The Big Interview: Kieran Shannon talks rugby with Marcus Horan

As featured in the Irish Examiner, Saturday April 1 2017

Few people are better positioned to survey the Munster rugby landscape than Marcus Horan. As Rugby Players Ireland’s player development manager for the province, he gets to see and hear the challenges the modern player faces. He was coaching his beloved Shannon until a disappointing departure a few month ago. He’s seen how the club game is nearly dying and he has a keen appreciation of what his ‘big brother’ Anthony Foley did — and continues to do — for Munster.

Marcus Horan has been involved in coaching since his playing retirement and now works as a player development manager with Rugby Players Ireland.

‘WELL, what are you at now?’

It’s a question that Marcus Horan finds makes just about every former professional rugby player squirm a bit on the inside, and though it’s his job to help make current and past players more comfortable with it, he still finds it difficult enough to answer.

For years, he was Marcus Horan, rugby player. That’s who he was. Days like today at Thomond Park were what he lived for. A big European Cup game, against one of the sport’s superpowers, in front of his own. There was no better day. No better day!

But after those days are gone, what do you with yourself? What do you live for? What do you with your day? Who are you?

“As a player, every weekend you had a purpose,” Marcus Horan reflects. “And when you stop playing, you’re in a sense nearly trying to recreate that in some aspect of your life. You’ve nearly got to try to get your excitement from somewhere else.”

There’ve been some old teammates who found it. Thinking of Peter Clohessy always brings a smile to his face. A few years after Claw had finished up and Horan had inherited his jersey with Munster, they met up in Limerick and Claw revealed the joys of taking up horse riding on a hunt. It was quite the image, Claw up on a horse, jumping hedges, dressed like Harvey Smith, but Horan could only be happy for him. He had found something to give him his buzz.

As for Horan himself, since he finished up a little less than four years ago? It’s probably only recently that he’s accepted that his week will never be the same or as heady as it was.

“I think I’m coming round now to [realising], ‘Well, this is my week now.’” On Monday, meet a couple of players in the Munster academy. Check his email. On Wednesday take the kids to swimming. On Fridays maybe do a bit of co-commentary for TG4 on Rugby Beo. And so on. A bit more mundane, maybe, but still plenty to fill the days and fulfil him.

In a way, he never left the game or the game never left him.

Within a year of retiring, a vacancy came up as a player development manager in Rugby Players Ireland, with one of the staff out on maternity leave. Six months ago the position was offered to him again, this time on a permanent basis. So every day he’s meeting and dealing with players in the Munster academy, fully- contracted players, retired players.

He’s also been coaching pretty much since he retired. He helped establish the 1-2- 3 Club in Munster to help develop new props.

Then Barry Murphy asked him to help out at UL Bohs. The following season his own club Shannon roped him in where he’d be promoted to head coach of their AIL team.

Back in January, they relieved him of the post after a string of defeats, most of them by a solitary score but one of which included a 41-point hammering up at Glaswegians when Horan had to do without his captain and four other top players who had exams in Limerick that day. It was a stinging experience for Horan but one he says hasn’t embittered his relationship with the club; he attended their first game after the parting of ways and has been doing some PR work for them the last couple of weeks.

Still, he won’t lie: the entire club scene has left him hugely concerned, if not disillusioned.

Want to know the real state of the game in Ireland and Munster?

Well, Horan is as well positioned as anyone to assess. His GAA background helps. He grew up in Clonlara. County finalists the last two years in Clare. John Conlon has played all the way up along with them. Even when he was playing colleges hurling, even when he’s been playing county hurling, there hasn’t been a season when he hasn’t hurled for Clonlara. Rugby is different. Too different.

He looks at his own club. Shannon. One of the most renowned in the country. Its underage system is still exceptional. He can see it every Sunday morning for himself because one of his own daughters plays out there. Kids as young as five or six will be coached out there and all the way up along. U8s, U10s, 12s.

Countless, thankless hours invested. Then the kids go to secondary school. The club might never see them again.

“This is where the problem is. Say we have 20 lads U12 and then they disperse out to Ardscoil Rís, St Munchin’s, Crescent Comp.

“They now belong to that school. So that’s six years they’re away from their club.

