'Toulouse were a powerhouse. We might as well have been Skerries or Greystones.'

Leinster will start as strong favourites when they meet Toulouse tomorrow. Brendan O’Brien looks back to the sides’ first ever meeting, 25 years ago, and argues that this elevated status was far from inevitable
'Toulouse were a powerhouse. We might as well have been Skerries or Greystones.'

Leinster captain Reggie Corrigan lies injured before being substituted during the Heineken Cup Pool 6 Round 6 match between Toulouse and Leinster at the Stade Les Sept Denier in Toulouse, France. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Mike Ruddock was still a player with Swansea and on a tour to the US in the ‘80s when he happened across an elderly lady who told him how she had migrated from the East Coast to California with her family as a toddler. The woman was 90 if she was a day so her trek westwards must have happened before the end of the 19th century.

The Wild West had long been tamed by then but her epic childhood journey from sea to shining sea still conjured up images of wagon trains, untamed prairies and all the potential dangers and majesties which generations of European settlers had encountered across the few hundred years since the first of the colonies were incorporated.

It’s a tale that has always struck a chord with Ruddock whose coaching journey broke camp in the dying days of amateurism and saw him crisscross the Irish Sea time and again as he navigated everything from the amateur club game to the Test arena with Wales - and all while the game as a whole was tumbling blindly through the early days of professionalism.

“I guess when I look back on my career, I was sort of like that,” he laughs, “a bit of a pioneer trying to make sense of it all, learning every day as you go along.” 

He was in good company back then. Warren Gatland was in charge of Connacht and Declan Kidney held the reins at Munster. All three of them would go on to claim Six Nations Grand Slams.

Making sense of Leinster when he became the province’s first professional coach at the tender age of 37 a full quarter of a century ago might have been right up there with any of the tasks he has faced but it was one which, he is quick to add, was immensely rewarding at the same time.

He arrived fresh from six years in charge of Swansea who had been transformed from under-achievers into world-beaters. Literally. The Whites beat Australia, reigning world champions, in 1992 and claimed two Welsh League titles and the cup at a time when the club game there was pulsating with local rivalries and buttressed by raids across the Severn.

Bristol, Bath, Leicester and Harlequins were all familiar foes.

Irish rugby was stepping gingerly through the fog that had descended in 1995 when amateurism was ended. The AIL clubs were where things were at, a player drain of top talent to England was in full flow, and it left the IRFU desperately trying to come up with a navigable path for the provinces to follow.

That 1997/98 season began in August with the interpros and ended with the last Heineken Cup game in October. Nine games in nine weeks, basically, after which the bulk of the squad saw out the season with their AIL clubs while the chosen few got to claim another wooden spoon with Ireland.

This was Irish rugby then.

Leinster training might be a stint on the pitches at St Andrew’s or a weights session in a clubhouse gym at Old Wesley, and all of it done on a skeleton coaching staff to boot. “I was called director of coaching but there were no coaches to direct, so it really was starting from scratch, says Ruddock. “A blank page.”

Enter Toulouse.

Leinster had the French aristos first up in Dublin and on the back of an interpro series which they had won on points difference thanks to a late try against Connacht but one which pretty much everybody agreed had done nothing to assuage fears that the provinces might again find themselves out of their depth in European waters.

The visitors were so exotic that they could have stepped off a Hollywood set. They arrived with seven French internationals in their ranks with familiar but other-worldly names like Garbajosa, Deylaud, Califano, Tournaire and Pelous which, until then, had only been seen in the Five Nations.

Toulouse had won the previous four French titles and their first four league games that season. Inaugural Heineken Cup champions, they were shocked to lose the second season’s semi-final to Leicester. The thought that Leinster would one day be jockeying with them at the top of Europe’s roll of honour would have been laughable.

“Toulouse were a powerhouse,” says Reggie Corrigan, a Leinster rookie that year. “Tournaire, the prop I was going up against, and Califano were the starting props for France. You see all the names they had in their pack and in the back line, these were the elite superstars of club rugby.

“We might as well have been Skerries or Greystones. We were a bunch of lads mostly on part-time contracts. I was on £7,500 a year but it’s a bit crazy to think that four years later, which was a relatively short time, we would be winning the Celtic League and things started to happen from there.” 

That was after the repatriation of the likes of Malcolm O’Kelly and Eric Miller from the UK. The Leinster side that faced Toulouse in ’97 had only five of the XV that started their last game the season before, against Pau, with the likes of captain Chris Pim and Neil Francis amongst the raft of others to have departed the scene.

Bob Dwyer, who had coached Australia to that Rugby World Cup title in 1991, was in charge of Leicester Tigers at the time and he said before that year’s tournament that there were nine teams with a chance of winning: the four English clubs, the quartet of French sides and Cardiff. No Irish team would have entered his head.

The three Irish provinces had lost more games than they’d won in the competition’s first two years and 1997/98 would see Munster finish bottom of their pool, Ulster lie below both Glasgow and Swansea and Leinster lose in Milan. Mix it with the big boys? The Irish were struggling against the Scots and the Italians.

Ruddock says the potential was always there and that the advent of the Celtic League and influx of TV money were game-changers. Leinster team manager at the time was Jim Glennon who insisted that Irish teams could compete on level terms if their fitness improved and if they could shed the old inferiority complex.

He was right but one of those was easier to address than the other, if in an old-school way. This was before the raising of an army of S&C experts and nutritionists so Leinster ran and ran and then ran some more under the watchful eye and vocal instruction of their young coach who eventually put them through 62 sessions in the space of just 16 weeks.

“We were certainly running fit, I made sure of that. Kurt McQuilkin was my captain and he said at the time that he was having nightmares in Welsh. There wasn’t that sense of modern fitness that we see now but it’s like anything in life: you’ve got to have the horse-drawn carriage, the steam engine and the diesel engine before you get to the electric car.” 

The hard work made a difference.

Toulouse won that first encounter 34-25 but Leinster earned plenty of plaudits and their heightened fitness showed at the end when Declan O’Brien scored the game’s last try. The former Wexford hurler was one of three young players promoted from the AIL’s second division who impressed. The others were Corrigan and Trevor Brennan.

The absence of those in exile across the water had at least made room for them and others would follow. Before too long the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy and Shane Horgan would be having their auditions and the realisation that the provinces could maybe make an impression off the pitch as well as one it was beginning to dawn at the same time.

Donnybrook was still a few months shy of its first set of floodlights when Toulouse first pitched up but their presence was a subtle signpost to the future. A temporary stand was put up at the Bective end, a rough and ready shop selling Leinster merchandise made an appearance, and a jazz band entertained a crowd that spilled over the 7,000-mark.

Ruddock can still recall how giddy the branch was at numbers like that and Glennon captured the mood perfectly after the final whistle. “Come on,” he said to reporters, “don’t tell me that the fans didn’t get good value for a fiver.” 

All these years later and Leinster are better value than ever.

More in this section

Sport Push Notifications

By clicking on 'Sign Up' you will be the first to know about our latest and best sporting content on this browser.

Sign Up

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up
Cookie Policy Privacy Policy FAQ Help Contact Us Terms and Conditions

© Irish Examiner Ltd