Unfortunately I can’t remember who it was, but recently I noticed someone on Twitter ask people to name a famous person they’d been to school with. I racked my brain and drew a blank – plenty of interesting stories came to mind about old acquaintances in all parts of the world, but no-one famous. I expanded the search of my memory bank and came up with John Regis, an English sprinter who won medals at the World Athletics Championships and the Olympics. I can still picture his name on the athletics records board and not just for sprinting – he pretty much dominated every track and field event. My second place in the triple jump at the 1991 annual sports day seems pretty inadequate in comparison.
The highlight when it came to old boys however, both then and now, was a rugby player. John Anthony Gallagher attended St Joseph’s Academy in Blackheath, London in the late 70’s; football and specifically Arsenal were his first sporting loves, but rugby dominated at St Joes and trials were compulsory. Picked for the first team, he missed a game because of his Saturday job delivering milk and was hauled before the headmaster; miss another and it would be time to find another school.
After finishing school, John took a relatively predictable route as a young rugby player with Irish roots and played some club rugby at London Irish. Easter trips to Dublin were commonplace for the club and in 1983 John travelled over as part of the Under 19 squad and played a curtain raiser against local side Clontarf, prior to the senior teams taking centre stage. Little did he know that the first team’s fullback had gone missing overnight; Ireland had beaten England in the Five Nations at Lansdowne Road the day before and he’d last been seen drinking in the city centre at 3am. John got the heads up during the Under 19 match that he needed to conserve his energy as he’d be making his senior debut 20 minutes after it finished. After 160 minutes of rugby in an afternoon he slept well that night.
In the amateur era, John went about finding a career and decided to join the Metropolitan Police. Around the same time however, one of John’s friends who was living in New Zealand got in touch and floated the idea of him coming over to play a bit of rugby and experience life overseas. The Met Police deferred his entry, deciding it was good if he got some travelling under his belt and in March 1984 he packed his bags and headed to Wellington. By the middle of May he’d clocked up 100 points playing for Oriental-Rongotai and he was off and running. His first paid job was at Athletic Park as an ‘assistant-assistant groundsman’ where, in his own words his job was ‘to pick up all the Minties wrappers in the Millard Stand after the big matches.’
John made the Wellington provincial team, playing at centre initially and joined the police force there to make his living. In 1986 Earle Kirton took over as coach and moved him to full back. An unbeaten season followed as Wellington won their third National Provincial Championship title. At the end of that year he was chosen for the All Blacks tour of France, where, although not being picked for the test team, he played the first 4 games of a total of 41 for his adopted country. He didn’t lose any of them.
He made the 26 man squad for the Rugby World Cup the following year and overtook Kieran Crowley to become the first choice fullback, making his test debut in the opening match against Italy. Before the game, Brian Lochore said to him:
‘Kipper, don’t do anything bloody stupid. Just play safe and don’t try to take on the whole world.’
Five days later he scored 4 tries in a 74-13 victory against Fiji with a further try coming in the quarter final win over Scotland. John’s attacking ability was changing the way full backs played the game. In 18 tests he scored 13 tries with a further 22 tries in his other 23 appearances for the All Blacks.
In 1989 he was New Zealand’s player of the year, but then shocked the country by taking up a lucrative offer to switch codes and play rugby league for Leeds back in England.
‘I’d toured Britain with the All Blacks (in 1989), stayed on an extra month and when I got back to New Zealand I suddenly felt homesick. All my family were still in London.’
He stayed at Leeds until 1993 but ultimately his time there wasn’t a great success. Injuries and non-selection did however open up the chance for him to take a sports science degree at Leeds Polytechnic before a return down south to join the London Broncos, where he played for two seasons.
After that, John used his degree and taught at Colfe’s Preparatory School, before becoming the headmaster there; it’s about 3kms from his old stomping ground at St Joseph’s Academy.
Fondly remembered by New Zealanders, John made an appearance on Radio Sport in October last year, when he spoke to Daniel McHardy. When I heard that he was going to be on, I quickly contacted the show’s producer Louis Herman-Watt to see if he was appearing live so I could ring or ask a question, but of course, with John on the other side of the world, it was pre-recorded. It was just great to listen and learn though.
As for the nickname, over to John on that one:
‘Everyone called me ‘Kipper’. Jamie Salmon, who played for the All Blacks was at Wellington before me and they called him ‘Trout.’ My nickname was just an extension of the fish theme and it just stuck.’
Call him John or call him Kipper, All Black Number 879 evokes great memories for many and I’m proud of my little link to him.
Follow Aiden on Twitter