Former Ireland and Ulster star Gary Longwell was this week inducted in to Newtownabbey’s Sporting Hall of Fame.
Longwell, originally from Glengormley, is the 22nd person to be given the accolade and joins a long list of local sporting greats including ex-Lions skipper Willie John McBride, boxer Neil Sinclair, former Northern Ireland captain, the late Alan McDonald and cricketer Kyle McCallan
A former pupil of Ballyclare High School, Longwell played club rugby for Ballymena and then Ulster. His career spanned both the amateur and professional eras and he became the first-ever player to reach 100 caps for his province.
“I was very fortunate, I played in the amateur phase and then as a professional. I think it took me 10 years to get to 50 caps and then the next five I earned another hundred,” he said at the gala bash.
“I think when you’re playing you think it’s is never going to end and that it will go on forever. The hundred caps was a milestone but I always wanted to get more and more and keep going.”
He was an integral part of the never-to-be-forgotten 1999 European Cup winning side but, as he explained, the team made a slow start in that campaign.
“I remember the first game that season was against Edinburgh and we were 14-0 down after three minutes and we were joking under the posts. We said: ‘there goes another season in Europe’. We thought that was it. But we came back and I think we drew that game 38 all.
“Then something happened. The momentum grew, the crowds got bigger and I remember the semi-final against Stade Francais with 20,000 people packed into Ravenhill. It was one of the best games ever and the final (against Colomiers) at Landsdowne Road was a remarkable day, a terrible game, but a wonderful occasion for us.”
Longwell also excelled in the green shirt of Ireland, winning 26 caps. He picked out the tour of New Zealand as the highlight of his international career and said Jonah Lomu was best player he ever faced.
And, after back-to-back Six Nations successes, Longwell says the current Ireland squad has a real chance in the World Cup later this year.
“Joe Schmidt has been a fantastic coach,” he said. “He has them so well organised and the players have really bought into it. There’s competition right across the board and they have a chance, they really have a chance this year.”