“I’m a winner: people who know me know what I’m about! I don’t like losing….. “. The interest in my previous post on Lions & Lions has encouraged me to devote another page to the breakfast talk given recently at the Dunadry Hotel to Antrim Lions Club and their guests by former Ulster Rugby head coach Brian McLaughlin, now Academy Schools Coach. This time I will tell it as he delivered it: punchy and with plenty of insights into the world of rugby, with which he has been intimately involved for many years.
Brian kicked off his life story by talking about the support he got from his parents (and I am typing this at my parents’ house in Dublin). His career has centred around sport. His father played hockey but his mother’s preference was for tennis and “she had a tennis racket in my hand from the age of three”. Tennis was his second love and he played at Comber, where he was reared. What he did not tell us last Thursday (and I would have loved to discuss it further with him) was that his grandfather (like Tommy Bowe) had a connection with County Monaghan, having moved from Ballybay in the 1920s to take over as manager of the Northern bank in Comber. His father, a keen Instonian, worked in the linen industry in Belfast and had a small business on Murray Street.
Brian said his parents had encouraged him every step of the way and they had never missed an Ulster game at Ravenhill when he was in charge. After the age of twelve he “always wanted to be a PE teacher” and his love of sport as a teenager seems to have left a trail of destruction behind in several broken windows!
He and his two brothers were sent to Regent House in Newtownards. David McMaster who coached rugby teams at the school for many years was an important influence and he has kept in contact with many of his school friends. He was a contemporary of Nigel Carr, “the hardest guy to play against”. Carr was later an Irish international and was a great player who showed “unbelievable spirit”, according to Brian. Nigel and two other international players were caught up in an IRA bomb at the border in April 1987 and although he escaped serious injury, his knee was affected and it ended his rugby career at the age of 27. Brian said he admired Carr’s resilience. He remembered doing speed and power training with him in the 1980s. Each acted as best man for the other at their weddings.
A third member of that Regent House team, who went on to star for Ireland, was Phillip Matthews, now a BBC rugby commentator. Along with McLaughlin he played in an Ulster schools’ cup final in 1977 when Regent House narrowly lost to Tommy Bowe’s alma mater, Royal School Armagh, 12-9. Carr broke his leg in the quarter final against Grosvenor (Belfast) and missed out on the final. He had seven knee operations during his time as a player to keep him active. But he missed out on any Lions tour (South Africa in 1986 did not happen, owing to apartheid) but did play against the Rest of the World in Cardiff in 1986.
During the 1986/87 season McLaughlin was captain of Ards. In 1987 they won the Ulster Senior Cup. In 1982 he took on his second teaching job at Wallace High School in Lisburn. He was also involved in club rugby with Malone and Instonians and the Ulster under-20s. When Eddie O’Sullivan got the Ireland under-21 coaching job, he brought in Brian McLaughlin in as his forwards coach. They got on well and thought about rugby the same way. The side won triple crowns in 1996 and 1998. The 1996 team was captained by Tony McWhirter, who won 94 caps playing for Ulster and was a member of the European Cup winning side in 1999. Other rising stars from that era included Eric Miller, Girvan Dempsey and Malcolm O’Kelly, all of them coached by McLaughlin. He described O’Sullivan as a forward-thinking coach and said it was a huge decision for O’Sullivan to go off in 1997 for two years to the United States as an assistant coach. O’Sullivan was not long in the Ireland senior job in 2005 when he gave McLaughlin a shout to come and help higher up the line. Both remain good pals, according to Brian.
In the previous three years from 2002-2005 McLaughlin had been coaching Ballynahinch. He was full of praise for their young players who have come through like Willie Faloon (now Connacht) and Paddy McAllister (both Royal School Armagh) who he said was “dynamic” and he hoped would play for Ireland. He described scrum half Paul Marshall (Methody) as a fantastic player, who was the fittest guy in Ulster: “a pocket-rocket”. The late Nevin Spence, who died in a farm accident last September, was “a fantastic guy” and “an exceptional character”, who he said had shown “unbelievable determination” on the rugby pitch and who was an unbelievable loss for Ulster. He said he had stayed in contact with the Spence family, who lost two other members in the slurry-pit tragedy. Another Hinch player to make the grade with Ulster was a Cork man, Jerry Cronin from Mallow. He was signed up for Ballynahinch one night in the pub in Belfast, where he was working as a structural engineer. He is a “phenomenal character” according to McLaughlin and made his debut for Ulster in October 2010 against his home province of Munster. He was signed up by the Doncaster Knights in England eleven months ago and it remains to be seen if he returns to Ireland at some stage (Munster, perhaps?).
Funds raised from the breakfast went to Lions Club charities. You can find out more about Antrim Lions Club here.