THE WINGER AND THE PRAYER

IT SAYS something about the options available to Michael Cheika behind the scrum that Shane Horgan is no longer an automatic choice in the Leinster jersey he has adorned with such distinction for over a decade.

Confined largely to the role of impact sub on the 2005 British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand, bizarrely, he only started one of the 12 games but was introduced off the bench on seven occasions including all three tests. A Lions role such as this is one thing, fulfilling it for Leinster is something Horgan is not yet prepared to contemplate. Yet that is exactly where he found himself for the quarter-final clash against Harlequins at the Stoop with Isa Nacewa assuming his role in a back three along with Irish Grand Slam heroes Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney.

When Kearney was ruled out of the biggest provincial rugby game this country has ever staged against old rivals Munster in Croke Park, Horgan was back in harness. Were it my choice – and Kearney was available – I would have reinstated the big winger anyway at the expense of the Fijian, Nacewa. Horgan understood better than most why Leinster had to make a statement against their southern nemesis that day and his presence on the field was guaranteed to offer his side the desire that was so essential in winning the Heineken Cup semi-final. Leinster had to draw a line in the sand and stand tall. Both physically and metaphorically Horgan was always guaranteed to satisfy those requirements.

A product of the youths system with Boyne rugby club, Horgan was one of the first, along with Trevor Brennan, to deviate from the well worn path of talented schools players graduating to the Leinster senior side. The fact he also played gaelic football at minor level with Meath may partly explain why I always felt he was the one Leinster back of the professional era that would fit seamlessly into the Munster set up (not that Munster would ever refuse the prospect of a Brian O’Driscoll seeking a transfer!).

Right from the start, Horgan was a fighter and had plenty of belief in his own ability. When approached by Warren Gatland about the possibility of being selected for his international debut out of position on the wing – all his rugby with Leinster to that point had been played in the centre – he never blinked and expressed total confidence in his ability to perform in a different role. That sense of belief was the final element in convincing Gatland, Eddie O’Sullivan and myself to select him on the right wing to face Scotland in Lansdowne Road.

When that day he scored the first of his twenty tries for Ireland and also coped consummately with the demands of playing out of position, one knew a special talent had been unleashed.

It is somewhat ironic therefore that one of his last starts for Ireland was in the centre against England in 2008 in Eddie O’Sullivan’s last game in charge. Facing an injury crisis with Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy unavailable, Horgan manned a makeshift midfield with Andrew Trimble in a combination that simply didn’t work on the day. It confirmed what many believed for a long time than Horgan’s special qualities are best utilised on the wing.

In what has been an unprecedented decade of success for Irish rugby, two of Horgan’s tries will be showcased ad nauseam and define both the era and his place in Irish rugby history. With literally the last play of the game and trailing in Twickenham in 2006 with a Triple Crown on the line, at full stretch he bagged an unbelievable try in the corner then repeated the dose when he plucked Ronan O’Gara’s measured cross field kick from the clouds to score in the corner.

If those moments marked the highlight of his international career, winning a Heineken Cup medal with Leinster tomorrow would be the culmination of years of toil without reward on the European stage. Horgan will be more aware than most that failure to do so will make it very difficult for him to ever secure that coveted prize.

Already he has seen close and trusted team-mates like Denis Hickie, Reggie Corrigan, Victor Costello, Eric Miller and Shane Byrne depart the scene with their european aspirations unfulfilled. Horgan still has a shot at redemption.

Firstly he awaits the nod from Cheika for a starting position, now that Kearney proved his fitness against the Dragons last Saturday. Leinster’s chances of emulating the feats of Ulster and Munster will certainly be boosted by the fact that Horgan is poised, ready and waiting to produce one more moment of magic that could once again prove the vital difference between success and failure.

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