Simon Mason will make the long haul from Merseyside on Friday to renew some old friendships before taking his place at Twickenham for Europe’s first all-Ireland, all-RaboDirect Pro 12 final.
On Saturday he will be just another face in the crowd among the Ulster supporters hoping their team somehow finds the unbending willpower to beat the odds as well as Leinster, the unbeaten champions and hot favourites to win another Heineken Cup before the RaboDirect PRO12 final against the Ospreys a week later. Mason has a rough idea of what it takes because he has been there and done it.
When Ulster won their only previous final, beating Colomiers 21-6 at Lansdowne Road on a dank winter’s day 13 years ago, Mason rose to an occasion which the northern province has never come close to matching, until now. He kicked six of the seven match-winning goals, a double penalty hat-trick which left room on the scoreboard for nothing else other than a David Humphreys drop. Why bother with anything as fancy as a try when the boots of their full-back and fly-half would guarantee the only thing that mattered?
Colomiers, overcome by the deafening noise from those who had crossed the border in their tens of thousands, never stood a chance. At times they gave the impression of wondering what they were doing there in the final instead of Toulouse or the pink Parisians of Stade Francais.
Both had been given the heave-ho by Ulster in the previous rounds. Toulouse, eager to exploit the political boycott which wiped out the English contingent headed by European champions Bath, lost by two points in Belfast in the quarters.
Stade Francais, then beginning to become all the rage under Max Guazzini’s flamboyant presidency, were next to find the Ravenhill experience beyond them, losing the semi-final to Ulster’s potent mixture of professionals, part-timers and amateurs 33-27.
‘Everyone had Stade to win by 30 or 40,’ said Mason, whose goals proved crucial in both ties. ‘I’ll never forget those matches and, in particular, David Humphreys breaking away for the try against Stade.
‘After that we rode on the crest of a wave to the final. As a spectacle, it wasn’t great but when you have a European Cup winner’s medal in the closet, that’s all that matters. You felt you were playing with your friends and that was a wonderful thing. I went on to play in France and Italy but it was never quite the same. The game changed a lot after that final in Dublin.’
Back then, Mason had no idea that Ulster’s success would bring acclamation on a scale not seen in Belfast for a rugby team before or since. ‘We worked hard on the pitch and celebrated hard off it,’ he said. ‘On the Sunday we went to Belfast for a civic reception and we thought it might be embarrassing, not because some of us might have been a bit the worse for wear.
‘Then we turned the corner for the City Hall and found about 25,000 people waiting there. Some of us thought there might have been 150. It was crazy, absolutely brilliant. Those are the memories you cherish.’
Mason had joined Ulster from Richmond, unaware at the time that the famous old London club would pay a severe price for their meteoric rise to the top flight of the English game. His objective was to revive an international career which began against Wales at Lansdowne Road in March 1996 and ended a few months later against Samoa at the same venue.
He made it back into the Ireland squad but had to settle for a number of A team selections before heading to continental Europe. At 37, Mason is still playing, at Level Six of the English League for Anselmians, the old boys of St. Anselm’s College, Birkenhead where he teaches P.E.
At a time when an increasing number of professionals are being forced into premature retirement, Mason has refused to let the inconvenience of a broken leg, the second of his career, finish him, ‘All I try to do these days is make sure I get through the game uninjured,’ he said, chuckling. ‘It’s given my wife loads of ammunition for her argument that it’s time for me to quit. The thought of traipsing around the shops on a Saturday afternoon is keeping my rugby alive. I still love the game.’
Mason, eligible for Ireland because his late parents came from Dublin and Navan, plans to catch up with Humphreys, now Ulster’s director of rugby, and Jonathan Bell, the former Ireland centre and permanent member of the 1999 team. ‘They’re both very good friends so I might pop into the hotel before the match and see how they’re doing. Leinster will be favourites, rightly so and that will suit Ulster.
‘I don’t think there will be much in it. Like a lot of big games, it will come down to very small margins. Most of Ireland will be at Twickenham and I’m just going down as a supporter. It’ll be too big an occasion to miss.
‘I think Ulster have a great chance. Ruan Pienaar is the form player going into the final but Brian O’Driscoll being back fit and refreshed is a big plus for Leinster. Brian McLaughlin (head coach) will have Ulster really fired up and if he can inspire them to the game of their lives, then there’ll be every chance of history repeating itself…’