Tuesday, August 20, 2013

All Things Early Leinster

Leinster rugby road trips were a bit more humble back in 2003, writes new HoR2 contributor Catherine Kavanagh…

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Hard to fathom, really, the course of the past 10 years if you're from Ireland. Squash them into a microcosmic evening and you've a catalogue of misdemeanours by drunk uncles at a wild family wedding. Gracefully bucking this trend & cocking 2 fingers at the uncles are the bridesmaids in the corner. And that's where Leinster Rugby & its now-established & burgeoning fanbase come in.

Relative newcomers may not believe it, but there existed a time shortly after the advent of professionalism & the European Cup when being a Leinster follower was right up there with announcing one's membership of the US Birther movement, in terms of killing social credibility. The great old tradition of the province (because that's what it is, not a club) hadn't helped it transition to the professional era. The high profile nearly-made-it exploits of our Southern friends in the early days made Leinster's toil and their challenges uncomfortably mediocre in the eyes of many. Different times, as we say.

And so it was that in the Autumn of 2003, back when life was exciting and the game as we knew it was changing to cope with the increasing challenges of other world sports, and Ireland under Eddie O'Sullivan (yeah, remember that?) headed to Australia with a goal of "quarter final qualification", a new thought process began in Donnybrook. I had begun a hugely enjoyable few weeks working on a now defunct rugby show hosted by George Hook & Brent Pope on Newstalk 106FM.

The idea was to provide a slightly different fans' angle on RWC 2003. It's easy to talk about what you know and love. At the same time at Leinster Rugby, disparaging comparisons with our friends in Munster were becoming uncomfortably prevalent in the media and in the blogosphere (such as it was back in those days). It's of huge credit to the team at Leinster Rugby, some of whom are still there today, that they decided to take notice of their tiny but vocal fanbase. After a few conversations with Peter Breen, still at Leinster Rugby and a familiar face to most, and a few quotes dug out from mini bus drivers, we cobbled together 15 people who took a Friday afternoon from work and headed up the M1 to Ravenhill for a Celtic Cup fixture against Ulster. Quarter Final, win or bust.

Hard to believe now, as we say.

The trip itself was a fairly pleasant and calm experience. A disparate group of slightly self-conscious people of all ages. Most faces largely unfamiliar to each other. Breener up front chatting about the job he'd started doing. Some thoughts on the imminent RWC. Leo Cullen's unjust exclusion featuring with elevated decibels as the day wore on. We were all in that giddy happy zone of conviviality that only rugby fans will understand by the time we were passing Malone RFC on the outskirts of Belfast.

Then began what felt to me as the designated responsible adult, as a plummeting descent into sweaty nervous chaos. Ever tried driving to Ravenhill? Ever tried parking outside? Ever tried wandering into a tiny shop on a busy Friday evening with a rictus grin and a blue and yellow scarf to ask for directions whilst your bus of passengers outside blocks local traffic? Like I said, this was the early prehistory of supporters' tours. Not for us the liveried sparkle of CityJet. Or even a map & driving guide.

Belfast and the area around Ravenhill in particular, is an ordered city for the most part. Traffic restrictions apply, and are observed. No-Parking zones are rigorously enforced. The view of Ian Paisley's Martyrs' Memorial Free Presbyterian Church as we inched along the busy residential roads around the old Ground itself sent the more skittish of our merry troupe into orbit. By the time we landed outside the turnstiles and negotiated our entry to the strictly-for-staff car park, we felt like pioneers of a new and unexplored frontier.

So the game in brief - our tickets entitled us to places in the Memorial End Stand as it's known these days. We put up a spirited fight on the vocal front & the team were clearly inspired by our many ragged choruses of Allez Les Bleus to .... well. Let's just accept that after what I remember as really quite a good game of rugby, our 23-23 draw led to a stewards' enquiry.

We clung to our plastic pint glasses (illegally smuggled under coats up to the seated areas) and our flags. We kept a respectful distance from Jeremy Davidson who had announced his retirement earlier in the year after an innocuous slip on a fishing trip & wondered about how bloody cruel sport could be at times. How it gives and takes in equal measure.

It certainly took from us that evening. An announcement which really should have been delivered in the bland drone of the neutral organisers, but instead received quasi-hysterical treatment from the Ravenhill die-hard using the microphone, told us that we'd been dumped out on try difference. The bars began to close. The team bus was loaded up with the enormous body-bag style carriers that grace the shoulders of rugby players the world over. The bus loaded up. By this time we'd perfected our Allez Les Bleus with some synchronised flag waving. The driver only asked us to shut up 4 times on the way down Onslow Parade. Kielys' of Donnybrook was mooted & seconded as Base Camp.

Ulster would win the Celtic Cup tournament that Christmas. Alan Quinlan would give the Ireland performance of his life by stretching with a serious injury to place a ball over a white line in a field in South Australia. Samoa went 10 nil up in the first half of their qualifier against England and threatened to send the rugby playing world into Italia- 90-esque delirium. Woody and Fabien Galthie embraced in tears at the final whistle in Melbourne, knowing that there but for the grace of God went each other. Leinster enjoyed a period of fallow shortcomings, a failed Contepomi registration and a series of increasingly depressing European Cup exits. The Supporters' Club started on an email round-robin during work hours when I really should have known better, and was marshalled via the Leinsterrugby.ie messageboard, ably and calmly monitored by Breener. My stint with George and Brent came to an end.

But from tiny acorns....to be continued!

Catherine [@KavanaghCK] is a Dubliner with a strong sense of outrage and blind loyalty to all things Blue. She attributes these faults sorry qualities to her role as the instigator of the Leinster Supporters' movement. Serious Family involvement in Irish Rugby over the generations and being the son her father never had, has left her with Oval-Ball dementia. This is an incurable condition.

When Catherine isn't at the RDS supporting Leinster she works in London & enjoys visits to Rosslyn Park RFC where she is a non-playing member. These afternoons remind her of the amateur days, when the beer was cheap & the talk was cheaper.

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