This article first appeared in the Official Matchday Programme for Leinster Rugby’s Guinness PRO14 clash with Cardiff Blues on November 22.

THEN: John McWeeney made his debut against Connacht in August 1997, eventually winning 66 caps for Leinster over eight seasons, and playing once for Ireland, from 1997 to 2005.

NOW: Now 44, John lives in Terenure with his wife Avril and their two children, Olivia (8) and Alexander (5), and works as Head of the Private Client Lending team at Investec.

It was the summer of 1997.

Old school buddies escaped the city for Brittas Bay where all subjects were up for discussion. Daragh Coleman, Stephen Molloy, Karl Jennings and John McWeeney taking it in turn to slag off Denis Hickie about the possibility of facing Jonah Lomu in the autumn.

By the time November 15 came around, Hickie would have to deal with Glen Osborne and McWeeney was on the other flank coping with Jeff Wilson in what turned into a 63-15 reverse at Lansdowne Road.

It was a whirlwind time in the life of 21-year-old McWeeney for he had made the outrageous climb from debuting in the All-Ireland League in March to facing the world’s best in eight months.

“What happened was I played my first senior AIL game for St Mary’s in 1997, scoring six tries in six matches. This prompted a call from Leinster Manager Jim Glennon and the offer of a development contract.

“At that time, Mike Ruddock had just come in and there was the semblance of a professional set-up. I spent that summer as a professional for the first time. I had never lifted a weight, never been to a gym to workout properly.

“I was enthusiastic and kept my head down and I think Mike liked my rawness as a big wing. This led to my debut against Connacht in Donnybrook. I went straight from there into Europe where I played against Toulouse for my Heineken Cup debut and then we beat Leicester in Donnybrook which was a phenomenal achievement at the time.

“I will never forget that match against Leicester. No one gave us a chance. They were a force at the time and they had all those big English names. That win stands out from my time at Leinster.

“I had a really good game on the wing and, somehow, found myself in the Ireland squad a few weeks later. From March to September, everything happened so fast.”

Ireland coach Brian Ashton, eager to stamp his authority, handed out five new caps and the reward may have come too soon against the ruthless All Blacks.

“There was a series of events that led to my call up to be considered. It was all surreal, even at training camp. Sure, Denis Hickie was a school friend. But, you were also standing beside Nick Popplewell and Keith Wood, two players you watched as a kid in short pants. It was the strange mix of people you knew well with legends of the game.

“As a 21-year-old, you were just taking it all in, not realising it wouldn’t last forever. I would never change anything about it now. I’m glad it happened. I look back on it with great memories, even though it was a difficult day at Lansdowne Road.”

It would be the first and last time McWeeney would play for his country. Ultimately, he returned to Leinster where he won 66 caps, playing for eight seasons.

“I was there or thereabouts. I was consistently playing for Leinster and for Ireland ‘A’. I felt there was a possibility for more international caps until around 2000 when I got a bad shoulder injury to miss a large portion of my third season.”

At that stage, Gordon D’Arcy and Shane Horgan came on the scene and began to establish themselves. Matt Williams came in and made positive changes. He had a set of players delivering for him and he stayed with them.

The breakthrough just wouldn’t come for Leinster.

“We had some really great days back then. We probably celebrated the big wins more than we should have,” said McWeeney.

“From 2001, I wasn’t always involved in the big games. The memories came down to great personal performances. I remember one in particular against the Scarlets in Donnybrook when everything went just right for me.”

To this day, Dave Quinlan, Peter Coyle, Aidan McCullen, D’Arcy, Malcolm O’Kelly and Liam Toland are the men McWeeney remains closest to after his playing days.

“When you are in that rugby environment, the true test of friendship is when you are still making an effort to stay in touch 15 years later.

Unlike so many others, McWeeney stepped away from the game at a relatively young age (29) to begin his second career.

“I had considered moving abroad and there were a few opportunities that, in the end, I didn’t really explore. In my head, I just needed a new challenge.

“So I requested not to be considered for a contract renewal. I almost needed to go and do something else and that something else turned out to be financial services.

“I felt the drive to get involved in that rather than chase a lifestyle and a dream for another few years. I would be a better proposition as a hire and it would stand to me career-wise to get out there and then.”

John has lived in Terenure for 20 years and is married to Avril with their two children, Olivia (8) and Alexander (5). He has no regrets about the decision to leave professional rugby.

“I feel I would have side-stepped into rugby at the start. It was never my plan to play professional rugby,” he shared.

“I was in college when this came upon me and when the chance came around, it was a case of ‘why wouldn’t you take it on?’ I had always anticipated moving into financial services and that is where I am.

He is Head of the Private Client Lending team at Investec and has been able to take much of what he learned and observed in rugby into the mainstream workplace.

“I retired 15 years ago. It seems like a lifetime away. I am still proud to have been involved in the organisation. It is nice, even now, that people will still remember that.

“The key for me, in terms of what I learned is that you should always communicate well with the people you work with. Be honest with them. In rugby sometimes, coaches weren’t as honest as they could be. They were trying to keep everyone happy rather than give them the truth.

“If I look back at my time in rugby, and what Leinster transformed into, the core of the team I left turned into the best team in Europe by the end of the decade. When I was there, we didn’t have that belief or that winning mindset that was needed.

“It was great for me to see Leinster evolve, knowing that I had been part of it at a time when it wasn’t working as well as it should. There wasn’t a huge amount needed to move something from being average to exceptional.

“That is why in my working environment I try to ensure the mindset is right. If you are not striving to be better, you will never achieve what you should. If you take that lesson into anything you do, you realise the only difference is yourself and what you bring to it.”