KIERAN SHANNON: The Kieran Shannon Interview: Donal Lenihan reflects on the rise of rugby professionalism

From the amateur model he thrived in, the world of professional rugby is a different game to Donal Lenihan. Vastly improved, of course, but not better in every way. Nowadays, head coaches are conjuring up ways to achieve what a few pints in once managed, writes Kieran Shannon.

A little over two weeks ago, as Donal Lenihan sat in a church in Killaloe, he found himself more than once looking across from his pew at the current Munster rugby team and wondering how they were going to be able to play a Champions Cup game the following day. 

They were all sipping from their bottled water throughout the three-plus hours in there, a glimpse of their professionalism and determination to do justice to Anthony Foley’s memory, but Lenihan still couldn’t help but think how this was about the least ideal preparation for a match a team could have.

“And then,” he says, “not only did they deliver the most passionate and committed performance against Glasgow, but also the most technically proficient performance. Normally you might have one but not the other.”

Once again, the game and its people had shown its capacity to move him and to wow him. 

And yet, in a way, after all he’s seen, it didn’t exactly surprise him either.

Take a certain game 25 years ago last month. 

Just like Ireland play an elite southern hemisphere team in Chicago today, Ireland squared off against Australia in the World Cup quarter-final in Lansdowne Road. 

Their prep couldn’t have been more different or less professional compared to that which Joe Schmidt’s would have undertaken.

“Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong,” he says.

“It was a one o’clock match on a Sunday so the timing was way off. We got stuck in traffic. The bus driver had to go down a one-way street to save time. 

“We were literally togging off in the bus. We got into the dressing room 25 minutes before the match....”

And then they delivered probably the best Irish performance of the 1990s, albeit one that still fell short of actual victory. 

Lenihan knows full well how amateurish Ireland were in the amateur days, and at the start of the professional era as well; though there’s a generation now who primarily know him for his writing in the Irish Examiner and his measured authority on the RTÉ airwaves, he was there on the frontline when that uneasy transition was taking place.

But he’s noticed that some of the things they did back in his time, or at least the spirit of them, weren’t all wrong either.

“I saw a great quote from Eddie Jones recently where he said the trick is now to try to make the game and the atmosphere within the group more amateur. 

“Just things like having a few beers together in the build-up to a match so the players could talk and mix more to each other. Something like a singsong, that is something they force now as ‘team building’. In our time that happened naturally.”

It was Lenihan who is probably responsible for the Fields of Athenry becoming a rugby anthem; it was his party piece during the ‘80s, a song he loved but now finds has been flogged to death. 

The Friday before a Five Nations international, he and the rest of the forwards would go into a pub owned by Sean Lynch, a member of the Lions team that beat the All Blacks in ’71. 

Once Lynch spotted them coming in, he’d arrange a snug for them. There they’d pick up a few pointers about their opponents – no video analysis in those days – but more importantly, learn more about each other.

“I found it funny reading Paul O’Connell’s book when he was talking about how he didn’t know the Cork fellas as well as he did the Limerick lads and the importance of spending time with each other.

It showed how important that things like those few drinks in Sean Lynch’s were. Every minute we had together was huge so that was one way of availing of it.

“I’ve often said it; I think the making of the ’85 [Triple Crown winning] team was when we were supposed to play England in our first game and it was cancelled. 

“We ended up spending the afternoon in O’Donoghue’s pub. Fellas stood up. They sang their songs. You got to know their background and their personality.”

It’s one of the main things which makes Lenihan’s autobiography, My Life in Rugby, recently published by Transworld Ireland, such an enjoyable and engaging read, and the man himself such enjoyable and engaging company. As often as you’ll hear him on the TV and radio, for all the columns he writes for the Irish Examinerthere’s so much more to learn about and from the man, given all that he’s experienced and observed in the game.

In his book and in conversation he offers both a cold and affectionate eye on all aspects of the game, and never more so than describing the culture of his own playing days.

Take the old national team trial games that would be played a few days either side of Christmas every year, ahead of a Five Nations campaign. Lenihan, for virtually his whole career, was an automatic on the Probables.

