Rugby Union: Mason back to playing for kicks again

Ulster's revitalised No 15 is in prime form for today's European Cup final against Colomiers in Dublin
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The Independent Online
IT SEEMS slightly absurd to talk about the loneliness of the long distance goal-kicker when he can count on the unconditional support of 40,000 deafeningly vocal Ulstermen, but Simon Mason is likely to discover more about naked solitude than he ever wanted to know in the teeming, steaming pressure pit of Lansdowne Road this afternoon. Precisely a year ago, Christophe Lamaison went from crack shot to crackpot during the course of a European Cup final; by the end, he could not have hit the Arc de Triomphe with a bag of onions. If it can happen to the William Tell of Brive, it can happen to anyone.

Quite rightly, Mason will take an enormous degree of mental and emotional sustenance from the fact that it did not happen to him across the border in Belfast three weeks ago. Confronted with a series of devilish kicks at delicate psychological moments during the semi-final with Stade Francais at Ravenhill, his marksmanship from distance was well nigh flawless. But, by God, he felt the dead weight of expectation in every fibre of his being.

"That," he admitted this week, "was a nervy old afternoon.

"People often say that the longer kicks are the easy ones because there is no assumption that you'll stick them over, but it really depends on the circumstances of the game. The long penalties against Stade Francais were real pressure shots because they kept us out of range of Diego Dominguez and his right boot. A six- or seven-point lead is so much easier to defend than a two- or three-point advantage and it meant that Dominguez had to pull some magic out of the hat rather than just make his goals. As it turned out, the magic wasn't there. It pleases me no end to think my kicks helped push him into a corner."

This time last year, the thrice-capped Irish full-back was in a corner of his own. Richmond, the ambitious Allied Dunbar Premiership club he had joined from Orrell in 1996, were paying him - handsomely, as a matter of fact - but not playing him. They preferred Matt Pini, the former World Cup Wallaby, as their last line of defence, even though Mason had contributed 321 points to their promotion drive the previous season.

"I was banging my head against a brick wall at Richmond and to be honest with you, rejection felt like a kick in the teeth. It was something I'd never experienced; I'd gone through the system, done well in every age group and at every level and suddenly, I found myself pushed to one side. I went to Blackheath on loan and removed some of the rust from my system, but I knew my whole career was in the balance. Even when Ulster got in touch and asked me to consider moving to Ravenhill, it was a hell of a decision to have to make. I knew the move would hit me in the pocket and, more importantly, my then-fiancee had just qualified as a vet and been offered a job in London. Understandably, Belfast was not one of her preferred options."

If Mason drew the line at praying for guidance, he certainly went through the agonies before abandoning a settled London lifestyle and booking his passage across the Irish Sea. "You could call it a victory for my rugby over my bank balance; unlike a number of other Irish-qualified players who left the Premiership for the provinces last summer, I didn't have an international contract to act as a financial bedrock. But I figured that if I could establish myself in the Ulster side and perhaps break back into the national squad with a World Cup on the horizon, the sacrifices would be worthwhile. It was a question of pride, as much as anything."

Vindication has duly arrived in the satisfying shape of 126 European Cup points in eight outings, although Warren Gatland, the Ireland coach, remains unconvinced of Mason's latent international class; indeed, the 25-year-old from Birkenhead (he qualifies for the Cockles and Mussels brigade through three Irish grandparents) has yet to win a starting place in his country's A team, let alone threaten to relieve the outstanding Conor O'Shea, a personal friend, of the No 15 Test shirt. Nothing less than a faultless display against Colomiers will drive Gatland into rethink mode.

As it happens, Mason knows more about these particular French opponents than the rest of Ulster's merry band of brothers put together. "I came across them twice with Richmond in last season's European Shield and we copped a hiding both times. They're an excellent side, really very accomplished. They have a big physical presence up front, lots of skill out wide and one or two of their players, Jean-Luc Sadourny especially, are world class. I've heard the old cliches, all that stuff about the French not travelling well and how Colomiers will hate playing at a Lansdowne Road full of hollering Ulstermen. I seem to remember people saying the same things about Brive just before they hammered Leicester in the 1997 final.

"There aren't any lines you can sensibly draw in advance of a game of this magnitude. It's a final, isn't it? That's as much as you can say. There are no favourites, no underdogs. The team that handles the nerves and copes with the uniqueness of it all will lift the trophy. Those of us fortunate enough to have played international rugby will be able to draw on the experience and help those who haven't to avoid the pitfalls. It's easy to get carried away in this sort of atmosphere, as some of the Leicester guys discovered two years ago. Above all, we need to stay calm and stay together."

Whatever happens this afternoon, Mason intends to stay in Belfast; happily, an extension to his one-year contract, up for renewal at the end of the season, is likely to be agreed sooner rather than later. "It's been pure enjoyment, playing here," he said. "The side is so close-knit and so mutually supportive that it was easy to settle in and find my feet again after the disappointment at Richmond. In fact, I haven't had a run of form like this since my Orrell days and I'm treasuring every second of it.

"But while we're having a lot of fun, we're also very serious about our rugby. We're not just happy to be in the final. We've looked at the tape of the Stade Francais game over and over again and we've said to ourselves: `Yes, we played out of our skins, but we can still improve technically. We can scrummage better, we can spruce up our restarts, we can cut out these errors.' By taking a professional approach and setting the right standards, we can strike a balance between lapping up all the attention and actually doing the job.

"Irish sides have this reputation of flattering to deceive, but by beating Toulouse and Stade Francais we've proved we can win the tight ones. Will we win this one? Who knows? No matter how meticulously you prepare, a cup final is bound to be a swirl of passion and emotion. That is what makes the experience so special. Only one thing is certain. Everyone lucky enough to be involved will take their memories of this occasion to their graves."

ULSTER'S ROUTE TO THE FINAL

GROUP MATCHES

Ulster 38 Edinburgh Reivers 38

(Mason: 3 con; 4 pen;1 try, 23pts)

Toulouse 39 Ulster 3

(Mason 1 pen, 3pts)

Ebbw Vale 28 Ulster 61

(Mason: 4 con; 1 try, 13pts)

Ulster 29 Toulouse 24

(Mason: 1 con; 4 pen; 1 try, 19pts)

Ulster 43 Ebbw Vale 18

(Mason: 7 con; 4 pen, 26pts)

Edinburgh Reivers 21 Ulster 23

(Mason: 2 con; 3 pen; 13pts)

QUARTER-FINAL

Ulster 15 Toulouse 13

(Mason: 3 pen, 9pts)

SEMI-FINAL

Ulster 33 Stade Francais 27

(Mason: 1 con; 5 pen; 1 drop, 20pts)

Mason's total: 126 points

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