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'They would go to war when they were down against the Limerick clubs'

St Mary’s became the first club from outside Munster to win the AIL in 2000.

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TO UNDERSTAND why it meant so much for St Mary’s to reach their holy grail in 2000 when they won the All-Ireland League, we must first go back to the heartbreaks. There were a few.

The 1993 final against Young Munster, for starters. Mary’s lost in Lansdowne Road on a day when Ger Earls scored a famous try for the Cookies and Brent Pope was sent off for an infamous punch.

Then there was the 1998 semi-final loss away to Shannon and defeat to Garryowen in Limerick at the same stage a year later. Mary’s gave up a 17-0 lead that time.

And so, the lads from Templeville Road had been cast as the perennial bridesmaids in the AIL. They had to watch on in anguish as the Munster clubs enjoyed dominance of the league for the first nine years.

Cork Con won it in the inaugural season in 1990/91 before Garryowen, Young Munster, and Shannon – who did four in a row – added their names to the list of victors.

By the time the 1999/00 season rolled around, it felt like the final chance for Mary’s. The Celtic League was soon to come to life, in turn signalling the end of an era for the AIL as pro players were pulled from their clubs for good. Pope had returned to the club from Clontarf as head coach and there was a feeling of unfinished business about the place.

“If we hadn’t won it then, our generation weren’t going to win it,” says Victor Costello, who was at number eight.

“We were very loyal to Mary’s but we knew the future was going to be Leinster. It was like the band was about to split up. We had to win it.”

brent-pope Brent Pope coached Mary's to their 2000 title. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

It took a special Mary’s team to get over the line. The back three was electric, with ‘Pistol Pete’ McKenna at fullback – a signing from Old Belvedere who would be capped by Ireland at the end of the season – alongside another pair of internationals in 23-year-old wings Denis Hickie and John McWeeney.

Ray McIlreavy and Gareth Gannon were tackling machines in midfield and Leinster’s Mark McHugh was a calming presence at out-half, with Fergal Campion an able deputy. Philip Lynch was an under-rated but hardy figure at scrum-half.

Propping quality came in the shape of Leinster pair Peter Coyle and Emmet Byrne, as well as Meath man David Clare, while young hooker Peter Smyth was an inspired addition from Blackrock and is now a club legend, having also coached Mary’s to their second AIL title in 2012.

The great Malcolm O’Kelly teamed up with Ian Bloomer, an addition from Monkstown, in the second row.

The back row made some magic happen. Costello had been an Ireland international since 1996, openside Ross Doyle had come in from Greystones, and the captain was blindside flanker Trevor Brennan, the Barnhall man having joined from Bective to become a key cog in the wheel.

“Trevor galvanised the whole club,” says Smyth, who now works as the IRFU’s head of elite player development

“He would have been a big man for engaging with club members, keeping the team around the place after games. He helped to create a family atmosphere and everyone in the club felt they were part of that team.

“And something a lot of people wouldn’t have seen was that Trevor was absolutely brilliant with the younger players.

“He was an Irish international and a Leinster player and suddenly, there he is in your club on the back pitch on a Tuesday night staying behind helping younger players.”

The quality of the players was vital, of course, but the camaraderie in Mary’s was crucial. Indeed, it was a factor that had drawn the likes of Smyth and Costello, who had also joined from Blackrock, to Templeville Road.

peter-smythpeter-clohessy-2622000 Peter Smyth gets an offload away against Young Munster. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

Mary’s were seen as a tough team to play against, even in Limerick. Their record down there had been poor but they earned respect for their physicality and enjoyed crucial wins away to Shannon and Garryowen – their first-ever in Dooradoyle – as they built towards the 2000 title.

“They would go to war when they were down against the Limerick clubs,” recalls D O’Brien, a great Mary’s man and a font of knowledge on the club’s history.

“You’d have a trainload of people going down. Young Munster, when you had the likes of the Claw, Peter Clohessy, it was always very hard. There was a lot of aggression but there was also so much good rugby.”

Costello remembers those clashes with the Munster clubs as brutally physical.

