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'There was one silver lining during my Argentine jail ordeal... that was Heather'

Ulster great Willie Anderson on facing execution in South America, bouncing back to lead Ireland to glory, and coaching role

When one thinks of Willie Anderson, the mind is immediately cast back to Lansdowne Road in 1989, the day the fearsome All Blacks came to visit Dublin.

You picture the scene as the moustachioed Ulsterman, the Ireland captain, linked arms with his team-mates, puffed out his chest and strode purposefully towards the New Zealand Haka.

Close enough to feel the breath of his opposing captain Wayne 'Buck' Shelford by the time he stopped and stared down the All Blacks skipper, it's an image all the more remarkable for the fact that just a few years prior he'd been staring down the barrel of a gun.

Growing up on a farm in Sixmilecross, South America could hardly have seemed more remote to a boy who had only ventured as far as Belfast once, and that for a hospital visit during his early childhood.

But as he says now, after taking up rugby at Omagh Academy, the sport would become his passport, opening up a world of unforeseen possibility and travel opportunities.

Never did he feel further from home than the night he and two team-mates on a 1980 tour were thrown in an Argentine jail cell.

As tour high jinks go, the liberation of a flag from its pole to take as a souvenir may seem relatively tame. Not so in the eyes of the local authorities, who characterised the action as "demeaning a patriotic symbol".

It was made known to Anderson that two military generals were pressing for his execution by way of a firing squad. The more lenient in their number called only for a decade behind bars.

Unfathomably, given the nature of the purported crime, he would stay under house arrest for more than three months after his team-mates had been returned safely home. He'd spend his days with little to do but run laps, developing an anaerobic capacity that would later see him take the unusual decision for a lock forward to run a marathon.

A harrowing time - one that cost him and his family upwards of £10,000 - there was, he says, only one positive to take from the wholly unsettling ordeal.

"It was terrible," he says. "It really was scary stuff. There wouldn't have been the money to travel so in a lot of ways rugby became my passport. I was very fortunate in those days that with more touring, I was essentially away somewhere every year for two decades.

"It got me out of the bubble of Ulster, particularly during the Troubles, and I saw places I never would have seen otherwise.

"But unfortunately there was that incident. You were in a fascist country and you weren't sure what was going to happen. In that situation you have to find mechanisms to cope, to help yourself rather than be sat waiting for help. There was one silver lining though, and that was Heather, now my wife.

"We'd been seeing each other a bit and gone out a few times, but it was through writing that we were really brought together. I'd write to her and she'd write to me. I'd filled four books worth of thoughts and feelings, what I saw and what was happening, and I'd send them to her.

"A year after I got back we were engaged and now we've been married 35 years. In that way I feel very fortunate. I don't know what I'd be doing without Heather. She's probably suffered more for rugby than anybody else putting up with it all over the years."

Soon after the marriage, the couple began their family, with Anderson saying he feels blessed to have three such wonderful children in Jonathan, Thomas and Chloe. Indeed, as of five months ago, he and Heather are now enjoying being grandparents for the first time.

The family's patriarch gushes with pride when discussing his offspring, joking that he is now more known for being the father of noted fashion designer Jonathan than he ever was for playing rugby.

When he looks back on his playing days now, many of his most cherished memories come from pulling on the green jersey, whether it be that famous showdown with the All Blacks, winning the Triple Crown in '85, or his first experiences of leading out the side.

It's remarkable to think that, thanks to the infamous Argentina incident, it looked for a long time that he'd never be capped at all. Despite his performances in the stellar and storied Ulster team of the 1980s, he'd be 29 before he was handed his international bow, eventually taking on Australia in 1984.

"Yeah, I was told once that it was punishment for the whole Argentina thing," he says. "But it was always incredibly special to be involved with Ireland. To win the Triple Crown in my first Five Nations was an unbelievable experience, and things like captaining the side on those times is something that will always be special to look back on."

Having been a teacher by trade during his playing days, a move into coaching upon his retirement was a natural fit, remaining so to this day as he works with the Ulster Academy.

To see Anderson in action, moulding the next generation of dogged forwards, is to see a man with a genuine passion for his work.

Ulster Rugby is in his blood, it always was. There were many who thought he'd have been named head coach almost two decades ago, succeeding the European Cup winner Harry Williams in 2001 shortly after he'd led a star-studded Dungannon to the All-Ireland League title.

While the job went to Alan Solomons instead, the frustration did not diminish his love for the game, his coaching CV soon seeing the addition of stops in both Leinster and Scotland.

He was back in Northern Ireland heading up Sullivan Upper, whom he lead to a Schools' Cup final, when his native province did come calling two years ago, this time with the offer of a role in the under-age structure.

The magic he felt during his playing days is still there as he stands on the touchline.

"You can recreate it to an extent," he says. "Like when you were captain, as a coach you have times when you say something, or don't say anything, and you sense something in the group.

"I call it a 'ping moment'. It's a physical thing and, when you feel it, you know there's no way you're going to lose. It's a special thing, and as a coach it's the same as when you're playing. It doesn't matter what level it's at, it's special.

"That's why I'll be in the game as long as I can, as long as my body allows. I hope to stay involved for another few years yet.

"I love working with the young people I'm working with and I think there's some special players there.

"They're malleable at that age, more so than if they were 28 or 29, and I love working with Kieran Campbell. I'm just delighted to be able to put something back into the game here."

If any of his fledgling professionals end their playing days with half the number of stories that Anderson has to tell, they'll have had quite the career.

Belfast Telegraph

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