BE PART OF THE TEAM

Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership

Become A Member
Dublin: 6°C Thursday 26 November 2020
Advertisement

The unluckiest Leinster player to never win an Ireland cap

It is 25 years since rugby turned professional – the same year a new tournament called the Heineken Cup was born. Former Leinster captain Chris Pim relives the madness of those transitional years.

Chris Pim captained Leinster to interpro success.
Chris Pim captained Leinster to interpro success.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

CHRIS PIM IS surrounded by his past, pictures frozen in time, medals showing their rust, a wage slip that sums up the chaos of rugby’s first years of professionalism. Time fuzzes the memory, so Pim isn’t 100 per cent sure which month the invoice refers to.

In any case, the devil is in the detail. He was due to be paid £50 (Irish punts) a game by Old Wesley before a club official crossed that figure out, doubling his wages with a stroke of his red pen. Better still Pim’s win bonus was topped up by an extra £50. These were the early years of the Celtic Tiger, after all.

IMG-20201104-WA0004 Pim's first payslip as a pro.

Rugby had gone pro but a stench of amateurism lingered in the air. As Leinster captain during their inaugural Heineken Cup season, Pim received the princely sum of £2,091 rising to an astronomical £2,847 a year later.

IMG-20201104-WA0003 The wage of Leinster's first captain in the pro era.

Nonetheless Dublin throbbed with possibility in those years. A wet Wednesday in Milan was where it all kicked off; Niall Woods scoring a late try to record Leinster’s first ever Heineken Cup win. “Most of us just saw it as an adventure and a bit of craic,” Pim says. “To be honest, the first thing that came into my head was that this was just another rugby idea that wouldn’t last.”

Well he was wrong about that. The maiden voyage saw Leinster fly out of Dublin on a Tuesday afternoon, Pim gathering the pack together in the departure lounge just after check-in. “Right lads,” he said, “we are professional now, we have to take this seriously. We need to find out what the backs moves are.”

He got short shrift from his audience. “Pimmy, the backs don’t even know what their bloody moves are. Just calm down and go and buy me a coffee. We’re due to board soon.”

Things were slow to take flight. For the second game of that campaign, word reached the Leinster camp that opponents, Pontypridd, were on a £2,000-a-man bonus to reach the semis. After murmurings of discontent, each Leinster player discovered a £300 voucher for ‘gear allowance’ nestling in their kit bags.

The appeal of buying more boots and socks must have had a motivating impact because before you knew it they were in a European semi-final, Cardiff blocking their path, Lansdowne Road booked for the expected bumper crowd. Seven thousand, three hundred and fifty people showed up. “Well, that was big back then.”

It was a different era but the rugby Leinster played was sporadically glorious and gung-ho, the toughness of Pim, Dean Oswald and Victor Costello in the back row reinforced by the world class abilities of Neil Francis at second row. “When Franno was interested, and at the races, he was class, absolute class,”Pim says. “His head wasn’t always in the game but when he was on, he was on. An amazing athlete, I’ve a huge amount of time for him. I’d have picked him on my team every week.”

victor-costello-attacks Victor Costello goes on the charge against Cardiff. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Jim Glennon, the then Leinster coach, thought the same way. He had Franno and a young Malcolm O’Kelly at lock; Shane Byrne and Paul Wallace – two future British and Irish Lions – in the front row; Woods and Conor O’Shea in his back three.

Except in the week of their semi-final, problems arose. The Irish international team were due to fly out to the United States and pressure was put on Glennon to omit the prospective Ireland tourists from his side. He wasn’t long telling them where to get off.

Against this backdrop, there were even more debates about money. “It was bloody awful, all this stuff going on in the background,” Pim says. “I remember some player saying, ‘let’s strike’. I looked at him and said, ‘are you having a laugh? This is a chance in a lifetime. We might never get to another European semi-final again’.”

If he’d a pain in the head from all the arguments, he’d a pain in his back from an unsupervised stint in the gym. “I was working as a sales rep at the time – so, thinking I was clever, I decided, ‘okay, European semi-final week, I’ll take the week off work’.”

Great idea until his back went into spasm after a weights session. “I am not exaggerating but I got 15 injections in my back that week. I went out onto the pitch, could not feel any pain but couldn’t move. They scored a try down the blindside – my fault. We lost the game on the back of that.”

Regret is unavoidable, but context is needed. He was too modest to mention the fact he also scored a try that day, self-deprecatingly suggesting the only reason he became provincial captain was because the international scene had passed him by.

“Look Jim (Glennon) plucked me from obscurity, possibly because he felt I was not going to be distracted by doing the Ireland thing. You see back then Ireland was the priority, Leinster the vehicle to get you there.

“I tried to make Leinster an entity in our own right so that people would be proud to play for us. Jim was fantastic; he kind of drove that. And it was great; I loved it. Franno came back in from the cold, he’d been having rows with Leinster. But he came and played for me, for want of a better expression.”

There were great days, a pushover try against Munster at the Shannon clubhouse end of Thomond Park, being the pick of them. “People used to say Leinster’s pack were soft,” Shane Byrne once said. “Try telling Dean Oswald or Chris Pim they’re soft.” “The hardest man I ever played with,” was Nick Popplewell’s glowing reference of Pim, his former schoolmate.

chris-pim-leads-the-team-out Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

Like Popplewell, Pim’s rugby journey started out in Newtown School, Waterford but his education intensified when he joined an Old Wesley side that was old school in every sense of the word. “First night at training, I drove all the way up from Portlaoise (his home). We ran four laps of the pitch and that was it; training over.

