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Final fling

Stan Wright's farewell will be short, just like his introduction. When Leinster came calling in December '06, he'd never even heard of them. "Do you want to play overseas?" asked a voice on the end of the line. "Not really," replied Stan.

He was with his family on a day trip to Rotorua, two small kids tugging at his attention, Cherie heavily pregnant with a third. They lived in Hamilton, their immediate priority a renovation project on the house and, hopefully, a future sale. What on earth would he be doing moving to the far side of the world?

"Who the hell's Leinster anyway?" asked Stan. The agent offered a potted history, then identified the timeline. "They'd need you over next week, because they've a Heineken Cup match ... "

And that was when Stan Wright began to listen. "Did you say Heineken Cup?"

He came as a stopgap. Will Green was injured and Leinster, in desperate need of a tight-head, all but went out and bought a raffle ticket. Mike Brewer had been on the phone, checking out every bargain bin in the southern hemisphere.

And, somehow, he found Stan.

Bernard Jackman remembers his first glimpse. The Tuesday before they played Agen and a team meeting in the Riverview. They were watching the door for their new prop when in walked an extraordinary vision. Wright was two months out of training and, you could say, generously proportioned.

"He was wearing snakeskin cowboy boots and a pair of Bermuda shorts," chortles Jackman. "In fairness, we didn't know where he came from. We thought it was a joke."

Stan's shoulders are jerking with the laughter now. "Obviously, they're sitting, looking at me and thinking 'bit of a motor (belly) on him there. Where the hell did they get this fella from?'"

He lasted 40 minutes against Agen "20 minutes really", then blew up. One writer suggested he'd been going back so fast in the scrum, it looked "like he'd brought his rollerblades from the Cook Islands". Two weeks later, he marathoned all the way to a 50-minute stint.

Christmas arrived and everyone presumed he'd gone to team-mate Cameron Jowitt's for dinner. He hadn't. Stan dined alone. "I had my Christmas dinner from the Texaco petrol station in Blackrock," he grins. "That was the only place open. Had a six-pack of muffins and some corn chips (crisps).

"That was my Christmas dinner. Beeeaaauutiful!"

Cherie gave birth to Ayla on January 1, but Stan didn't make it home. The games just kept coming thick and fast now. Leinster gave him a three-month contract. He would stay for four and a half years.


THEIR friendship sparked quickly and without fanfare, as it does with unglamorous heroes.

Around the time big Stan pitched up in Dublin, Jackman's career hung on a feeble hinge. He was third-choice hooker with Leinster and, seemingly, just months away from being cut adrift.

Then, in a matter of weeks, Harry Vermaas slipped off the radar and Brian Blaney damaged his ribs. Suddenly, the farmer's son from Carlow found himself linking arms with this vast stranger from the Cook Island of Rarotonga and, essentially, going to war.

When Wright talks about home, he doesn't sugar-coat what he left behind. His mother, Poila (Mama Tuki), has received an OBE for work done in the community. The island he grew up on is covered by a single road that stretches for just 32 kilometres.

His childhood was spent, as he puts it, "on the plantation, cleaning the church, mowing lawns, sweeping the yard."

And it was there he learnt a rough hybrid of the game that now pays his wages. "Rugby was good and hard on the island," he says. "Bush rugby. Village against village. You could bite the other players, anything went. I just got used to it. Because I was overweight in my age group, I played one or two teams ahead. They just assumed I was older.

"So I was playing senior rugby when I was 16 and always got a hiding. Didn't worry me. After a while, you learn to stand up for yourself."

There was no television, though he does recall a stir when a young Jonah Lomu visited the island for a Sevens tournament. Lomu was still in school at the time, playing No 8 and "all the girls wanted him".

Funny, they would be team-mates for a brief stint at Weymouth when Wright moved to New Zealand after school, though Lomu's journey was about to rocket to another stratosphere. Stan settled for flying closer to earth.

After he made Auckland Bs, Northland rang. Canterbury enquired too. "And I thought "f**k, this might be a go!"

