The Last Amateurs
By Conor O’Neill
My reasons for reading this book were as far from Rugby as could be. I was simply interested in the time period, 1998 – 1999. Knowing it was written by a Belfast Telegraph journalist I imagined it would have a background of social and political commentary running linear with match stats and game reports. The Belfast (or, Good Friday) Agreement, depending what foot you kick with, was my first foray into the ballot box carrying any real importance, and any book set in those tumultuous days has always whetted my curiosity. My assumption was correct.
I didn’t know the difference between union and league. A loose-head prop compared to a hooker, a blind-side flanker from a full back? I simply hadn’t the foggiest. All I knew was you had to get the ball over the other team’s line and then you had a chance of more points if you successfully kicked the ball between the H shaped goal posts.
I’d tried to watch Ireland on the tele on many occasions, but to my mind the game was too stop/start, and seemed to be something of a middle to upper-class preoccupation. Now, thanks to the writing and passion of author, Jonathan Bradley, I find myself getting weekly emails from Ulster Rugby’s home page informing me when the next home fixture is taking place, team news etc. Not only is Bradley the Rugby correspondent for the Belfast Telegraph, he’s the creator of the Ulster Rugby Round-up podcast, he’s also written for the Rugby Paper, Irish Independent, Irish Times and the Sunday Independent. Put simply, his credentials are impeccable.
Newspaper style-guide writing is clearly evident; not that that stifles the telling of the story. Anyone involved with journalism understands the importance of writing in the active voice, and it’s common that sports journalists have the most flair of all the writers in the newsroom.
Ulster Rugby was in a sorry state when Harry Williams took charge on February 4th, 1998. This book of 199 pages, including epilogue and the ‘What They Did Next’ section, follows the squad from a rag-tag group far behind their continental and mainland UK counterparts to European Cup Winners on January 30th the next year. Changes in training, backroom staff, mentality and much needed cash resulting in more professionals were the challenges the new boss faced.
At the time of Williams’ appointment there was only five professional players, the rest being made up mainly of students, builders, engineers and people in other assorted run-of-the-mill careers.
22 short chapters describe the staggering progress. The tactical approach simple as we learn of Harry’s Blue Book. Three players stood out for the former headmaster, the brilliance of forward David Humphreys, the kicking prowess of full back Simon Mason and the tactical wisdom of hooker, Allen Clarke. Of course, three men do not make a team and one of Bradley’s finest skills is bringing the lives of the men and their families to the reader.
Chapter 14 Delivery focuses on Kiwi born, now honorary Ulsterman, Andy Ward, who, we find out only considered Ulster Rugby as a career due to a flat tyre and the kindness of two spinsters who brought him tea. The description of the quarter final against French giants Toulouse and the breakneck race up the Hillhall Road to Lagan Valley’s maternity unit as Ward’s child is being delivered is a perfect example of how triumph on and off the pitch marry so well together in this read.
Ward played a blinder earlier in the campaign in a derby against Leinster. Chapter Five, Humble Beginnings, is further proof that Ulster can and will tear their neighbours apart. Next day at 10 minutes past 3pm the Omagh Bomb exploded. 29 people died including a pregnant mother, 12 children and two Spanish tourists. Bradley’s handling of this is a cross of matter-of fact-journalism tinged with the disgust and shame we as a nation all felt that day and for many more after.
Sport and politics have always gone hand-in-hand in Northern Ireland, something pointed out early in the book as Barry McGuigan’s 1985 world champion fight united a divided country as much as the Anglo-Irish Agreement, of the same year tore it apart. So too, as Ulster Rugby tries to move onward against the wishes of a tiny yet devastating minority politics and sport are intertwined.
As the match reports and results carry on, Ravenhill boasts bigger crowds game upon game. The Stade Français semi-final is another fascinating read, with Ulster’s opponents training ways out in the sticks of Paris, trying to emulate Ravenhill’s wind flurried conditions late in Autumn; from there everything gels.
Next, the Final. You know a book’s a good ‘un when pages are running thin. Who’ll be fit, who’ll not? Mini-dramas keep the pace of the read running, dexterity of word choice, the mulling of which quote where?
The win. Euphoria. Champagne horse rides round Dublin, a Belfast welcome and more.
The Last Amateurs is available from all good bookshops. For more details visit http://www.blackstaffpress.com