A quick 18 with Tony Ensor
Tony Ensor

Tony Ensor

Former UCD and Wanderers full back Tony Ensor was capped 22 times for Ireland but while he still loves to follow the modern game of rugby union (with some trepidation given the hits), his sporting passion now is golf at Bunclody in Co Wexford, but only if the weather’s fine.

Handicap: 13

Club: Bunclody Golf & Fishing Club

1 How’s your golf?

My current handicap is 13 and I play out of Bunclody Golf and Fishing Club, near where I now live. It’s a nice track. My golf is like my handicap.

2 How did you get the dreaded golfing bug?

Well, I’m originally a Dub and my father was a member of Portmarnock for most of his life. Tennis  was my summer game but once I finished rugby and came down to Wexford, there weren’t the same tennis facilities and I took up golf. Of course, I’d have played a few rounds with my father but I never had a handicap until I joined Enniscorthy Golf Club when I was 28, when I retired from rugby and played off a seven handicap for around 15 years. I’m afraid time has caught up with me now that I am 67. I’m drifting yearly as far as handicap goes. I still enjoy it mind.

3 What’s your greatest golfing memory?

The Irish Lawyers play the Edinburgh Lawyers every year, home and away in alternate years, and I’ve been lucky enough to play all the British Open venues bar Royal St George’s. I played Carnoustie for the first time this year [2016] and thought it was absolutely fantastic. Royal Dornoch is another of my very favourite courses along with Troon and the Old Course at St Andrews. So I am a great lover of links and we always bring the Scots up to Lahinch or to Baltray. Those are all special memories.

4 As a lawyer, what do you make of the rules of golf? 

Well, I think some of them are ridiculous. But I can understand why. Basically golf is all about self-regulation. If you are playing St Andrews, say, where balls gather in hollows and you hit one down the middle and you are stuck in a divot, I think that’s ludicrous. But I can understand that the pros would call for a ruling for every lie they didn’t like and say it was an old divot. The laws are a bit odd but because it is a game about honesty and not 100 percent of golfers are honest, you have to have strict rules.

5 Some of the top professionals are so good at using the rules to their benefit, they would have made good lawyers.

(Laughing) Yes, that was our training — If there is a way, find it.

6 Rugby is different game to the one you left behind. What do you make of modern rugby? There’s hardly any fouling now, it’s so tightly controlled.

With citing and assistant referees and going upstairs, there is nothing you are going to get away with. But the physical hits, within the laws, are so amazing that if you want to target a guy as they did with Johnny Sexton, they don’t have to do it outside the law. They can just hit him so bloody hard. And that’s the worrying part of the game. 

7 Do you have grave concerns about the physicality of the game?

I know there are concussion protocols but look at any of the four provinces and see how many are on the injury list at any one time. In my day, a guy might get a kick in the head or a punch in the nose but were weren’t as fit or as heavy and certainly not as dynamic as the players today. So while years ago a player might be out with a sprained ankle, these days they are so fit and the tackling is so physical, the authorities are going to have to do something to control the hits these guys are taking.

7 Do you think rugby is clean?

I can’t give you an opinion on that. I find it all very confusing with the Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) we’ve been hearing about.  And I don’t know if guys are bulking up on legal stuff and then find out that it is performance enhancing and they can’t use it anymore and then find something else. I don’t know enough about it but I know the cyclists kept coming up with other solutions. When it gets to blood transfusions, it is crazy stuff. 

8 So the jury is out? Or are you pretty confident in the sport?

I’d say rugby, generally, is clean. I wouldn’t say it is the policy of any team or any coach to have performance enhancing drugs. But we are one generation away from seeing what effects of the full time professional career has had on these players. They have done detailed studies in American Football when these guys retire and they find huge amounts of drug abuse exist because guys are dealing with the injuries they sustained. We are a long way from the same kind of money in rugby they have in American Football but I would be concerned. And I am sure the IRFU are deeply concerned too and don’t want to be left with all these retired internationals walking around on crutches having knee and hip replacements in their 40s. 

