Shane Horgan of Leinster and Ireland.
Shane Horgan of Leinster and Ireland.
From July 2004, a Meath Chronicle interview with Bellewstown man Shane Horgan, who announced his retirement from rugby this week .......
It's not about lifting a trophy. It's about lifting the nation. So declare the posters for a mobile phone company around Dublin featuring the Irish senior rugby team in action. On the newsstands, rugby magazines are given prominence, with Geordan Murphy and Gordon Darcy looking out from the front covers. Across the country, Irish rugby shirts are being snapped up in sports shops and department stores. Rugby is the new rock 'n' roll.
One of those currently lifting the nation, and the imaginary Triple Crown, is wing back Shane Horgan, from Bellewstown, who has played a leading role with the Irish team since his return from injury just before last year's World Cup in Australia, playing in all the World Cup and Six Nations games since.
"It was really touch and go as to whether I'd get to Australia at all," Horgan says. He had missed the previous 10 internationals after damaging his quadriceps muscle against Scotland the previous January, and was out of action for nine months.
"It was badly torn," he explains. "Then, a few days before we were due to play Wales in August, I tore it again, just six weeks before the World Cup."
Horgan says it was good that the World Cup was coming up at the end of the year. "It focussed my mind on getting fit again. I had to dig deep, do a lot of training. After all, it's not a lot of players that get a chance to play in a world cup."
He heaved a big sigh of relief when he got on that plane to the World Cup. "Eddie had been very good about it," he says of coach Eddie O'Sullivan. "He gave me the time to get ready. Otherwise, I wouldn't have been there."
Making matters worse for him during his injury period was the fact that Ireland had a good year, getting to the Grand Slam decider, and Horgan's Leinster teammates got to the European Cup semi-final. "While I was delighted to see them all doing so well, and we're all friends, there was a tinge of sadness, I suppose even jealousy that I wasn't there, or in contention for a place even. It was a frustrating nine months." Press-ups and such exercises were the order of the day "when all you wanted was the ball in your hands."
But the six months that followed certainly made up for that period of frustration for Horgan, last month culminating in the thrill of being part of the first Irish side to win a Triple Crown since 1985, when such names as Ciaran Fitzgerald and Brendan Mullen were rolling off people's tongues.
As a youngster growing up in Bellewstown, Horgan had two ambitions - to play Gaelic football for Meath or international rugby for Ireland. And he did travel the GAA road a while, until his move to Dublin where his talent with the oval ball was increasingly becoming more obvious.
His parent's home is just half a mile away from the famous racecourse on the hill, and the local national school. "There wasn't much rugby in Bellewstown National School," he laughs. "But, as with all rural schools, especially in Meath, a great tradition of Gaelic football."
His love of rugby stemmed from the fact that his father, John, is from New Zealand, and followed the sport keenly. Horgan's secondary school, St Mary's CBS in Drogheda, wasn't known as a rugby school, but he played with the local clubs in Drogheda, Delvin and Drogheda, which later merged. "I played all my mini-rugby with Delvin and then under-16 and under-18 with Drogheda. We won a Leinster Cup at under-18," he recalls.
At the same time, he was playing Gaelic with St Mary's school. "I have a lot of friends from that team who are still friends," he says. Then, at the same time that he was playing rugby with the Irish Youths, he also spent a year as a Meath minor. "It was a big thing to play with Meath at any level." It was 1996, and the minors were beaten by Dublin in Leinster semi-final, in which midfielder Horgan contributed a point. Others on that '96 minor team included James Gibbons, Nicky Horan, Denis Kealy, Ronan Fitzsimons and Fergus McMahon.
Horgan got involved with Leinster when he was 18, and decided to concentrate on rugby. He joined the Lansdowne club in Dublin, at a period when the AIL would have been much stronger. "Then provincial rugby went completely professional, and Leinster took over." He rarely gets a chance to play with Lansdowne now, maybe once a year.
All the time, he was progressing steadily, playing with the Irish Youths, Under-21, Ireland A, and his first senior international cap came in 2000, against Scotland.
"A lot of new lads were introduced that time - we were after being badly beaten by England, and new blood was being introduced. Ronan O'Gara, John Hayes, Peter Stringer, Guy Easterby and myself."
Horgan says the fact that he didn't come from some of the regular rugby playing schools never seemed to be a problem at any time.
"I'm aware there's a perceived bias all right, but I never encountered it," he says.
To be making his senior debut was fantastic. "It was a goal I had in mind from an early age, a dream. But it was nerve-wracking too. I started as a wing, but I had always played centre for Leinster."
The team played well, and beat Scotland confidently. The debutante even scored a try in his first game. "I have to admit, it was an easy ride for a first cap, but that's because the team as a whole played so well and we won. There are games where fellows could get a hiding on their first cap, and mightn't play again for years. I was lucky."
One game which meant a lot to him was the match against the All-Blacks, given his father's roots in New Zealand. "Dad always wanted to see me playing against the All-Blacks," Horgan explains. And he was on one of rugby's greats Jonah Lomu. "That was challenging. But then you play international rugby to be challenged." I venture that he didn't let him away with much. "Well, I might have been like a speed-bump more than anything else," he laughs. "I slowed him down. I wouldn't like to have to meet him every week."