“I can actually point out scars on my face and say, ‘This is Garryowen, this is Shannon, this is Greenfields, that’s Thomond Park.” I used to be good-looking but you can map me out there in Limerick!”

The 90s truly were the glory days for the AIL. The crowds were counted in their thousands rather than hundreds, while the newspapers provided in-depth coverage of the league.

Hickie, who had made his Ireland debut in 1997, recalls how the AIL was often the topic of conversation in camp.

“In those years with the Irish team, I used to sit in the seat in front of Axel on the bus and I’d say we used to spend 50% of our time talking about AIL games and post-matches because he had the same sort of stories and had come through playing with the old heads in Shannon,” says Hickie.

“It was a fantastic time to be playing club rugby and I count myself very lucky to have played then because it has obviously changed a lot.”

The buzz around the AIL would soon dim but Hickie recalls the energy of meeting at Hueston Station in Dublin for away matches, often bumping into the Limerick clubs going the other way when they changed trains at Limerick Junction.

On trips back after a win, Brennan would lead the sing-songs with a rendition of ‘Dublin in the Rare Auld Times,’ the travelling supporters very much part of it all.

trevor-brennan-2052000 Trevor Brennan celebrates with his son, Daniel, who now plays for Brive. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

And it wasn’t just about the battles with the Munster clubs. Meetings with the northern clubs were a big deal too and Mary’s had to overcome a strong Ballymena team in the semi-final that season. The Ulster side’s number eight was Ireland international Dion O’Cuinneagain, a native of South Africa who qualified to play in green.

“Myself and Trev had the hump that Dion came in from nowhere to captain the Irish team,” remembers Costello.

“The back row was super competitive for Ireland and we’d all get to know each other playing in the AIL and we would end up becoming close friends in the end. But there was an extra bite in those games for us.”

O’Brien says that kind of connection existed off the pitch too, with Mary’s fans and alickadoos building bonds with club folk around the country.

“There was a great atmosphere and warmth there,” says O’Brien.

“The dedication to All-Ireland rugby in the northern clubs is much deeper and stronger than people realise. The fact that we can have that without any politics is a very special thing. Rugby is bigger than the size of our small island and there’s never been any problem in any way.”

They were the days before social media and in-depth video analysis and the rest. Mary’s used to send a club member to their next opponent’s games and get a report on their strengths and weaknesses. There was a sense of mystery leading into some games.

“I remember Teletext being up on the TV in the clubhouse after our games,” recalls Smyth. “We’d be waiting for the results to come in on Teletext!”

The season wasn’t without its hiccups for Mary’s but they began building belief that it was going to be their time, with head coach Pope and his assistant, once-capped Ireland international Nicky Barry, implementing a style of play that focused on quick ball at the ruck.

It was an approach that illustrated Pope’s background in his native New Zealand, where he had been desperately unlucky not to become an All Black before moving to Ireland.

“We knew we had a very good backline with lots of speed,” says Smyth. “It was about being as physical as we could be to create quick ball for the likes of John McWeeney or Denis Hickie.

“If you put them in space, invariably they would cause the opposition problems.”

victor-costello-2942000 Costello was brilliant for Mary's at number eight. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Pope reminded his players on many occasions that Mary’s could be the first team from outside of Munster to win the AIL, while also hammering home a point about leaving a genuine legacy in the club.

“He spoke a lot about how if you get success, your photo goes on the wall and it stays there forever, no one can take it away from you,” says Smyth. “That became a bit of a mantra for the group.”

1999/00 was, of course, the season when Munster marched into their first Heineken Cup final and that affected the southern province’s club sides, but Mary’s were fully focused on the AIL after Leinster were knocked out in the pool stages.

Lansdowne, who had stars like Gordon D’Arcy, Shane Horgan, Reggie Corrigan, Liam Toland, Barry Everitt, and Collie McEntee, made it into the final too and the stage was set for an all-Leinster final at Lansdowne Road.

The mind games started early.

“We had heard before the game that Lansdowne already had a victory party planned,” explains Costello. “Now, that might have been wrong but we heard these rumours.”

There was plenty of nervous energy within the Mary’s squad.

