Author and journalist Alan English talks to IrishRugby.ie about "Munster: Our Road to Glory", the book which tells the story of Munster's epic Heineken Cup journey, in the players' own words.
IrishRugby.ie: Firstly Alan, how did the project come about - was it your initial idea and was it difficult to get the Munster Branch's backing?
Alan English: Yes, it was an obvious follow-up to my first book, "Stand Up and Fight", but the problem was it was never going to be a runner unless Munster won the Heineken Cup. I had had a few approaches from publishers and I knew the kind of book I wanted to do. I knew it would require the co-operation of the squad so I approached the management after the semi-final and they agreed that we would do it whenever Munster won it, not before.
IR: The book world is full of bandwagoners so did you feel it was important that the players had the chance to put such a memorable season into their own words?
AE: Yes I had no interest in writing a book without the participation of the key people involved. It's their story, not mine, and they have lived this thing for a very long time. I saw my role as helping them to tell the story, acting as a link man, keeping it flowing and keeping it interesting. No guff, just honest memories.
IR: What were the players' reactions to you coming in and rehashing their memories of the past season and the previous years? Some good, some bad?
AE: I had no problem whatsoever with them. Quite the opposite. I was able to prepare thoroughly for the key players, going in with forty or fifty questions. At the outset, I addressed the squad just before their homecoming parade in Cork and I told them Penguin were committed to producing a book of the highest quality, and that if it was going to be a book worthy of a great team, they had to front up and be as honest as possible. They were great.
IR: You must know the Munster set-up pretty well now - any deep, dark secrets down Thomond Park way?
AE: Actually, I wouldn't say I know the set-up particularly well, no more than most people with an interest. I'm not a rugby journalist - I just happen to have written a couple of books about Munster Rugby, almost by accident really.
IR: What was the most enjoyable aspect of putting the book together? And the worst?
AE: The most enjoyable was when players really engaged; very occasionally in interviews people are brave enough to explore things they haven't really thought about before. The best responses are often the ones where people are not sure where they are going with an answer.
When you find yourself looking at the tape recorder anxiously, making sure the tape is still rolling, you've usually got something. Worst aspect? My family didn't see much of me during that time.
IR: Were the ex-players receptive to the idea of the book, despite missing out on the Heineken Cup win and losing the other two finals?
AE: Yes, they saw it as a journey, one they were on themselves. They had a different perspective and it was important that they were a big part of the book, which they are. I thought Keith Wood was particularly insightful.
IR: Logistically it must have been a nightmare trying to set up all the interviews with the players and coaches, so how did you pull it off?
AE: I probably surprised myself. Normally, I'm never that organised. Clearly, the fact that I secured the co-operation of Munster Rugby was a massive help but at one stage, I was starting to feel like a stalker. I remember going out to a restaurant in Bunratty and practically hijacking Ronan O'Gara.
IR: Was it a case of getting the interviews done in as short a period as possible and then working your socks off until the deadline? Where did you write it - at home? How many dictaphones did you go through?
AE: Yes, that was pretty much it. Head down, the structure of the eighteen chapters stuck up on the wall next to me in my office at home, masses of research material and transcripts all around me. Every time I'd finish a chapter, I'd put a line through it with a highlighter marker. That way my kids could see I was making progress and not just sitting there.
I managed to lose the first dictaphone, including part of an interview with a player who shall remain nameless. But other than that, it went as well as it could possibly have gone.
IR: Do you have any favourite stories from the players? Is there stuff that was simply unprintable?
AE: The vast majority of the material in the book was entirely uncensored. To be fair to Munster, they trusted me to do the job. There were some stories that I left out; these guys are still playing the game. I didn't want to be responsible for any revenge attacks on them!
...Billy Stickland who, together with his Inpho team, produced some stunning photographs for the book...
IR: How did Billy Stickland and Inpho come on board? Was it vital that the quality of the photos used matched the words?
AE: Billy is the official Munster photographer and he is an absolute class act. When I was made an offer by Penguin I approached Billy and he came on board then. We needed to have the only photographer in the dressing room and everyone in the Munster camp is comfortable with Billy being around. The words and photos work really well together, I think, which is a tribute to the skill of the people at Penguin.
IR: How did you come about deciding on the style of the book - building it quote by quote? Did you have to okay it with the Branch or did they allow you the freedom to do what you pleased?
AE: In "Stand Up and Fight", the two chapters which deal with the Munster v All Blacks match itself are in that style - oral history. I thought that, given all the circumstances, that style would work for pretty much the entire book. I come in as a link man, filling in the gaps.
Yes, I was allowed to write it as I pleased. There was trust there, but of course I was a bit worried that people in the camp might not like it. None of the players saw a word of it before publication. I got a text from Donncha O'Callaghan last week which said, rather ominously, 'What did you write about me in the book?' But it turned out that Brian Hickey had picked up his phone and sent the text as a wind-up. Thankfully, the reaction in the camp has been great.
IR: Was there the desire to get the book out and published as soon as possible after last season's final? Did the quick turnaround help in focusing you?
AE: Not to the extent that we were going to rush out a botched job. The book came out four months after the final and it literally could not have come out a day before it did, because it was a pretty elaborate process. Illustrated books where the text is integrated with the pictures are not easy to produce, if you want them to look the best they can be.
Certainly, it focused me big time. And I was lucky that everything went so well, that I didn't spend time chasing people.
IR: Finally Alan, what was your own particular memory of the 2006 Heineken Cup final? Where were you, what were you doing?
AE: I was in the press box at the Millennium Stadium, working for The Sunday Times. A rare enough foray for me. Mostly, I am office bound. I found it an awesome experience.
I wrote a piece for the front page of sport and was just walking out the door for a few beers when the office rang to say they wanted another piece for the final edition, which proved a total sellout. Usually it's me making that call, so I couldn't complain.
I was the last reporter left in the press room by the time I'd finished. It was one of the best days of my time in newspapers.
*Alan English is sports editor of the Irish edition of The Sunday Times, and author of "Stand Up and Fight: When Munster Beat the All Blacks"
**"Munster: Our Road to Glory", by Alan English with the Munster team, and including photographs by Billy Stickland and Inpho, is available now from all good bookshops