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The Last Amateurs: Why Simon Mason felt right at home with Ulster before inspiring European Cup glory

 

By Jonathan Bradley

With Ulster in action against Uruguay on Friday night, the fixture conjures up plenty of memories of past visits from touring teams to Belfast.

Whether the historic toppling of the Grand Slam Wallabies in 1984, or giving the All Blacks a game five years later, such contests are part of Ulster Rugby lore.

One of the more low-key visits, however, was in summer 1998 when Morocco came to what was then Ravenhill as part of their preparations for the World Cup qualifiers. While nobody could have envisaged it then, the game went down as the first of the province's most memorable campaign, which ended with lifting the European Cup in Lansdowne Road in January 1999.

The 50-5 win was also especially notable for the debut of one Simon Mason, who just six months on from first pulling on the white jersey against the African side kicked his adopted home to glory over Colomiers.

In a new book, The Last Amateurs, which will be launched tomorrow night in Belfast with Mason in attendance, he details his experience of joining the side.

An excerpt from The Last Amateurs

During the Troubles, there wasn't much that brought people together - but Barry McGuigan's boxing victories were an exception. Watching the Ulsterman beat Eusebio Pedroza to lift the world title, part of a 20 million TV audience, Liverpudlian Mason forged a keen appreciation of his ancestral homeland.

He had familial ties with Navan and Belfast, and less than a decade after McGuigan became world champion, Mason was right in the thick of another quintessential Ulster experience - getting soaked to the skin at a game of rugby at Ravenhill.

This was 1994, when he made his Ireland Under-21 debut surrounded by home-grown heroes Jonny Bell, Kieron Dawson and Jeremy Davidson.

It was the Scouse full-back, though, who made the biggest impression in a rare win over England, kicking all the side's points in a rain-lashed 12-8 victory. Studying surveying at Leeds Metropolitan, Mason was the coming man of Irish rugby.

A year later, he was winning his first senior cap, replacing the concussed Jim Staples against Wales in the Five Nations. He scored 10 points, retained his place for the following week's trip to Twickenham and earned a move to big-spending Richmond shortly afterwards.

He was 22, and thought he'd cracked it. Richmond had money and signed up England's Ben Clarke and Richard West, Argentina's Agustín Pichot and the Welsh trio of Scott Quinnell, Adrian Davies and Andy Moore.

They also had an impressionable young full-back who despaired when he was left out in his second season and whose international aspirations had headed south, carrying the can for Ireland's embarrassing loss to Western Samoa.

It prompted Warren Gatland to make eight changes for the next game, the most any Ireland coach had made in nearly 20 years. Mason was on the outside, for club and country.

"I was a well-paid bit-part player," he said. "To be honest, big money and sitting on the bench, it just didn't appeal to me. It felt like a waste of my time. Plus, I still felt I had unfinished business with Ireland. Beating Wales in that Five Nations, when I was so young, it felt like I'd been fast-tracked into it.

"Then I played rubbish against Western Samoa and I was never seen or heard of again. That certainly was not how I wanted the story to end."

The next chapter was unexpected. David Humphreys, who he'd befriended in London, sold him the idea of relocating to Ulster. "His pitch was that I could take the goal kicks," Mason said.

"He has always been chilled, he wasn't that bothered about the ego or how it might look if he was the 10 not kicking the goals."

Yet there was a downside: leaving Richmond for Ulster meant taking a massive cut in wages. "That wasn't an issue for me," Mason said. "I just wanted to feel welcome again. It was important to play alongside people who respected and believed in me. I remembered playing for the Ireland Under-21s and how comfortable I felt at Ravenhill. I felt it was a great place."

Some others didn't. In 1998, Northern Ireland was moving towards an uneasy peace and a perception remained of life in Ulster that was impossible to avoid, even if it proved to be more worrisome to the full-back's family and friends than the man himself. Mason arrived in mid-July, marching season, the time of the year that often sees sectarian tensions at their highest.

As Mason (left) got off the boat, the news featured reports of 140 attacks on houses in nationalist areas. One petrol bomb attack on a house in Ballymoney tragically killed three brothers, aged 8, 10 and 12.

Mason's family worried for their son and where he had chosen to play rugby. The 24-year old remained open-minded, however.

"You couldn't help but see things on the news, and that had been the case for a while, but I was excited about living somewhere like Belfast," he said. "Living in London, I knew what it was like to be judged on where you were from. I had all the Scouser stereotypes thrown at me. It's the same mentality with Northern Ireland. I knew the reputation wasn't fair and thought the people of Belfast were a lot like Liverpool - that's what I wanted after Richmond.

"I was a lad from Liverpool called Mason, so I couldn't have hid the fact I was a Catholic, but it wasn't something that made me think, 'Wow, this is a big thing'. I felt it was an opportunity. After Richmond, I wanted to feel part of a community. I got that in Belfast. The place had a bad rap, but as soon as I arrived, I thought, 'These are my people'."

Assigned to Ballymena, the club of Willie John McBride, Syd Millar and a host of his Ulster team-mates, Mason spent his early days living with Pat and Rodney Cole in the town.

Mason had let the Coles know when he would be arriving. They weren't at home - but the fact they were happy to leave a key under the mat immediately showed how different Ballymena was to London.

He'd a feeling then that life in his new home would work out. Back on Ulster soil, the home crowds could hardly have been described as flocking to see the side in action when Ravenhill hosted its first game of the season, a friendly against Morocco.

The east Africans had virtually been playing rugby since the day the French Foreign Legion landed in the early 20th century, but they didn't play their first game in the international arena until 1931 and had only become a member of the IRB in 1988, coming to Belfast 10 years on as a warm-up for their ultimately doomed qualifying campaign for the 1999 World Cup.

One Moroccan would make it all the way to the final of the tournament though; Oujda native Abdelatif Benazzi's talents long having seen him plucked from the relative obscurity of the Atlas Lions to represent France.

Ahead of the game, coach Harry Williams addressed the media and stressed that returning Ulster to their previous status would be a gradual process.

"I know what I want and I know it can be achieved," he said. "We used to be feared, to come to Ravenhill and win was a rarity. Things won't happen overnight. By chance Ulster might hit the jackpot but realistically it will take at least three years."

With opposition that could hardly be considered glamorous, only hundreds gathered for the final tune-up and witnessed what can be described as a contest in name only.

Ulster scored three tries in the first 16 minutes and eventually racked up 50 points - the single blot on their copybook coming through an intercept try from Hamil Amina.

It would be a different story only months later. With Mason to the fore, rugby fever was about to grip Ulster like never before.

The Last Amateurs book launch

Simon Mason will be in attendance for the launch night for The Last Amateurs in Easons, Donegall Place at 7pm tomorrow evening. He will be speaking about his unforgettable experiences during the 1998-99 campaign and signing copies of the book.

Belfast Telegraph

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