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THE GOLDEN THREADS: How an All Black honoured Tim Horan on debut

Sat, 28/08/2021, 1:49 am
Rupert Guinness
by Rupert Guinness
All Blacks secure the Bledisloe Cup for another year with a dominant display at Eden Park in Bledisloe Two

In his series on players reflecting on their debuts for Australia, RUPERT GUINNESS speaks with former Wallaby and Queensland Reds centre Tim Horan who starred in the amateur and professional eras. The game has changed, but not the value of his first Wallaby jersey.

It is Monday. July 31, 1989. Tim Horan is at work at the XXXX brewery in Brisbane in Queensland busily taking beer orders from various pubs around the state when his brother, Matt, telephones with some good news. He tells Tim that has been selected to play for the Wallabies in the Test against the All Blacks at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand.

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To say Horan was taken aback is an understatement, especially that the news has come from his brother who was a journalist; not directly from the Wallabies coach Bob Dwyer.

“Matt said, ‘Congratulations! You’re in the team,’” recalls Horan. “I said, ‘What do you mean? He said, ‘You've been picked in the team. I’ve seen it on the [news] wire.’ I said, ‘I’d better wait until the coach rings me before I celebrate.’ Bob (Dwyer) rang a few hours later. “Then the nerves hit and you start doubting yourself … ‘Is this too early? Am I too young?’

Horan, picked at No. 13, had never even played for Queensland. However, he would not be the only rookie. Prop Tony Daley and hooker Phil Kearns were also to make their Wallabies starting debut that Saturday, August 5. Horan also at least had some feel of what to expect, having sat on the bench as a just turned 19-year-old for the Wallabies in their three-Test series against the British and Irish Lions that had just finished. He did not play in it, nor expected to, as reserves then only came on if a player was injured and unable to continue.

But much was different about rugby then, far more than just protocols for the Wallaby Test team announcements. Rugby did not turn professional until 1995. In the amateur era, players still had jobs – Horan in sales at XXXX – and trained after work twice a week with their club, or if selected in the Wallabies, for a few days – and a jam packed few days too. After flying to Auckland, Horan recalls the Wallabies having a “few training sessions on the Wednesday, two training sessions on Thursday and a big team run on the Friday morning.”

Horan, now 51, says the advice of his father Mike kept him grounded. “He said, ‘You’ve been picked for a reason. Don't change the game you're playing.’ He said more about doing simple things well, like making your tackles, carry the ball well and don't try and be a hero.”

Horan posing with the side ahead of the British Isles 1st Test in Brisbane in 1989
Horan posing with the side ahead of the British Isles 1st Test in Brisbane in 1989

The Meaning of a Test Debut

Match day was every bit the buzz that a Test debutant could dream of; from standing before a 45,000-strong mostly New Zealand crowd at Eden Park, to singing the Australian national anthem, listening to the New Zealand anthem, then facing the Haka. Horan, Wallaby No. 680, recalls: “Looking around, thinking, ‘What am I doing? It’s my first Test match. Are you up to it, facing the All Blacks?’ I'm thinking that, ‘In 25 seconds, I'm going to face this thing called ‘the Haka.’ I don't think I had ever seen it, then they say, ‘Wait till you face the Haka.’”

The Wallabies lost to New Zealand in their only clash with the All Blacks that year, going down 24-12; but for Horan the occasion ended in poignant fashion in the Eden Park locker rooms. As the Wallabies sat trying to absorb their loss, all they could hear were All Black celebrations next door. “The dressing rooms then were right next to each other … there was a thin wall. They were singing the national anthem around the Bledisloe Cup,” Horan recalls.

Suddenly, the Wallabies are snapped out of their mood by a visitor. “You could hear a pin drop,” says Horan, sitting between Kearns and five eighth Michael Lynagh. “I look up and see this shadow of a man with a big black jersey on standing in our dressing room door … “

It is All Black Joe Stanley, Horan’s opposite number who had just played his 23 Test. Stanley spots Horan and while walking across the room to him starts to take his All Black jersey off.

Horan knows what’s about to happen … or he thinks he does, that Stanley will want to swap Test jerseys. But Horan is not sure he wants to. “I was thinking, ‘No way I'm going to swap jerseys … I'm only ever going to get one,’” says Horan. “We had lost the Test and I thought I wasn’t ever going to get any more Tests … how could I ever give my first Test jersey away.”