9 Getting back to golf, what’s your dream fourball? 

I’d like to play with Rory McIlroy, Jack Nicklaus (even today) and for a bit of craic, Roger Federer. And I’d like to play at the Mid Ocean Club in Bermuda or Royal Dornoch. I might learn something.

10  Who was your sporting idol?

My first sporting hero was Rod Laver. I umpired him once at Fitzwilliam. And  another was Kevin Flynn, who played centre for Wanderers and Ireland and scored that famous try at Twickenham. When I was young, my father was a Wanderers member and I remember going down to watch Kevin Flynn and ended up playing in the same Wanderers team as him when I was 23 and he was 32 or 33.

11 Of course, you were an interprovincial tennis player. Hence Laver.

Yes, I was lucky enough to play a doubles with Jim McArdle against (Bob) Hewitt and (Frew) McMillan on the grass courts at old Fitzwilliam and needless to say, we weren’t on the court very long.  The same week, Laver, Roy Emerson, Tony Roche and John Newcombe all came over for a week’s holidays after Wimbledon. Laver was a great golfer too — a one handicapper playing about three times a year. He had a left arm that was pure muscle. He played Portmarnock that week

12 Apart from Kevin Flynn, who are your other rugby heroes?

Willie John McBride was and still is someone I admired as a player and a person. Then there was was the captain of New Zealand in ’76 -  the great flanker Ian Kirkpatrick. He was a magnificent No 6. We are having a 40-year reunion of that tour before the New Zealand match. I have the programme here, 5th June 1976 — myself, Grace, McMaster, McIlrath, Mike Gibson, Barry McGann, John Robbie, Willie Duggan, Jimmy Davidson, Stewart McKinney, Moss Keane (deceased),  Ronnie Hakin, Phil O’Callaghan, Pa  Whelan and  Phil Orr. 

13 Were there other special rivals?

Gerald Davies from the all conquering Welsh team of the 70s was special. I played with him for the Barbarians and against Wales. He was one of the few players I faced who could go off both feet within about five yards. Quick as lighting. Flat. Played centre or wing. Gareth Edwards was more famous, probably the greatest scrum half of al time. But Davies, when we played together that time, wherever you went, he seemed to be beside you. He always made space. Mike Gibson was  great player — the complete all rounder. But Gerald Davies was one of the greats.

Tony Ensor scores a try against France in 1975.

Tony Ensor scores a try against France in 1975.

14 Would you like a mulligan in your rugby career?

Had I played in the 80s and 90s, before the game turned professional, I might have dedicated myself more. I did as much as anyone else but there wasn’t that intensity or desire to perfect your skills back then. With hindsight being 20-20, I’d have worked harder at my game. 

15 Who were the hardest workers? 

Mike Gibson worked harder than everyone else. And it showed. And though he was later, and I played with him Ollie Campbell worked as hard as Padraig Harrington or Vijay Singh. He stopped place-kicking when the lights were turned out. He was probably the first great place kicker Ireland had and it wasn’t by accident.

16 Clearly you are not as obsessive about golf?

No. A few holes on Thursday afternoon, when the mood takes

17 What’s your idea of perfect happiness?

Sitting in my garden at 7 or 8 o’clock in a summer’s evening, when the sun is shining, with a nice glass of wine. 

18 You don't sound like a man who will trudge 18 holes in a downpour.

I’m not a guy who will religiously play twice a week. But I’ll always find time to have a nice fourball with friends on a nice course, just for fun and a few shillings. If Leinster were playing Castres or real golfers were playing on television, I’d be inclined to watch that. I’m afraid to say I’m a fair weather golfer. But I love it.

This piece first appeared in the Irish Independent's Tee to Green golf supplement, which appears every Thursday, on 3 November 2016