THERE are always watermarks that go through your career, whether that is with your school, getting your first pro contract, winning your first cap etc., but for me, winning the ‘97 Lions series with a group of friends in a country like South Africa, against the reigning world champions, is absolutely top of the list.
Talking to guys who’ve been on Lions tours since then, there doesn’t seem to be the same camaraderie as there was in our group. Maybe that’s because we’d all experienced the amateur era. John Bentley was the first person I met at the team hotel; we still see a lot of each other but now fully attired I hasten to add! He was one of many great characters on the tour but everyone got on so well.
Playing in the 5/6 Nations, whenever you came up against the English pack, from 1 to 8, you felt they were massive compared to any of the Celtic sides. So going into the first Test, having the likes of Rodber, Dallaglio and Hill and Johnno behind me, I thought we could out-power the Springboks at the scrum. How wrong was I!
I was up against big Os du Randt, who I was giving four or five stone to, and we got absolutely drilled in the first two scrums and gave away two penalties which were my fault. I remember standing behind the posts, 3-0 down, and Johnno didn’t need to say anything, his death stare – the raised eyebrow and burrowed forehead – said it all; there’s nothing more fearsome.
Sensibly I decided to go back to what we are good at in Europe, technical scrummaging, which is a form of wrestling. The important thing was to negate Os’ strong position, it was all about getting into his space and exploiting that and eventually we got the upper hand in the scrums.
Getting my first cap at the 1995 World Cup alongside my brother Richard, was also huge. And we beat Japan. I was told by one of the coaches, ‘have a good scrummaging game and you’ll get picked for the big pool game against Wales’. We scored two pushover tries and dominated them upfront all day but, of course, I didn’t get a look in! Selection could be like that in those days: very hit and miss. In ’98 the two of us were joined by our brother David for Ireland’s tour to South Africa but, unfortunately, unlike the Barretts at the World Cup, we didn’t make it onto the pitch at the same time.
A few clubs approached me when the game went professional, just before the Lions tour: Bristol, Newcastle and London Irish, who’d have been the obvious choice but Gary Halpin, who played tight-head, was the captain there.
When you looked at Saracens and the direction they were going in, and the players they were signing with the likes of Lynagh and Sella, that persuaded me to go there. The club had a great atmosphere and ethos and the overseas internationals really bought into that. Nigel Wray and Deacs (marketing guru Peter Deakin) basically turned everything around.
In 2001 I felt I was playing the best rugby of my career and was looking forward to getting an opportunity to tour with the Lions again, on the hard tracks of Australia, where I felt I could take my game up another level.
However, that all ended when I suffered a triple fracture of my ankle while playing in a European Cup tie on a frozen pitch at Ravenhill.
I did get back from that, and won the inaugural Celtic League with Leinster in 2002, despite Eric Miller getting sent off for a bit of footwork on the late, great Anthony Foley. But my ankle was never the same and I still hobble around on it to this day. Not that I would change anything. I look back and think how lucky I was to play with such great clubs and with some great players.
As told to Jon Newcombe
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