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'I went into that final thinking nothing could stop us': Simon Mason on Ulster, Ireland regrets and identity

The former full-back and goal kicker extraordinaire looks back on a famous Heineken Cup win 20 years ago.

Image: Mike Egerton

IT WAS AN unusual sight.

David Humphreys entrusted with the kicking responsibility for his country when he was merely a backup for his province. But, despite having tasted a magnificent season with Ulster, Simon Mason just couldn’t seem to persuade Warren Gatland of his worth.  

After his heroics throughout the team’s superb 1999 Heineken Cup campaign – in which he racked up a points record that stood for years – he was still shunned by the Ireland management. 

When Ulster conjured a remarkable display to beat Stade Francais in the semi-finals, Humphreys described the full-back as ‘probably the best goal kicker in Europe’ – high praise considering Diego Dominguez and Neil Jenkins were both at their peak while a young fly-half called Jonny Wilkinson was already something special.

That day, Mason struck 18 points, including an outrageous drop goal early on, a piece of magic that seemed to perfectly set the scene for what proved a thrilling and compelling encounter. Still, 72 hours later, when the Irish training squad was announced for a get-together in Galway in advance of the 5 Nations opener against France, Mason was a shock omission.

He’d made his senior debut back in 1996, started three times, kicked 42 points and then disappeared from view.    

“I regret not going on and playing more times for Ireland because that’s something I hold very dearly,” he admits.        

“Playing at international level and winning my first cap at Lansdowne Road (in a win over Wales) and the second cap at Twickenham…those memories are still equal to the European success with Ulster.”

RUGBYU Ireland5 Mason Mason made his Ireland debut in a 5 Nations clash with Wales in 1996. Source: David Jones

After making his name at Orrell, his experience in the 5 Nations ensured a move to newly-minted Richmond but the Scouser – born and raised in the Wirral – quickly became a small fish in a rapidly-expanding pond. Surrounded by the likes of Agustin Pichot, Scott Quinnell, Ben Clarke and Richard West, he struggled for game time. And his woes at club level dovetailed neatly with his non-selection for Ireland.  

“I’d had that early start at 21/22 in the Irish setup which was a bit of a whirlwind,” he says. 

“I was in the Premiership with Orrell and had a few good games on Sky and suddenly you’re catapulted into it and, in a way, I probably went in a bit early. But I played a few good games – we beat Wales and did really well against England – so there were a lot of bucket list items being ticked off. And then I just bombed out of the scene completely. When the opportunity came up to go to Ulster, maybe a lot of people thought it was a strange one. But I’d kept in touch with a lot of guys who’d been part of the Irish squad with me, like Jonny Bell, Mark McCall and Humphreys. So it felt like a chance worth taking.

I was so determined to get back into the Irish team and I saw the opportunity. It was the best chance for me. I was good mates with Humphreys and he said, ‘I prefer it when you goal-kick because it takes the pressure off me. Come over, take the kicks and I can concentrate on playing 10′. I felt like I’d be welcomed there and I’d had a hard 12 months at Richmond when they went and signed the world. It was hard to keep a place there. So it was an opportunity to go to a place where people respected me and where I’d get a good run of games.”

Mason arrived in 1998 and quickly found his stride. He had been used to small, close-knit groups – communities who rallied behind their local side, players that were tight with each other. And having grown up in Liverpool to parents with proud Irish backgrounds, certain sensibilities appealed more to him than others. He was assigned a club team – Ballymena – and along with provincial responsibilities, he immersed himself in the AIL too. It was humbling but homely. And he got back to enjoying the game again.

“I’d broken into the senior Irish team while playing at Orrell, a small club – similar to Ulster – where a lot of the lads lived locally,” he says. 

Rugby Union ... Courage Clubs Championship ... Richmond v Nottingham Mason in action for Richmond back in April, 1997. Source: Tony Marshall

“Richmond was a big club in London with a collection of superstars and very much an assembled side. The Ulster setup seemed like a bunch of fellas who all wanted to play for the team. And there was a real push at the time to get players to go back to Ireland so it seemed a bit of a no-brainer if I wanted to get back into the Irish team.”