“And the saddest thing then is you can have one of those kids who was with Shannon all the way from U6 to U12 and I might meet one of them just before they finish up in school and say, ‘Look, we’d love to see you back at the club when you finish secondary school.’ And they’ll go, ‘Yeah, that’s fine, Marcus, but I’m talking to Gearoid Prendergast with Young Munsters on Wednesday and I’m meeting Conan Doyle from Garryowen on Thursday and I’m meeting UL Bohs as well…’ Or the player’s father could be with him as well, saying, ‘Well, what are you going to offer my son that Young Munsters aren’t going to offer?’

“And I’m looking at them, thinking, ‘Who the fuck are you?! You played schools rugby. That’s all.’ But that’s what you’re dealing with. From a fella who might have spent six or seven years being coached outside in Coonagh.”

Horan was lucky. He went to St Munchin’s where the coach was a Shannon man and told him he could play with Shannon at the weekend when Munchin’s didn’t have a game. Every kid, he feels, should have that flexibility. Play with a club as well as with a school.

“Schools rugby is so huge now. September all the way to the senior cup final on Patrick’s Day. Massive. Why can’t the schools Cup final be played off before Christmas or late January? And then let them off to their club afterwards? Let them just out, enjoying the game, playing rugby, like they do in New Zealand. And if you’re Leaving Cert is getting on top of you, then don’t play club rugby.”

Instead, a lot of them will play club hurling for the summer. Some of them might never come back to rugby. And those that do might never come back to their original club.

“All of this has created a culture whereby even if you do manage to meet a dye-in-the-wool Shannon kid, there’s still people knocking on his door. ‘Come over to us.’ Like, can you imagine that back in the day? Peter Clohessy [a rabid Young Munsters clubman] joining Shannon or Garryowen? It was never done. I’m not saying that we should all hate each other but there has to be some form of loyalty.

“We’re actually eating each other alive here in Limerick, taking each other’s players. Again, I don’t blame the coaches who are doing it. It’s just so easy to move now. There is no loyalty there anymore. And that’s a big reason why I don’t see any Limerick team winning an AIL in the foreseeable future.”

That’s why he’d let kids play club rugby as well as schools rugby. They’d have more loyalty to their club upon leaving school. It would take release a bit of steam from the overheated schools game as well. He knows of schools that were knocked out of the senior cup in February and are back training already. Last autumn he met a star player with the Ireland U20s who was already thinking of packing up the game because he had been on the go for so long between schools and province.

He’s a big admirer of the Munster academy. He’s seen how they develop players. Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Tommy O’Donnell, all of them are products of the system. But if he had his way, academy players would be more available to the clubs.

Everyone would benefit: the players would get used to playing week in, week out and coping with knocks and bruises, instead of playing B&I games that you could count on both hands. The clubs would feel relevant again. More people would stay playing the game.

“One of the fallouts of the academy system is that if a guy doesn’t make it or the sub-academy or he’s released after one year, he’s very likely to drift away from the game completely. The demographic of my club is that there are very few guys playing between 25 and 30 years of age. The majority of the Shannon team is made up of school-leavers. Fifteen years ago, they’d be playing 20s rugby and then fighting their way up along.”

A bit like an old friend had to do.


Alan Quinlan, left, and Marcus Horan celebrate beating Toulouse in the 2008 Heineken Cup final at the Millennium Stadium. Picture: David Rogers

For as long as Marcus Horan can remember when it has come to rugby, not only was Anthony Foley there but he was always there for him.

“He was a big brother to me.”

Like the best big brothers, he paved the way, he went first. From east Clare to Munchin’s, Shannon, Munster, Ireland; wherever Horan went, Foley had gone before.

He knew where he was coming from, just as Horan knew where Foley was coming from. More than once when a teenaged Foley would have had the thumb out to hitch a lift back home to Killaloe, John Horan would have been the one to stop and tell him to jump in, to the delight of his gaping son, Marcus, in the back: Anthony Foley, the schools rugby star! The size of him! He’s enormous! A few quick years later the Foleys would return the favour; Anthony and his father Brendan would pull up to the Horans’ to give Marcus, or ‘Pup’ as they’d all call him then, a lift into Shannon matches.

Even then Horan was still in awe. He has a story or two from those days that about sum up the essence of Foley, though you’ll be glad to know he has plenty of more great stories to tell about him.

