Hugo MacNeill talks study, Ireland and getting to know the North

On a bright, crisp January morning, Hugo MacNeill sits on a park bench gazing out at the vast, green expanses of College Park, where the Dublin University AFC  (DUAFC) 1st team are training in preparation for the gruelling months ahead. In a few weeks’ time, they will host the 2020 Collingwood Cup, and as the host team they will no doubt want to improve on lacklustre showings in the competition in recent years. MacNeill has 37 caps and 46 points for Ireland to his name, as well as three test appearances for the British and Irish Lions, but perhaps his proudest moment as an athlete took place on this very ground. 

It was here that MacNeill’s two goals proved the difference in the 1979 Collingwood Cup final against Maynooth, winning the prestigious trophy for Trinity for only the second time and securing his place in Trinity sporting folklore. “It’s way too long since we’ve won it,” MacNeill laughs, “I think before us, the last time we won was in the 60s. It’s a great competition, and I think it’s wonderful that teams from the North take part.”

When he wasn’t terrorising opposition defences, MacNeill was working hard on his degree, studying Economics and Social Sciences, and was elected as a Scholar in 1979. While others find it impossible to balance sport and study, particularly at such a high level, MacNeill believes that maintaining both proved hugely beneficial for him: “I always thought that sport and study were complementary. I think the motivation to do well at one feeds into the other. It is also especially true for guys coming through today in professional sport. Slowly, they are beginning to realise that there is a life after rugby.” 

I always thought that sport and study were complementary. I think the motivation to do well at one feeds into the other.

“I was talking to a young player at Leinster, and said to him to have a backup for the future, and he shrugged his shoulders and didn’t pay too much heed. It’s only when the younger guys start coming through and see the old guys, the guys that are the heroes, the legends of the dressing room, and they’re hanging around Dublin or Cork or Belfast or wherever, and the young guys say, ‘I’m gonna end up like that’. So getting a degree and planning for your future is a necessity, not just a choice.”

Having hung up his boots long ago, MacNeill currently works in the Irish branch of banking heavyweights Goldman Sachs. MacNeill agrees that his experiences on the pitch served him well in what is known as a demanding place to work. “You learn to deal with mistakes and disappointment,” he admits. “That comes from losing the Schools’ Cup at Blackrock or losing the Lions test series.”

“I remember the first test against the All Blacks [in 1983] and the night before, myself and Ollie Campbell practiced drop kicks and nailed all of them, and it has rained overnight in Christchurch. It’s 13-12, the ball comes back to you and you slip and miss the drop kick by an inch, and you’re sitting in the dressing room afterwards, disappointed. But you get up, get dressed and move on.”

MacNeill’s time in Goldman Sachs saw him become acquainted with the late Peter Sutherland, who served as chairman at the bank from 1995 to 2015. Sutherland also served as UN Special Representative for International Migration from 2006 to 2017 and passed away in January 2018. MacNeill described his death as “tragic”, as he was a dogged defender of the rights of migrants: “He drove the Forgotten Irish campaign, which helped the many Irish emigrating to Britain who weren’t necessarily coming from Trinity. They were in very difficult circumstances, so he was a very good person. He was just getting involved in migration as a topic, and we’ve seen how sensitive that is, so I think he could have been a really powerful voice on that.”

While at Trinity, MacNeill became very interested in social and political issues both at home and abroad. One of his strongest memories as a student was getting to know people from the North and gaining a better understanding of their unique perspectives: “I got to know people from meeting them in the clubs and playing alongside them in teams. We would play in the North and rugby is played in predominantly Unionist areas. A lot of people think it’s ideal because you can play and interact with these people without necessarily having to talk about the situation up North, and I think that’s true, but it only gets you so far. If you want to get to know a teammate and understand them as someone you can depend on, you should probably try to sit down with them and say, ‘Can I just ask you to tell me your perspective?’” 

However, the realities and violence of the Troubles became much clearer to MacNeill on 27 April 1987. While travelling from the North to a World Cup training session in Dublin, Ulster and Ireland players Nigel Carr, David Irwin and Philip Rainey were injured when they were caught up in an IRA bombing intended for a Northern Irish judge. All three survived the attack, but Carr’s injuries meant that he would never play rugby again. “We were in the car in front of them, myself and Trevor Ringland,” MacNeill recalls, “we arrived at training and we were thinking, ‘where are the guys?’ Then the word came through and we were all in shock.”

We had Special Branch officers sleeping on our floors in the Shelbourne when we used to meet up

For MacNeill and the other Southern-based players, the incident completely changed their perception of the conflict: “We had Special Branch officers sleeping on our floors in the Shelbourne when we used to meet up, because one of the players, Jimmy McCoy, was in the PSNI and another player, Brian McCall, was in the British Army, but when we saw the images of their car, I thought to myself, ‘how did they get out of there?’ What it really showed us was that our teammates were going through this all the time, that this is happening every day. Nigel of course never played again, and for us, it was a really significant episode.”

Hearing a lot of the black leaders in South Africa saying ‘please don’t come’, I just decided it was the right thing to do.

MacNeill also learned a lot about Apartheid during his time at Trinity, and when he was called up to the Irish rugby squad for a tour of South Africa in 1981, he opted not to travel. “There was a very strong Anti-Apartheid Society in Trinity at the time, led by Kader Asmal, who was a Professor of Law and went on to serve in the South African government. Hearing a lot of the black leaders in South Africa saying ‘please don’t come’, I just decided it was the right thing to do.”

“I wasn’t sure at the time, because your dream is to play for Ireland one day, and you fight hard to get your hands on the jersey, and now, you’re essentially giving  your place to one of your rivals, and you may not get the chance to play for Ireland again. Then I went to Oxford the following year, and there were a lot of South African rugby players in Oxford at the time, like Nick Mallett, and there were liberal South Africans, and they were saying ‘come see us, but not on a rugby tour’ and when I heard that, it really justified my decision in my mind.”

Back to matters on the pitch, MacNeill is looking forward to seeing how Andy Farrell fares as Ireland head coach in the Six Nations next month. He believes that Ireland’s disastrous World Cup campaign stemmed from the lack of a settled, consistent team. “We weren’t really able to develop a back-line game. When you look at the axis of Johnny Sexton, Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll, they were able to bring everyone else around them, whereas when we won the Grand Slam in 2018, other teams had figured us out.”

“It was very hard on Joe [Schmidt] not being able to pick a settled team, because of all the injuries. So others saw that if Ireland don’t have a back-line game, you can just stop them on the gainline and win it from there. I hope [Farrell] is able to pick from a full deck of cards and enact the type of game plan that he wants. I think the key is to rebuild the back-line game because if you don’t have that, you might be competitive but you will never be champions.” 

Of course, there are far more pressing matters at hand. Trinity kick off their Collingwood Cup campaign against University College Cork (UCC) on February 3. Should they make it to the final two days later, perhaps MacNeill will be inspired to don the DUAFC colours and repeat the heroics of ‘79. Oh well, one can dream.

Cameron Hill

Cameron Hill was the Sports Editor of Trinity News for Michaelmas 2018. He is a Senior Fresh English Literature and French student.