They made a big fuss in Ballymena. And a big part of rugby at the time was playing for your club. Them and Dungannon both asked me to play for them. But I met (Ballymena icon) Syd Millar’s brother over in London and we had a bit of a boozy night and he kinda said, ‘Right, you’re coming to Ballymena’ and it was pen to paper stuff. The old days. You just got a good vibe. And as soon as I got there the president said, ‘Okay, you’ll live with us for the first few months and get settled’. It was exactly how I imagined it was going to be and reaffirmed what I’d been thinking. People were looking out for you and had your back. It was a bit like Liverpool. And when you’re in a place where you feel wanted and part of something, you’re more likely to perform to a higher standard. And that certainly seemed to always correlate with my own career.”

The European odyssey didn’t start well for Mason and his new employers. They drew a Pool C opener at Ravenhill against Edinburgh and then were thumped by a rampant Toulouse a week later.

“We’d always had a good game in us,” Mason says. 

“We might beat Munster at home and Leinster away but then we’d go somewhere like Connacht and lose. So it was a bit up and down.”

But, something seemed to shift on a mid-October night when the French heavyweights came to Belfast for the return game.

“What got bums on seats and the crowd behind us was that win over Toulouse,” he continues. 

We’d been smashed over in France but then we turned them over at home with a dogged performance, but we’d also played some good rugby and scored some lovely tries. It gave the squad confidence and built momentum from that. The group stage culminated with us winning by two points in Edinburgh which effectively got us through the quarter-finals. By a bit of a freak result – Toulouse losing to Ebbw Vale after they put over 100 points on them at home – we ended up with a home quarter-final. And in the infancy of Irish pro rugby, you always felt an Irish team – whether it was Ireland itself or one of the provinces – could pull out a big result in their own backyard. And we got a bit of luck because we ended up getting three home games, really. The quarter final at Ravenhill, the semi-final too and then the final at Lansdowne. It all sort of fell together. Harry Williams, our coach, said he felt our name was on the cup after we beat Toulouse in the quarters. And it was like an old-fashioned FA Cup run. You get a bounce of a ball, everything begins to galvanise and then anything can happen.”

Ulster sneaked past Toulouse by two points to set up a semi against Stade but nobody gave them a hope, even at Ravenhill. After all, the French side boasted a mouthwatering collection of talent, led by the mercurial Dominguez, and had demolished poor Pontypridd in the last-eight, putting over 70 points on the board.  

Mason/Humphreys Ulster rugby Mason pictured with David Humphreys, who was a big reason in the full-back joining Ulster in 1998. Source: Paul Faith

But, that afternoon, Ulster produced a scintillating display and showed Irish rugby wasn’t only about grit and resolve. With Humphreys pulling the strings and Mason unerring with his kicks, it was a monstrous performance.       

“To play for Ireland and be part of that was unbelievable but anyone that was around the Irish side in the 90s will tell you just how fragmented it was – there wasn’t really any consistency and players seemed to come in but come out just as quickly,” Mason says. 

“But when you played with your province you were with each other all the time. Nowadays, international teams are in camps so often and train so much. But back then there was a feeling sometimes that you were effectively strangers until you came together for a few days. When you’re with your club and province and playing with the guys you see day in, day out, there’s a tightness and team spirit. That year with Ulster it really shone through. And it’s an old value of Irish rugby. The crowd, the feeling of backs against the wall – it always seemed to help. Now, Irish rugby is so professional and dedicated to certain values. But they still come to the fore, though – the 16th man and the warrior spirit.”

Mason’s early drop goal came from a poor Dominguez clearance. The angle ensured it was ill-advised to have a crack. But, he fancied it. He was in the zone. And he split the posts with a brilliant strike. 

Later, Humphreys would slot one over at a crucial moment, though it barely creeped over the crossbar. Both instances informed Mason’s opinion: Ulster’s luck was in.  

“People still laugh at me about taking on drop goals but I’d just keep the scoreboard ticking over,” he says. 

