Way back then on a muddy field in a desolate corner of Milan, Niall Woods had no idea that what he started would catch on in a way Leinster could never have dared imagine.
They had succeeded in Europe at the first attempt, a largely anonymous debut win, scruffy enough to leave a couple of hundred curious Italians scratching their heads and the Irish visitors awaiting the delivery of their first brown envelopes. In return Leinster’s first prospectors had pointed the way, however unwittingly, to a veritable goldmine.
The sport had belatedly plucked up the courage to give shamateurism the heave-ho in Paris on the last Sunday of August and now, less than 10 weeks later on November 1, 1995, the European pioneers were playing for more than the love of the game — but none the wiser as to exactly how much more. Woods had settled the score on the field although in truth the win had more to do with Diego Dominguez missing a volley of penalties than the Leinster right wing’s solo scarper to the posts.
“From memory, I think we got an envelope with £200,” says Woods whose personal management company Navy Blue Sports features a large stable of big-name clients. ‘’We were all working for a living as well as playing for our clubs.
“I was training to be an accountant and it was nice to have a bit of extra money. We went out on the beer in Milan that night. As for the envelopes, we were told not to say anything, along the lines of: ‘Don’t be broadcasting what you’ve got.’”
One of the players did. “The Leinster branch called a meeting and the treasurer got his knuckles rapped. It wasn’t until the following year, 1996, that we got our first contracts.’’ For all the novelty of the experience, nobody in the Leinster party felt they were taking European rugby to new frontiers the way Meriwether Lewis and William Clarke had done for America west of the Missouri. It may have been a voyage of discovery of sorts but there was never a Christopher Columbus moment.
Leinster’s visit to a city famous for its fashion labels and La Scala came and went without the Milanese taking a blind bit of notice. “The match took place on a Wednesday afternoon and I’d say there were 300 people there, at the very most,” says Woods. “Diego Dominguez was playing at 10 for them. Luckily, he missed a fair few kicks at goal. He got two out of eight so we’d probably have lost had he been on form.
‘’I was at a dinner last week and Shane Byrne, who was in the front row that day, was there. We were reminiscing about the match and he gave me the detail on how dirty it was — absolutely filthy. We had a Kiwi guy in the back row, Dean Oswald. He was one of the hardest people I ever played with and his eyes were hanging out from a stamp in the face. The pitch was really heavy and I can remember looking around and thinking: ‘What are we doing over here?’
Cardiff’s all-Welsh team did for Leinster in the semi-finals and it would take them another 13 years to win the trophy. At the Aviva Stadium tonight, they open the Heineken Champions Cup against Wasps as defending champions and hot favourites to win the trophy for an unprecedented fifth time.
“During that first season I wouldn’t have thought success on such a scale would be possible,” says Woods, an international wing whose career took him to London Irish and Harlequins. “The standard and quality of Irish rugby, as shown by the Leinster-Munster game last week, is outstanding, even with six or seven top guys not playing.”
At times last season Leinster lifted their game to a level which made it tempting to laud them as the best non-international team in the northern hemisphere, an oxymoron if ever there was one given their capacity to pick 23 Test players.
The usual suspects, Saracens and Racing 92, head the list of contenders. Exeter, with Ireland’s forgotten fly-half Gareth Steenson laying weekly claim to being the best uncapped 10 in the game, will join them but only if they manage what would be a monumental double over Munster, starting in Devon tomorrow.
What of the best team not to have conquered Europe, Clermont? The yellow Vulcans are nowhere to be seen, demoted to the Challenge Cup as punishment for one lousy domestic season all of which ought to aid and abet Leinster’s passage towards ensuring a foggy night on the Tyne at St James’s Park next May.
Once upon a time, on the day of England’s most shameful beating in Australia, I sought temporary refuge from the relentless pursuit of truth at the botanical gardens in Brisbane only for the serenity of my stroll to be shattered by a rugby ball spiralling above a very tall palm tree.
The muffled voices behind the bark sounded vaguely familiar. Closer inspection confirmed that one belonged to a teenage novice about to start his first Test match, the other to a coach who can now, 21 years later, justifiably claim a double unique in international sport.
Jonny Wilkinson, practising drop-outs under the direction of his mentor, Dave Alred, ended the day in tears, distraught at a hopelessly depleted England team losing 76-0 which guaranteed an insulting number of restarts.
“Who am I kidding?’’ a tormented Wilkinson asked himself. ‘’Those dreams were all a pile of shit. I’m a joke. I’m pathetic.’’
The point of the tale is not to underline Wilkinson’s world-beating powers of recovery but Alred’s role in turning a blubbering kid into an English sporting hero. Having helped England win the World Cup in Sydney in 2003, he has now done the same for Europe at the Ryder Cup, transferring his Midas touch to Francesco Molinari.
Since Alred started work as the golfer’s performance coach, the Italian has won the Open at Carnoustie and topped a stellar European cast in the rout of the USA with five points out of five. Clive Woodward, England’s ex-head coach and self-confessed golf nut, describes Alred as ‘the best and most driven specialist coach I have seen’.
“This is the man who once asked me if he could take a month out of England duties to travel to Australia and learn how to teach dolphins to perform their tricks,” Woodward wrote in his newspaper column last week.
“I agreed and when he returned he made one of the best presentations I have seen about coaching. His basic premise was that if you can teach dolphins to perform and repeat an intricate manoeuvre, why not human beings, even prop forwards?”
Until last weekend, Connacht stood out by a country mile among the 40 competing in Europe’s three major Leagues, as the only one to have gone 10 seasons without a red card.
The best part of 300 matches had come and gone since a Connacht player last went for an early bath, when a young Mike McCarthy against Leinster at the Sportsground almost exactly a decade ago.
Last week, in the same fixture, at the same venue, Dominic Robertson-McCoy (above) put a double-barrelled boot through the cleanest of records.
At a time when the Irish game rules the European roost, it ought not to surprise anyone that one of their squad members should find himself in a global league of his own. When it comes to setting the benchmark for subs the world over, nobody does it more often than Sean Cronin.
Leinster’s ex-Munster hooker has turned the mundane matter of getting off his backside and into the thick of the action into such an art form, that he has already done it on more than 50 occasions. Of his 62 Test appearances over nine years, Rory Best’s understudy has made all but nine off the bench.
Nobody else comes close, although a couple of scrum-halves are to be commended for maintaining a distant pursuit.
The Rugby Championship closed last week with the leader of The Haka, TJ Perenara, playing his 40th match as a sub for the All Blacks and his Australian counterpart, Nick Phipps, doing likewise a few hours later in Buenos Aires.