They’d come together and train on a Friday, while all the Possibles and the subs would assemble somewhere else in the capital, even though some of those same subs would be playing for the Probables the following day.

“I remember one time Moss Keane was dropped to the Possibles. The selectors wanted to give him a kick in the arse. So Mossie rang me about three days before the [trial] match. ‘Look here, there’s no point you and me beating the shit out of each other. You’re going to be on the team anyway, so I’ll tell you what, we’ll come to an arrangement. You jump in the middle of the line-out on the left-hand side of the pitch and I’ll jump at the front.’ 

“This way, we’d never be marking each other directly. I had no problem with that.

“So the day of the match, we were in the old Lansdowne Road. I was in the dressing room with the Probables, while in the Possibles’ their captain was duty-bound to roar at everyone, ‘Lads, if we don’t all pull together, none of us will get on!’ When in actual fact everyone was out to look after themselves and their own! 

“I was going to the jacks when in the corridor one of our subs who was from my own club [Cork Constitution] called me aside and gave me the line-out calls from the Possibles. So not only was Mossie staying away from me, but I had the opposing lineout calls!”

Lenihan duly went on to win about six lineouts straight in front of the selectors – and Keane still managed to win enough to start alongside him in green the following month. Perfect. Farce.

By then Lenihan was well versed and hardened in the ways and tricks of the world. At 18 he was playing second row for UCC in the Munster Senior Cup against Garryowen in Thomond Park. As often as he’ll rightly be described as one of the sport’s gentlemen and ambassadors, he’ll admit he wasn’t always the choir boy.

“You learned pretty quickly to stand up for yourself. I mean, if we were playing Shannon, I knew there’d be three fellas designated to take me out anytime there was a lineout. One day Ginger McLoughlin was coming for me for the third time so I just hit him a smack as hard as I could. Ginger went down and there was blood all over the place. 

“There was an Irish squad session the following day so after the game I got the train to Dublin and Ned Van Esbeck, who would have been the doyen of rugby writers at the time, was on it as well.

‘I’m very disappointed in you!’ he said.

“‘What do you mean, Ned?’

‘That was an awful thing you did to poor Ginger!’

“And I said, ‘Ned, did you see what he was doing to me for the previous 50 minutes!’

“There were things you’d have done that you wouldn’t be proud of. I remember kicking Jean-Pierre Rives in Dublin as hard as I could. He was offside and you knew that you’d get the same on the other side. My first international was against Australia and they had a prop who was causing havoc.

“I remember Willie Duggan calling us in, ‘Right, we’re going to have to sort this fella out.’ About five minutes later, I can’t remember who it was – well I can, but I’m not going to say – someone leathered him the way Humphrey Kelleher would clear his lines playing full-back for Cork. Your man was laid out on the ground and I remember thinking, ‘My God, is this is what international rugby is about?!’”

Looking back on some of the other practices of the national team at the time has also made him wonder.

There was little coaching; if you were an Irish international you were assumed to be the finished article. Most work on the training ground was physical and even it was misguided.

“Physiologically, everything we did was completely wrong! We’d play a game for our club on a Saturday and get straight in a car and drive to Dublin. In those days that trip was four hours so we were cramping up in a car. 

“Then we’d get to Dublin, have a bit of grub and go out and have a few pints. 

“You’d wake up on the Sunday morning, train for Ireland and they’d run the legs off you. Then you’d get back in the car and drive for another four hours. There was no recovery, no nothing.”

You could question their methods but never their commitment. Last week the jazz festival was on in Cork. It used to be a huge event in his hometown during his playing days but he never sampled a taste of either the music or the sponsor’s main brew.

Munster would usually be playing Ulster away on the Saturday. Ireland would train for an autumn international on the Sunday. 

Then on the Monday he’d be expected to play for Con in the local Charity Cup final. 

There were club players he knew who were good enough to have been on the road up with him on the Saturday and Sunday but didn’t envy or want all that driving and hassle that went with representative rugby; club and the jazz was enough for them.

