Sport Rugby

Saturday 19 January 2019

'We didn't have a local club, I wasn't in mini-rugby' - Shane Horgan on his unlikely journey to the Irish team

Former Ireland winger recalls his giant leap into the golden age

Shane Horgan symbolised the spread of rugby beyond the traditional private school confines Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Shane Horgan symbolised the spread of rugby beyond the traditional private school confines Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Growing up in Bellewstown during the 1980s, there was more chance in spotting a Dubliner living in exile than finding an oval ball.

Except in the Horgan household, that is.

Like most children of those sepia-tinted days, when a dearth of screens coerced all to remain outdoors instead of in, Shane Horgan's sporting life revolved around the limited sporting action which happened on TV.

And so, as if charged by the cathode rays, Horgan and his pals would burst from their front rooms and try to replicate the actions of their heroes.

GAA heroes predominated. But it jostled for open air-time with others. McEnroe and Borg. Botham and Gower. Prost and Senna. Davis and Higgins. Dalglish and Whelan. And, occasionally, Ringland and Crossan.

"There was no rugby in Meath outside of my backyard, everything else was Gaelic football," recalls Horgan who, despite his background, would more than a decade later be transformed into a hero to whom so many others aspired in their moments of innocent play.

"We also watched cricket in the summer. A gang of kids would come around and play it in the backyard.

"This was in Bellewstown but remember it was also an era of limited TV sport. And there was probably a better chance of finding cricket than rugby in my locality! All the rugby was in Drogheda. We were all GAA.

"Especially where we were," continues Horgan, describing a reality rather than any imposition.

"We didn't have a local club, I wasn't in mini-rugby.

"I didn't go to watch senior games because there weren't any near me. Leinster didn't really exist, there was no connection and I wouldn't have forged one if there was. There's no AIL. So that was it."

Indeed, Horgan played in Croke Park 20 years before his famous soaring leap served to symbolise the turning of a historical page, when GAA HQ opened its doors to embrace a sport once so shunned by so many in its community.

His was a leap as if serving to grab history itself by the collar and shake it up for a modern age.

That Horgan would end up making such a journey owed its passage to John, his father, who hailed from New Zealand. He shaped an oval world for a boy riveted by so many sports.

"Any archive we had back then was the Five Nations - intermingled with some All Blacks - and anything your dad would tell you would be about the championship.

"You grew up with this residual knowledge of the great Welsh team. The 101 greatest tries video was your audiovisual library. I remember we got one of those Triple Crown plastic balls that we ended up having for years.

"The 1988 championship photo is another cherished heirloom. Paul Dean was my favourite player on that side.

"Ireland against France was probably my first game and it was probably a loss. I had to wait a long time to see them win...

"When we played Wales, dad was very keen I watch Jonathan Davies very closely. I still see his drop-goal now, the year they won the Triple Crown against us."

Dad and son had a routine which, aside from the 21st century moral crusaders, mirrored many others in the 1980s.

"Before every international, we'd park up down on the South Lotts Road, nip into the bookies and have a few quid on a horse race. It was part of the whole experience for us."

Horgan went with his dad all through school; by this stage, the rugby bug had bitten the already sky-scraping teenager.

The imagination that already prospered at once admitted everything but was also limiting in scope.

"When I was very young, you're imagining the names and doing the commentary in the back garden but that is play.

"It's not on my radar, ever having the chance of playing rugby for Ireland.

"Then again, I supposed I must have dreamed of playing for Ireland. But you soon think it's unattainable. Because it was so far away it doesn't stick with you.

"Then you get to another point in your life when it seems it might happen and that's a nice moment for you until suddenly it became close and closer."

Attending his first game on his own as an 18-year-old, the famous peace international in 1996, at the old ground sharpened the focus, still more a midweek trip to see Ireland, losing, of course, against Western Samoa.

"I was always intrigued about South Africa, as we all were as kids because of their sporting isolation. My dad would have told me about these great Springbok teams.

"Naas Botha was an almost mythical name. Dad always said, 'That boy can kick it the length of the field'.