His strength came strictly from his genes. When Leinster eventually called, one of the things explored was info on his use of weights. And Stan told them everything they wanted to hear. "Yeah, yeah, yeah, no worries, pumping plenty of iron ... "

They thought they were investing in a gym rat.

Jackman remembers that first morning, Wright striding across the mirrored room, wearing a John McEnroe sweat-band. Some of the boys were audibly snorting as he went to the first machine, looking like a kid presented with a page of algebra.

"I hadn't done any gym work at all," he says now. "And I knew the bastards were laughing."

But, boy, the man could scrummage. Over the next four years, Wright would become one of those exotic front-row creatures who can hold up a scrum from either side. And his easy toughness seemed to seep into those around him.

Most identify the repatriation of Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings from Welford Road as the moment Leinster finally turned their backs on flaky caricature. Jackman believes the recruitment of Wright was an equally pivotal juncture.

"We probably talked too much about what we were going to do back then," he says. "And Stan doesn't really like talking! Sometimes at meetings, he'd just say, 'shut up!' And, maybe, that was what we needed to hear. I mean we never had a scrum until we had Stan and Ollie le Roux.

"That was the start of us being respected as a pack. Until then, our set-piece was just s**t. Fellas were soft at training. If they got dropped, they'd throw the toys out of the pram. Like just soft mentally. Coming from New Zealand, he would have realised that.

"We just didn't have a forward pack that was tough. Then Stan arrived and, once he got a pre-season under his belt, you knew going out that tunnel he was going to front up. A leader on the pitch, rather than in terms of talk."

Stan's own recall?

"Oh we were hopeless when I came in," he shrugs. "I think back then some of the boys didn't know how lucky they were."

They differ in the specifics of the turning point, but not the year. Everything changed in 2008. Leinster won the Magners League, but it wasn't so much the silverware as the team's altered personality.

Jackman picks a victory over Munster at Musgrave Park. Stan mentions a win away to Harlequins. They didn't get out of their group in Europe, but they were building something different.

"You might look at it and say, 'Oh it was a s**t year!'" says Jackman. "But, I don't know, there was just much more respect for the team. The meetings were more honest. In the past, if you were picked up for something on the video, there might have been a tendency to try to blame somebody else.

"People just started taking responsibility for their own actions. It sounds a real obvious thing, but you've got to have that culture. We didn't have it before that."

The evidence began falling their way incrementally. By '09, they were fronting up to the biggest juggernauts and refusing to blink. A defeat in Castres might, ordinarily, have trip-wired panic. But Jackman remembers Cullen's calm captaincy being a balm on the wound. Nobody panicked. They just simplified the game plan and kept on moving.

"We weren't pulling up trees, but there was a good atmosphere," he recalls.

Still, a team's cojones were measured by the standards Munster set and, try as they did, Leinster stayed in their neighbours' pocket. The rivalry became personal and, for Wright, more than a little strange.

"To be honest, it didn't really mean anything to me," he says. "But coming into Leinster and seeing your mates ... I don't know, dislike someone or whatever ... you just follow the crew. You're just like a sheep, 'Ah ya, okay, I'm in too' (laughing).

"Truth is, I didn't really care. The only thing that mattered was they were at the top, so it was always going to be good to beat them."

The day Leinster ground out a 6-5 victory over Harlequins in a Heineken Cup quarter-final that will forever be associated with 'Bloodgate', Munster stopped just short of triple toe-loops during a stunning destruction of the Ospreys in Limerick.

They'd beaten Leinster twice already that season and now found themselves at cramped odds to do it a third time. One week after those quarter-finals, eight of the Munster players were included in the Lions party to tour South Africa. Croke Park was, it seemed, being prepared for a red carnival.

Wright smiles at the fact that, even in the South Sea islands, they know what happened next. The biggest attendance ever seen at a club match made headlines across the world. GAA headquarters became a vast quilt of red and blue and the game took on an independent spirit.

