Where are they now?: Brian Rigney
February 3, 2023 10:00 am Des Berry
THEN: Brian played close to 50 times for Leinster between 1988 and 1996.
NOW: He lives with his wife of 30 years Claire in Portlaoise, working as a Markets and Exports manager at The Shed Distillery.
Brian Rigney was there on day one of the Heineken Cup. November 1st, 1995.
The late-starting, hard-nosed second row was just the man for the job at Stadio Communale Giuriati where Milan was eventually gunned down 24-21 by Niall Woods’ late try.
In a lawless environment, their coach Jim Glennon later reflected on how the work done by Brian and Dean Oswald as Leinster’s “policemen” ensured some semblance of order.
Certainly, Paul Wallace wouldn’t have to be reminded of Brian’s value on that day in Milan.
“There were no video cameras there, so there were a lot of punches going around,” noted the British & Irish Lions prop years later.
“I do remember having my life saved by Brian Rigney, our second row, after one of these when I was lying on the ground and a 25-stone second row was looking like he was targeting my head only to be ‘nudged’ by Brian.”
Twenty years on, those same men walked onto the Aviva Stadium as part of the half-time entertainment at Leinster’s Heineken Cup encounter with Toulon on December 19th, 2015.
It was the perfect opportunity for ‘Riggers’ to renew friendships with old friends and reflect on the journey Leinster had made from amateurs playing catch-up to an industry-leading brand.
Now, another seven years on, the Export Manager at The Shed Distillery is grateful for what the game has given him.
“More than anything else, the game has given me a network of friends that are always there,” says Brian.
“At the 20-year reunion, it was easy to pick up where you left off with everyone.”
Really, it should have come as no surprise as Brian knew all about the critical importance of family as a Rigney from Portlaoise.
The give and take of brotherly love was more physical than emotional as Michael, Noel, Brian, Des, Donal, Niall, Kieran and Colm brought enough energy to the house to fuel the whole town.
Brian knew all about family and how to look out for a brother. This was never more valuable than in the rough-and-tumble of a game he only found at the age of 19.
In 1982, local stalwarts Denis Aldritt and Tom Casserly turned Brian towards the oval ball at Portlaoise RFC and away from his previous commitment to gaelic football and hurling.
The question was put: ‘did you play for the county?’
It was met with four simple words. ‘No, I wouldn’t have. No.’
It led the interviewer to chance a comment: ‘It wouldn’t have been down to speed, would it?’
“Yeah, I think so. I think it might have been,” he laughed heartily.
“I wouldn’t have turned on a sixpence, as the man says.”
Then, a new job took him to Cork where he played with Highfield for a season.
In 1986, work again was the reason for moving, this time to Dublin. Brian was recruited by Bective Rangers, where the likes of Ireland internationals Phil Lawlor and Harry Harbinson and Ireland ‘B’ prop Tom ‘Titch’ Kavanagh were leaders of the forward pack.
Within six years of taking up the game, Rigney was playing for Leinster. Scrum, lineout, maul, ruck were the four pillars of the game, the bigger man usually winning the war on the advantage line.
And Brian was a big man, standing 6’5” inches tall and weighing in at 18 stones (114 kilos in new money), a formidable presence.
“I would have teamed-up with Leinster in 1988 and been called into the Ireland squad in 1989,” he shares.
In 1989, the man of many clubs moved to Greystones to team-up with his housemate, the British & Irish Lions prop Nick Popplewell and legendary John ‘Spud’ Murphy.
It was the same year he travelled on tour with Ireland to Canada and America: “I played in both tests on that tour. Unfortunately, this was at a time when an international game against the US or Canada wasn’t deemed worthy of a cap, even though they were awarded caps.”
Nonetheless, Brian did play for Ireland eight times over two seasons, debuting against France in the 1991 Five Nations and ending in the summer of 1992 against New Zealand for his last two appearances at the highest level.
Ultimately, a pre-1991 World Cup tour to Namibia proved costly as a bad rupture to his ACL cut short his international career.
“I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was any easier back then. That would do a disservice to a lot of very good players. For example, Leinster would have had Paul Dean playing at out-half at the time.
“Certainly, the conditioning of the players would have been a hell of a lot different. We were amateurs, working 9-5 and even longer, depending on what your job was.
“We trained five to six nights a week, twice with your club, maybe three times with the province with a game at the weekend for your club or for Leinster or even Ireland.
“It was very full-on when I was involved for a few years with the club, with Leinster and with Ireland. The game was less demanding then than it is for the players now.
“Then again, the professionals have recovery time, maybe going to a swimming pool on Monday morning, whereas we had to go to the office or back to the farm or whatever we were at.”
Brian was part of the Leinster furniture for nearly a decade (1988-1996), a period in which he hoovered up close to 50 caps, although the exact total escapes him.
“My first Leinster coach was Roly Meates, a far-seeing, smart coach. He would have been ahead of his time.
“My first game for Leinster would have been in 1988 and there were several Ireland players in the set-up.
“Brendan Mullen was in his prime, Des Fitzgerald was at tighthead, ‘Spud’ Murphy was the hooker and Neil Francis was in the second row. Declan Fanning was there. Paddy Kenny from Wanderers too.
“It would have been the way into the Irish set-up. It certainly would have been a sharp step up from club rugby.
“At the time, there would have been only six or seven games-a-year. You had the Interprovincial Series. You might have played a couple of touring teams and you might have gone over to Bath or Bristol or Gloucester to play the English clubs.
The games that stood out were the 36-6 loss to the All Blacks at Lansdowne Road in 1989 and the comprehensive 38-11 demolition job done by the World Champion Wallabies at the national stadium in 1992.
“It was great to play against the world’s top teams at that time,” he says.
Now, Brian is back where everything began, living in Portlaoise with his wife of 30 years, Claire. He has spent 32 years working in the Irish drinks industry.
“I manage a number of international markets for the Shell Distillery as well as Global Travel Retail. People will know the business through the successful Drumshambo Gunpowder Irish Gin brand,” he says.
“I have and still use a lot of what I learned from a rugby environment in my work life,” he adds.
“It certainly taught me the benefits of teamwork and it has given me a discipline at work that I maintain to this day.”
He has also taken great pride in playing a part in the story of his province.
“I love Leinster. I love watching them play. I love the style of rugby they play,” he says.
“I love what they’ve done with the whole package, the way they bring families into it, the plans they have for The RDS, the phenomenal work done by Mick Dawson.”