They would have been playing AIL against St Mary’s, Trevor Brennan’s club at the time. On one occasion Horan would have found himself the second defender out from the base of a ruck with a fearsome Brennan bearing down on him, ball gripped under his arm. And then the nudge would come. Step aside, Pup. Big dog, big brother, has this. And then Foley would crash into Brennan, like a lion waving his young aside to safety before tearing into a fellow alpha animal.

It was the same in training. Shannon would have had a couple of hardened veterans who would have run through an 18-year-old Horan who had usurped them and taken their spot in the starting lineup. Foley could see them a mile off. If young Marcus was coming around in a tackling drill and the next guy up was one of those lunatics bulling for his place, Foley would again discreetly push him aside and make sure the vet picked on someone his own size. I got you, Pup. I got this.

You talk about loyalty in the game? Anthony Foley was loyalty.

Always there.

Only now, he’s not.

Horan first learned of the news in an airport terminal. He and Kate and the three kids hadn’t had a holiday in a few years and had just landed in Lanzarote when Horan switched back on his phone beside the baggage reclaim. Straight away, it nearly melted.

He had three missed calls from his father who was in Paris at the Munster match. There was a stream of texts which he gazed over but one caught his eye: ‘Sorry to hear about Anthony.’ Horan started to panic. Kate’s brother was called Anthony. What had happened to Anthony? There was something like 10 voice messages. A good thing he didn’t listen to them because half of them were radio stations looking for him to comment; if that’s how he had found out… But there was no good way to find out.

When he called his father straight away, the news was still the same…

“It was one of the worst days of my life. I’ll never forget it. Kate was asking at the information desk about our bus to the apartments when I had to tell her. And the two of us just broke down crying there and then.

“Just at that moment then, John Hayes of all people called me. I was in a bit of a daze because our three girls were looking up and seeing their mum and dad bawling. So I had to ask John was it real. Even though my dad had told me what had happened, I still couldn’t believe it. But typical John, he was very blunt. ‘No, he’s gone. He’s gone.’”

And so, only minutes after arriving in Lanzarote, the Horans found themselves trying to get a flight back out. As it turned out, they were able to get back on the Tuesday. The two evenings they were out there, Marcus and Kate kept breaking down, crying, even in restaurants. An Irish couple with a couple of young kids of their own recognised them and their predicament and volunteered to mind the three kids and free them up to make alternative plans.

As well as that act of kindness, something else sustained Horan during those torturous days. “The only thing I was thinking of was Axel laughing his ass off at ruining my holiday! ‘The one time you go away…!’ That kind of got me through it.” They flew into Dublin, then got a bus down to Shannon where they’d left the car. A neighbour had dinner at home ready for them, then Kate’s parents came over to mind the kids while Kate and Marcus shot straight over to Killaloe. To Olive.

Five months on now and he’s still struggling to get his head around it.

“I thought he was invincible. From the time I saw him first as a kid in my father’s car. Even the difficult times at Munster [as head coach], the way he handled himself and dealt with stuff was incredible. I had a tough time myself with Shannon last year the same way he had with Munster and every Monday morning I’d be inside [in UL] doing my Rugby Players Ireland stuff and he’d always come over.

‘Tough one at the weekend. Keep the faith.’ Or ‘Well done at the weekend, keep going.’ All the way up along, he had been a

mentor for me. A rock. Even during those times with Munster, he just seemed so cool.” Back in their days in the pack with Shannon, it was the same.

There was quite a cast of characters in that scrum.

“I would have been a loose cannon when I was playing with Shannon,” says Horan. “Then you had Quinny [Alan Quinlan] on one side and Eddie Halvey on the other and they’d have been fighting with each other. And then right at the back in the middle of it all was this guy with this incredible calmness.

“It was more his demeanour and body language than anything he said. Quinny might be giving out about something and Eddie giving out about something else but Axel would just move it on.

“He wouldn’t criticise anything they said or did. He wouldn’t say, ‘Hey, you’re out of order’ or ‘Just shut up!’ He’d go something like ‘I hear you, got you’ and then move on. He’d talk to the referee, or the game would start again and he’d pick from the back of the scrum and get us 10 yards. He just had a knack of focusing on what needed to be done and getting the team out of trouble.”

Foley’s humour was notoriously dark, of course, and Horan wasn’t spared.

