This day last year they couldn’t do without him. Leo Cullen couldn’t anyhow.
When the final whistle blew in Cardiff to complete probably the most remarkable comeback in Heineken Cup history, two of the starters immediately sprang to Cullen’s mind. Gordon D’Arcy was one, being “made of stone”. And the other was Shane Horgan. In Cullen’s book Horgan personified the toughness and leadership that now emanated through this team.
“Shaggy has had such a tough year with injury, he’s been so courageous,” Cullen would reflect, and because he felt Leinster wouldn’t have made it onto that winning podium without them, Cullen didn’t even want to go onto that podium unless Horgan and D’Arcy were flanking him.
As the medal presentation began, Cullen told the pair to hold back with him. Then when Cullen’s name was called, the three of them walked up to the rostrum together and when he lifted the cup aloft, D’Arcy and Horgan were at either side.
This year Horgan won’t be making it onto either that podium or the field. This season the injuries finally got the better off him. The week after that glorious victory over Northampton, he damaged his knee again in the Magners League final against Munster. It would be the last time he’d play. It was actually the last time he even ran. In March he bowed to the inevitable.
It’s something he’s totally at ease with, at least for now. The nine months prior to the decision had been painful in more ways than one but after it there has been this strange, almost giddy relief.
He’s actually enjoyed watching Leinster from the stand, a lot more anyway than being in the dressing room with them for the first six months of the season. He felt powerless, almost useless, back then.
Now he has a sense of control again. He’s studying for his professional solicitor exams that he’ll probably sit next year. He’s been doing some media work and helping Leinster’s sport psychologist Enda McNulty with some of his corporate and leadership gigs with Motiv8.
The Leinster organisation have eased the transition too. This morning he’ll fly out with their non-playing squad to form part of their official party. He hasn’t fully decided how or even where life will be long term after rugby but the short term has actually been rather pleasant.
“Maybe some of the soul searching that is done after you retire was already done before I retired because I hadn’t been playing for nine months. I’m not saying that down the road I won’t be missing rugby in a huge way but for now I’m not.
“It’s very difficult to be around a team when you’re not contributing on the pitch so it was almost a relief to be taken out of that no-man’s land.”
He gave it everything to give something to that dressing room. Twice this past year he went under the knife of the world’s leading knee surgeon, the Swede Hakan Alfredson, but for all the time he poured into the swimming pool and the gym his rehab was making little progress.
“It was very frustrating when I wasn’t hitting the marks along the graph of recovery. But when the decision was taken out of your hands and it became clear you couldn’t do this anymore, it alleviated the frustration.”
It was taken out of his hands because it became obvious his knee couldn’t have taken any more and he was in fact risking long term damage.
Now he plans to be back jogging at some stage over the summer and without the demands of being a professional player, the chance to play some recreational golf and indoor soccer in the years ahead is opening up.
Years ago he couldn’t have believed the way a career in professional rugby opened up for him. Bernard Jackman, in his book, would claim Horgan’s incredible athleticism meant he was born to be a professional sportsman but growing up Horgan never aspired to be one. “You never thought of rugby as a job because it wasn’t a job.”
He chuckles lightly when he thinks back on his debut with Ireland. It was the famous watershed game against Scotland in 2000 when he and Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara and John Hayes were catapulted into the starting line-up. The game would turn on a Horgan try after half-time that would give Ireland some breathing space but, while that try and game would change Irish rugby, Horgan and his fellow debutants would undergo a huge transformation themselves.
“If you look at our body shapes that day, we’re so underdeveloped. John Hayes was always a big man but nowhere near the size he’d be later on in his career. Ronan and myself were absolute sticks. I was 21. Any 21-year-old coming into an Irish set-up now is so much bigger physically. But we were lucky in that everyone and everything to a degree was underdeveloped because professionalism was still so new.”
These days teenagers in the Leinster Academy are up at 6am so they can be lifting weights by seven. When he was a teenager there was no academy. There wasn’t even a Leinster club. Leinster was a province. You might play some rugby with a club like Drogheda, as he did when he wasn’t playing minor football for his club and for Meath, and then to play serious rugby you might move onto some Dublin club like Lansdowne, as he did. Soon Jim Glennon and Mike Ruddock called him up to the Leinster set-up and within a few years it had transformed into a club.
“I have to say, I was very comfortable straight away with the idea of seeing Leinster as my club as opposed to a province.”
Looking back though, the transition to being really professional was a lot slower than that. While Ireland and Munster were serially winning Triple Crowns and contesting Heineken Cup finals, superstars like Felipe Contepomi and Brian O’Driscoll and Horgan were still togging off out of the back of a car. They had no dressing room, no base, and Horgan has no real nostalgia for those conditions.
“There was no real honour in going through that. It might strike some people as being romantic but not me.”
