Twenty years ago Larne RFC embarked on an ambitious tour to Australia which they commemorated several weeks ago with a reunion dinner at their Glynn clubhouse.

Members of Larne RFC at their 1998 Australia Tour Commemoration Dinner.

Those were different days when the team embarked on their three week tour on Saturday 4th July 1998.

Rugby Union had just turned professional, in 1995, and the “super” clubs and the unions were still squabbling over the distribution of riches. England had been threatened with exclusion from the then Five Nations the year before after their deal with Sky Sports and Scotland had just formed two professional Super Districts, Edinburgh Reivers and Glasgow Caledonians. Bath became the first English team to win the Heineken Cup but English clubs did not play in the 1999 tournament the following season. I wonder who won it that year?

Tour Captain Gary Doey and Tour Manager William Nelson pose for a selfie before their Tour Commemoration Dinner.

Of course, the tour took place in the days before Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and the golden rule of “What happens on tour, stays on tour” was prevalent in those days so, it was with some excitement that I sat down with Tour Manager William “Sticky” Nelson a few weeks ago to “get all the gossip!”

Those mutual acquaintances of Sticky’s and myself can breathe a sigh of relief, as despite several promptings from myself and a bribe of a fry up and a coffee at the Promenade Cafe in Larne the mustachioed one remained remarkably consistent in his assertion that everyone was in bed by 7:00 pm each night and there were absolutely no shenanigans!

“You’re not giving me much to hang a story on” I whined but really I was missing the point  the real story was about how a small club like Larne could embark on an epic three week tour to the other side of the world, play five matches and all return in one piece.

The trip was the brainchild of, now departed, clubman Gerry McCullough and was three years in the planning. Larne had previously hosted players from Australian touring side Petersham RUFC and from an end of the evening discussion over a couple of pints (where all the best ideas come from) the tour was born.

The Larne RFC Tourists in all their finery! Don’t look too closely at the kilted Bill Parker far right front row! 

Despite the tourists being hosted by their opponents for parts of the tour, the cost still came in at £1,250 per person making the adventure the focus of fundraising events and local sponsorship for the next three years. The mainstay of the fundraising was the Tour Programme which attracted sponsorship from local businesses on every other of it’s seventy pages and was designed by clubman Bill Penny.

I’ve omitted the now defunct ads and carefully scanned the programme which you can read below. Reading the “Greetings From”, Club President Raymond McDowell, Mayor of Larne Joan Drummond, Ulster Branch President and former Larne RFC player John Callaghan, WJ McBride MBE, Jonathan Bell and Trevor Ringland together with the other articles gives a better reflection of the times than I could ever do.

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As for the stories, well, there were a couple.
Tourist Adrian Robinson met, and eventually married, his wife on the tour, the couple now living in Australia with their three children. And, Sticky did let me know about a chance meeting that perhaps changed the face of Australian Rugby forever!
As Sticky and Bill Penny took the air on a recreational walk, round the training grounds of the Sunshine Coast just outside Brisbane, up rocked Rod McQueen and the Australia National team on push bikes to continue their preparations for the 1998 Tri Nations. The likes of McQueen, Phil Kearns, Tim Horan, Matt Burke, Jason Little  and David Campese (at the end of his career) took time out to greet the Larne men warmly.
The Australians must have taken something out of their conversation with the legends of the Irish game as they went on to beat New Zealand twice to to gain the Bledisloe Cup and, of course, they went on to claim the World Cup the following year!
Rumours that Australia’s wins were accompanied by the loud singing of Mary’s Lamb in the changing rooms after are to be confirmed. However you can be assured that “Mary had a little lamb” was heard in many a club house and bar throughout the east coast of Australia that year. #MHALL