“I got capped by Ireland on the tour in 2000 to America — I actually came on as a tighthead against the US and Axel was there, doing waterboy, being rested for the next day. I didn’t get capped again until the 2002 autumn internationals. And for those two-and- a-half years I was on Axel’s one-cap wonder team. Every morning you’d come into the gym and he’d go, ‘I’ll name the team again! Marcus Horan…’ At first he’d only have had me on the bench; you could actually make a XV out of one-cap wonders. By early 2002, I was starting on the XV. Then near the end of the year, he had me as its captain. And he was loving it!

“But in his own way, he was motivating me. As if to say, ‘Hey, you need to get off this one-cap wonder thing.’ And he’d hammer me all the more because he probably had belief in me that I would get off it; If there was a guy that he knew that one cap would be it for them, he wouldn’t have been slagging as hard.

“I loved that about him. There was absolutely no malice in it. He treated everyone equally. A guy might have got capped early on in the Six Nations and be certain to start the following week and Axel would hammer him for those four or five days about still being on his one-cap wonder team! That was just his way.”

There’s an image he’ll always have of Foley and the great company he was: After a game, propped up by the bar, anchoring the spot for the night, while Horan might float around from one person to the next, yet always knowing he could and would come back to a grinning Foley and chat easily away with him. Often about the game. Or other things. Lots of things. But not everything. Some things were left unsaid. Did they need to be said?

“I didn’t ever tell him how much he meant to me. And now he’s gone. That’s been one of the hardest things. He was never the kind of guy that you’d have a heart-to-heart with and say, ‘Look, I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me. You’ve been a big brother to me.’ But now that he’s gone, you really have to acknowledge that.

“It’s been one of the most difficult things I’ve been through. I can only imagine what Olive and the family is going through. But I think all of us who played with him have been really affected by it.”

Most days Horan is up around the UL campus and while his job to develop the person rather than the player, his employer the players’ union rather than Munster rugby itself, he can’t but observe and enjoy how the fortunes of the senior team has improved this season.

A huge factor he feels has been having everything in the one centre in UL. Even Horan in his job has found so much dead time in the car has been reduced because of no longer having to commute to Cork.

“Back when we’d have to train in Cork, there might be three or four of us travelling in the one car and the lad driving might say: “No hanging around now afterwards! I have to be back in Limerick for five o’clock!” The Cork lads were the same. There were times they’d be in Buttevant by the time some of us were even coming out of the showers back in Limerick.” Which meant?

“No extras done. The whistle would blow, training over, everyone off the pitch. And that’s one of the key areas, bettering yourself with those little extras.

“I’ve seen some of their sessions this season. Say, they train at half-two. There’s guys coming out onto the pitch from five past two onwards. If a guy has an injury, they have to do their own warm-up.

“Back in the day, if you can imagine, some guys probably didn’t do a proper warm-down. It was straight into the car and drive nearly two hours on a bad road — we used to have to go through Croom and everything. And you’d be stiff as a board getting out of the car then.

“It would improve a lot before they ever moved into the one centre but this brings it on again. Just simple things, like if anyone has an issue with the calls, the coaches are there in front of you; you’re more inclined to sort it out there and then rather than ringing a guy who is on the road.

“But it [having one centre] also allows you to get to know each other a bit more. I heard a comment from Billy Holland about how when he moved up this season he would have been in one of the Limerick lads’ houses for the first time ever. Even though he knew him for years, had gone through the academy with him, it was the first time actually sitting down, having a cup of tea, in his house.”

The perception would have been that his team was a band of brothers. Was it an accurate one?

“Well, maybe we had to pull together a little bit more when we were together, like on the road, but we certainly didn’t live in each other’s pockets. Now the Limerick boys did and the Cork boys did, but there would have been nights where we might have played a big Heineken Cup game in Thomond, gone back to the Clarion for a drink or two in the bar and then the Cork lads would have got on the road and had their night in Cork together. Even the nights when we won the Heineken Cup it was a struggle to keep a few of them in Limerick; they wanted to get back to Cork. They’re the facts of it.

“So I think that added social element helps. And Rassie is aware of that.”

And of course, it cannot be underplayed the effect the passing of a loved one had.

“They [Munster] wanted the crowds back but the crowds wouldn’t come back until they performed. It was a vicious circle. But then Axel’s passing brought it altogether.”

Just like he used to bind that pack in Shannon. With Quinlan and Halvey and young Puppy Horan. Hey, I got you. I got this.

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