“It was everyone’s shot at redemption for 1993,” says Smyth. “There was desperation not to lose it. There was a lot of baggage and people probably felt the expectation. Whatever happened, we had to come out on the right side of the result.”

St Mary’s College RFC vs. Lansdowne, 20 May 2000: Peter McKenna; John McWeeney (Ambrose Conboy), Ray McIlreavy (Fergal Campion), Gareth Gannon, Denis Hickie; Mark McHugh, Philip Lynch; Peter Coyle, Peter Smyth, David Clare (Emmet Byrne); Ian Bloomer, Malcolm O’Kelly; Trevor Brennan (captain), Ross Doyle, Victor Costello.

O’Brien remembers it as “a most intense game” and Costello says he still feels nervous thinking about it today. McHugh and Everitt exchanged penalties, there were yellow cards for Corrigan and Clare after a bout of punches, while Lansdowne’s Aiden McCullen was also sin-binned for stamping. It was ferocious.

“At one stage, one of their forwards came around the corner of the ruck to carry the ball and I went to tackle him at the ankles but I felt his ankles lift up out of my grasp because Trevor had hit him so hard, says Costello.

“When Trevor hit you, you’d never see him coming… thank God I never played against him! It was an obliteration.”

aidan-mccullen-and-trevor-brennan-2052000 Mary's beat Lansdowne in the final at Lansdowne Road. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Costello scored the only Mary’s try of the game from a maul and while Ray Niland got a try back for Lansdowne, McHugh’s six penalties were enough to see Mary’s home on a 25-22 scoreline.

The celebrations were raucous and long-lasting.

“Fellas I hadn’t seen for donkey’s years arrived up to the club that night to celebrate and it was a great occasion,” says O’Brien.

The players rolled on to the Swan Bar – owned by former Mary’s, Ireland, and Lions prop Sean Lynch – in town the following day, then went on another session at the Dropping Well out in Milltown – one of club sponsor Charlie Chawke’s places – on the Monday.

Smyth admits it was a blur as a player but happily recalls his 2012 AIL-winning squad completing the same trilogy of nights out after their success 12 years later.

Back in 2000, the family vibe was strong in the wake of the final step being taken. Costello doesn’t mention it, but Smyth remembers a lovely gesture by the Mary’s number eight.

“Steve Jameson was a legend in Mary’s, a second row who had played with Victor for many years but retired after we lost to Garryowen in the semi-final the season before.

“When we won in 2000, Victor gave his medal to Steve Jameson.”

For head coach Pope, the redemption was sweet and the players were delighted for him. Sadly, the high point was also the end point. The majority of the Mary’s team was swept up in Leinster duties over the coming years as the province really started to get serious.

“It was devastating,” says O’Brien of a time when Mary’s were relegated from Division 1. But they were able to bounce back up and then gradually rebuild under Steve Hennessy’s coaching before Smyth guided a largely homegrown team to the 2012 victory.

peter-mckenna-2942000 Fullback Peter McKenna on the charge. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The club now has a promising crop of players in Division 1B of the AIL and Templeville Road is happily set to be packed out today with the lifting of restrictions ahead of the home clash against Naas [2.30pm kick-off, Templeville Road].

Those who were part of it all back in 1999/00 remember those days with great fondness.

“I have a huge amount of affection for Mary’s,” says Hickie. “I very much grew up on the club experience of the AIL in its prime, which was a fantastic experience both on and off the pitch. 

“It’s great to keep a connection with the club and my relationship goes back so long, it’s such a good place to go back to. It has been a hard time for the rugby clubs in the last two years but it will be great that all those restrictions will be lifted.”

The likes of Hickie and Costello achieved lots more in rugby with Leinster and Ireland, but those glory days with Mary’s remain among their proudest of memories in the game.

“We had it good,” says Costello. “We played in a great time of the AIL and that helped to really bond us.

“If you gave me six Grand Slams, I wouldn’t trade it for the times we had.”

- This article was updated at 10.25am on 25 January to indicate that Trevor Brennan joined St Mary’s from Bective. It was updated again at 10.49pm on 5 February to correct a forename in the article.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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