200 not out
Committed and consistent, Shane Horgan still has plenty to offer beyond Leinster milestone
Shane Horgan joins an exclusive club this Saturday when he makes his 200th appearance for his province, joining a restricted membership list containing names such as Anthony Foley, Alan Quinlan and Peter Stringer.
Those appearances have encompassed a career characterised by commitment and consistency to the point when the 32-year-old's compelling form for Leinster this season pushed him back into the Ireland reckoning when many had deemed the Meath man to be no longer of international relevance.
Unfortunately, injury hindered Horgan's hopes of stepping in for Tommy Bowe when the Ospreys right wing was ruled out of Ireland's opening two matches but, although there are now just five months until New Zealand 2011, a strong end to the season with Leinster could yet propel the 65-cap veteran into the World Cup mix.
Defined by his size and abrasive style -- typified by coming in off his wing to commit defenders with crashing runs up the middle -- it was suggested that Horgan would be left behind by the off-loading, free-flowing approach adopted by Leinster under Joe Schmidt.
Instead he has flourished in his 18 appearances this season, displaying a deftness of touch as well as support and spatial awareness, while losing none of the aggression in contact that forged his reputation.
When Horgan first started to attract attention in the late 1990s, rugby was still in thrall to Jonah Lomu but, while behemoth backs were all the rage, they were thin on the ground in Ireland. David Coleman had bulk and pace and had been cutting swathes through defences for Terenure, but that was in the protected environment of the All-Ireland League and the disastrous development tour to New Zealand in 1997 brought Coleman's representative progression hopes to a shuddering halt.
Other back-row sized wingers such as John McWeeney and John O'Neill had productive representative careers with Leinster and Munster respectively, but McWeeney's international aspirations were spiked by a harrowing experience against the All Blacks in 1997, while O'Neill only made it as far as the Ireland senior training squad.
Horgan was the biggest of the lot. At 6'4" and over 16 stone, he was big enough to play second-row and probably would have ended up there in a different era. Thus, his appearance in the backline was always going to attract the eye and, after excelling at underage level with the Ireland Youths and the U-21s, Horgan was fast-tracked into the professional sphere.
His first senior cap for Leinster came in the old inter-provincial championship, emphasising how long he has been on the scene, and it is an occasion he remembers fondly but indistinctly.
"My senior debut was against Ulster in Donnybrook and we ended up losing the game. It's hazy enough, I was playing in the centre that day, Andy Ward was playing (for Ulster)," recalled Horgan yesterday.
"When I came in to Leinster, I was playing with guys I would have watched on TV and some of them would have been heroes at the time, it felt weird and took quite a while to settle in. Now guys are in the team for a while, but back then you were in your club and then you came into Leinster. But that debut was a huge deal."
In fact, Leinster lost that game heavily, but it should be noted that Ulster went on to win the Heineken Cup and, until this season, have not come close to replicating the achievements of that 1998/99 season.
That 1998 Leinster side was something of a mix-and-match affair with only Girvan Dempsey, Horgan, Shane Byrne and Victor Costello going on to have lengthy international careers. Emmet Byrne and Gabriel Fulcher never managed to establish themselves in the Irish team, while the likes of Kevin Nowlan, McWeeney, Alan McGowan, David O'Mahony, Henry Hurley and Angus McKeen had only brief flirtations with the national side. There was also the 'might-have-been' open-side Barry Gibney, whose promising career was cut down by injury.
Despite his initial adjustment difficulties, Horgan flourished at Leinster and was winning his first international cap 18 months after taking his provincial bow -- part of a famous quintet of debutants against Scotland in 2000, joining Ronan O'Gara, Stringer, John Hayes and Simon Easterby for a victory that changed the course of Irish rugby.
Back in 1998, did he ever think he would get to 200 appearances?
"No. It shows my age but when I started it was only about four, five or six games a season, I would have had to play for about 40 years to make that ... but it's very nice, a personal milestone, but I think certainly my focus this week is on this game and Munster, and it really does focus the mind."
Munster and Thomond Park -- a combination guaranteed to get the Leinster juices flowing, particularly when the visitors are striving to maintain their play-off position, while the home side will be desperate to prevent a sixth successive loss to their strongest rivals.
Back when Horgan was cutting his provincial teeth, Munster were characterised by forward muscle and Leinster by backline flair. However, both sides have developed the areas that were once seen as weaknesses and Horgan singled out two Munster backs for special mention ahead of Saturday's clash.
"Howlett has been fantastic, he is genuine world class. He's fitted in very well to the Munster ethos, that is always important, Dougie is really part of that core in Munster now," said Horgan, who also expects former Leinster player Felix Jones to pose a serious threat following his successful recovery from injury.
"We know Felix first-hand from when he was up here. He is a quality player and we were sorry to see him go but he's gone to Munster and is very highly thought of down there. He will be one of their real danger players."
Leinster have come a long way since that evening in Donnybrook 12-and-a-half years ago when Horgan made his debut. Now, the side is packed with Lions as well as current and future Ireland internationals. Following the retirements of Malcolm O'Kelly and Girvan Dempsey, Horgan is one of the last links to the 1990s and it is testament to his professionalism that he is still in the frame.
Taking on Munster in Thomond Park is a fitting occasion for your 200th cap, but it should not be regarded as a valedictory appearance. Horgan is not done just yet.