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Dublin: 7°C Tuesday 11 May 2021

'I've been to World Cups but that game was just unbelievable. What a day'

Australian scrum-half Chris Whitaker was a key man as Leinster won the 2009 Heineken Cup.

HIS JOB WITH the Waratahs in Super Rugby meant Chris Whitaker missed the 10-year reunion of Leinster’s 2009 Heineken Cup success this time last year, so a visit to Dublin remains high on the Australian’s to-do list.

The Sydney native has an enduring grá for the city even though he hasn’t been back since leaving in 2010 after four years with Leinster.

As much as the rise towards the province’s first Heineken Cup on the pitch, Whitaker remembers the good times off it.

leo-cullen-and-chris-whitaker-lift-the-heineken-cup-trophy Leo Cullen and Chris Whitaker lift the 2009 Heineken Cup for Leinster. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

One of his daughters was born in Dublin and holds an Irish passport. He fondly recalls being up at the Blue Light pub overlooking the city, himself and his wife, Alison, listening to the live music as the Whitaker kids danced in front of the fire.

The Leinster players would often head up to the same pub to celebrate wins, supping away on a few pints of Guinness, with Stephen Keogh sometimes pulling out his tin whistle to play a few tunes, Shane Jennings leading the sing-alongs.

Whitaker loved the city too. The people. The little old pubs. The history of the place.

“In Australia, we obviously have the traditional owners of the land and they’ve been here a long, long time but in terms of buildings and that sort of stuff, there’s not a great deal of history here,” explains Whitaker on the phone from Sydney, where the Waratahs are now back in training ahead of a possible return to playing derby games in early July.

“You go to Dublin and you’ve got buildings and pubs that are probably older than parts of Australia after settlement. I just love the whole vibe of the place.”

There were surfing trips to the west coast of Ireland – Whitaker’s brother, Tom, is a professional surfer – while he reckons the family saw 12 or 13 different countries in their first year in Europe alone. Any free time meant jumping on a plane to see more of it.

So life was good away from the rugby and it certainly helped that the stuff on the pitch went well too. Whitaker reckons his timing was fortunate, but he played a pivotal role in Leinster becoming champions of Europe under Michael Cheika.

The scrum-half was 31 when he signed for Leinster in 2006, bringing with him 31 Australia caps – a total that would have been much higher but for being of the same era as George Gregan.

The connection in Leinster was fellow Randwick men Cheika and backs coach David Knox, both of whom Whitaker had played with and been coached by at their home club in Sydney. The Wallabies scrum-half didn’t need much convincing when Cheika called.

“My biggest trick was selling it to my wife,” recalls Whitaker. “We went on a Wallabies trip [in 2005] and I visited a few teams in the UK. I had some friends coaching there at the time, Andy Friend was at Harlequins, so you go around and say hello to everyone.

chris-whitaker-avoids-a-tackle Whitaker had been to the 1999 and 2003 World Cups with the Wallabies. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“But after being based in Ireland back in the day during the 1999 World Cup, I had fallen in love with Dublin. I think it’s the world’s coolest place.”

Mrs Whitaker came around to the idea and her husband arrived into Leinster to be blown away by the quality of Cheika’s squad.

“I was blessed, I was dead set in awe of some of the players. When I rocked up, the backline had Felipe, Sexton, Gordon D’Arcy, Drico, Rob Kearney was young and coming through, you had Girvan Dempsey, Shane Horgan, Denis Hickie. It was frightening.

“The calibre of player was unbelievable, I almost felt like I was an intruder and shouldn’t be there. 

“I still think the two guys that had a massive influence on winning were Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings. They had spent time in Leicester and came back and gave us that little bit of fight. Rocky Elsom helped a bit there, but those two guys were crucial.”

Leinster won the Celtic League in Whitaker’s second season and then built towards their Heineken Cup success the following season, with the experienced Aussie installed as vice-captain and offering clever scrum-half play as he started all nine games and finished most of them. Meanwhile, Cheika’s relentless drive as head coach was instrumental.

“Cheiks was a coach I always wanted to play for,” says Whitaker. “I think he got the best out of people in terms of team spirit and culture. You can see when he’s coaching you that he has invested everything into the team. That rubs off on you.

“When he’s so passionate and wants to win so much, you can’t not want to play for him.

“At the same time, for someone who played in the back row, he had some crazy attacking ideas as well! He could coach the forwards and do the backs too.”

Another Randwick man, Alan Gaffney, had come in to replace Knox as backs coach in 2008, with Whitaker laughing as he says “I was quite lucky to go to the other side of the world but have so many familiar faces around me.”

chris-whitaker-offloads-the-ball Whitaker fires away a pass during the 2009 semi-final win over Munster. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Whitaker remembers Leinster being written off and himself “copping a fair bit of criticism” after a pool defeat away to Castres in the ’08/09 pool stages, but he takes pride in their gritty 6-5 win away to Harlequins in the ‘Bloodgate’ quarter-final. 

