Life is all about taking opportunities. So is rugby, just ask John Gallagher.
In just five years, the South London-born full-back went from failed A Level student to All Blacks Rugby World Cup winner in 1987.
Gallagher takes up the story …
“Had I not made a hash of my A Levels, I guess the intention would have been to go to University,” he told World Rugby.
“I applied to join the Met Police instead, and got accepted, but then I got an opportunity through an old school friend, Tony O’Malley, who’d spent the season the year before at the Oriental Rongotai Rugby Club, which is more famous now for being Ma’a Nonu and Julian and Ardie Savea’s club.
“They asked Tony if he’d like to go back but whilst he’d enjoyed it there, he declined, so they asked if he could find somebody else.
“Tony bumped into me at a friend’s 21st birthday party at Askeans Rugby Club in south-east London, late in 1983, and he said he wasn’t going back, would I be interested. I said, ‘yeah, I’ll give it a go’.
Concrete offer ... of sorts
“I arrived in March 1984, and the intention was to go for six months and then go back and re-join the Met Police.
“But after three months I realised I didn’t want to go back to Lewisham, things were going really well, I had a part-time job making concrete blocks for one of the club sponsors, and asked if I could stay a bit longer.
“So I went to see the chairman of the club, and rather fortuitously it turned out he was the minister in charge of immigration in New Zealand.
“I spoke to him, and he said just playing for the club side wouldn’t be enough to get the stamp on my passport to stay, but if I could break into the current Wellington provincial side, that had seven current All Blacks in it, that might strengthen my argument.
“Fortunately, Wellington’s All Blacks went away on a trip to Australia, in mid-season in 1984, and because I was playing well for my club side, I got selected for Wellington against Otago in Invercargill.
“I had a good trip and when the All Blacks came back, I still found myself in the side, which was just about enough to sway it for the minister to mark my visa.”
Finding himself in France
His wish to stay in New Zealand granted, Gallagher joined the New Zealand Police Force in 1985 and worked shifts alongside playing for Wellington, who won the National Provincial Championship that year.
That jettisoned Gallagher into the All Blacks squad to tour France in 1986, and while he didn’t make the test side, he did enough in four of the eight tour games to warrant a call-up for the inaugural Rugby World Cup the following year.
A combination of the Bledisloe Cup loss to Australia, a drawn series in France, and the rebel Cavaliers tour to South Africa led to the selectors opting for an injection of youth in the build-up to Rugby World Cup 1987 on home soil.
“It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that we were going to win it, in our minds we were third favourites behind Australia and France,” said Gallagher, who won his first test cap in the opening match against Italy, a 70-6 win.
“Michael Jones and I were the new test players in what was a young side. We took a while to gel but by the time the World Cup came around, we were starting to put it all together and then peaked during the tournament.
“We got off to a dream start with a big win against Italy and we then progressed nicely through the tournament.”
Further wins against Fiji and Argentina saw the All Blacks book a quarter-final date with Scotland.
“We’d watched them draw 20-20 with France so we knew the Scots would be strong, and they proved to be strong on the day, but we squeezed life out of them, to win 30-3, in what was a tough game even if the scoreline doesn’t suggest that,” he said.
The All Blacks then marched into the final against France – a match you can watch again on Saturday via our live stream service – with a 49-6 win over 14-man Wales.
Dying seconds of a Rugby World Cup semi-final.— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) September 4, 2019
11 players involved in the move. Finished by the one and only Serge Blanco.
This was sporting drama at its finest. pic.twitter.com/alZNXEkVeK
No blank from Blanco
Some reassuring words from his hero, and opposite number, helped to calm his pre-match nerves.
“Coming out to play France in the final was nerve-racking, both sides had played hard to get there, and France had beaten Australia on Australian soil, which was a fantastic achievement,” he recalled.
“Serge Blanco was my hero, and as we were walking out the changing rooms together and onto the field, he put his arm on my shoulder and said, ‘good luck, John’. I was stunned for about 30 seconds that he even knew me!”
After a tight first half in which New Zealand led 9-0, following a try from Michael Jones, the co-hosts pulled clear to win 29-9 against a Les Bleus side that had failed to match the heights of their thrilling semi-final win over Australia.
“You read some of their comments afterwards from some of their experienced players like Philippe Sella and Serge Blanco that they were on such a high after beating the Aussies, they found it difficult to come back down again.
“But it was only when we were 29-3 up, when there were about 10-12 minutes left, that I thought ‘we are going to do this’.
“(Pierre) Berbizier, the scrum-half, scored with virtually the last play of the game and the referee, Kerry Fitzgerald, said to us, ‘that’s it, time up’, and we looked at each other with beaming smiles.
“We all just felt so relieved because it was no foregone conclusion that we were going to be world champions, just because we were the All Blacks. The weight of expectation was finally lifted.”
Spirits raised, New Zealand also became an even safer place after the win, as Gallagher attests.
“The following day was Sunday but, on Monday, I was back at work in Wellington with our second-row, Murray Pierce, who was also a policeman.
“We were put on the beat and it was wonderful, I didn’t make a single arrest that week.”