'I have so many fond memories of 1999 European Cup heroics... I know that I'll die a happy man'
Legend and honorary Ulsterman Simon Mason reflects on province's finest hour
Twenty years ago this month, Simon Mason stepped off the boat in Belfast. It took all of 20 minutes for him to feel at home. Capped three times by Ireland by the summer of 1998, he had not been included in the national side since the loss to Samoa in November 1996, with his decision to leave free-spending Richmond and head to Ireland largely motivated by a desire to re-establish himself in Warren Gatland's plans.
With his Irish ancestry coming from Leinster connections, his deciding upon Ulster seemed something of a head-scratcher at the time, even though he'd enjoyed playing at Ravenhill for an Irish under-age side and knew a number of the players from his time in the green jersey.
It wasn't long before he knew he'd made the right decision.
"I remember stepping off the boat and, because I was assigned to Ballymena, I was down to stay with one of the directors at the club, Rodney and Pat Cole," recalls the 44-year-old, now a teacher back in Liverpool where he lives with his wife and two daughters.
"They were at work when I got in but, talking to them, they just told me that there was a key under the mat and to help myself to a cup of tea.
"That summed up Northern Ireland to me. That friendliness where people just want to make you feel at home no matter who you are. I'd been in London and it was all so different. Belfast felt a lot like Liverpool, so right away I felt comfortable.
"The people, they've got the same sort of attitudes. They've had to overcome a lot but they've got that sense of humour, that wanting to have the craic.
"And even when times are tough, you embrace sport. Sporting teams lifted Merseyside and it was the same for Belfast. We didn't change the world, but it was giving people a lift. Right away, you could feel it."
If Mason felt at home off the pitch, he fitted in seamlessly on it too.
While, much to the confusion of Ravenhill devotees, he never did force his way back into the international reckoning, his new head coach Harry Williams would frequently tell his full-back that he was the first name on the team sheet.
His arrival ultimately heralded the beginning of Ulster Rugby's greatest season, the European Cup triumph of 1999.
While no fan of the province will ever forget that January day in Dublin when the competition's greatest underdogs were crowned champions against Colomiers, the same can be said for Mason, his metronomic kicking stroke a key tenet of Williams' gameplan, the 144 seasonal points haul standing as a record for years and ensuring hero status in this part of the world.
With so many highs, and indeed a few lows, during that magical run to the Lansdowne Road finale, to pick one highlight is a tough proposition, but Mason shows little hesitation in picking the semi-final win over highly fancied Stade Francais, a game illuminated by Sheldon Coulter and David Humphreys combining for a fine try in a 33-27 win.
"The final still needed to be won, even though it wasn't a particularly good game, but against that Stade side, the semi-final always sticks in my mind," says Mason.
"Whatever happens, I can die a happy man for that experience with that group, a team of mates. That'll always be the game that I have the fondest memories of.
"It's like any sport, after a 20-year development it looks completely different, the speed of it. But for me, that was a tough game of rugby and a lot of people stood up.
"We got a bit of luck with Shelly Coulter setting up that try for Humph, but if anyone deserved to do something like that it was him. If you practice 10 hours a week, you've created that luck.
"We were all in it together, playing for the badge. That's when to have the game of your life and loads of people did. It was like an FA Cup run in a way, it felt like we could take anyone on. The crowd, the atmosphere, it was set up for a giant killing. They were the Real Madrid of rugby, but we felt anyone was beatable if we got them at home.
"We were living off that emotion. For me, that's one of the biggest performances an Irish rugby team has ever produced. Home advantage, yeah, but pound for pound, the players we had against the players they had, that's hard to beat."
And so it would prove. While Mason's next year in an Ulster jersey was characterised by the same high level of play, Ulster's trophy defence fell flat. He would leave the province in 2000 to play for the same Stade Francais side he had played such a part in vanquishing during Ulster's unbelievable run and go on to play for Treviso as well before calling time on his pro career.
Now 44, he is still turning out for his local side Birkenhead Park at a relatively high level in England, while also doing some coaching with the side and the school where he teaches.
Memories of his star turn in Belfast may be fading somewhat, but thankfully, with the advent of Google, his daughters, the eldest of whom is 14, can now appreciate just what their dad still means to rugby fans here.
"It's always a bit different with your own kids," he adds. "If you were Kenny Dalglish your daughter would probably still think you were a big geek. That's the way of things, but now that they're getting a bit older they probably realise I wasn't that bad.
"My daughter is starting to play a bit now too so it's nice to have that to show to her."
All these years later, he remains a fan of the side he represented so memorably.
"It's something that I still love doing, sitting down on a Friday night and being able to watch the games," he says.
"It's probably like how the exiles and the ex-pats feel, it just gives you that connection back to it."
An honorary Ulsterman... even to this day.