It was a skill and growing up my cousins would be playing Gaelic football, soccer and rugby and it was kind of natural. We’d mess around for hours practicing drop goals. I was always working on my kicking anyway but as much as that one was instinctive, when I think back I’m not sure there was much else on. Everyone else seemed to be in front of me so I just thought I’d make sure I’d hit it as well as I could. And it’s like the screamer that goes in the top corner. Nine times out of 10 they’ll fly over the bar. But when it happens, it gives everyone around you – the players and the fans – the feeling that it could be their day. And then the Humphreys one – ‘The Drunken Torpedo’ I think he described it as – it’s like the golfer who slices the approach shot but it still ends up in the middle of the green. When you’re luck is in, utilise it because you don’t get those days too often.”                    

Humphreys’ playmaking skills were masterful that day and his ingenuity in the second-half saw him combine with Sheldon Coulter before racing over 60 metres and touching down in the corner for an inspirational try.

“He was definitely the general,” Mason says. 

Rugby/Ulster/Humphreys/cup Source: Paul Faith

“But people tend to forget about Mark McCall too. He got injured and ultimately it led to him having to end his career which was incredibly sad. He went on to be an unbelievable coach, which shows how strong his mentality is. But when he was ruled out – which was a really big blow for us – Humphs stepped up to the captaincy. And he wasn’t a shouter but just a player you looked to. He was the conductor of the orchestra. He was a very calm and calculated guy and a really warm person. He led from the front and we figured that if we could just give him a platform, he’d always put us in the right areas. To be honest, the biggest compliment you can pay to Harry Williams is how many of his players have gone on to make decent coaches: McCall, Humphreys , Bell, Allan Clarke, Justin Fitzpatrick – it just shows the wider rugby intelligence of the squad.”

The 33-27 result ensured Ulster would take on Colomiers in a decider that was fixed for Lansdowne Road. But the manner of the victory over Stade – coming out on top in a barnstorming, electric affair – was hard to keep a lid on. It felt like the final had already been and gone. Was it difficult to re-focus again three weeks later? 

“Everything about that year felt like we were riding the crest of a wave,” Mason says. 

“Nowadays, you’d probably be straight-focused on the final but we enjoyed every minute of the semi victory. Nobody had expected us to beat Stade and I remember a few days before the game they were talking about how they’d be disappointed if they didn’t put 50 points on us because they felt that was the gulf in class. It was that cliched arrogance so they walked into their own storm, really. But our players were still a little bit like, ‘Let’s make sure we don’t get hammered here and make idiots of ourselves in front of everyone’. And there was all the fuss about the temporary stand and getting the attendance up to 20,000. So when we won, there was a huge element of euphoria. But I bring it back to rugby at that particular time because I was playing for Ballymena the following week in an AIL game. Some of the other guys were back to work. So no player was being wrapped in cotton wool. With the final, we got caught up in not letting ourselves down. We were focused on finishing the job. We were so close to it. And it was such a unique thing: becoming champions of Europe. It was strange for me. When you’re a goal kicker, you always have self doubt. But I went into that final thinking nothing could stop us. We had everything on our side. And we actually felt we were better players than Colomiers.”    

The game was far from a classic and even Mason admits he’s never watched it back in its entirety. Effectively, his magnificent goal kicking proved the difference between the sides. He struck six penalties and Humphreys added a drop goal as the visitors struggled to ever really get going. Ulster were never in trouble and though they displayed some free-flowing, counter-attacking brilliance against Stade, they played the percentages against Colomiers.    

“After we’d won it, I’d actually wished it had been a better game,” he says. 

But the occasion itself was unbelievable. Colomiers weren’t a big club so there was about 500 of their fans and the rest were Irish rugby supporters. The whole place was rocking. The old Lansdowne Road. I stayed in the same room as I did when I got the first Ireland cap. You just get a good feeling. It was like the old football cliche for us: happy to nick a goal and win 1-nil. Even my kicks were relatively simple and afterwards you thought, ‘I wish they’d been more difficult or I had got a nice drop goal’ – something you could crow about.  Most goal kickers will tell you that you’re normally living on your nerves and that’s what keeps you on the edge too. I was obviously nervous but I felt a calmness. And maybe for the only time in my career, I felt an arrogance. I wanted to have opportunities. I wanted to prove what I was about. It probably was a coming together of everything. That unfinished business.” 

