Schmidt and O'Driscoll lead tributes as injury forces Horgan to call time on stellar career
‘One of the greats of Leinster and Irish rugby’
APPROPRIATELY for a player who soared so high during his career Shane Horgan went out at the top -- even if it took nearly a year to confirm it.
While he did play a week later when Munster ruined Leinster's double dream, the 33-year-old bows out a European champion after starring in the province's remarkable Heineken Cup final comeback against Northampton last May.
Thus, injury has claimed another of Ireland's golden generation and Horgan was as gilt-edged as they come -- perhaps ranking alongside Denis Hickie and just behind Tommy Bowe as one of the greatest wingers of the professional era. His career mirrored the growth of Irish rugby's most successful era and the former Meath minor footballer was one of the first of many stars to emerge, despite not having gone to a 'rugby' school.
Ultimately, it was his knee that forced Horgan to call time on his career. He played through the pain barrier at the end of last season, but having undergone surgery during the summer, the winger couldn't get the joint strong enough to play again. Unorthodox in physique and background, he first came to national consciousness 12 years ago when Warren Gatland rolled the dice after a 50-18 Twickenham hammering and handed new caps to five players who would help define a decade.
The gangly 21-year-old had started to make a name for himself for Lansdowne and Leinster before the New Zealander handed him his chance alongside Peter Stringer, Simon Easterby, Ronan O'Gara and John Hayes. The new arrivals helped secure a 44-22 win over the Scots.
After crossing for a try on his debut, Horgan would go on to win 65 caps for Ireland, four for the Lions. He finished his career as Ireland's fourth all-time try scorer behind Brian O'Driscoll, Denis Hickie and Tommy Bowe, having crossed the line 21 times.
And it is two of those tries that are the reason that Horgan will not be forgotten soon as they both came against England. His winner at Twickenham in 2006 -- his second that day -- will go down as one of Ireland's best ever as he eked everything out of his 6ft 4in frame to stretch out his hand and ground the ball, despite Lewis Moody's tackle.
A year later, Horgan's Croke Park catch defined one of Ireland's greatest days at GAA Headquarters as his Gaelic skills, honed on the fields at Bellewstown, helped him beat Josh Lewsey to O'Gara's cross-kick as England left Jones's Road on the back of a 43-13 rout.
He won three Triple Crowns, but by the time Ireland reached their Holy Grail, his international career had stalled under Declan Kidney. Horgan's name was constantly name-checked by his former Ireland team-mates on the day in Cardiff when Ireland claimed the Grand Slam, but rather than being in the Welsh capital, Horgan was at the O2 as boxer Bernard Dunne capped a historic day by becoming world champion.
Along the way, Horgan was selected for the ill-fated 2005 Lions tour and was one of the few players to emerge with credit from the events in New Zealand. He came off the bench in the warm-up Test against Argentina in Cardiff and in the three defeats against the All Blacks. He was unlucky not to start having played well throughout.
His biggest regret will surely be the 2007 World Cup, a tournament at which Horgan and his generation were at their peak, arriving in France with expectations of fireworks that never materialised in a disappointing five weeks.
He won his last cap against Fiji the November after the Grand Slam in 2009, but although his international star had faded, his club exploits continued.
Although he also won Celtic Leagues in 2001/02 and 2007/08, Horgan was on the field for some of Leinster's most difficult days as they struggled to make their undoubted potential count on the biggest club stage.
It was a period of highs and lows, summed up by 2006 when they were sensational against Bath and Toulouse away -- Horgan scored in the dramatic victory at Stade Municipale -- but were humiliated at Lansdowne Road by Munster in the Heineken semi-final as they watched their rivals march to glory.
His European scoring rate was prolific, he scored a try in every three matches and the winger was, according to Eoin Reddan, pivotal to the change at culture at Leinster under Michael Cheika that saw the province finally claim the Heineken Cup in 2009 and repeat the trick last season.
"I think he probably did (change the culture)," Reddan said yesterday. "He was there for a long time and himself, Brian and Leo (Cullen) had a big impact. It'll be tough for him to go and puts some responsibility on everyone else to make sure that the hard work done by him and others is continued."
His knee was already in a bad way last year, but Horgan played through the pain and his line-breaking and defensive leadership were key as Leinster stormed back to beat the Saints in last year's epic Heineken final.
"He'll always have that memory and did incredibly well to be fit for that match," Reddan said. "His knee was at him for a while coming into that match, but he still performed, which shows his mental strength."
Joe Schmidt yesterday described Horgan as the "one of the greats of Leinster and Irish rugby," but perhaps the last word should go to O'Driscoll who paid tribute to his old friend on Twitter saying: "Massively disappointing to see my good friend Shane Horgan retire. Shared some of the best days in blue and green with him."
Born: July 18, 1978
Irish Caps: 65, 2000-09 (62 as starter, 31 appearances in the Six Nations, 8 World Cup)
Lions caps: 4
Leinster caps: 207 (71 tries, 1 drop goal)
February 19, 2000: Makes Ireland debut alongside Peter Stringer, Ronan O'Gara, John Hayes and Simon Easterby and scores a try as Warren Gatland's team banish the dreadful 1990s and kickstart a new era with a 44-22 win over Scotland.
May 23, 2005: Comes off the bench for his first Lions cap against Argentina at the Millennium Stadium prior to the tour to New Zealand. Although the tour was generally viewed as being a disaster, the winger was one of the few players to return home with credit.
March 18, 2006: Having scored Ireland's opening try at Twickenham, Horgan reaches out his long arm to score a late try to claim victory over England. The winger had just been held up by Lewis Moody, but he wasn't going to be stopped by the flanker a second time as Ireland rejoiced.
February 24, 2007: Collects Ronan O'Gara's cross-kick in iconic fashion and touches down as Ireland destroy England at Croke Park.
May 23, 2009: Having hammered Munster at Croke Park in the semi-final, Leinster end their wait for a Heineken Cup, beating Leicester Tigers 19-16 at Murrayfield.
May 21, 2011: Horgan plays through the pain barrier as the province collect their second European title, coming from 22-6 down at half-time in the final to beat Northampton 33-22 in his second-last match.
2007 World Cup: They were heralded as the golden generation and this was their big moment, but Horgan and Co didn't deliver, crashing out at the Pool stage after defeats to France and Argentina and a series of under-powered performances.
2009 Grand Slam: Horgan had fallen out of favour at international level by the time Ireland won the Grand Slam and watched from Dublin as his old team-mates claimed glory with his replacement, Tommy Bowe, scoring the crucial try.