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Remembering John McCall

John McCall after guiding Royal School, Armagh to an Ulster Schools’ Senior Cup title in March 2004

Royal School Armagh captain John McCall salutes his team with the rugby Schools Cup after Armagh beat Campbell College in the final at Ravenhill, Belfast - John Dickson

On March 17th, 2004, John McCall captained Royal School Armagh to victory in the Ulster Schools Senior Cup beating Campbell College in the final, and in doing so bridged a gap of 27 years to the previous triumph in 1977, a team that contained, coincidentally, his uncle, Brian, a former Ulster, and Ireland second row.

The fame-haired, teak tough, flanker had been part of an Ulster Schools team that beat a Johnny Sexton inspired Leinster side in the final match of the inter-pros at Ravenhill to claim the inter-provincial title earlier in the season. An indisputable talent, he was selected for the Ireland team to contest the U19 World Championship in Durban.

The Schools’ final took place on a Tuesday; on Thursday he headed for Dublin to link up with the national squad and depart for South Africa. Eight days later, on March 27th, the 18-year-old McCall collapsed and died during Ireland’s opening match of the tournament against New Zealand.

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The team played on unaware of the unspeakable tragedy until informed after the final whistle. The cause of death was viral cardiomyopathy. The Ireland team withdrew from the tournament after team manager Michael Cunningham and head coach Pat Murray consulted the players.

On April 4th McCall’s funeral attracted a huge crowd to the Mall Presbyterian Church in Armagh, the service relayed to another church and two halls to accommodate those seeking to pay their respects – the rugby community travelled from all over the world to do so – to his family, father Ian, mother Carolyn, sister Rebecca and younger brother, James.

Speaking to his father Ian, two decades later, what emerges is that John was someone who loved his family, his faith, his rugby and his art, the latter two at which he excelled; he had been accepted to study architecture at Queen’s University, Belfast.

Ian recalled: John had grown into a very confident and mature young guy. He was a great son, no angel. The fact that John knew that he would make mistakes, that he would do things that he didn’t want to do but the fact that we can go to our God and ask forgiveness for those is who we are.

“We are a family of deep faith. There’s religion but we are not religious. We have a strong faith in the gospel. Our family was lovely at this stage because we went from two adults and three kids to having five adults. As you would know, it is a great time. Life is all seasons. We would have gone out every Friday night for our tea and the craic would have been good. A bit of banter and it was lovely.”

Ian played rugby for City of Armagh until he was 57 and the two loved nothing better than chatting about rugby. His father described him as a sponge and as a rugby player likened him to a central figure in Andy Farrell’s team that takes on Wales at the Aviva Stadium today.

“He (John) was physical, didn’t suffer fools gladly on a pitch. He was a hard man on the pitch. In some ways he reminds me of our current Irish captain (Peter O’Mahony) or (perhaps) our current Irish captain reminds me of John.”

Willie Faloon played alongside John McCall in the Royal School Armagh backrow and would go on to play professional rugby with Ulster and Connacht. He then took up coaching and is currently a double Grand Slam winning defence coach for the Ireland U20s, a role he’s held since 2022.

Although a year younger than John, the two shared a passion for art and backrow artistry as a pair of tearaway flankers. Faloon said of his friend and teammate: “John was a lovable character. On and off the pitch were two different men.

“On the pitch he was so serious and driven, someone who expected the highest standards from everyone. Off the pitch he was fun loving. When he talked about rugby it was a different story.”

So, what was he like as a leader: “John led more by example, he had a real steely determination. I remember when we were coming up to a couple of our (Ulster Schools Senior) Cup matches, I was younger than John and probably had my own little doubts.

“Talking to John he had that confidence, that determination and you just knew that he had total belief in us and himself; that radiated through the team, there didn’t have to be an awful lot said. We beat Methody and Inst (RBAI) in the first two rounds at home in Armagh, then beat Ballymena in the semi-final and Campbell in the final.

“It was in his character, he was so determined and driven, the best trainer and tough; you knew there wouldn’t be a backward step with John. I remember the odd training session would be fairly feisty. In one he pinned me on the ground and took a slap at me. I looked up and he was sitting there smiling. He was tough but a jovial character too.”

When asked for a favourite story, Faloon said: “The one I always think of is we both did art. He was the year above me, but we just hung out. I was having my doubts going into the Inst (RBAI) match.

“I remember sitting there with John and we were sketching together, we were talking about the game, and I was left with no other thought in my mind that we were going to win this game, just by talking to him. That was him to a tee, full of self-belief, confidence and he backed it up.”

A life cut short tragically, but although a brief one, filled with accomplishment as a person, player, and leader. The final words in this appreciation belong to Ian McCall: “It was very difficult, still is, 20 years later, we still miss John greatly, we think of him often. Truthfully, we love people to talk about John, to us it’s fantastic that even after 20 years John is being remembered.

“John is much loved, and he is truly, much missed.”

Ireland U19 squad v New Zealand

F Carr (Newbridge College); J McGrugan (Ballymena),M Scott (Belfast Harlequins), Stewart Megaw (QUB); E Fitzgerald (Old Belvedere), C Willis (UCD); K O’Neill (Dublin University), G Moran (UCD), P Doran-Jones (Dublin University); R Noonan (UCC), B Holland (CBC Cork); M Essex (CBC Cork, capt), J McCall (RS Armagh), S Ferris (Portadown).

Replacements: J Kerins (UCC), M Moloney (UCC), Gary Mitchell (RBAI), David McGowan (Sligo), Peter Phelan (Exiles), Colin Mahony (Highfield), Cian McNaughton (Greystones), Kevin Barden (Belvedere College), Mark Connaughty (Ballymena Academy), Gary Byrne (Terenure College), Conor Lavery (Rainey Endowed).

The above article first appeared in the recent Ireland versus Wales official match programme and is kindly reproduced with thanks to the author, John O’Sullivan.