Centre of a different universe

 

Gerry Thornley talks to Brendan Mullin and finds that all has changed since he retired seven years ago

Brendan Mullin has been in the news lately, what with his fellow Blackrock, Leinster and Irish number 13 Brian O'Driscoll equalling and then surpassing his Irish try-scoring record. A blast from the not-so-distant past. The class act of his time, he's only been gone seven years yet it somehow seems longer, because all has changed, changed utterly since Mullin was in his considerable pomp.

He was one of the last great Irish players from the amateur era, and something of a barren era, too. The promise held out by a Triple Crown and a championship in his rookie Test season of 1984-85 proved decidedly misleading. That O'Driscoll should surpass Mullin's 17-try landmark in considerably less time (35 caps as against 55) is as much a commentary on the respective times they played in as anything else.

After O'Driscoll bettered his record, Mullin sent him a congratulatory note and an autographed jersey from the 1995 World Cup. In return, O'Driscoll wrote a considered thank you letter which Mullin genuinely appreciated.

At 39, retirement has hardly withered him. He still runs most days and, as you'd expect, looks as fit as ever. Married with three kids, he's now the managing director of Powerscourt Investments, who have a major stake in London Irish. He is holding court in the company's boardroom, and reflecting contentedly on his time and the passing of his record.

Watching O'Driscoll score against Italy he allowed himself a little smile. "No regrets at all. It's a milestone. It was something I was very proud to hold on to for a while, but it's something to be broken. Many more players will break that milestone and that's good for Irish rugby, while Brian will go on to score many more tries."

Compared to, say, football - though I could be wrong about this - it seems there's more of a mutual respect between players of different eras. In any event, that is important to Mullin, and he enjoys the coincidence of the record passing between, as he puts it, "two boys educated in Blackrock, and playing at outside centre. The chances of that happening in the future would be miniscule."

Mullin first surpassed George Stephenson's record of 14 tries in 1991, and stretched it by another couple after coming out of a two-year retirement in 1995, and effectively held it himself for a dozen years.

Mullin's own record-breaker was one of his best, in Murrayfield in 1991.

"I had to run a fair distance to score it alright," he reflects, with a sheepish smile. "But what I do remember is that it was one of those Ireland-Scotland games that we should have won in Murrayfield. We had a very good backline that year. Simon Geoghegan, Jim Staples, Dave Curtis, myself, Brian Smith."

Ireland scored a record number of tries in that championship, but didn't win a match, and picked up just one point for a draw in Wales.

His first Irish try has to stand out, when he charged down Chris Martin's kick in their Triple Crown-winning match against England at Lansdowne Road in 1985. Yet ask him to pick out one of his 17 and he won't.

"I enjoyed every one of them, I have to say. It was the thing I enjoyed most about playing rugby, particularly at international level. For any outside centre or outside back, that's what you were there to do."

Today's opponents highlight the contrasting times for Irish rugby. O'Driscoll has four tries from two wins and one defeat in three meetings with the French. Injury ruled Mullin out of the 15-15 draw in 1985, and by the time his Test career ended with the 1995 World Cup quarter-final defeat to the French, he had seven losses out of seven matches against Les Bleus.

Mullin retired for good just before the game went professional. He would have revelled in the modern professional era, regardless of the extent to which he would have been a star himself, or how much money he would have earned. Not that he's sure he would have preferred it.

"That is a very difficult question to answer, because one part of me would say the professional game is very positive to commit yourself to. And I enjoyed training and running, that's the way I was, so I would have enjoyed the discipline of a professional sport.

"What I'm uncertain about is whether I would have been able to get the degrees I got and the work experience I got which enables me to pursue something professionally now that I enjoy doing. I'm not so sure I could have done that had I been forced to take five or six years out of my life for professional sport."

With that in mind, he sees a big issue in three to five years regarding Ireland's first batch of professional players leaving sport and finding their way back into an increasingly competitive job market. Getting paid to play is not something he missed out on. Being in an Irish team competing on a level playing field was.

"I look with envy on their training programmes, their ability to rest and do power and sprint training. I remember the frustration of being in an Irish team in the late 80s and early 90s when England and France had clearly been doing their power and sprint training, and feeling we weren't really being as competitive as we could have been. I think the Irish team now is as well-prepared, and gets as much facility to train as any other team in the world, which is great."

As far as Mullin was concerned, and he believed it at the time, the introduction of the World Cup in 1987 was the real dawn of professionalism, and by his calculations it took Ireland over a decade to catch up. Smiling, he then gives an example of the near laughable gulf between domestic rugby, such as it was, and Test rugby.

"I can remember clearly playing a non-competitive club match for Trinity in College Park one Saturday, and running out at Parc des Princes the following Saturday. And there was no understanding that that just didn't work."

With his background in athletics as a sprint hurdler, and with his own personal trainer, Mullin played for 10 seasons without getting injured, and he was seen as something of an agent provocateur, one of the players' ringleaders who agitated for improvements in their lot. It was, as he says, an amateur structure, and back then senior players had informal chats with senior IRFU or management figures.

"I remember specifically talking to two or three of the senior people and saying: 'Look, is there any chance we can go and do this power and sprint training?' But there was a sense of 'We've got a fixed budget here and that's going to cost us X, we don't have the money, and is it really necessary?' because they hadn't done it. But I knew it was necessary."

He is not holding himself up as a paragon of professional virtue. He thinks, too, of a host of exceptionally talented players, like Simon Geoghegan and Neil Francis, who would have been superstars in the current set-up.

As for himself, he reckons he was lucky, and maximised what ability he had. When somebody recently showed him an Italy-Ireland programme with him sixth in Ireland's all-time list of capped players, he was stunned. "The only regret I have when I look back on my playing career is that I wish we had won more games."

He had a couple of particularly good years with Blackrock when Eddie O'Sullivan was coach, including a league that got away on a fateful day in Dooradoyle.

"Eddie O'Sullivan is a first-class coach. A great thinker about the game. Preparation is where his forte is. Always very well-prepared for every game and he's obviously brought that up through every level. He's clearly brought in all the right people and overall is just a very astute rugby guy."

Mullin is chairman of London Irish Holdings. It would sit better, you suggest, if he were representing investors as chairman of Leinster but, of course, no such opportunity exists.

"You can't invest in Irish rugby, there is no franchise as such," he says, with a straight bat. Ask him if the IRFU should go down that track and he says: "I think it is something they are considering. I thinkit would be good, because the issue for them at the moment is matching revenue with costs, and I think there's an opportunity to share the costs with people who might have talents and skills in other areas, such as finance, that would take the pressure off the IRFU directly."

He and his family used to live on Lansdowne Road, as if he couldn't get enough of the place, but he'll be there today, as usual, and will travel more optimistically than in his playing days. "I think it's going to be very tight, but I think we've just got this ability to win very tight matches now, and I think that the pack is actually now robust enough to take on the French."