For Irish rugby, there can be no loser today


SIDELINE CUT:The Heino has come a long way since Ulster became the first Irish side to win it in 1999. It opened the door for an adventure that continues at Twickers this evening, writes KEITH DUGGAN

OBSERVE the Sons of Ulster and all that and then take your mind whizzing back to the very last January of the bedraggled 20th century when Ollsshter became the unexpected good news story of the day.

Or rather, her rugby team did. It was one of those quirks of fate that the European Cup final was held in Dublin in 1999 and when Ulster qualified – against the odds and on the back of a supreme end-to-end try by David Humphreys in a semi-final win against mighty Stade Français – it gave the chance for the Ravenhill fraternity to enjoy the novelty of seeing the rest of Ireland unite to toast their success.

It is mad to consider just how far Irish rugby – and the European competition itself – has travelled since Harry Williams coached Ulster to that historic victory. To begin with, the old marketing whiz kids realised it is kind of dumb to finish a contest in the dead of winter when you can make it last until May and the Heino’s presence on the sporting calendar has bloomed to the stage where other sports view it with envy: in less than two decades, it has managed to create its own voice and tradition.

Back then, the professional era was still finding its feet. For instance, in the early part of the season 1998-1999, Ulster were training at dawn and in the evening to accommodate their part-time players, who also worked day jobs. It just wasn’t working so Williams made the radical decision to go with mid-morning and mid-afternoon sessions. For the full-time professionals, it was heaven.

“Like a nine-to-five,” as one player remarked. “And not a very demanding nine-to-five.” But it freshened them up. A week later, they went out and trounced Ebbw Vale and an epic story took flight.

By the time they reached the final, the wee province was slightly dizzy with itself. David Trimble popped up in the Ulster dressingroom after the semi-final. The rugby adventure was a welcome relief from the rows about marches and all-party talks and the past and the future.

This was the Lesser Spotted Ulster: the place of Van the Man and heart-attack-on a-plate fry-ups and of Heaney and MacNeice; the place too often obscured by the smoke and bitterness.

Nothing will ever capture the insularity of Ulster sport quite like the Après Match sketch on the BBC Saturday sports results (it’s on YouTube and is worth searching for). But Ulster ’99 was like a bold and imaginative invitation to get behind a province the rest of the island didn’t fully understand. It was Ulster’s coming-out party.

This was the Ulster of Humphreys and Jonny “Dinger” Bell.

Williams didn’t overstate it but he did hope there would be something unifying about Ulster’s march to Dublin to become champions of Europe.

And it worked. Significant Irish rugby wins were a rarity.

Much like Billy Bingham’s Northern Ireland football team in Spain ’82, the support was general all over Ireland. The Ulster boys were treated like heroes after they dispatched the Colomiers side of Fabien Galthié.

Afterwards in the Berkeley Court, it seemed like the whole of Ireland was there to clap their backs. Gary Longwell put it best when he noted the diversity of the crowd with incredulity: “Gaelic players, everything”.

A few years later, I headed along to see my first – and only – game of Leinster schools rugby at Donnybrook at the invitation of a friend who is a ’Gowes man. St Mary’s were the opposition that day. The ground was fizzing with students from both schools who cheered as if the future of mankind depended on the result going their way.

The old boys stood under swirling clouds of cigar smoke, gathered in informal class-of-’65 or ’83 or ’92 clusters, at once pleased with the immaculate cut of their suits and the soaring performance of their portfolios while wistful for those irrecoverable days when they had been out on that field, gods of matches forgotten everywhere beyond their own minds.

The day seemed to be about ritual. And honour! And money! (And, of course, getting slightly tipsy on lager served in plastic glasses). It was a gorgeously crisp spring afternoon and a delicious fragrance hung in the air.

“Privilege,” my friend declared. I figured he was banging on about some new eau de cologne he was wearing; the new scent by CK or whoever.

“No,” he said, gesturing at the scene around the ground. “This is what privilege smells like.”

St Mary’s dominated the match itself but it wasn’t so much the scoreline that made an impression as the unavoidable sense that for some of the boys on the field, nothing in their future lives, however successful, would ever quite match the electrifying tumult of this afternoon.

The ’Gowes had a dashing young centre who looked like he had wandered out of a Rupert Graves poem. “Kearney,” someone said. “He’s one to watch.”

So he was. For decades, the rarefied atmosphere of schools rugby was a refuge from the disappointments of Ireland’s rugby experiences in the adult world. But after Ulster’s triumph, the other Irish provinces continued their inexorable rise to greatness.

Suddenly, Munster were the best supported sports club on earth and made a glorious virtue out of rainswept January Saturdays in Thomond Park. Connacht began to beat teams they had no right to beat. Leinster were regarded as a more suave, towny and less trustworthy version of Irish rugby until they, too, got their act together and announced themselves as brilliant.

In the meantime, the “Heino” was brilliantly marketed and sucked in both traditional rugby heads and arrivistes who enjoyed wearing O’Driscoll or O’Gara shirts and who would stand drinking iced-cider while knowledgably referring to Leamy or O’Connell as “the dogs of war” and chuckle at the latest outburst from Hooky, the old scoundrel. In the space of a decade, Irish rugby had become unrecognisable.

And so it comes to this. The cream of Ulster and Leinster meeting for the bragging rights to Europe on the green sward of Fortress Twickers, scene of many a ritual humiliation for Irishmen. But not today! Not since Michael Collins donned a trilby and headed to Downing Street with his delegation have so many Irishmen travelled to London with such lofty ambitions. Yes, we all know how that one turned out. And in the decades afterwards, sport was the often the best – and sometimes the only – means of communication between Ulster and the other three provinces.

The thing about this final is that as far as Irish rugby goes, there can be no loser.

The teams are the envy of Europe. All four green fields will trot out for the Heino again next autumn.

O’Driscoll, the stand-alone genius of this bizarrely rich era for Irish rugby, is fit and well and has a few seasons left yet. All is well!

What was the Van the Man line when he was getting dreamy about the glories of Downpatrick and Ardglass and Coney Island? Oh yeah.

Wouldn’t it be great if it could be like this all the time?