He may be best known for manning the second row for Ireland throughout the 90s, winning 59 caps for his country and playing in two World Cups, but many may not realise that among his other accomplishments, Paddy Johns is also a dentist.
Two personal experiences with the dentist as a young boy pushed Paddy to consider a career in dentistry. “When I was about 12, I had four teeth out, and it didn’t go too well for me. So it put me off going back [to the dentist] for four or five years, until another dentist gave me a filling, which didn’t really hurt at all. That was always in the back of my head, and the idea that if I could be a dentist, I could be like the second dentist, not the first one.” This, coupled with a talent for science in school, saw Paddy travel to Newcastle to study dentistry, where he spent two years, before transferring to Trinity College Dublin.
Upon graduating from Trinity in 1991, the six foot six Northern Irish man spent a year in private practice in Carrickfergus. However, working in private practice meant often having to see patients on evenings and weekends, which clashed with rugby training and matches. This is what gave Paddy the push towards public dentistry: “It was really a colleague that suggested the community dentistry because it was more nine to five and it suited better with the rugby commitments I had. I tried it for six months and I really enjoyed it, so I stuck with it, but then I took six years out to play rugby.”
Following his retirement from professional rugby, Paddy returned to dentistry and began working with the Southern Trust, the authority with responsibility for healthcare in the southern region of Northern Ireland. It’s a job which is not without its challenges: “We are the community dental service, so we treat priority groups – patients with special needs, patients who have learning and physical difficulties, those who are housebound, in nursing homes, etc. We also run the children’s general anesthetic list, so we take out children’s teeth in hospitals.”
“The young patients are often very anxious kids who won’t sit for a general dentist. Generally, our patients wouldn’t be suitable for practice for various reasons and that makes them a bit more challenging to work with. They’re more time-consuming. In practice, they don’t need somebody coming in who’s not able to lie back in the chair, or isn’t able to open up their mouth too wide for very long.”
The now 46-year-old is based in the Health and Social Services Centre in Banbridge, Co. Down, and admits that he enjoys the challenge and variety that comes with community dentistry. When asked what his favourite part of the job is, he replies with a laugh: “I quite like taking out teeth.” Of course that’s not the only enjoyable part of his job: “I do like relieving pain. If someone comes to you in a lot of pain and you can help that, it’s quite satisfying. And if someone comes in and they’re embarrassed about their teeth, you can help them so they’re no longer embarrassed and give them a smile.”
Returning to the rugby pitch
After hanging up his rugby boots in 2002, Paddy stayed away from the rugby spotlight for 10 years. However, following the 2011 Rugby World Cup, he felt it was a good time to get back on the pitch and try his hand at coaching. For this, he returned to his home club of Dungannon, where he spent the past two years as head coach.
Since re-immersing himself in the sport, Paddy has found that there’s a huge difference between coaching rugby and playing it: “It can be a lot more frustrating to coach a team than to play in one. You have a lot less control of the outcome of the game. You can’t always ensure they [the players] do what you want them to do, but it can be very satisfying too when a plan comes to fruition.”
Dungannon had a disappointing year in 2013, and were relegated to Division 2A. However, Paddy says, despite this, he enjoyed his time coaching the team: “The players are all good lads. Just being in a team environment and on the bus and the pitch; it’s the closest thing you can get to playing, without actually having to play.”
Paddy admits he underestimated the mammoth effort that goes into coaching an amateur team. He reckons his work with Dungannon rugby club was taking up about 20 to 30 hours of his time a week between training, planning, matches and everything else that goes with it. “You play a match on a Saturday – you might be gone by 8.00am, and not back until 6.00pm or 7.00pm. After the game itself then you watch the video, that’ll take an hour or two, then analyse it. After that you sit down and plan your training sessions for the next week. During the week you have training, making your phone calls to people who aren’t going to be on the team, and so on.”
This time pressure and family commitments has driven Paddy to take a step back from the helm of Dungannon rugby club: “This year there’s a new coaching team coming in, so I may help out in the background without committing a lot of time, and hopefully they will bounce back [following relegation].
“My kids are at the stage where in another couple of years, they’ll all be gone, so when that happens, I plan to get back into it. I underestimated the time commitment, and at the moment I need more time with my family.”
Paddy also does his bit for charity, and spent some time in Ethiopia last year with community-development organisation Plan Ireland. Although he had known about Plan prior to his trip (he and his wife have sponsored children under Plan UK for about 14 years), it was fellow rugby player and friend Malcolm O’Kelly who got Paddy directly involved in the organisation’s work.
Malcolm is ambassador for Plan Ireland and when the 2013 Ethiopia trip clashed with the birth of his twins, he asked Paddy to take his place. With little hesitation, Paddy agreed to go: “It was nice to go and see what Plan actually do on the ground. I knew I was giving to sponsor a child, but I didn’t know what was happening at the end of it. It was really good to see that every penny is put to good use. Plan’s
strategy is very good, they don’t just go in and throw money at communities; they put a scheme in place, they’ve got an exit strategy, and what they do really makes a big difference. They enable the local community to manage the project themselves.”
In Ethiopia, the delegation visited the projects that Plan had put together. One of them was a solar water project in a community in the middle of Ethiopia. Before the water pump was installed, the children in the community would have to make a two-mile walk to the water twice a day to gather enough for the family. This task usually fell to the girls, who were as young as eight years of age. Paddy explains how Plan’s simple project has helped the village to become more self-sufficient: “Plan got solar panels and put them in a pump and installed two miles of piping to pump the water up to the village. Now the villagers distribute water – they pay something like 2p for the water – and the money collected goes to the locals to fix anything that needs to be fixed – so it’s all self-funding now. Once they have somebody that they can teach to fix any troubleshooting problems with the pump, Plan can step out.
“So now the kids don’t have to collect water: they can go to school, they no longer need to get married at 12, they can get married at 16 and stay in school until that time, so it’s starting to improve their lives. Something as simple as that has made a huge difference in that whole community.”
The highlight of the trip for Paddy was seeing how happy and grateful the children they met were to Plan and its representatives. He’s eager to encourage people to get involved with the charity, if only to sponsor a child themselves: “I really see the value in Plan, and if people reading this could think about sponsoring a child, I could certainly validate that it’s worthwhile. Having been out there, I see they make a huge difference, and it’s not a whole lot of money either.”
Paddy was born and raised in Dungannon. He is married and has four children – Christopher (19), Emily (17) and twins Megan and Hannah (14). He spends much of his spare time following his children to their various sporting matches: Christopher is a professional football player and plays with Southampton under-21s, while the girls of the family all play hockey. Outside of rugby, Paddy enjoys competing in triathlons, and enters about four events per year in a bid to keep himself fit. He’s currently training for a triathlon, which takes place in Athlone in August.
Paddy began playing rugby from an early age; he recalls he was around six or seven-years old when he and his two brothers first became regular faces around his local rugby club in Dungannon. Paddy had his international debut as a lock against Argentina in October 1990 at the age of 22. He played in both the 1995 and 1999 Rugby World Cups, and has won 59 caps for Ireland. Paddy retired from rugby in 2002.
If you are interested in sponsoring a child with Plan Ireland, visit www.plan.ie/sponsor-a-child/sponsor-a-child-today.