Jackman remembers the tunnel before they went out. Sky weren't quite ready for the teams' arrival, so they were held there, side by side, for maybe 30 excruciating seconds. "There's Leo first in line, me second, probably Stan third," he says. "And right beside us there's (Paul) O'Connell and (Marcus) Horan.

"Like, you know these fellas, you know them well. But no one's looking across. Next thing, the camera picked us out, the image went up on the big screen and the place erupted. The hair just goes up on the back of your neck at a time like that.

"I remember thinking, 'If you can't play in this atmosphere, don't ever bother playing again!'"

Emotionally, Stan was with him. "When we ran out, I remember thinking 'f**k, you wouldn't want to be at home, would you?'"

History records Leinster's victory in clean, emphatic language. They won 25-6. Three tries to nil. It didn't feel that clinical. Then they went and won the Cup against Leicester in Edinburgh and, to begin with, no one really knew how to behave.

So Stan resorted to form. "I went home and did my washing," he grins, with minimal exaggeration. "All the jerseys that I'd stolen. I was flying to New Zealand the next morning, so I had to wash and dry them before I took off. It was bad planning by me. I missed all the partying."

He remembers buying a few newspapers at Heathrow the following morning, and maybe only then did the scale of Leinster's achievement finally hit home. They were champions of Europe. Ladyboys no more.


HIS PLAN IS TO head to Paris maybe two weeks after the Magners League final.

Linking up again with Michael Cheika will yank him out of whatever psychological comfort zone he might be drawn to. For Stade Francais aspire to do precisely what Leinster have done or, as Stan puts it rather bluntly "to become a team that goes from being s**t to being top, whether that's Super 14 or Heineken Cup."

He talks about it almost in evangelical terms. The desire to involve himself in their academy. To change things. So much sounded good to him about the Stade project when they talked. Then that familiar chuckle breaks the spell.

"Then it's always good to get a two-year contract too!" he grins.

Jackman's career drew to a conclusion last year, courtesy of chronically problematic knees. It's taken him almost a year to come to terms with retirement. Over time, the front-row boys forged a spirit strong enough to withstand their own satire.

Where Leinster's more glamorous back-men were, on occasion, referred to as "the golden triangle", Stan, Jackman and Co christened themselves "the wooden triangle".

He misses that too.

And, maybe most of all, he misses the individual quirks. The little foibles people had in a game-day dressing-room as they prepared to go to war. For Stan, it has always been a toilet cubicle, some bowel movement and a prayer.

He seemed endlessly in the midst of it when Magners League referees came calling. "All the front-rows here?"

"Ya, one, two, three, four ... where's Stan?

"Stan, the ref!"

And out he would bound with that cheery smile and an out-stretched hand the referee clearly felt might be better met with tongs.

It was Jackman's wonderful book, 'Blue Blood', that broke the story of Toby. The family dog that Stan chose to barbecue rather than have impounded by police. An extravagant fiction?

"Whoever wrote that should have been plugged into a lie-detector," he protests meekly. But then the confession. "Nah, nah, it's all true," giggling. "Toby was a good boy. That's what happens in the Cooks!"

An Achilles rupture last August kept him on the sidelines for six months and so he goes to Cardiff this weekend as back-up to Cian Healy and Mike Ross. It hasn't been easy, but his two eldest boys will be in the Millennium today and he hopes they see him get game time.

Beyond? Cherie Wright and Sinead Jackman are close and the kids are friends. The families will stay in touch, wherever the game takes their husbands.

Remarkably, neither Stan nor Bernard has ever watched a video of the '09 final against Leicester. "No need to, it's all upstairs," says Wright, pointing to his head.

Jackman responds: "Sure he got sin-binned, why would he watch it? That's why we called him 'The Suitcase'. Everybody ended up carrying him!"

And the response, fruity and choice, is lost in an explosion of laughter. "Nah," Stan says, more seriously then. "It's going to be a shock to leave. I'll miss Leinster. Everything about them."

Irish Independent