But Stanley is thinking otherwise. “He walks up with his Test jersey in his hand and says, ‘Congratulations … first Test match,’” says Horan. “My jersey, I wasn’t going to take it off, but thought, ‘I’d better make the gesture; but how do I explain my way out of this?’ So, I half untuck my jersey and he goes, ‘No. That's your first Test jersey. Keep that and mine.’”

Kellaway strikes again at Eden Park

In Stanley’s other hand are two Steinlager beers from the All Blacks ice-box. He sits next to Horan and offers him one, saying: “I want to share one of these with you too.” For 15 minutes, they cast aside their rivalry and chat. The moment touches Horan. And as his Test career unfolds, he respects the gesture by doing the same with his opposing Test debutants.

Horan, whose career included playing in the Wallabies World Cup victories of 1991 and 1999, still has his first Wallaby Test jersey. He believes no value can be placed on it, even if it was not embroidered as they are today with the coat of arms and a Test dateline. Players only received one jersey for a Test then. If they wanted to swap one with opposing players, they had to give the sweat and sometimes bloodied jersey they were wearing in that game.

It was something Horan, who would write the Test details on the inside collar of jerseys with a marking pen, understood; as he did the hardship of a reserve getting any game time, unlike today when the purpose of the bench is not to be available as injury replacements, but ‘finishers’ whose aim is to rise the tempo and impact of a game in the back end of it.

Horan’s feel for what the Wallaby jersey represents grew with every Test, even those he missed when sidelined for a year by a knee injury in 1994. “You were representing your family, friends and people around Australia, but you when you pulled that jersey on I really felt that the DNA of past players was stitched in the Wallaby gold jersey,” Horan says.

The Challenge of Transition

Horan’s last and 80th Test was on June 17, 2000 against Argentina at Ballymore Stadium in Brisbane before a crowd of 18,216. Australia won 53-6. Horan then played at Saracens in England for three seasons. The move with his family was triggered by former Wallaby five-eighth Paul McLean telling him it’s best to “retire a year early rather than a year late.”

Following Australia’s 1999 World Cup win, the time was right. “I was 29. I was away from my wife, and three young kids … on average, five to six months a year. That was difficult.

“In the first year at Saracens, we only went away or stayed [away] the night before for two games. I was doing pickups and drop offs from school in London and had a great time.”

Horan also did online TAFE courses with “work experience … to see what I didn't like.”

After three years, he had an option to play in the UK or Italy for a year. But an offer from Channel Seven came to commentate on a six month agreement for the 2003 Rugby World Cup. So, he thought, “‘I'll come back, do that, then take six months to find what I want to do.’ Then a good friend was in the property business and I started some work there.”

Transitions are never seamless though, no matter how good one appears to be. “It doesn't matter how experienced you are, how many Tests you have played … one or one hundred,” Horan says. “It’s very hard. It takes four to five years at least before you're comfortable.”

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Horan lauds the support systems implemented by Rugby Union Player’s Association with Rugby Australia for today’s men’s and women’s players, especially with career transition.

“If really good systems help develop the players while they are playing, that is going to reduce the potential for depression and help the mental well-being of players for when they retire because they will be in a better position for it,” he says. However, Horan stresses that the responsibility is still on the players to plan: “It comes down to the athlete wanting to commit to being a better person off the field, to developing their skill set away from rugby.”

Today, Horan works full-time for the London based asset manager River and Mercantile Asset Management as their Australian and New Zealand Managing Director, and is on the Stan Sports rugby commentary team. He is also a “proud” ambassador for the Modified Rugby Program that helps children “with learning and perceptual difficulties,’ such as those with autism who have never engaged in team sport.

His commitment to program began when it started seven years ago: “When I heard the stories of all these kids with autism learning to be a part of teams and from watching their parents on the sidelines. We started seven years ago. I remember the first night on the sideline. Every parent was in tears.”

For Horan, the experience made him “realize how many people have bigger challenges in life than losing a game of rugby,” but that while there is a much bigger world outside rugby, the game – from its skills, values and support systems - can still prepare players well for it.

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