It was the kind of battling performance that the old Leinster might have struggled to deliver, although there is one clear standout memory in terms of occasions in a blue jersey.

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“The one that takes the cake by far is the game against Munster in Croke Park,” says Whitaker of Leinster’s 25-6 semi-final win in 2009. “The history of it, the sun was out. That was probably the best atmosphere I’ve ever been involved in.

“I’ve been to World Cups but that game was just unbelievable. The crowd was in a block of blue, a block of red, a block of blue – it was incredible. Throw in the tradition of Croke Park too. What a day.”

Leinster did the job against Leicester in the final and after Whitaker was given the honour of lifting the trophy alongside captain Cullen, that was it for his playing career.

Cheika asked him to move into a coaching/team manager role the following season, meaning a difficult transition.

“I was just helping Cheiks out, I did some skills stuff and took some of the planning from him. I found it tough because I went from playing with the boys to not playing. All I wanted to do was go out and run around and play footy.

“I knew my time was up, my body couldn’t do it anymore. I remember Drico telling me I was the slowest halfback he had ever played with, so I knew it was time to give up!

“That was the hardest thing and even now, sometimes when you’re coaching the boys all you want to do is jump in, throw the ball around and have some fun. But my body can’t do it and you’ve got to know your place.”

When Cheika moved to Stade Français in 2010, he brought Whitaker with him as an assistant coach. They lasted two seasons before the boss headed back home and Whitaker moved down to Pro D2 club Narbonne, who had Australian owners.

chris-whitaker-and-coach-michael-cheika Whitaker with Michael Cheika in 2008. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

He worked alongside former team-mate Justin Harrison for three years, then shifted to Montauban for two excellent seasons as attack coach that saw the club come very close to promotion into the Top 14 in both campaigns.

In 2018, the Waratahs – for whom he had played well over 100 times before joining Leinster – came calling and Whitaker made what was a daunting move home.

“I was a bit hesitant about it because I didn’t want to go back until I felt I was totally ready,” says Whitaker. “I came back and was trying to prove myself.

“I didn’t want people to feel I had been given a job just because I played there. That’s why I was hesitant but you make the decision for rugby, family, and it was the right time to come back. I just wanted to be sure I had earned my spot.”

Whitaker’s reputation has grown working as an assistant coach to Daryl Gibson and now with head coach Rob Penney, formerly of Munster, since late last year. 

Naturally, Whitaker learned plenty during his spell with Leinster that relates to his coaching, particularly around kicking – even if it wasn’t his forte as a player.

“I couldn’t kick a ball, so the box kick was not one of my favourites, for sure,” says Whitaker with a laugh. “Every time Sexto would call a box kick, I’d make an excuse, throw him the ball and say ‘I’m not kicking it, you’re kicking it!’

“But their kicking game, their strategy, that type of stuff is just a different world in Europe to down here.

“That whole idea of using your kicking game to get us around the field is just something we’re not taught here in Australia because it’s always dry weather so no one wants to kick the ball and give it away. It’s always a last option, not an attacking option.

“I think we’ve always prided ourselves on running the ball so it has been ‘run first, kick second’ but with defences being so well-structured these days, I think it’s more about getting the ball to space. If the space is behind them, you’ve got to kick it.”

manager-chris-whitaker Whitaker during his final season with Leinster. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The Waratahs have lost a huge amount of experienced players in recent years with the departures of the likes of Bernard Foley and Adam Ashley-Cooper, meaning Penney, Whitaker and co. are attempting to bed in a new attacking style with a young squad.

Among a very talented crop is Louth native Michael McDonald, who shone at scrum-half for the Australia U20s last year, helping them into the World Rugby U20 Championship final. The 20-year-old made his Super Rugby debut just before the lockdown.

“He’s a good little Aussie boy, he’s talented,” says Whitaker. “The Aussie U20s lost the final to France last year and we’ve got eight or 10 of that crew. Some of those kids are really knocking on the door and Macca is one of them.

“He’s a talented guy, super motivated, kicks off both feet, and is a good guy to have in the squad because he leads by example and is a good bloke.

“He still loves Ireland and he watches the Six Nations, knows everything that’s happening. I’ve been doing Zoom sessions with the young guys watching Six Nations and Leinster games and he’s always super keen for those games. He knows everything that’s happened because he has watched it four or five times beforehand.”

The Waratahs are excited about McDonald and his fellow youngsters, but Whitaker also takes admiring glance back at Leinster, where his old team’s production line is very healthy.

He is regularly in contact with the likes of Jennings, Cullen, Sexton, and Guy Easterby, keeping a close eye on how Leinster are doing.

“I’m amazed by how many young players come through in Leinster,” says Whitaker. “Every year, there’s just freaks coming out of everywhere, they’re producing so many good footy players.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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