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'An Ulsterman through and through': How Gerald Gilpin's historic Ireland debut paved way for Harlequins move

Gerald Gilpin (inset) will be at the Stoop tonight to watch his two old teams face off.
Gerald Gilpin (inset) will be at the Stoop tonight to watch his two old teams face off.
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

As Ulster take on Harlequins at The Stoop this evening, his old stomping ground will have an unfamiliar feel for former Ireland international Gerald Gilpin.

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Sitting in the stands as his two old club sides go head to head in the Champions Cup, when the Belfast man wore the famous quartered jersey in the 1960s, the English side's home was a more modest surrounding, one where fans could still gather on a grass verge to watch the action.

A world away from the set-up of today, back then London felt a world away from Northern Ireland too.

By the time he found his way to Quins, Twickenham was already a place of significance for the two-time RBAI Schools' Cup winner - the site of his Ireland debut.

Significant if not necessarily memorable, for Gilpin can remember very little from the game, relying on the testimonies of team-mates for details of how he fared when following his three uncles and two cousins into an Ireland jersey.

"I don't remember any details," he says, suspecting concussion is to blame for the lack of clarity.

"You get people who remember every move and such. I can't remember anything of that game.

"Even the school games I don't remember any of them. I was concussed a number of times and just played on not knowing where I was or what I was doing, just on instinct apparently.

"Everything was different then."

Indeed it was. The eventual 16-0 loss to England in the Five Nations remains notable for the nine new caps awarded that day, one of the debutants none other than Willie John McBride, the legendary lock who had previously featured on the Ulster Schools' team captained by Gilpin.

Unthinkable nowadays - as McBride wrote in his autobiography "to call it a bold decision would be a crass understatement" - Gilpin and his scrum-half John Quirke remain the youngest half-back pairing Ireland have ever fielded with a combined age of 38 years and 342 days.

"In those days it was decided by a trial match, the Possibles versus the Probables," Gilpin offers by way of explanation.

"Noel Murphy was captain and he had us so fired up. We went out and beat them. The adrenaline was flowing higher than I can ever remember.

"The Possibles, with myself and Willie John, we beat the Probables and that was why we got so many on I think. There was a bunch of us.

"When I was picked it was with John Quirke. Before the game, I travelled to Dublin on the train and I met him at Trinity. We passed the ball to each other, kicked the ball to each other and went our separate ways. The next time we met was on the plane over to London for the Test. Completely different."

While that was the sum total of the Ireland career for three of those nine debutants, Gilpin remained in the side for the remainder of the season, although he was denied what would have been a fourth and final cap by the postponement of the concluding game of the championship.

"After the game, you had to give your jersey back, you only got to keep the socks," Gilpin says.

"If you were lucky enough to be selected for the last game of the year, only then did you get to keep the jersey.

"The last time I was ever picked came against Wales in the last game but it was postponed because of a small-pox epidemic.

"Thankfully the jersey was posted out to me. I still have that big heavy jersey and my cap.

"I dreamt of playing for Ireland for years. I would close my eyes and I could see myself running out onto the pitch. I could picture it all in my mind and that really drove me for a number of years.

"Once I'd achieved that, the desire to play on went from me. There was nothing more I wanted to do.

"You look at Willie John, he obviously had that desire to play for the Lions as well and all that. I didn't.

"I played for that one year in 1962 and then went to London for work."

That flying visit to the English capital was little preparation for the full-time move, made to study accountancy for Standard Telephones and Cables, although the 79-year-old quickly fell in with a Quins side boasting stars like Nigel Starmer-Smith and Bob Hiller.

Having showed his versatility with Ulster, where both he and Mike Gibson played right across the backline - "Mike was the master of all trades and I was the jack, so I moved about", he laughs - he quickly showed his worth at The Stoop.

"London at that time, it was totally new, totally strange," he recalls. "I knew nobody.

"I went to a church over there and met a childhood friend, Brian Mawhinney (later Lord Mawhinney), and I got to know people through the church and then through Harlequins.

"I didn't know anything about rugby clubs over there in those days. A friend had said about approaching Harlequins and they accepted me.

"When I joined it cost me a pound a week on top of whatever it cost me to get the 20-odd miles from north London. That pound included the laundering of my jersey and the beer kitty for after the game. I was totally teetotal so that didn't benefit me at all. But it was very good. I went to South Africa and everything, although I had to sit an accountancy exam and then get married, so the tour was cut short for me.

"I probably missed home but I was able to get back a lot because in those days, the mail came over on a late night plane and you could get a seat on that at a reduced rate.

"But I suppose I'm a Northern Ireland boy through and through. My wife wasn't that keen to move back but I won the day I suppose.

"After three years, work were able to transfer me to their base in Monkstown and that was the end of my rugby career."

This evening's clash between his two former sides, which he will attend with his grandson, marks something of a break from the norm. Still a "rugby fanatic", this will be just the second time he sees Quins play in person, matches in front of the television viewed as a preferable spectator experience.

"I'll always watch Harlequins and support them no matter who they're playing, unless it's Ulster," he says. "I'm an Ulsterman through and through."

No split, or indeed quartered, loyalties tonight then.

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