"Then, two years after watching Western Samoa I'm suddenly in the mix with these guys even though you're still not thinking about any prospect of playing for Ireland but it comes on you fast.

"You change so quickly from 16 to 18. I was playing for Leinster and Ireland youths but even then the disconnect between that and playing for Ireland was monstrous.

"Then you go into Leinster and you feel the leap is not that huge. But they were still men and you're a relative boy.

"I remember I got a letter that I thought was bringing me to going to South Africa but they were just informing me they were picking another squad. That was tough.

"Then an autumn series I wasn't picked and I was devastated. I missed my window and your thinking is askew. You're looking at a 25-year-old and thinking how old are they?! I'm not going to hang around for five years!

"But I think that impatience is useful to have. You can't sit around and wait for it. You have to be thinking, I got to have this."

The chance eventually arrived when a struggling Ireland under Warren Gatland completely revamped their line-up for a clash with Scotland.

"I wouldn't say it was enjoyable. You'd like to do it again with the knowledge you have now. But I'm not disappointed about that. You enjoy elements around it. And I enjoyed scoring a try!

"I was happy I got through it, I was happy that I didn't embarrass myself and that I might have a chance to get picked for the next game.

"Of course you're worried about being embarrassed. That was a fairly consistent theme for first number of caps.

"The enjoyment element of playing for Ireland took rather a long time to come. It also coincides with you playing rugby that is actually any good, or at least being a contributor to a team.

"You start off by saying, 'Let's just do my own thing here, not make too many mistakes and it will be okay'.

"You're not thinking really of how you can contribute to the performance and perhaps contribute to the team winning.

"While you're there for those first few caps, it's like everybody else's job to help the team win and you don't want to mess it up.

"And that was fundamentally my feeling for the first 15 caps or so. It wasn't until the World Cup in 2003 that I felt entirely comfortable in myself physically and mentally.

"The jump to international rugby was extreme, physically as well, we seemed tiny in comparison to other teams. And the other teams were ahead of us.

"There were no expectations, we weren't expected to win. Just not lose horribly. We'd had a few high points but in rugby, Ireland lost, and that was it."

But they won against Scotland and, thereafter, would win more often than not, throughout a seminal decade for the sport as Ireland gradually grew in the professional era, Horgan symbolising the spread of rugby beyond the traditional private school confines.

Throughout it all, the childhood images remained embedded in his mind as, suddenly, he found himself immersed in a world that once had seemed so distant to him.

The waking reality of it all mesmerised the little boy within the adult.

"I love Paris. I would have seen the cockerel as a kid and you don't somehow imagine it is real but then you are at the stadium and it's there! This is what you see on TV as a kid, that was my childhood memory. It's amazing.

"And pitch invasions! People running on to the pitch. It happened quite regularly. I quite liked that, it seemed almost part of the fabric somehow.

"Obviously, it's not sustainable any more but you'd always have these mad fellas running past you, there was a pitch invader in every single game.

"For me, it was like you were directly involved in a TV production of all the stuff you used to watch as a kid."

It was rugby heaven; meeting its custodian in Lansdowne Road confirmed it.

"It was my first cap here. We were finishing off a training session and Denis Hickie nudges me and says there's Bill McClaren.

"My dad loved him, I loved him. We grew up listening to his burr, the soundtrack of my youth. He was on the footpath.

"'How are you doing Shane?' It blew my mind! He knew my name... of course he does, he knows everything about me. That's his job.

"But at that moment it all kind of linked together. You're now part of this story you started watching as a child. A contributor to the great drama rather than a consumer or customer or supporter."

He's a supporter again now but also a professional contributor, working for TV3 as they begin their autumn coverage of the Six Nations.

Having secured the rights, it is certain that they will unfurl their own version of the 101 Great Tries that Horgan watched endlessly as a child.

"They don't do 101 great try videos or DVDS now, do they? They're curated differently now, all on YouTube and kids do a different thing with it. Everything moves on and there's a much vaster archive."

Except some of the defining moments, winning the Triple Crown in Twickenham and that Croke Park salmon leap, will be provided by Horgan himself. Quite the journey.

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