Horgan's first game after his long period of injury last year was the World Cup opener against Romania, in Australia.
"I had never been to Australia before, and it certainly lived up to expectations. I went out with the intention of enjoying every aspect of the trip, after the nine months of being injured."
And he says the IRFU had everything very well organised, and the training facilities and hotel were all perfect. The team had three bases during the tournament, in Terrigal, Adelaide and Melbourne.
"The weather was dreadful in Adelaide," he says, "and for the Namibia game it poured rain. The first game against Romania was in the evening time, so it wasn't too bad. A big focus in the primaries was Argentina."
The Pumas had beaten Ireland in the play-offs in the 1999 World Cup, a result which knocked the wind out of Ireland's sails at the time. So it would have been disaster to lose to them again.
"There was a lot of pressure for that game, but we felt confident, we felt we could beat them. It was an extremely physical game - they came out like rabid dogs, and it was close at the end. But we did underperform."
The Australian game was close as well. "That was the really disappointing result," Horgan says. "We were just sitting in the dressing room, all very disappointed. But it was a game we took something from - we looked at how we had taken on the best side in the world, and decided that if we were good enough to play at that level as a team, we should be playing like that every week. That's why the French game in February was so disappointing. It's not something I'd ever want to experience again."
The Bellewstown man feels that England deserved the World Cup win. "They're now the best team in the world, they've set a benchmark in their way of preparation and the professionalism needed. It all came down to a kick in the final seconds, but a lot of work had been done on the back of that kick."
In March, the World Cup champions were playing their first home game at Twickenham since winning the Webb Ellis Cup, against Ireland in the Six Nations. They were en route to the Grand Slam to complement the World Cup. They hadn't been beaten at Twickenham since 1999. They hadn't been beaten in a Five or Six Nations Championship since Clive Woodward took over in 1997.
The outsiders, Ireland, beat them 19-13 in a bruising encounter.
"That was the highlight of the Six Nations," Horgan says. "After going in as such underdogs. I felt we played well enough to beat them. Sometimes you can be jammy, lucky. But Ronan O'Gara was brilliant, and controlled the game for us. Their try was scrappy, and they had another couple disallowed. But it was great to turn them over in Twickenham. It doesn't happen too often in a career. It was euphoric, a special day. And they had planned to parade the cup around the grounds after the game. It was certainly nice to ruin the party," he laughs.
Then there was the Scottish match and the chance to take the Triple Crown. "There was a big-build up, and expectations were so high. It was being regarded as a foregone conclusion, but it wasn't at all. We knew Matt Williams knew our players well and would be gunning for us, and when it was 16 all, it was getting scary."
Horgan adds that it was a real relief when Gordon Darcy got the tries which put a bit of space between the two sides.
There are those who suggest that the Triple Crown has been diminished since the arrival of France and Italy to the championship, but Shane Horgan doesn't believe that the titular honour has been.
"It doesn't diminish what we felt for it and what I felt for it. It's only our seventh ever, and hasn't been won for 19 years. My first interest in rugby was when Ireland won in 1985. I don't remember the game itself, but I remember the hysteria around it," the 25 year old recalls. "They don't come around too often - maybe once in a generation."
Horgan, who is a towering 6 ft 4 in, believes he's quite fortunate to be involved with such a good team. 'Our pack was very strong this year." He modestly says he didn't do anything special himself, and it was nice to be there. "A whole lot of ball didn't come my way - you can find yourself a little bit alone as a winger. You run around a lot, with not a lot of ball. In the Six Nations, I've worked harder than I've ever had to work on a rugby field, with not much visible return, but it's marvelous to be involved."
While he is of the opinion he could be playing better, he hasn't being doing too badly, setting up crucial tries during the championship, as well as scoring his 11th international try in the game against Italy.
After a weekend break in New York, it'll be back in action again for Horgan, with Leinster in the Celtic League, and preparing for Ireland's trip to South Africa for two games in June.
There will, at some stage, be life after rugby, and Horgan has just completed a law degree in Dublin, which he had been studying over the past five years at Portobello College. "I was able to spread it out so I could combine it with my rugby commitments," he explains. "And it keeps the mind active."
He has taken his rise through the ranks in his stride, and by choice is a low-profile member of the Irish squad, preferring not to get too involved with the media or the commercial side of the game.
"There's no comparison between rugby now and when I came into Leinster," Horgan says. "I remember going down to play Munster at Dooradoyle and there would be 700people at the game. Now, you'd get 25,000 going to games. Munster's success in the European cup, and Leinster's last season,a nd ireland now winning much more games, have increased the games popularity. And when a sport is going well, people support it."
And we couldn't let the former Gaelic footballer go without asking him the burning question - what were his views on the Croke Park issue?
"It would be brilliant if we could play in Croke Park, it's a magnificent stadium. It will be a shame if, when Lansdowne is being redeveloped, we have to go to a different country to play our games. I don't know what else you could do, other than asking the GAA can we play in Croke Park, but I can understand both sides of the story. It's as good a stadium as I've seen anywhere in the world.
And it'd certainly be one hell of an occasion, with the Tricolour blowing in the breeze at one end for an international game."