Town's role in Grand Slam heroics of '48 and 61 years later

PORTADOWN'S link with Irish rugby football immortality was reinforced on Saturday at Cardiff's magnificent Millennium Stadium.

For when, after what seemed like an eternity, the no-side whistle finally sounded, it was a case of history having repeated itself.

Back in 1948 - prior to Saturday, Ireland’s only Grand Slam year - the victors’ line-up included Jimmy Nelson, who grew up in the town’s Ridgeway Park. Zooming forward 61 years, the heroes of 2009 included former Portadown College captain, Rory Best, and back row giant, Stephen Ferris, who plied his trade with the town club’s under 18s. He was discovered by another Portadown doyen, Friends’ coach, Alan ‘Barney’ McGonigle, who steered him towards the Chambers Park youth set-up when the player’s academic results left him unable to continue his education at the Lisburn school.

Neither Best nor Ferris ever played senior football for Portadown. Nor did Nelson, who made his name as a second row forward in the colours of East Belfast club, Malone, in the 1940s and ’50s. But Portadown has figured prominently in the life of each member of the trio.

On the last occasion on which I met Jimmy Nelson he spoke fondly of his Portadown upbringing. Born in Belfast in September 1921, he was the son of a bank manager. The family moved to town when Jimmy was a child. He attended Edenderry Primary School and then the Royal School Armagh.

And if either Best or Ferris come close to matching his enormous contribution to the game, off the field as well as on it, they will indeed have done themselves and Irish rugby proud, for Nelson’s milestones include presidency of his club (1971/72), of the Ulster Branch (1968/69) and of the IRFU (1982/83). To that add his role as honorary treasurer of the IRFU from 1976 to 1987, and an OBE from the Queen in 1984.

To his Irish caps - 16 all told at a time when there were far fewer international matches - can be added inclusion in the 1950 Lions party to Australia and New Zealand, plus captaincy of the 1958 Barbarians. And remember that as well as playing in the ’48 Grand Slam team he played in the following season’s Triple Crown-winning side.

With credentials like those it is hardly surprising that to this day he is held in near-reverential esteem at Malone’s Gibson Park home where facilities include a room named after him.

His co-survivors from the team of ’48 are captain Karl Mullen, Jack Kyle, Bertie O’Hanlon, Michael O’Flanagan, Jim McCarthy, Paddy Reid and Colm Callan.

Rory Best’s Portadown connections are irrefutable. Raised in Poyntzpass, he now lives at Bocombra Lodge. A former student of Portadown College, it was during his time there that he met Jodie Bell to whom he is now engaged.

It didn’t take long for his remarkable talent as a rugby player to come to the fore. Head of boys’ PE and the school’s senior rugby coach, Andrew Symington, recalls, “Given the Best family’s track record for churning out players we had a pretty good idea of what to expect. And it very quickly became obvious that he was exceptional.

“He began as a prop. But he was so skilful that on a couple of occasions I actually played him at out-half!

“That’s how good he was. He had a great pass off his left and right hands and he could kick a ball an amazing distance.

“I remember him lining out at number 10 against Friends and Barney (McGonigle) looking at me as if to say ‘What on earth are you doing playing him there?’ Rory had a great match, at the end of which Barney could see exactly why we’d used him at out-half.

“He’s a smashing guy and with him living locally he pops into school regularly to give us a hand. And when it comes to providing things like signed shirts for fund-raising, we only have to ask him and he obliges. His success hasn’t changed him. He’s still the same modest, willing-to-help lad who captained the school in 1999/2000.”

The fact that he captained Portadown College and now skippers Ulster confirms that as well as being an exceptional player he has always been a natural leader.

And in tandem with all of his undoubted ability and inherent agression - after all, his father, John, was a rock-hard hard prop forward who played for Portadown and Banbridge - is a gift seldom found in middle-of-the-front-row warriors. For a little-known fact is that while - in keeping with the demands of the modern-day game, Best is able to throw a ball with unerring accuracy into a line-out - he is equally impressive and deadly as a place-kicker!

At school he always had that remarkable additional string in his bow. He could kick superbly, either out of hand or off the tee. Now that is a rarity in a number two.

Andrew Symington remembers making the decision to move him from prop to hooker in the hope of boosting young Best’s chances of an Ulster Schools’ place.

“We knew there were three or four very good props playing at schools’ level at the time,” he recalls. “So competition for places was going to be very tough. But we reckoned there was no outstanding hooker, so we switched him to the middle of the front row and he never looked back.”

Well do I recall watching him whilst reporting on a Schools’ Cup match at the College, driving forward, ball in hand, like a human battering ram.

But it wasn’t a case of ill-advised, raw courage-charged, headless chicken-type charges; he was/is as skilful as he was/is strong, for which reason he has always stood out as an exceptionally gifted young man.

Having entered Saturday’s nerve-wracking fray as a second-half replacement for Munster’s Gerry Flannery, it was Best’s spot-on line-out throw which enabled Ireland to claim the possession which ultimately led to Ronan O’Gara dropping a match-winning, Slam-clinching goal.

Arriving back in Dublin the day after that history-making win the Ballyhannon man said, “Yesterday was the best day of my life, without a doubt. It’s only now that it’s beginning to sink in.”

And his reaction on seeing the thousands who turned out in Dublin city centre to welcome the heroes home was, “It’s fantastic. I can’t believe so many people have come out to see us. Awesome.”

Ferris, who was forced to withdraw from Saturday’s action when he was injured early on in what was a bruising contest, admitted that he had shed a few tears at the time. “You hate having to come off and I find it very hard watching from the sidelines,” he said. But the former Portadown under 18s’ player, who has taken to the international stage like the proverbial duck to water, added, “The past few weeks have been brilliant and it was great that I was able to contribute in the first four games.”

Ferris, ever mindful of the parts played by Barney McGonigle and Portadown RFC in his meteoric rise, still visits Chambers Park regularly on Nutty Krust Cup nights and to hand out youth awards. Clearly he appreciates the importance of young players receiving properly structured and encouragement.

Like Nelson before them, he and Best have become legends...