Rugby has been a big part of my life since I was 8, Leinster rugby is a more recent addition. I remember inter-pros from my student days in Donnybrook but post match analysis in Longs or Kiely’s leave those memories vague.
The advent of the professional game in 1995 saw a more structured approach to provincial rugby. Heineken Cup rugby on Friday nights in Donnybrook became increasingly popular but still attracted crowds of less than 6,000. One of the first Heineken Cup games I attended was in December 1995 when Leinster defeated Pontypridd in Lansdowne Road in front of a paltry crowd of 4,000. It’s often forgotten that Leinster reached the semi-final in that year before losing to Cardiff.
At this stage Leinster were professional in name only with stunning victories mixed in with abject defeats. Supporting them was hard and not made any easier seeing first Ulster and then our southern cousins prosper. It would have been easier to claim a long lost relative from Clare and switch allegiance but I just couldn’t do that.
We persevered through the horrible semi-final defeat to Perpingnan in 2003 with a home final begging and endured the limp quarter-final exit to Leicester in 2005 under the stewardship of Declan Kidney this in front of a packed Lansdowne Road.
The following year myself and my two brothers were part of the Blue army of 6,000 that travelled to the fanatical rugby town of Toulouse. The pre-match preparations had taken their toll and were not helped by the ill advised decision to give Shane a bodhran. We took our seats looking forward to a performance but not a victory. What transpired next was a game to rival any played since Webb Ellis picked up the ball. Leinster scored majestic tries that are as clear today as they were 6 years ago. Horgan feeding O’Driscoll who zoomed under the posts, Cameron Jowitt (who?) intercepting and most memorably Hickie scorching up the left wing to touch down. Leinster had toppled the kings of Europe and all that lay in front of them was Munster.
Black Sunday, that is the name that Leinster supporters give to 23rd April 2006. Ladyboys, D4 heads, Ross O’Kelly Carroll. They all followed the defeat that felt like a death. Despite this I was delighted to see the Red Army celebrate their first win. 2007 was a continuation of the disappointment with another meek exit to Wasps.
Leinster were still not performing but were changing both on and off the field. Michael Cheika brought a hard nosed, no-nonsense brand of management . 2009 saw this bear fruit with Leinster winning a war of attrition against Harlequins setting up “that” game in Lansdowne Road. Our victory saw us off to Edinburgh to meet Leicester Tigers. We were told that we had to lose a final before we could win it but nobody told Rocky Elsom and co. It certainly wasn’t a classic but it was all about the result. Leinster were Heineken Cup champions 2009. Little did I think that the years 2011 and 2012 would be inserted into that sentence with Cheika’s pragmatism replaced by Schmidt’s more balanced approach.
Leinster rugby is responsible for many days that will always live with me, top of which were the occasions on which my sons were mascots. The joy of seeing the lads lead out my team in the RDS in 2011 and Bordeaux in 2012 makes up for all of the bleak years when supporting Leinster was as popular as an Anglo Irish banker. This has all changed, the RDS is full, Leinster Jerseys abound and the ladyboy tag has been buried. Long may it stay that way!