‘Money isn’t everything’ admitted John Gallagher, the former All Blacks fullback, at Waterpark Rugby Football Club’s annual corporate night in the Woodlands Hotel last Saturday, and the man who was once the world’s best-paid player is in a keen position to judge the merits of amateurism and the pitfalls of professionalism.
While the hosts’ current €700,000 debt would suggest that the amateur game is high-stakes too, the guest speaker acknowledged that his decision 20 years ago to swap codes was an unwise move; albeit one motivated in part by the Kent man’s desire to come home.
Remarkable in that he wasn’t a native New Zealander, Gallagher – who was 46 last Friday – was English-born and raised, but his parents were Irish (Limerick on his mother’s side). After starting with London Irish, he only went to Wellington to play club rugby as a teenager, then trained as a policeman like his father, and the rest, as they say, is history.
With looser eligibility rules in those days, he was “welcomed with open arms” by the Kiwis. The flame-haired, flying number-fifteen rapidly emerged as a first choice for the side that won the inaugural World Cup on home soil in 1987, equalling the All Blacks test record with four tries in the pool match against Fiji, and scoring another in the quarter-final win over Scotland.
He also scored three against Argentina in 1989 and later that year he made the last of his ‘18 and 0’ test appearances, adding a late try against Ireland at Lansdowne Road (in a 23-6 win), a week after the tourists beat Munster 31-9 in Cork.
But, dissatisfied with amateurism, in early 1990 – having just been named International Player of the Year – the man known to his team-mates as ‘Kipper’ shocked the oval-ball world by switched codes, and to of all places Leeds, for reportedly the highest salary in Rugby League (stg£350,000) or $2 million in total.
Such was the hype with which he arrived at Headingley that his crossover was never going to live up to expectations – especially with opposition ‘hardmen’ determined to take him down a peg by any means necessary.
Indeed, Gallagher was badly injured in a ‘spear tackle’ at St Helen’s (“I don’t think he was ever the same after that,” reckons his then team-mate Paul Harkin) and after an unsuccessful three seasons in Yorkshire linked up with the lesser lights of London Crusaders before rejoining his old schoolboy club Blackheath as a part-time captain-coach.
After the ban was lifted on league converts rejoining the now-professional union ranks, Gallagher signed for Harlequins in the mid-’90s and, still only 31, made himself available as a prospective Irish international, having already lined out for London Irish, and also the ‘Exiles’ in the Interpros. In the end, however, his ‘green’ card was never called.
After hanging up his boots, he took a sabbatical from his (second) profession as a PE teacher to link-up with his ‘compatriot’ Zinzan Brooke as Director of Rugby/“firefighter” at big-spending but soon-to-be-cash-strapped Quins, but after “a frustrating two years” he went back his day job in the summer of 2000. He is now headteacher at Colfe’s Preparatory School in southeast London, close to where he was born.
His two autobiographies were entitled ‘The Million Dollar Fullback’ and ‘The World’s Best Rugby Player?’ and as sporting stories go it’s probably one of ultimately unfulfilled promise. If you can say that about anyone who has a World Cup winner’s medal.