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'Leinster have yet to be fully tested - Saracens is a step up on what they've faced'

Leinster and Ireland legend Nick Popplewell relives his glory days and predicts a classic between Europe’s leading club sides in today’s Champions Cup quarter-final.

Saracens were the last team to beat Leinster, 16 months ago.
Saracens were the last team to beat Leinster, 16 months ago.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

LIKE ALL THE best stories, this one starts with a night out. Nick Popplewell was a young man then while Leinster weren’t even Ireland’s best side, let alone Europe’s in those distant days when the Heineken Champions Cup hadn’t even been thought of. Instead the rugby calendar was less congested, interpros interrupting your winter, a tour of Wales and England’s south-west something to look forward to in spring.

In more ways than one, Popplewell was a late arrival for that trip, his delay onto the Leinster squad partly explained by Phil Orr’s durability but also his diversion from Gorey RFC in Wexford to Souths in Brisbane, who at the time were nurturing a couple of young centres called Tim Horan and Jason Little.

One morning, Brisbane time, a call came from home, effectively a sales pitch, a Leinster man persuading Popplewell he’d get his shot at provincial rugby if he hopped on a plane. So to cut to the chase, this was how he ended up in south Wales, day one of a short end-of-season tour in the late ’80s, sitting alongside three Leinster colleagues in a blue sierra that had a stench of cigarette smoke. At least the chauffeur was entertaining, although his storytelling was better than his driving.

“Next thing we knew yer man, the driver, had crashed right into the roundabout and we were stuck there, all four wheels blown, a horrible, foggy, night, the four of us stranded miles away from anywhere,” Popplewell recalls.

It was his first trip. “You’ll like it with us,” Jim Glennon, one of his fellow Leinster passengers, said.

There was no doubting that. By the time their SOS had been answered, the gang-of-four were transported straight from the roundabout in south Wales to the pub where the rest of the squad were bonding. Six hours later, back at their hotel – ‘well it was more of a glorified B&B’ – they were a little disappointed to hear the gaff didn’t have room service.

Undeterred, a whiff of food came from the kitchen. “Lads, there’s 30 cooked chickens in here,” one of the larger chaps in the touring party noted after returning from his successful reconnaissance.

Popplewell’s recollection is a little more nuanced.

“We all piled in,” he says.

Well, you had to admire their pluck. The following day, ‘there was mayhem’ when the chef and hotel management arrived for work, not to mention a swift edit of the Sunday lunch menu. Roast chicken was no longer the special; the vegetarian option had won a promotion. So too had Popplewell. That day was his first time playing for Leinster abroad.

***

Success snuck up on Popplewell. He was 23 when he was capped by his province, 25 when he made his international debut, linking arms with Willie Anderson as the then Ireland captain charged down the All-Blacks haka. “I remember thinking, ah for f**k’s sake, I’m trying to remember the line-out calls here, Willie, and all of a sudden I’m nose-to-nose with Richard Loe.”

nick-popplewell-tackles-zinzan-brooke Popplewell tackles Zinzan Brooke for Leinster in 1989. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It sounds serious but there was also fun. He worked his nine-to-five then trained hard in the evenings. “Rugby had a slot in your life, a big slot and all your holidays from work were used up for rugby purposes – touring with Leinster, Ireland, the Lions. You integrated those weeks into your schedule.

“Leinster, for sure, was a big part of you, a tribe you belonged to. You don’t ever leave that tribe. You’ll always be Leinster. It wasn’t a brand then, wasn’t the marketing machine it is now. Traditionally, Munster always seemed to have the larger support, and were more vocal. You can’t say that now. The Leinster brand has grown and grown. It has turned into a huge club.”

If it wasn’t for rugby and GAA, you have to wonder how many of Leinster’s population would give two hoots about the province they were born into. But sport is a powerful thing that reinforces identity and in some cases, creates it. A couple of years ago, The42 spoke with a former player who said how proud he was to be from such and such a town in such and such a county and how proud he was to be an Irishman. “You didn’t mention Leinster,” we said. “S**t, I didn’t, did I?” he replied. “Look, I’m proud I played for the province, proud of that culture. It’s just, outside of rugby and the (Leinster Senior Football) championship, I’ve never really thought about Leinster as a place.”

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Popplewell has. He was a Leinster player before he was an Irish one. Provincial rugby bridged the gap between the club and international scene, boosting a career that ultimately peaked in 1993 when he toured New Zealand with the Lions. Time may move on but a player can never really dump those shirts or those memories. “It’ll always be part of me,” he says.

nick-popplewell Popplewell on the '93 Lions tour to New Zealand. Source: Photosport/INPHO

That’s why at 3pm today he’ll sit in his front room, down in Wexford, stick the feet up and shout at a television screen, looking at a team who have put together a 25-game winning streak, wondering if they are ready for the questions Saracens will ask.

“Without sounding in any way arrogant, as a Leinster supporter,” Popplewell said, “they have won those four games (since lockdown ended and the 2019/20 season resumed) in third gear. The (Premiership) matches that I’ve seen in England have been a higher standard.

“And the worry is that we are a little stretched in the front-row. So far we haven’t been fully tested. Munster are struggling a little at the moment, they’d say as much themselves. Ulster are getting better but Leinster’s defence are wearing teams down.

“It’s nearly at the stage where you could leave the room when a team is in Leinster’s 22, knowing that when you come back a few minutes later, that they’d have defended their line successfully, forced a turnover and kicked the ball down into the opposition’s half.

“I know that sounds overly simplistic but the fact is that the game is just so different now to when I played. There’s very little flair at the moment because flair comes with an element of risk. What we see from so many teams is kind of robotic. Everything is geared to make the modern-day player bigger in size.”

If this sounds like a sentimentalist harking back to the good old days then bear with us. Popplewell was a world class operator despite the system, the only Irishman to make the Lions starting XV on that ’93 tour.

“I’ve no doubt players from my era could have done it in today’s game. Put it this way, I’d love to have had a crack at it. I always enjoyed running with ball in hand and way back then you could get 35 to 40 scrums in a game; now there may be just eight or nine. Plus we’d to play the whole bloody match; now, as a prop, you can get away with half a game.”

nick-popplwell Nick Popplewell pictured in Wexford town. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

As it happens there is another Popplewell making his way, Nick’s teenage son having moved up from Wexford to Lansdowne, after making an even bigger transition, from loosehead to tighthead. As a father he looks at the collisions in the modern game and the rate of concussion injuries with the concern you’d expect from a parent. Yet he also knows each man must determine his own pathway.

“He (his son) is a country kid and country kids are strong, technically good, aggressive when they play. There are a lot of good players emerging and the conditioning on some of the kids coming out of the schools system is something else. Some of those lads …. I wouldn’t say they have an air of self-importance about them but there is a confidence there within them.”

That self-belief is backed up by the well-trodden pathway that is in place now where the gifted schools player can seamlessly move into the Leinster academy structure. “The club is set up now for success,” Popplewell says. “The system they have in place is top class. Forty years ago, the Aussies had something like that at a time when Ireland, or Leinster, had nothing of the sort. We were up against it. It wasn’t a level playing field. Like, for example, whenever Ireland played France, you couldn’t help notice how all their internationals were listed as civil servants in the match programme. We all knew they were full-time, training every day.

“So, I think it’s great what is happening now, seeing Ireland thrive under a proper system, seeing an Irish province – and even better, my own province – coming up against the European champions with an expectation resting on them. Irish rugby has more confidence about it now.”

We’ll see today how robust it really is.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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