Simon Mason turned up at Lansdowne Road bright and early for the game of his life, a net of balls slung over his shoulder.
Ulster’s full-back arrived straight from the breakfast table eager to go through his pre-match ritual, an 11th-hour check aimed at ensuring his place-kicking would be in proper order when it came to doing it for real later in the day. For his trouble, Mason found himself locked out.
Somebody had forgotten to tell the security staff or, if the message had been passed on, it got lost somewhere down the line.
“They wouldn’t let me in and nothing I said made any difference,” Mason said, chuckling at the thought of it. “I tried to explain that I was playing for Ulster and that it had been arranged for me to kick a few practice goals. It soon became clear that I wasn’t going to be allowed in. The jobsworth on the gate wasn’t going to budge, not even when other members of the team turned up. So I had no option but to walk round the outside of the stadium to get to one of the training pitches behind the stand. It was better than nothing but what I wanted was to get some idea of my bearings on the main pitch. That’s how it was back then. These days all that would have been planned and nothing left to chance.”
Once rugby in Belfast mattered more than the fortunes of the city’s two foremost soccer clubs, Linfield and Glentoran.
The European Cup, monopolised by the French for the first two seasons before Bath won it in Bordeaux only for the English clubs to stage a meaningless boycott, was on the verge of being brought to Ireland for the first time.
When Mason and the rest of the Ulster team returned for the real thing, the gates had been unlocked. Colomiers, a relatively small club who have long lost their place among the French elite, never stood a chance of succeeding where neighbours Toulouse had failed in the quarter-finals and Stade Francais in the semi-finals.
The Parisians discovered to their cost, as Toulouse had done in the previous round, that Belfast is no place for teams with fancy-dan reputations. Ravenhill has never done glitz as Stade, all jazzed-up under Max Guazzini’s rock ‘n’ roll presidency, discovered to their cost.
“Everyone had Stade to win by 30 or 40,” says Mason. “I’ll never forget those matches and, in particular, David Humphreys breaking away for the try against Stade. After that we rode the crest of a wave to the final. As a spectacle, it wasn’t great but when you have a European Cup winner’s medal in the closet, that’s all that matters. You felt you were playing with your friends and that was a wonderful thing. I went to play in France and Italy afterwards but it was never the same. The game changed a lot after that final.”
Despite the pre-match stand-off denying him access to his place of work, Mason barely put a foot wrong. He picked Colomiers off with two penalty hat-tricks during the course of an unforgettable occasion and an eminently forgettable match.
Humphreys chipped in with a drop goal by which time Mason had confirmed his status as the Ronan O’Gara of his day.
The Merseysider, eligible for Ireland because his father Des and mother Jean came from Navan and Dublin respectively, racked up 144 points in Europe that season, a total eclipsed only by Diego Dominguez (188 for Stade) and Tim Stimpson (152 for Leicester) 12 months later.
Mason, back in his native Birkenhead as a teacher at St Anselm’s College and still playing at the age of 38, had joined Ulster in an abortive attempt to prolong an Ireland career, which started against Wales at Lansdowne Road in 1996 and finished against Samoa later that same year.
Mason set off yesterday on the long haul from his home to London, to see a few old Ulster friends and support his old team.
“It will be tough because Leinster are a tremendous team and deservedly strong favourites,” he said. “That will suit Ulster and I think they have a real chance. I don’t think there’ll be much in it. Ruan Pienaar is the form player going into the final and Brian O’Driscoll being fit and refreshed is a big plus for Leinster. I’m just going along as a supporter. It’s too big an occasion to miss.”
And for Ulster’s second European final, unlike the first, he won’t be turned away at the gate.
We will be standing up with the Ulster men on our live Heineken Cup blog from London at 4pm tomorrow. Well worth a look.
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