Ask Philip Orr about his Leinster days and he recalls the confusion.

A player with Old Wesley, the IRFU’s current president was togging out with the province by the mid-70s and a debut with Ireland followed in 1976. Amidst it all — and the competing demands of a day job in the amateur era — some of the plates being spun were inevitably smashed.

“The intepros were spread out through the season, around the club game, and we found that a little bit difficult. Eventually, during my long career, they got to the stage of running the three interpros at a certain part of the season. It was the best thing for us.

Before that, there were times when you had lineout calls for your club, your province, and Ireland. You could confuse Leinster’s and your club’s when you were going forward and back. It was a nightmare so it was good to have the season in a little block.

Leinster’s bid for a fourth European Cup title in Bilbao tomorrow is all a long way removed, literally and figuratively, from the ad hoc nature of the moveable feast that was an interprovincial scene which knew little enough dramatic change from 1874 through to the advent of professionalism 121 years later.

The four provinces have emerged as the staple diet of the Irish rugby calendar since 1995, providing food for thought for the code’s growing band of fans for the majority of time between the months of September and May, and yet their history prior to that is hardly mapped.

Over a century of tradition and tales lies virtually ignored.

“The club was where the action was,” says Leinster chief executive Mick Dawson, a lifelong member of Lansdowne.

“The people who went to the (Leinster) games were there really to support the players. They were obviously aligned to the team but there was no support base. A couple of thousand people might go to the interprovincial series. I remember being very excited when Leinster played the All Blacks back in ’89. Munster beating the All Blacks in ‘78 obviously resonated with everybody but provincial teams did have a history of facing the touring teams. Leinster, because of the international being played in Dublin, lost out on getting a shot at the touring sides a few times.”

Munster against the All Blacks in '78.
Munster against the All Blacks in '78.

If people tend to remember the provinces’ old days at all, then it is through the prism of those rare occasions when a touring All Black, Springbok, or Wallaby side would arrive from impossibly distant shores and invariably depart on the back of a comfortable win. There were exceptions to that rule, 40 years ago in Limerick aside.

Munster became the first Irish team of any hue to defeat a touring side in 1967 when they accounted for Australia 11-8 in Musgrave Park. And they drew with New Zealand on the same turf five years later, matching Ulster’s achievement from 38 years before.

Leinster had their own moments but they were near misses, most notably a two-point loss to the Aussies in 1958 on what was their first crack at an overseas Test side, and a few narrow defeats to the All Blacks. In the jumble of near misses, one sticks out.

The IRFU was celebrating its centenary in 1974 and the committee men had the wisdom to invite the All Blacks on tour as part of the celebrations for a six-game schedule of ties against, Ireland, the four provinces, and Irish Universities.

The whole thing only took 17 days.

“The game I remember most was the first one with the Irish Universities in the Mardyke,” says Orr.

There was an unbelievable crowd there. It was an easy game for the All Blacks but … there was a row and Dick Spring ran about 50 yards from full-back to get into it. That was an abiding memory.

The All Blacks followed on with a 10-point win against Munster before a game against a strong Leinster side under the guidance of coach Roly Meates.

It would prove to be their toughest of the trip and, in fairness, some of the rugby reporters at the time predicted as much beforehand. Meates had had a transformative effect on Leinster. He had taken charge of some standout U19 teams as the 60s faded out and among their conquests was a win away to a gilded Cardiff crew with over 30 points to spare and they did it by playing some superb, running rugby.

Meates was revolutionary in other ways besides. He introduced the concept of regular training to the provincial outfit when he took over the senior side and they would meet every Wednesday in Milltown for a session that would last a few hours.

Mick Doyle would eventually drag the thing on further than anybody again at the end of the 70s by creating what Orr refers to now as “a club called Leinster” with his penchant for man management nurturing a side that would deliver a Golden Era from 1979 through to 1984. But Meates’ thinking 10 years earlier was the starting point.

Philip Orr. Picture: Inpho
Philip Orr. Picture: Inpho

“We went from no training sessions to one a week,” said scrum-half Johnny Moloney in a History of Leinster documentary.

“That may not seem a lot but you had two sessions with your club. That was three nights, then a Sunday morning, and a match. Five times a week we were involved in rugby.”

Leinster had players of class dotted through the line-up in 1974. Tony Ensor, Tom Grace, and Moloney among the five internationals in the back line. Orr, Fergus Slattery, and Willie Duggan just some of the illustrious band doing the hard yards up front. In the end, they left the Lansdowne Road pitch wondering how they had lost 8-3 to their famed opponents. Truth is, there was no shortage of reasons. For a start, they lost Kevin Mays to a serious ear injury after he was kicked in the head. Accidental, says Orr now.

Denis Hickie, Leinster’s No.8 on the day and uncle to a famous namesake, described it as “the most vicious thing that I had ever seen”.

Whatever the truth in that instance, the All Blacks didn’t shy away from the physical. Slattery said later that, though most of the All Blacks played hard and fair, there was always a few “scallywags”. Late tackles and reckless rucking were a feature of this day.

Leinster were also left ruing a contested Bryan Williams try nine minutes into first half added time and a handful of missed penalties — Munster had been left regretting similar kicking trials four days earlier — and with that a famous victory passed them by.

“My memory is I felt we should have beaten them,” Vinny Becker told the Leinster documentary.

We had them on the rack. It was a very disappointing game from my point of view because I thought we had them and we were going to beat the All Blacks. It would have been great.

More than that. It would have been historic. Epic. Ground breaking. A Leinster win in ’74 would have pre-dated Munster’s 12-0 win against New Zealand by four years. It could have been a game to spawn its own cottage industry of books and plays.

And a beacon of light for a period in Leinster’s history that has all but fallen into darkness.

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