Looking back, the Munster players at the time were quicker to demand and apply higher standards They also had more stability, just two coaches in a 10-year-period. Leinster once had four coaches in four years. Ruddock and Mattie Williams brought the project on but Garry Ella just wasn’t right and then Declan Kidney just didn’t feel right. “You need stability for success,” says Horgan. “For a few years there it went off the rails.”
Michael Cheika would put it back on track and more. He was just what Leinster needed and which Horgan himself was as a player — hard and smart. He identified and instilled what he termed Leinster values, namely discipline on and off the field, and sometimes that involved tough love.
“‘Cheks’ would have no problem sending you off the field to take a break if you weren’t doing what he wanted. He had this real imposing presence and was particularly hard on younger lads like Seanie O’Brien because he wanted them to have that hard edge. But Seanie has been well served by all that shouting Cheks would do and Seanie recognises that.”
Horgan himself was occasionally treated to the hairdryer treatment but for the most part their conversations were civil and collaborative. It made obvious sense for Cheika to tap into Horgan’s intelligence. To the public he might not have been as identifiable a leader as other golden generation members such as Paul O’Connell, O’Driscoll and O’Gara were but within the dressing room walls Horgan’s leadership qualities were hugely valued.
O’Gara recalls that at the 2007 World Cup warm-up camp in Spala, it was Horgan who first noticed their tournament itinerary only went as far as the quarter-final and duly asked Eddie O’Sullivan in a team meeting why the semi-final and final hadn’t been included.
Jackman would describe him as one of the brightest players he had ever played with. “Whereas most of us resort to expletives and clichés to help us make our points at team meetings,” Jackman would write in Blue Blood, “Shaggy has the ability to get his point across effectively using words like ‘minutiae’ in a forceful way.”
In the course of our one-hour chat his powers of articulation are subtly but surely apparent. He talks about “formulating” his long-term career plans by the end of this hectic month; how “demonstrable” the discipline Cheika spoke of could be on and off the field; how the “aestheticism” of his immortal try against England in Croke Park fitted the occasion. With such bright players it made sense for Cheika to be, as Horgan himself puts it, “collaborative” with the players.
“Often if an ethos is foisted on you by someone externally there can be a certain resentment and lack of buy-in. But what Michael did was have the players establish the way they wanted to live their lives. With Joe Schmidt as well the players have a huge say in the gameplan. Joe will have the final say and he can sometimes be very quick to say, ‘No, we won’t be doing that’, but if you look at Leo and Jenno [Shane Jennings] and Jamie [Heaslip], they have a huge input. Jonny [Sexton] is another coach on the field, as is Brian. The video analysis Malcolm [O’Kelly] put into the 2009 semi-final against Munster was incredible, it was probably the winning of the game.
“Rugby probably more than any other game is a great game for players having a big say.”
It wasn’t always that way in Leinster. Horgan and his team-mates were fond of Ruddock who, in many ways, was a gentle giant but sometimes he was anything but. Once when Leinster were on a losing streak he confronted the players about their failure to implement his style of play.
“He said if anyone had a problem with his gameplan, there were a pair of gloves out in the back of his car and he’d willingly go toe-to-toe with them in the parking lot,” grins Horgan. “I can tell you, everyone’s head just looked at their shoes! You couldn’t imagine anything like that now.”
In that dressing room would have been O’Driscoll and Denis Hickie. Along with Horgan they formed what the others would call the golden triangle, such was their friendship, and during their time together they would share some golden moments wearing both green and blue.
Along with Tommy Bowe they would be the outstanding finishers of the Noughties, with Neil Francis acclaiming Horgan as the best of the lot. Certainly he produced some of the most iconic finishes.
The try in Twickenham to win the 2006 Triple Crown is an obvious standout yet even it would be eclipsed by his try against the same opposition 12 months later in Croke Park.
That was the perfect day; from taking that crossfield pass from O’Gara to meeting his elated parents and siblings upstairs in Croker afterwards. Yet looking back, the team so nearly went over the edge that day.
“It was very close margins because although you have to bring a certain aggression, you can go overboard. We were right on the verge. I remember Girvan Dempsey going up for a high ball and he was hit without the ball and everyone in our team went in very forcefully to protect him. Mike Forde was with England at the time and would say afterwards that was a real marker. We just had this ‘Thou Shalt Not Pass’ mentality that day.
“I think it was very difficult for England to understand how we felt that day as Irishmen as opposed to how they as Englishmen felt. Even at the time we understood that social history as well as sporting history was been made. I mean, it was in Croke Park, England is central to our history, whereas for England, we’d be just another colony. They had nothing to match that with. I think they were either planning or hoping that the crowd might slight their national anthem but when it was respected, Martin Corry, a real class act, just looked around and all he could do was applaud.
