sundaylife

| 9°C Belfast

'My wife's going to burn my boots': Ulster's European Cup hero Simon Mason still loving rugby at 46

 

Close

Simon Mason gets his hands on the trophy at Lansdowne Road

Simon Mason gets his hands on the trophy at Lansdowne Road

Simon Mason gets his hands on the trophy at Lansdowne Road

It had been another typically busy day for Simon Mason.

He had just left a meeting at St Anselm's College in Birkenhead, where he teaches PE and heads up the rugby and where he is currently doing his bit for the needs of key workers' children, as well as dealing with GCSE and A-Level issues and seeing to the physical and mental health of all the pupils via online links.

Then there was the planned school rugby tour to South Africa, which has naturally been canned. The European Cup winner with Ulster is trying to pull something together for summer 2021 when, in theory, the British and Irish Lions will be taking on the World Cup-winning Springboks.

The now 46-year-old, who spent two seasons at Ulster and was a pivotal figure on their road to European glory in 1999 before departing Belfast for Stade Francais the following year, also has other things on his mind as his daughter Keira is currently recovering at home after having surgery.

Despite all this, he is happy to talk and his still strong connection to Ulster is only too evident when he mentions the get-well message his daughter recently received from none other than Jacob Stockdale.

"Keira has recently had an operation, which, as you can imagine, was a worrying time, but this is the thing - she loves her rugby and it was nice that Jacob sent a lovely WhatsApp video message to her," says Mason, who won three caps for Ireland in the mid-90s.

"That really cheered her up and was really nice support. We, as a family, were made up with Jacob doing that. It just so happens that he is her favourite player too.

"It's really little things like that that make you realise that rugby in Ulster has always had that sense of community."

Close

Simon Mason kicked penalties for fun during his days at Ulster.

Simon Mason kicked penalties for fun during his days at Ulster.

Simon Mason kicked penalties for fun during his days at Ulster.

 

Though born and raised in Liverpool - he actually attended St Anselm's - Mason will always be revered in Ulster, where he hit a playing peak on the province's journey to European triumph and kicked points almost, it seemed, for fun.

He turns 47 this autumn, but his love of the game is in no way diminished. In addition to coaching the game at St Anselm's, he does the same at local club Birkenhead Park, where he also still turns out to play after joining them from Old Anselmians in 2016.

"It won't be long before my wife Nikki burns my boots," he jokes in reference to having entered his fourth decade as an adult player.

"I was going to stop completely," admits the player, who also turned out in his professional days for Richmond, Orrell and Treviso.

"But this (Birkenhead Park) came along and I've enjoyed it now for the last four years," adds Mason, who these days plays out-half if required.

"It's easier to coach and play from 10 and you can get away with being as slow as I am."

Which reminds him of a quip that came his way when he played in a veterans' game with some of his former Ulster team-mates a while back. There were wisecracks that I was probably the person whose pace had reduced the least as I didn't have it to start with anyway," laughs Mason.

He will call a halt, and probably soon, it's just why stop when he still enjoys playing? Apart from anything else, the current situation due to Covid-19 has allowed him to actually sharpen his fitness both in and around his home in the Wirral.

"I'm keeping quite fit at the moment. This lockdown has inspired me and I'm training every day," says the father of two teenage daughters, 14-year-old Lucy being two years younger than Keira.

Mason still occasionally returns to Belfast, but only when his workload at the school and club permits him the time.

He was at the Kingspan last January, when he brought Keira along to watch Ulster defeat Bath in the Champions Cup.

The 16-year-old loves the game and has now realised that her dad's tales of once being a big player around these parts are not simply the stuff of fiction.

"I think she thought I'd made a lot of things up about my time here, but she was quietly impressed when with me in January to see that people actually knew me," he says.

Mason actually strode out onto the pitch the year before - also in January - when the Cup-winning side of 1999 were presented to the Kingspan faithful 20 years after they had stormed Lansdowne Road to claim the trophy on an unforgettable day, albeit after a truly forgettable Final.

Close

Mason kicks during the European Cup final in 1999.

Mason kicks during the European Cup final in 1999.

Mason kicks during the European Cup final in 1999.

 

He thoroughly enjoyed the reunion and didn't mind taking the crowd's applause ahead of last season's home game with Racing 92.

However, not all of his team-mates were prepared to walk out in front of the supporters and Mason understands why. "It was an amazing achievement," he says of how an entirely unfancied side ended up being crowned European champions.

"We've had our own reunions on the quiet, but that day was a great day.

"It's a fine line, really, doing something like that (the get-together). From our point of view, as former players, there is a certain embarrassment from not wanting to be seen as millstones around the necks of the current players.

"You don't want to be seen as these old guys being wheeled out and putting pressure on the current group. We're not looking for recognition.

"Having said that, I think having us around can still be a positive as it can give motivation to the new breed of players that even a team like ours, which was so unfancied, could do it."

Which leads us back to St Anselm's and how he, along with headmaster and fellow coach Simon Duggan, are working hard to boost the game at a school which, in addition to Mason, has produced former England and Lions player and now TV pundit Austin Healy and Ireland scrum-half from the '90s Christian Saverimutto.

Mason and the controversial Healy were team-mates when at the school and afterwards at Orrell.

"A superb player," Mason recalls of the man dubbed motormouth.

"He was always consistently annoying from about Year Seven and he never changed."

Another area which has ignited lively debate is football, with Healy a die-hard Evertonian and Mason firmly in the red camp.

Right now, Mason has plenty to deal with both professionally and personally, but even so, in such challenging times, you look around to find positive thoughts.

"Who knows what's going to happen for school, for sport and for work," he says of the pandemic's continuing impact on all our lives.

"It's hardly a priority with all that's going on but, for me, I'd really like to see Liverpool crowned Premier League champions."

And with that, it's back to more pressing matters in his inbox.

Belfast Telegraph