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World will never again see the like of great Duggan

 

By Tony Ward

Back in October, the sudden passing of Anthony Foley knocked the nation for six. Yesterday morning when Joe MacDonnell, a great mutual friend, rang to tell me that Willie Duggan had passed away overnight, the same gut-wrenching feeling in the pit of my stomach prevailed.

Willie may have been older than 'Axel' in years, but at 67 was still a young man. Outside of the immediate family, it is former sporting team-mates who tend to feel the passing most.

Willie and I had a chequered relationship. We were far from bosom buddies but respect was never an issue and, as he assured me in latter years, it cut both ways.

Our rugby differences are well recorded, but press me to name the hardest, most courageous player it was my privilege to play alongside or against then only Shay Deering fits in a comparable frame.

The Doug had the Deero's courage, but that extra ingredient that made him unique and, for me, the greatest No.8 of them all was a hardness that defied pain. If you wanted the consummate scrapper alongside you then Willie was the definitive warrior.

My own debut at international level against Scotland in 1978 coincided with the coming together for the first time of the greatest Irish back-row ever assembled. In John O'Driscoll, Fergus Slattery and Duggan, Ireland had its greatest combination in that sector.

We won that opening game in Dublin and a fortnight later were off to Paris to face the French. They too fielded arguably their best back row of all time in Jean-Claude Skrela, Jean-Pierre Rives and Jean-Pierre Bastiat. The latter was No.8 and a man mountain.

To cut a long story short, the Doug called me aside the night before and asked me to concentrate on an early kick-off and risk a little extra oomph to get the ball close to the touchline.

I didn't need to ask why or who was the target. I did manage to get a 22 restart on the meat and suffice to say he kept up his part of the bargain!

He wasn't the greatest trainer, but measure that against a 41-cap career (as well as the 1977 British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand) and he was never found wanting.

No doubt he would have proved a nightmare for Joe Schmidt and today's ultra efficient brand of coach. One thing that is for certain is that we will never see his like again.

I still can't quite grasp the reality of writing about Willie in the past tense but, much like Foley and Ken Goodall, to name but two, he is now spoiling that great selector in the sky.

We had our differences, but he still saw fit to support me when travelling up for the launch of 'the Good, the Bad and the Rugby' a few years after we had both retired.

Slattery was the catalyst and right to the very end 'Frank', as Willie so affectionately addressed his closest rugby colleague, remained just that.

For Slatts and for everyone associated with the game in Kilkenny and Blackrock, the world has lost a true rugby legend.

But for Ellen, for Willie Jnr (a real chip off the old block), for Helena, for Monica and for the extended family including cousin Ned (Byrne), another great Kilkenny, Blackrock and Ireland stalwart, the loss cuts so much deeper again.

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