Let's hear it for the selectors
August 22, 2014
Ray McLoughlin, pictured with the Lions in 1971, was called up to the Ireland squad in 1962 © Getty Images
Selectors are sitting targets, an inevitable butt for criticism of the teams that did not quite work out. But there are times when they are entitled to congratulate themselves, never more than when a single selection meeting launches not just one, but two or more outstanding international careers.
So let's hear it for the All Black panel of 1957 who succeeded in simultaneously launching Colin Meads and Wilson Whineray; the Englishmen of 1909 who summoned up Ronald Poulton and WJA Davies; the Wales selectors who within little more than a year in the late 1960s contrived to first hand simultaneous debuts to Gerald Davies and Barry John, then repeat the trick with Mervyn Davies and JPR Williams and their Scottish counterparts of 1986 who gave same day first caps to the Hastings brothers, Finlay Calder and David Sole.
Great work - whether the result of perspicacity, dumb luck or some glorious combination of the two - on every occasion. Every country has a story of the sort to tell. For Ireland it is the calling up in 1962 of two forwards, Willie John McBride of Ballymena and Ray McLoughlin of University College, Dublin.
McBride, the vast, affable Ulsterman who went on five Lions tours and led the all-conquering 1974 party to South Africa, has gone into the game's annals. McLoughlin, who turns 75 on Sunday, August 24, is a little less remembered, but no less significant a figure. They represented varying but complementary rugby archetypes. McBride was the classic leader by example, McLoughlin - who had a doctorate in chemical engineering - the intellectual analyst.
And while it is McBride who is remembered as a captain, McLoughlin got there first by a considerable margin, elevated to the leadership of the Irish team in 1965. At that time, national team captains in Britain and Ireland were also de facto coaches. McBride has recalled that "he created a revolution and changed the whole concept of the Irish game with his planning and discipline. The Irish team sat down before a game and actually thought out moves."
Willie John McBride ends up on top of the pack against England in 1970 © Getty Images
Ireland prospered in 1965, going to Cardiff for their final match with a shot at both the championship and the Triple Crown before going down 14-8 to Wales. Fullback Tom Kiernan said that "the discipline, the feeling that what know what we're at, has made the difference". In the autumn McLoughlin led Ireland to their first ever victory over South Africa.
But some players and officials - selectors were kept out of the changing room before matches - were less convinced. Ireland struggled in 1966 and, following a defeat by Scotland at Lansdowne Road, the captaincy was given to Kiernan. McBride recalled that "he was criticised but proved right. Since then Irish rugby has never looked back. Like some politicians, he was before his time and wanted to make changes rapidly - which seldom works in rugby. He insisted on having his own way, while some of the players moaned about his intense approach".
The impact was felt beyond Ireland. McLoughlin had been seen as a front-runner to lead the Lions in New Zealand that year. Instead the Lions indulged their perennial weakness for 'the right sort of chap' and chose Scottish lock Mike Campbell-Lamerton, an army officer. Campbell-Lamerton struggled as a player, eventually dropping himself from the Test team.
He was also sceptical about the value of coaching. This meant that John Robins from Loughborough University, a pioneering coach lightly disguised as assistant manager, was effectively marginalised.
Had McLoughlin been captain he would almost certainly have seen Robins as an ally rather than a threat. This is unlikely to have made enough difference for the Lions to have won - the All Blacks 4-0 series win was part of the 17-match winning run that has proved so formidably durable a record - but they might at least have challenged their hosts.
His Ireland successor Kiernan led the Lions to South Africa in 1968,but McLoughlin was not in contention for a place. A combination of a serious knee injury and a burgeoning business career - he would be chairman of a public company by 1974 - meant that he did not play for Ireland again in 1971.
Returning at top level, he played his way into that year's Lions squad. He was expected to play in the tests, but his tour was ended by a broken thumb - inflicted when he thumped future All Black coach 'Grizz' Wyllie (who will turn 70 on August 30th) during the vicious clash with Canterbury which also ruled out Sandy Carmichael.
But McLoughlin's impact on the tour was still profound. As de facto forward coach under Carwyn James, McLoughlin played a huge part in developing the playing style which led to the first Lions victory in New Zealand. McLoughlin joked that "he always fell asleep when I started talking", but James forever afterwards credited him as one of the architects of victory and regretted that International Board regulations had demanded he be sent home once it was clear his injury had ruled him out of the playing side of the tour.
There were to be four more seasons for Ireland, including two moments of supreme triumph. In 1972 he scored the only try (and his only one for Ireland) in the sole win in Paris between 1952 and Brian O'Driscoll's try fiesta in 2000. Outside-half Barry McGann joked that he was "in the wrong place at the wrong time and fell over the line with the ball". Then in 1974 came Ireland's first outright title since the Grand Slam of 1949.
Having started together, he and McBride finished together in 1975, on the receiving end of a 32-4 thrashing at Cardiff. The wheel might be said to have come full circle since their joint debut, at Twickenham 13 years earlier, had seen Ireland thumped 16-0. His 40 caps for Ireland were the most for a prop at the time, equal to the all-time single-country British record jointly held by Hugh McLeod and David Rollo of Scotland.
A modern equivalent might well have graduated rapidly into coaching or a media role. His own credentials as a forward guru had been burnished by a coaching session provided to the forwards of the North-West Counties team who became the first English non-Test team to beat the All Blacks in 1973.
But McLoughlin's business career, which has included being CEO of James Crean plc, and a director of Allied Irish Bank and Irish government agencies, was well under way. He has, though, never lost interest in rugby. He was delighted when his brother Phelim won an Irish cap in 1976 and only three years ago collaborated with Fran Cotton and Mike Burton on a trenchant critique of current scrummaging laws.
His 1971 Lions colleague John Taylor called him "one of the best technicians the game has ever known". To Willie John he was "the man who changed Irish rugby". A very happy birthday to him.
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