Gallagher is caught in the crossfire

Tim Glover meets the former All Black full-back whose rugby league sojourn has left him in limbo
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While Ieuan Evans and his illustrious guests celebrated rugby union's first testimonial with a party to remember in Llanelli in midweek, John Gallagher made his apologies and left. He took a car to Swansea station, caught the 3.30am milk train to Paddington and by 8am was teaching science to the pupils of Colfe's School in south-east London. That's what you call professionalism.

Reacquainted with the smell of the warpaint and the roar of a capacity crowd at Stradey Park, it had been an emotional night for Gallagher. Had Evans been an Englishman, Gallagher, because of the current intransigence of the RFU over the so-called free gangway between league and union, would not have been able to play. His appearance alongside Jonah Lomu in an International Select XV against Evans's British Isles was his first in union for five years, and as he sat back on the milky way to London, he had time to reflect on what might have been.

Eight years ago Gallagher, give or take a few subtle differences, like he is white and slim, was the Lomu of his day. New Zealand had not seen a full-back quite like Gallagher. His pace and skill gave the All Blacks an extra dimension in attack (he scored four tries against Fiji) as they swept to victory in the inaugural World Cup. He was the first out and out attacking New Zealand full-back and how he got there was astonishing.

Born in Lewisham and educated at St Joseph's Academy in Blackheath, he had a decidedly modest rugby pedigree: a handful of games for Old Askeans, Met Police and one appearance for London Irish. In 1984, aged 20, he travelled to New Zealand "to play a little rugby and have a look at the place". The intention was to stay for six months. He stayed for six and a half years and became a star in the Land of the Long White Cloud: from singing rugby songs in a Kent clubhouse to performing the haka in front of 60,000.

In 1989, he was voted New Zealand's player of the year and the following season became international rugby's player of the year. When Leeds lured him to rugby league with a then world record offer of pounds 300,000, their timing was right. "I'd toured Britain with the All Blacks, stayed on an extra month and when I got back to New Zealand I suddenly felt homesick," Gallagher said. "All my family were still in London."

He accepted Leeds's "very attractive offer" and instantly became a target for any number of hard cases up North. Initially it went well, but in a match against St Helens he was cut down, neck high, by what was described as a "spear" tackle. It looked as if the intent was only slightly short of decapitation. Not even Richard Harris, in This Sporting Life, had to put up with that.

"I was carted off," Gallagher recalls, "and the referee gave a knock- on against me. From the scrum St Helens scored a try that won the game. Leeds said it was the worst tackle they'd ever seen. It was definitely deliberate. The Rugby League sent a video of the incident to all the other clubs and the referees but nothing happened. Because they didn't come down hard at the time, players thought they could get away with anything."

Gallagher suffered severe muscular damage to his neck. "I was being considered for the GB team for a Test against France," Gallagher said, "and I came back too soon. I should have been out for three months but played after 10 days. You always think you're a lot better than you actually are. It all backfired. I was a fairly large name and it's inevitable that you're going to be a marked man. Before it had always been the team performance that mattered and I found myself under a lot more individual pressure. I had to play out of my skin every week to keep the critics off my back."

One of his critics was the coach, Doug Laughton. "We didn't see eye to eye and he didn't play me for six months," Gallagher said. A compensation, apart from the income, after tax, of around pounds 30,000 a year, was that he had time to take a sports science degree at Leeds Polytechnic. "I'm fairly philosophical about what happened," Gallagher said. "Obviously if it had worked out at Leeds life would have been a lot sweeter, but I have no regrets. At the time it felt right."

He left Leeds in 1993 and enjoyed two seasons with the London Crusaders/Broncos before finally retiring earlier this year. "They were always in financial difficulties. We had to take a 20 per cent pay cut." Gallagher's appliance to science at Leeds Poly stood him in good stead. With a wife, Anita, and a baby son, Alexander, he has a new profession, teaching science and physical education at Colfe's, a private secondary school at Lee. He coaches the Under-15s XV and has plenty of opportunity to keep fit.

Lee is near Lewisham, his birthplace. The question now for the 31-year old-Gallagher is has he come full circle - Lew-isham to Well-ington to Leeds to Lee - or was Llanelli a sign that there is another arc in his rugby career? "How did I do?" he asked. "I thoroughly enjoyed it and felt pretty good." He was sharp enough to cut off Kenny Logan when the Scotland wing was in full flight and seemingly untouchable.

When the International Board knocked down the ancient barriers between league and union, Dick Best rang Gallagher and invited him to train with Harlequins. However, while everybody else has accepted the IB's initiative - hence Jonathan Davies's homecoming - England have deferred it until next season.

Gallagher - his father, Sean, a coroner's officer, was born in Derry, thereby making John also eligible for Ireland - has submitted the necessary forms to the RFU. "They haven't apparently looked at my case and I've got no date about resuming so I can't give a commitment to anybody. It's nonsensical. I could play in Wales, but it's not practical. My first move is to play club rugby, get to the top of that structure and see if my form suggests that I could go further. It would be very premature to think I could go all the way."

For the time being, Gallagher is eligible for the odd invitation - Kent want him to play against Hampshire at Blackheath next week and to hell with the consequences - but is resigned to spending his Saturdays shepherding Colfe's juniors, some of whom, by the year 2000, might be enjoying a professional career in rugby union.