Lenihan was always a bit different from the pack. He was captain of the Christians school team that won the Junior Cup. 

A couple of years later he was with the seniors having a few drinks in Paddy Barry’s bar on the corner of McCurtain Street. One of his teammates caused a bit of commotion only for Lenihan to quietly rise from his seat and diplomatically sort it out. Afterwards the barman asked was he the captain. Lenihan said that he was. For the barman it confirmed a hunch.

His work in the banking sector honed and highlighted those leadership qualities, an experience he feels the current generation of pro player misses out on.

“You had a lot more leaders that time because fellas were used to being in decision-making positions every day in their daily jobs.”

Once his own playing days wound up, he was quickly drafted into the leadership positions within the national team. He was a selector on the old five-man committee in the mid-1990s, an institution as out-of-date as many of the practices he saw in those turbulent, transitional years. He was there when you had players flying over from English clubs and still playing for their provinces in the Heineken Cup. 

Ireland used to train in the old Aer Lingus social club beside Dublin Airport; players would literally fly in to train with Ireland and then fly back to England again.

The Kieran Shannon Interview: Donal Lenihan reflects on the rise of rugby professionalism

It all culminated with Lens, at the 1999 World Cup. “I’ll never forget walking into the post-match reception,” he says of that infamous defeat to Argentina. “The faces of the IRFU committee was ‘How dare ye!’ We were like pariahs. But if we had won that night and reached the quarter-final, things might have continued on as they were. That was the turning point.”

By then Lenihan was team manager and over the following few years was a constant presence on Warren Gatland’s shoulder. Soon after he was asked to be manager of the Lions in 2001 to Graham Henry. 

He was 41. He hasn’t been involved in a professional team setup since.

“You look at the way [Ronan] O’Gara has gone about things. He’s taken himself out of that Munster bubble and put himself in a different environment. That will stand to him. Often the rest of us are in a rush to get there. 

Rassie Erasmus made a very interesting point when he could have been in line for the national coach of South Africa. He didn’t feel he was ready, that you really should be over 50 to be a national coach and have the necessary experience. 

We were all thrown in at the deep end. Ciaran Fitzgerald was almost lost to the game as a result.

“A part of me would love to have been hands-on when the likes of O’Connell was coming through at Munster. But if you take a typical Six Nations campaign, they’re in camp for seven weeks. There’s a lot of hanging around.

“I went to a couple of national squad sessions when they were down in Fota and I was thinking, ‘God, they’ll have this for 55 days in a row.’ And I found I didn’t miss it. I didn’t miss it in any way.”

The game still consumes him though. He’s not someone who just shows up for the big games on the big days. 

Last weekend he attended an AIL game between his alma mater of UCC and Shannon down in the Mardyke, 35 years after he’d played in a Munster Senior Cup game featuring the two same clubs. 

He’ll make most Cork Constitution games whenever it doesn’t clash with a game featuring Ireland or the provinces. 

He remains vice president of the club and was part of their management committee developing the clubhouse and who has helped put in place one of the best coaching staff in club rugby: Brian Walsh, Brian Hickey and Paul McCarthy, all of whom have coached in the Munster setup, are all involved in Con now.

“It’s no coincidence to me that Darren Sweetnam has finally made the breakthrough with Munster on the back of playing about 10 games in a row for Con last year. The Irish model right now works extremely well for Leinster and Ulster. 

“The game is different in Munster in that we have a load of young fellas who don’t specialise in the sport until they’re 18 or 19. 

“They’re playing Gaelic football and hurling and soccer which makes them better athletes in the long term. 

“I mean, I played with fellas from Leinster and if you asked to them to take a quick penalty, they couldn’t tap it because they hadn’t played Gaelic like we had.

“In Munster we don’t have enough schools to generate the quality of players they have in Leinster. So you need your club base. Munster have always been bigger than the sum of their parts and a lot of that comes from the history of being involved with clubs who have played for over a hundred years. 

“You realise you’re part of something bigger than yourself.”

He did. He’s a big part of it.


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