I was particularly amused to be told that it won't be a black-tie dinner, as Oliver had a tendency to be a bit scruffy. As a family, we are all really looking forward to it."
The 1989 school trip was one which none of the boys who were on it will ever forget.
Barry says: "We made the news coast to coast in Japan and were on breakfast TV. They filmed us arriving and followed our trip.
"I remember picking up a newspaper in Tokyo and on the back page was a picture of one of our matches and beside it a picture of Joey Dunlop, who was riding for Honda at the time.
"It just hit me just how small a world it is.
"People didn't fly as much then and the whole trip for us as schoolboys was mind-blowing. We were treated incredibly well by people out there.
"Getting in touch with all the squad again has been terrific. The banter has already started. It's been like rolling back the years."
Willie John McBride is also thrilled to have been asked to be part of the occasion and will be bringing along the teddy bear mascot he famously held aloft during the triumphant 1974 tour of South Africa.
"Oliver Turkington was a close friend of my son, Paul, and I got to know him very well personally over many years," says Willie John. "He was a fine young man and he fought cancer with incredible bravery and remarkable good humour.
"I think it is a wonderful credit to him that his old teammates are reuniting to celebrate his life, share tales and raise some money for good causes in so doing."
Ireland's leading comedy duo, Grimes and McKee, are also going to bring some fun to the night, which they will co-host.
Alan McKee, an old boy of the school, who played in the 1988 Schools' Cup final, says he and Conor Grimes are delighted to be involved.
"Running out at Ravenhill on St Patrick's Day to represent my school was one of the proudest moments of my life so far," says Alan. "I was honoured to be asked to play a part in this very special event and had no hesitation in saying yes. Several members of the Japan tour squad were team-mates of mine in 1988 and I know a number of others from my year will also be making the effort to come along to support two great causes."
- Tickets for the Oliver Turkington Memorial Dinner on Saturday, September 13, (£45 each) are available from Coleraine Inst by calling Diane Armstrong on tel: 028 7034 4331, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. If anyone has any information which might help Barry White trace Graeme Houston, email him at email@example.com
Historic Lions mascot to get pride of place at dinner
A highlight for guests at the dinner will be the chance to see the famous mascot held aloft by Willie John McBride during the triumphant 1974 Lions tour of South Africa.
Paul McBride, captain of the 1989 Coleraine Inst squad in the Far East and son of the rugby legend, says: "My dad knew Oliver well and is keen to do all he can to make the evening the biggest possible success.
"It has been interesting to watch him and the mascot age together over the past 40 years and I suspect it will be a topic of discussion among the guests to decide which of them looks in better shape. Also, I don't think the mascot has ever been to Coleraine, so I'm sure it will be doubly excited about the trip."
Willie John adds: "There was a duty boy appointed every day on tour – every player taking it in turn – with duties ranging from making sure we got on the team bus on time to looking after the mascot.
"We actually never lost the mascot once in the three-and-a-half months that we were in South Africa, which, looking back, was quite an achievement in itself."
Barry White says he was thrilled that an item so steeped in rugby history would be there for everyone to see on the night.
"Those images of Willie John leading his team of 'Invincibles' onto the field in South Africa with the lion held high above his head are among the most iconic in all of sport.
"Every member of the '74 squad was given a replica after the tour as a keepsake, but the original mascot which travelled with the players is the one Willie John will be bringing with him.
"I'm sure there will be no shortage of guests wanting to have their photo taken with it and its illustrious owner," he added.