“Now, that was a hugely generous gesture, but was it really the right place to be going into battle? With John Hayes and tears rolling down his face?! They needed to bring themselves to that level, to have that chip on their shoulder like [Martin] Johnson had in ’03, but after the national anthems, they couldn’t.”
By then he was well established in the Irish team but it took him a long time to feel that he was. “I loved playing for Ireland, playing for Leinster but there was a point when I was also really worried about not playing for Leinster and especially Ireland.
“You had a focus on not making mistakes and as a result you didn’t enjoy the games as much or play as well in them. You take Brian. Even on his debut against Australia, he wasn’t worried about keeping the jersey, he was concerned with influencing the game. The difference is huge and that’s where the real enjoyment is, making an impact on the game. It took me until the 2003 World Cup to reach that point.”
By the 2009 Grand Slam though, he was gone. “In fairness to Deccie we had plenty of discussions. Deccie just didn’t see it the same way I saw it.
“In fairness they won the Grand Slam. He was vindicated. But to have been there for eight years knocking on the door and then not be there when it opened, was tough.”
Leinster’s subsequent Heineken Cup success made up for it. The crowning moment would come in Murrayfield but the real watershed was the semi-final in Croke Park.
“We were really at a tipping point going into that game, one way or the other. Like, where we did we go if we lost that game? It’s a big motivational tool sometimes to have that sense that if we don’t perform here we could be embarrassed. I mean, in ’06 we had been embarrassed. That memory was ingrained going into that game.”
Now they’re just 80 minutes away from their third European Cup in four seasons. It’s been quite a journey they’ve had but when he surveys it all, he brims with pride. The kids coming up through the academy won’t have to make the same mistakes they did. They don’t have to put on their boots in their car like he and Felipe did. They now get to play in the RDS, a move Horgan says opened up Leinster to the whole province.
“To me that’s been the best thing that happened to Leinster rugby, that everyone now has access to tickets to see Leinster. You’re no longer either a rugby person or a GAA person. Now you can be both. I’ve got friends that are both. I’m both!”
That is how far they’ve come. That is how far we’ve all come.
Simon Lewis sat down with Sky Sports’ Paul Wallace, Tyrone Howe and Stuart Barnes and asked them the following questions on today’s match.
Can Ulster upset the odds?
Wallace: They won’t throw it around, they will kick the ball into the corners and get up and put a lot of pressure on the lineout. The scrum is another area, while Chris Henry can compete at the breakdown. Those are the three areas and if they do that, then they are in with more than a chance but if Leinster are solid in those three areas then I can only see one result.
Barnes: Joe Schmidt has made a Faustian pact here and it has worked in Europe: we will sacrifice some platform for extra back-row. Cian Healy is not the fourth backrow, he’s the sixth because the centres do it as well.
Schmidt will think, even if they struggle there, ‘as long as they don’t get decimated at scrum and lineout’, Ulster will not be able to do enough to win this game and, with those footballers on the park, ‘when we get a bit of ball, we’ll kill you’. That’s what they have done for two years.
Howe: Even if the Leinster pack comes under pressure, it won’t be enough pressure for it to make that big a difference. They won’t get destroyed. It is about the Ulster defensive organisation. We know Ulster can defend against an aggressive, in your face attack. What they need to prove is that they can make the right decisions in the right places, whether it is a one-off hit or a drift defence when someone is coming back and make the right decision time and time again.
Where would a third Leinster win in four seasons place them?
Barnes: I don’t think there’s even a debate here, it’s not just back to back, two triumphs, a semi-final defeat to Toulouse and triumph before that, three out of four, an away semi-final and the style of play that they produce: if Leinster win this they are the greatest team in the history of the Heineken Cup.
You could argue Toulouse have four trophies and they are greatest club in the Heineken Cup but for a broad group of players in this Leinster team, a core of them have been there, the greatest team has to be Leinster. I defy anyone to come up with any reason to say that any other team would come anywhere near that achievement: three in four years. Astonishing.
Howe: If you’d said five years ago that Leinster in five years’ time would potentially be the greatest Heineken Cup team ever, people in Limerick and Cork would have laughed at you. It’s just an enormous compliment to Leinster rugby that they’ve managed to topple Munster as the kingpins of Heineken Cup rugby. It’s an extraordinary achievement.
Wallace: Munster have always had to work for everything on the pitch because they weren’t a natural, free-flowing, scoring side and the synergy was much greater than the individual talent that they had. Leinster always had a bit of both, they had the individual skills but getting that synergy together and I think the guy who’s really responsible for that is Leo Cullen, really as a captain his leadership in the Leinster camp allied to Brian O’Driscoll in there has been superb. When Leo and Shane Jennings came back from Leicester they brought an awful lot of that team mentality. They’ve taken a Leicester Tigers thing and put it into Leinster and I think that’s great.
And your player of the tournament?
Barnes: Rob Kearney
Howe: Jonny Sexton
Wallace: Rob Kearney
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