Owen Finegan is Irish. He looks Irish. His parents are both Irish. All his siblings were born in Ireland. He spent many happy times in Ireland. And yet, like former Wallaby skipper Stephen Moore, when it came to representative rugby it was his Australian passport and not his Irish one that that won out.
Finegan, now 46, played 56 times for the Wallabies and has no complaints about the choice he made. After all, he won a World Cup winners medal in 1999, scoring a try in the final.
But he treasures his Irish heritage, lovingly handed down to him by his late Meath-born dad Pat and mum Josephine.
When he thinks about Irish rugby now, Finegan says it’s the late Anthony Foley who springs to mind.
“It’s a fond memory I have got of him and my battles with the Irish team,” Finegan tells The Irish Echo.
The former back-rower dislocated his shoulder tussling with the Irish flanker who passed away in 2016 while he was Munster head coach.
“I have great memories of playing at Lansdowne Road. It was a great stadium with great history. I remember running out to the ground announcer welcoming, “the Wallabies and Owen Finegan and his 40-plus relatives at the game today”.
“It was great to play in Ireland in front of my relatives. My mum and dad loved coming back over, coming back over for a month and making a good trip out of it. The only downside was dislocating my shoulder in one of those matches and having to have shoulder reconstruction at the end of it. That’s one of my not so fond memories but it was wonderful,” he said.
Firm Irish friendships were forged over the years including with the much-loved Foley.
“I saw he passed and the outpouring from the international rugby community was a wonderful thing. It was shattering.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen a bit of that with Jonah Lomu, Jerry Collins, a few of those I kind of ducked around were only in their early 40’s, if that, but are not with us anymore.
“He was a great Irishman. It’s not often you meet blokes like that and if I was going to dislocate my shoulder, who better for it to be against than tackling Anthony?”
Finegan also played alongside some of Ireland’s biggest stars while playing with Leinster under current Wallabies coach Michael Cheika and in the Barbarians jersey.
“I also got an opportunity to play in some Barbarian teams with Gordon D’Arcy, Brian O’Dricoll and some other Irish players, it was a wonderful opportunity to do that.”
Finnegan, named in the first Wallabies team of the professional era in 2005, says it will be a tough ask for the Aussies to defeat the all-conquering Irish.
“They’re in the top three in world rugby. They beat New Zealand and England to break their record run of wins. You look at a team like that that have been consistent in winning almost 20 games.
“Ireland played extremely well in the Six Nations, very tough. Australia struggled in a three-Test series against England two years ago. Last year Scotland came down and beat us, so Ireland coming out as Six Nations champions and Grand Slam winners, that’s gonna be a tough ask.”
Finegan started at Randwick Rugby Club before being a key part of Canberra’s Brumbies from their very inception in 1996. He helped them to two titles, including captaining them to their 2004 triumph.
He played 90 Super 12 matches and a record 31 tries for a forward. It was in 2005 that Finegan left for Newcastle Falcons. He would spend one year in England’s North East before moving to Leinster.
“I had a year at Leinster and Michael Cheika was there with me so it’s interesting. A lot of the boys, well they were young boys when I was playing: Jonathan Sexton, Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, Devin Toner and all those blokes were starting off at Leinster as young pups when I was finishing off so it’s been good to follow their movements and growth into Irish rugby players.
“O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, Kearney, Shane Horgan, Hickie were playing so a lot of those young players were just raising their heads, coming to the fore as well so that was a good time. They were transitioning out, those older players, so the younger players were getting a bit of an opportunity.”
Finnegan is now head coach of Randwick Rugby, the club Cheika left to join Leinster where he enjoyed success.
“He made a really good job and transformed Leinster from a team that were mildly competitive into European champions,” Finegan said.
“To end my rugby career and have stints at Newcastle, Leicester and Dublin, the Leinster experience particularly, coming from a large Irish family: My mother had 14 brothers and sisters, my dad had 13 brothers and sisters and the majority are still in Ireland. It was a wonderful opportunity.”
Cheika took the Wallabies to the World Cup final in 2015 but recent years have been disappointing for the Wallabies, losing a home test series to England and by a record margin to Scotland last year.
“He did a great job initially, taking on the World Cup in 2015 with a very short turnaround and they made the final against the All Blacks.
“They probably haven’t had that consistency since. He’s been really good and most of the clubs he’s been to have been successful. He was successful over at Leinster and at the Waratahs and probably hasn’t had the same consistency with the Wallabies. You want them to consistently perform so even if they’re losing games, they’re still very competitive and just the best can beat them.”