Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The early Leinster years…continued

Part two of Catherine Kavanagh’s trip down memory lane for Leinster fans…

[click here for last week’s part one]

Catherine Kavanagh avatar

Background

2003 had been a particularly challenging year for Leinster’s European aspirations. Leinster had the unprecedented gift of a home quarter, home semi and home final. Those were the days when the GAA stadia were off limits, and when the concept of stadium-sharing was alien to us. We’d moved from Donnybrook down to Lansdowne Road in what seems like a logical step to all these days, but was a bold new departure back in the early 00s. Unfortunately to keep a theme adopted by the national side chasing a Grand Slam against England that year, a nightmare slowly unfolded in spring 2003 at Lansdowne Road in front of one of the biggest home crowds the European Cup competition had seen in its 6 year history.

In April 2003 Biarritz arrived in numbers for a quarter final & were dispatched in a largely unconvincing display at Lansdowne Road. A near capacity crowd shuffled its collective feet, bought chips for the children to keep them entertained and murmured about summer holiday plans for much of the second half. Then came Perpignan in a blaze of rhubarb- &- custard striped socks a few weeks later for our “home” semi final. A Leinster team with bigger issues to address off the field were sent packing by a Perpignan team who couldn’t quite believe their luck. Toulouse and Trevor Brennan duly took the honours that year and brought a new level of professionalism to the sport in doing so. Matt Williams left Leinster and Ireland amidst rumours of dissent and unhappiness. He was replaced by one of the legendary Ella brothers from Australia, a young man with fresh ideas and a gentle manner. A new season was born later that summer. A new era beckoned.

In January 2004 the fledgling travelling support had begun to mobilise in earnest. We targeted 2 away fixtures to get us over the relentless gloom of that morbid rugby Limbo which sits between Christmas & Six Nations. This was a much more exciting competition than it had been in previous years. The Bonus Point system had been devised to encourage tight finishes and running rugby.

On a filthy grey January Sunday, a growing rabble with more tricolours than blue flags descended on a determinedly closed-for-business-til -Noon Manchester. Taxis were ordered out to our designated meeting point – the Royal Oak pub in Sale. Edgeley Park, a little-known pin point on the ERC map, was hosting us that day. Amidst the general introductions and the wow-factor of getting change (from a tenner! Aren’t we robbed at home!) for 2 pints, we chatted about Ben Gissing’s citing and subsequent clearing. Most agreed that D’arce at 13 was an inspired choice by Gary Ella. A few doubted the ability of the team to withstand a Sale force with the wind at their backs after claiming our scalp a few weeks previously in Lansdowne Road.

But We did. One abiding memory remains from that grey, numbingly-cold January that Northern England does so well, with malicious drizzle seeping down through your layers and hands so frozen that you can’t find your unfamiliar sterling change in your pockets (All this change! From a day out!). Coyler and D’Arce, filthy and victorious, grabbing a Tricolour from a group of lads who had been marooned at the far side of the ground, and running towards the main body of the Leinster contingent who had gathered at pitchside. The staff in the clubhouse with its oak panelling and plush carpets, a nod to the football-loving Brian Kennedy, welcomed us with that bemused look that was slowly becoming familiar. Suddenly we were back in the game.

Biarritz lay in wait on the last day of January. Suddenly there were a flurry of conversations online and via email round-robin (Bloody January will it ever end – sure we get paid next week don’t we), and there was a sniff of a quarter-final in the air. On Saturday January 31 the team brought our flags on their flight with their baggage to get around that nasty acquisitive habit we’d noticed last time out with Airport Security and their fondness for the plastic flag holders. We arrived in the South West of France to a balmy Saturday morning in a beautiful seaside resort, and poured into Pascal Ondarts’ bar in the town centre. Pascal himself greeted us with the effusive bear hug that only a prop from the amateur era can muster. Six of us left his bar in the back of his Renault Espace that day – all strapped in like grinning overgrown children. Pascal’s cachet remains such that the gates opened smartly and we were deposited almost to our seats by the efficient stewards in the Parc des Sports d’Aguilera. God knows we needed the assistance on the way up all the steps. We certainly needed it when poor John McWeeney bounced the rugby ball down over our line like it was a grid-iron match, and with the bounce went our chances. We went down 35-21 that sunny afternoon in the Basque Country.

Aftermatch & Aftermath

Pascal’s bar remains festooned with Leinster memorabilia from that visit. We wobbled our way into the team marquee where the French players linked arms with the Leinster fans and gracefully put up with our gauche inability to hold our jar/ hold a note. A talented but underachieving Leinster team moved into the realms of the Celtic League and did themselves little justice. The terrace at Donnybrook returned to the rabble. Another Australian Coach left Dublin that summer.

However, those of us who suffered through that stunted season remember it with misty pride. It was the year Gordon D’arcy came of age, winning the IRB Player of the Year award in 2004. His elevation to the midfield was nothing short of inspired. It made him as a player and set us on a path upwards. Not all things from that year ended sourly for us.

Til Next Week.

CK

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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