“Every time we got a penalty or we got into their half and got something, you felt it was another dagger in their hearts and I don’t think they had the quality or substance to come back from it. Once we went ahead, it was just about making sure we didn’t do anything stupid. It wasn’t the most exciting but, in any final, people will always say the important thing is to win.”

Simon Mash holds trophy aloft Source: Paul Faith

Mason remained optimistic about an Ireland recall for a while but when he headed for Stade Francais the following year he knew it was unlikely he’d ever pull on a green shirt again. 

His was an interesting case. English-born but an Ulster player and Irish capped. It’s inevitable that our conversation turns to issues of identity and Irishness. Equally inevitably, Mason provides an eloquent and illuminating perspective.  

“I was at Ulster University and wrote a thesis on amateur to pro rugby and as part of it I did a section on identity,” he says. 

“It’s always been a difficult one. I was born in England but even now, I feel like I have to justify myself to friends. They’ll say, ‘It’s England against Ireland and you’re supporting Ireland?’ But I spent a lot of time in Ireland growing up. My Mum and Dad always supported Ireland and the one thing, maybe, that I can use to justify my decision is that when I was at Orrell I got a call from Mike Slemen and they asked if I wanted to play England ‘A’ but I said no. I’d done well for the Irish 21s and I was patient and within two months I got the senior call-up. If I really wanted to jump into the English camp, I could’ve played for them at that stage. But growing up and feeling part of the Irish setup, you’re made to feel so welcome. And that was part of the reason I ended up going back to Ulster. It was being part of something and feeling that the lads around you were always rooting for you and had your back. My cousin always ribs me, ‘You went to Ulster and played for them so you were British’. But I never felt any of that when I played. And the same with Ireland. I could’ve just been this English guy playing for Ireland but I always felt everyone was welcoming and never saw any signs of disagreements. And maybe that’s why Irish rugby has always stayed so strong. People working together and playing together, which kept people going at times.”

It’s hard to put words to it. I’m a Liverpool football fan and there’s that thing, ‘We’re not English, we’re Scouse’. And Manchester, Liverpool – they’re areas where there’s been a lot of immigration from Ireland post-war and there are big Irish communities, as well as others. So as the world moves on, it is hard to simplify people’s individuality.”

Mason is back in Liverpool these days and teaches at St. Anselm’s College in Birkenhead. Coaching youngsters, he admits underage rugby has changed rapidly but, where he can, he still tries to impart the importance of instinct.  

“Kicking is where art and science merges together in rugby,” he says. 

“There are very scientific and specific ways of kicking and so many players – including myself to a point – worked on the mechanics. But there’s also a natural flair to kicking a ball. And when I work with younger kids, I get them to do a lot of drop goals because it’s very instinctive. In the early days there wasn’t much on the science side so you could be a bit different but the game has evolved so much in the last 20 years.” 

Rugby Union - Heineken European Cup - Final - Ulster v Colomiers Mason celebrates with his Ulster team-mates after their win over Colomiers. Source: Mike Egerton

“There was a great documentary recently about over-coaching at academies now and individualism being eradicated. The standard is incredible but everyone seems to know exactly every pass they should play, every kick they should make. But when you’re confident, you’ll take certain stuff on. If you’ve missed five kicks out of five or you’re having a shocker of a game, you wouldn’t dream of taking on that drop goal. Sometimes, things like that are in the moment. The instinctive stuff comes down to confidence levels. And during that period with Ulster in 1999, it was the most confident I’ve ever felt.”  

It was a genuine group effort 20 years ago, which I felt resonated a lot with Irish rugby in general. And arguably I think it paved the way a bit for Munster and Leinster and gave them a lot of confidence for what they went on to achieve.”

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Eoin O'Callaghan

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