As kids at St Anselm’s College, the Christian Brothers school on Merseyside, they launched the most lethal of half-back alliances in the U12s.
Let loose a few years later on an unsuspecting world, they embarked on different routes to common goals, like winning the European Cup and international caps.
Out-half Simon Mason blazed the trail for his ‘annoying’ sidekick, four goals on a winning debut for Ireland against Wales in 1996 followed by six penalties in winning the Heineken Cup for Ulster three years later.
His St Anselm’s partner, Austin Healey, got there with Leicester and England after the turn of the century,
“He’s been consistently annoying for 45 years,” says Mason with a laugh. “We were nine and 10 together throughout school. He was annoying then and it didn’t matter whether he was on your side or not.”
Mason, back at St Anselm’s as rugby master, will be returning to Belfast in the new year for a reunion to mark the 20th anniversary of the first Irish team to conquer Europe.
The absence of the English, victims of a political boycott, meant Ulster had to beat the mightiest of clubs, not once but twice.
Toulouse, on the way to winning the French title for the sixth time in seven years, lost 29-24 at Ravenhill in the pool and again 15-13 at the same place in the quarter-finals.
For Ulster, Colomiers in the final was like Accrington Stanley after Barcelona.
“A sell-out crowd at Lansdowne Road did wonders for the competition,’’ says Mason.
“So many turned up that they estimated the crowd at 25,000. The nice thing was that the rugby team represented all the people of Ulster with a lot of support from the Gaelic community. It would be great to see it happen again.”
Like the rain sweeping in off the Atlantic, they keep pouring down from a height and an even greater distance. New Zealand coaches are all the rage across Europe, and Wales in particular.
The chain reaction caused by Warren Gatland’s abdication post-World Cup as head coach will leave two vacancies and each has been filled by a Kiwi. Brad Mooar from the Crusaders will run the Scarlets next season, succeeding Wayne Pivac who, in turn, will succeed Gatland in charge of the Wales national team.
By the time Pivac’s journey runs its course, New Zealanders will have taken Wales into six of the last seven World Cups: Graham Henry (1999), Steve Hansen (2003), Gatland (2011, 2015, 2019), Pivac (2023).
Gareth Jenkins, the last Welsh head coach of Wales, took his country into the 2007 tournament and probably wished he hadn’t. The Welsh Rugby Union showed their appreciation by sacking him in the car park of the team’s hotel on the Sunday morning after Fiji knocked them out at the pool stage in Nantes.
Provided Pivac’s reign runs its course, Wales will have been run by New Zealanders for 21 years out of 24.
As luck would have it, Stuart Lancaster will be back on familiar ground this weekend, anxious to ensure Leinster resume normal business at Bath after their single-point lapse in Toulouse seven weeks ago.
How ironic that the tie should coincide with the RFU making noises about the possibility of offering the England job post-World Cup to the man whom they sacked after the last one three years ago. What odds that Lancaster will say thanks-but-no-thanks and rejoin Ireland’s new regime under his former lieutenant, Andy Farrell?
The idea of Leicester Tigers being relegated from the English Premiership would have sounded too preposterous for words until the last few weeks. To avert the unthinkable, Geordan Murphy is applying some reverse logic in his struggle to keep them afloat as interim coach. He has no option but to disregard the friendly advice of trying to dig your way out a hole of your own making: stop digging.
“We’re in a bit of a hole,” he said after the hammering at Bristol, aided and abetted by eight-goal Irish stand-off Ian Madigan.
“We just have to keep digging until we get out of it.”
Or disappear without trace…