I interviewed new boy Aidan McCullen in the deep shadow of the Sunbury stand, towards the end of August 2006 at the LI Press Day.
He looked fit and hard. Even unshaven, his face looked more angular than I had expected, and his frame suggested wiry strength and resilience, in short a physical handful.
Aidan proved to be charming and eloquent. Hardly the strong silent type! Here’s what he had to say.
Q. What made you come to Irish?
AM. I was on a very good contract at Toulouse, which is the Mecca of rugby as you know. I’d made a decision when I left Ireland that I was going to play in France for two years and then come and play in the Premiership. And no matter how well I did in France I was still going to make that decision. But then I had an amazing start to the season in France. I got straight into the Toulouse team and played the first six months, but then got a knee injury. It niggled away at me and I never really got back. Just when that happened Brian [Smith] got in touch. At first I dismissed it, for I felt I had a contract at Toulouse, I was happy here, playing well here. I really was playing well in a brilliant team.
But there was my Missus consider as well. I spoke French but she didn’t, so there was the language barrier there for her, so in the end it was kind of a mutual decision. We could leave it another year, and I could be injured, so I just thought we were better off jumping at the offer while it was there - and after the season the lads had had as well. They were looking very good around that time. I felt that this was a good team and they were going places, and it’d be good to be part of that as well.
Q. Do you specialise in a particular back row position?
AM. For Toulouse, I played at 8, but 6 is really my preferred position. It certainly was at Leinster and when I played for Ireland. I love to get my hands on the ball as much as possible; that’s what it’s all about for me.
Q. Have you found anything different about the training here?
AM. It’s quite similar here to how we trained at Leinster. The English and Irish games are now very power-based, involving weights and speedwork and that sort of thing. The French play a lot more rugby with not many drills. Oh, maybe it’s just Toulouse, I don’t know. You play games and you have scrum sessions and line-out sessions, but it’s not broken down into units like you have here. I prefer the set-up here, because everyone knows what they are doing. Everyone does their job, and things should go well – in theory anyway!
Q. Did you have any mates here before you arrived?
AM. I played with Bob at Leinster, when he was 16. We played for Leinster schools and all the way up together. I played two seasons with Benny Willis at Leinster, and I played with Barry Everitt at Lansdowne as well.
Q. Did you contact them before you made your mind up?
AM. They contacted me to sway my decision! That was a bonus, but it wasn’t the reason I came here. You have to be focused on making the right decision. I came here to play in the Premiership, to nail down a spot in the team, and show people what I had learned at Toulouse.
Q. How have you settled down over here?
We live in the area, right here in Sunbury, which is lovely. That was a major thing as well. I was injured at the time so we started to come over at weekends. We looked around the entire area, Richmond, Twickenham, everywhere. It helped that my wife had been an estate agent earlier in life!
Q. Can you tell me something about your playing career so far?
AM. I suppose people haven’t seen much of me because in Leinster I had one big season, played in all the European Cup games, scored four tries and had a really good season, and then the following season I got injured, you see. I tore my arm right after my cap. And then last year, before going to Toulouse, I was back in the Irish camp again, and I started in the European Cup again. I must have 20-30 European Cup caps by now.
I am looking forward to playing and the fact that we are in Europe is massive. I don’t know if I would have come to any club that wasn’t playing in Europe, having tasted it. We seem to be on the right lines, and it’s important that we stay in Europe and do well.
Q. Have you seen any of our backs running around?
AM. They are very good. The way the lads play is very like Toulouse. They keep the ball alive. Even at the trial the other day, there were some beautiful movements that reminded me of playing in France last year.