“And I went apeshit, shouting ‘I just drove 52 miles for that’. Phil Orr, a British and Irish Lion, was one of a posse of players staring in disbelief at this young upstart. “They threw my clothes out of the changing room,” Pim laughs.

Be part
of the team

Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership.

Become a Member

He had to learn fast. University brought him to Scotland, where he signed for Edinburgh Accies, his time there coinciding with a golden era in Scottish back-row play, his weekends spent going up against the Calders and John Jeffrey. “As a rugby nut, growing up watching Rugby Special, it was like stepping out of a comic book; a dream becoming reality.”

Back then, players could flip between serious athletes and absolute messers in the blink of an eye. “Edinburgh Accies were the posh boys going down the country and these country lads from Kelso, Hawick, Selkirk, were intent on teaching us a lesson; I got that with Old Wesley as well and to a certain degree with Leinster. And I absolutely loved it. I’m a country boy myself. The more stick I got, the better I played. I certainly didn’t mind being told I was soft. Bring it on. Tell me I’m soft after 80 minutes.”

The gendarmes in Paris tested him for longer than that, telling him he was going to a cell for the night in February 1985. By this stage he was with the Scottish University side, dressed in a kilt, holding his Irish passport in one hand and an ornamental till in the other.

“Well you see, our match (against the French university XV) had been postponed because of a frozen pitch, so we ended up in the bar a little earlier than expected. To cut a long story short, it was a great night, a lovely pub, and someone thought we should get a souvenir from the place.

east-midlands-v-barbarians-rugby-union Pim delivers a pass for the Barbarians against East Midlands in 1996. Source: EMPICS Sport

“We noticed this fantastic looking till on a shelf in the corner. ‘Wouldn’t that look cool on the bus?’ we said.” Well, the answer is obviously no – but as George W Bush memorably said, ‘when I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible’. The entire team organised the operation, look-outs posted on each door of the pub.

“And Muggins here was the designated carrier of the till. I got 50 yards down the road, said to myself, ‘this is far too heavy’ so I started walking back to the pub, the barman escorting me for the final yards of the journey. “All was good humoured,” says Pim. Unfortunately, the local bobbies thought otherwise. “They bucked me into the back of the van and the next thing I knew I was in a cell, all on my own, not a slightest clue what to do. These were pre-mobile phone days. No one spoke English. They just looked at me in bafflement, an Irish passport holder wearing a kilt. They kept me there for a good few hours, then – and this shows you how long ago this was, at 2pm the next afternoon, on the station’s black and white TV, the Scotland-France match appeared on the telly. That’s when they threw me out because they knew then I wouldn’t get to the game. That was my punishment.”

Significantly, missing out on internationals would become an enduring problem.

**

Chris Pim was heading home. He had his degree from Edinburgh University when he arrived at his parents house in Portlaoise, his mother waiting at the door. She had a white envelope in her hand, IRFU written in bold across the top. It was 1988. “You are invited for a trial at Lansdowne Road,” Pim read. “Your kit will be provided. Bring your boots.”

Four different times he received that type of letter, mainly to be a possible lining out against the probable XV but on one occasion he was asked to tog out in the other dressing room. They even took his suit measurements, assuming he’d be capped. “Eric Elwood missed six kicks at goal that day; Ken O’Connell came on as a replacement for the possibles and scored a try from an overthrow at the line-out.

“F**k, I said to myself. I could see it drifting away from me.” My wife Louise had gone shopping. Noel Murphy (the then Irish team manager) telling her, ‘go off and choose a nice dress there girl for the post-match dinner’.”

Louise went to Grafton Street but it was O’Connell who went to Paris, Pim the only one of the probables not to get picked. “Obviously it was my goal; all the hardship, everything was geared towards playing for Ireland. But as I look back now, and I know this might sound really twee, but I am probably a better person for not having won that cap.”

He was a tough fellah, a fitness fanatic but also a student of the sport, who’d a thirst for knowledge. He wanted to see how he could improve so he arranged a sit down with Gerry Murphy, the then Ireland coach. “This is not slagging anybody – I don’t want to slag anybody – but on two different occasions I arranged to meet Gerry for a cup of coffee in Bewleys on Westmoreland Street and twice he didn’t show up.

“Whereas now, it’s a knock on the door of the coach’s office and you walk in. But back then, the coaches weren’t available for you to have a conversation. It was different times for sure.”

Yet he loved it.

Across an hour’s conversation, Pim uses the following words and phrases to describe his time in rugby: fun, fantastic, hilarious, memories that’ll last a lifetime. Regret isn’t ever mentioned, not in terms of missing out on a cap, not in terms of missing out on a golden handshake.

He played in an era before rugby was chic, got to play for Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand, coming up against a young winger at Manawatu called Joe Schmidt in one game; 13 All Blacks who lined out for Auckland in another. “I went f**king psycho for 80 minutes, running around knocking guys over; I loved it.”

There was interprovincial success as Leinster captain; a runners-up medal in the All-Ireland league with Wesley; an invitation to play for the Barbarians. “I got to see the world through rugby; now I’d hate to spend my 20s stuck in Donnybrook. I wouldn’t change a thing.”  

Not even one thing?

“Honestly, no,” he says, pointing to the pictures on the wall behind him, a photo of him gliding past Martin Johnson, a framed autographed shirt from his day as a Barbarian. Cap or no cap, his career was a celebration ………. not a commiseration.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

Read next:

COMMENTS (17)

This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel