When Hugo MacNeill first came to Trinity as an undergraduate in 1979, the world was a different place. While playing for Dublin University Football Club (DUFC), he was called up to the Irish national rugby team as part of a panel who were to travel to South Africa for a test series. Many rugby players might consider such a call-up one of the highlights of their career.
MacNeill opted not to join the squad.
“It was the apartheid era in South Africa”, MacNeill tells me. “There was a very strong anti-apartheid movement here in Trinity. A lot of people said: ‘Keep politics out of sport’, but the problem in South Africa was that sport was very much in politics.”
MacNeill likens the situation to the Saipan debacle that almost derailed Ireland’s 2002 World Cup campaign. “It really divided the country”, he says.
Some years later, when he went to Oxford to study, MacNeill met South African players who had been directly affected by the issues that plagued rugby in their home country. After speaking with them, he felt reassured that his decision had been the correct one. “I was wondering what their reaction would be to me. They were pretty liberal South Africans, and they said: ‘Come back and see us, but not on a rugby tour.’ We did the right thing.”
MacNeill cites the 1995 Rugby World Cup as a turning point for South Africa, rugby and, indeed, sport. “In 95, when South Africa won the World Cup with Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar, it was just phenomenal”, he says. “Rather than being a point of division, rugby showed that it could be a means to unify people.”
A lot of people said: ‘Keep politics out of sport’, but the problem in South Africa was that sport was very much in politics
One year after that World Cup, the Provisional IRA bombed Canary Wharf in London, killing two and injuring over 100 people. After seeing the impact sport could have in the face of conflict in South Africa, MacNeill felt compelled to use rugby in order to make a statement against violence closer to home.
“I called a guy called Trevor Ringland, one of my best friends, who played right wing for Ireland when I played full back. Trevor was from an Ulster unionist background. I said: ‘Why don’t we organise a peace game, why don’t we invite the best players in the world to Ireland as a statement [against] all terrorist violence, following on from South Africa’”, he remembers.
Determined to bring the finest talent to Dublin for the match, MacNeill got in touch with John Robbie. Robbie, a former captain of DUFC, was working as a journalist in South Africa: “I called John and said: ‘John, is there any chance that Francois [Pienaar] would come to this game in Dublin?’ He came back and said: ‘Yeah, and he doesn’t want a penny for it.’ The whole thing then took off.”
On May 18th, 1996, Ireland played the Barbarians in the Peace International in front of a sold-out crowd in Lansdowne Road. At the time, Pienaar said that “we have seen great strides towards peace and reconciliation in South Africa over recent years and I am delighted to lend my support to those working actively for peace in Ireland”.
Looking back now, 23 years later, MacNeill counts the occasion as one of his proudest moments: “That was an example of where sport can show you the right way to do relationships on this island, and not the wrong way … [Sport] can bring people together, without threatening their identity, without threatening their nationality, without threatening their religion.”
While MacNeill made his name on the world stage playing rugby, he wasn’t confined to one sport: he also excelled at soccer, and represented Dublin University Association Football Club (DUAFC) while at Trinity. In fact, in 1979, he won the Collingwood Cup with DUAFC, the premier intervarsity football competition in Ireland. MacNeill scored two goals in the final, helping his team overcome Maynooth 2-0.
Sport can bring people together, without threatening their identity, without threatening their nationality
“I was lucky enough to score a couple goals in that, although with a banjaxed knee. I was hobbling up around the front … I couldn’t have played full back in rugby, but I could play [centre forward] … so if you lost nine out of ten balls up at centre forward, if you got a goal with the tenth it sort of worked well.”
The man who made the decision to play MacNeill up front that day was Liam Tuohy. Tuohy was a significant figure in Irish football at the time, having managed Shamrock Rovers, Dundalk and the Republic of Ireland before joining Trinity.
“He just knew his stuff”, MacNeill recalls. “When I listen to Liam Brady or somebody like that, Ronnie Whelan, nowadays, chatting, it was a bit like that. They just talked so much sense about soccer, they know it so well. Liam was exactly the same. Just was a great, great character.”
DUAFC’s triumph in 1979 hasn’t been matched since. This year, Trinity will be on home soil as they try to recapture past glories in the Collingwood Cup. MacNeill is hopeful that DUAFC’s current crop can deliver come February: “One of the first things I’m doing as [Trinity Sport ambassador] is coming to the launch of the Collingwood Cup, so that’ll be brilliant. It was such a brilliant memory to play in College Park – again, the tournament was here. It was fantastic.”
Along with the prospect of a Collingwood victory on home soil, MacNeill notes other reasons to be optimistic about sport in Trinity. He cites the recent performances of DUFC Men as a testament to the exceptional work being done at his former club: “What Tony Smeeth has done is fantastic. Trinity are in Division 1A, performing well. I mean, look how well they did last year. The rugby they play is great, and at the same time, having lots of the players taken away with the provincial sides … they’ve really done really well.”
MacNeill has recently been appointed an ambassador for Trinity Sport. Along with his work as an ambassador for the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities, he hopes to continue to promote sport as a platform for inclusion and unity: “I’ve just been so lucky with sport, and sport’s given so much to me, and made so many of my friends, had great times, great success. I’ve seen the benefits of sports and what it can do.”