Leamy out to justify his standing on World stage
NEW ZEALAND -- a country where rugby reputations are easily shattered and respect is hard to win.
Paul O'Connell has been down there a few times without ever managing to convince the Kiwis of the quality long evident to northern admirers. Jamie Heaslip was ready to confirm his status as one of the world's finest No 8s last year only to be dismissed -- in every sense -- as Ireland slumped to a record defeat.
And even Brian O'Driscoll (whose status as one of the finest centres to have ever donned togs is long since assured) still attracts mockery over the 'Speargate' farce on the 2005 Lions tour.
Then there is Denis Leamy. They are not good with names down there -- unless you are an All Black -- but the Cashel man's performances over the course of three Tests in New Zealand have certainly registered.
In 2008, Leamy put in an excellent shift as the visitors rattled the All Blacks before going down 21-11 in a Wellington deluge, but it was two years previously when the No 8 truly announced himself as world-class operator. After shining in the Six Nations, notably in the Triple Crown-winning victory at Twickenham, Leamy travelled to New Zealand full of confidence and played some phenomenal rugby over the two Tests in Hamilton and Auckland.
Massively physical in defence, Leamy also showed a remarkable capacity to bounce his way through tackles, even when driven back initially, and his Kiwi-style displays won rave local reviews.
Five years and 37 caps later, 2006 remains the high point in a distinguished international career which has been dogged by knee troubles and included the harrowing experience of France 2007.
Since Heaslip came in against the French under Eddie O'Sullivan in 2008, the Leinster man has established himself as first-choice No 8, with Leamy forced to play around him.
He has made just six starts in his 16 caps under Declan Kidney but has still had his big days, particularly in Ireland's Grand Slam-clinching performance in Cardiff in 2009 after Stephen Ferris' early departure. And, if competition has increased at national level, it has been mirrored by provincial battles.
James Coughlan's progress at No 8 forced Leamy onto the bench when coach Tony McGahan opted to go with the extra height of Donnacha Ryan at blindside flanker, but Leamy's continued importance to the Munster cause has also been emphasised by his captaincy role in O'Connell's absence.
That honour reflected an improvement in Leamy's disciplinary record and, all in all, as he faces up to the challenge of securing a berth on the plane to New Zealand, he cuts a mature and reflective figure.
Injuries dominated media-day proceedings at Carton House earlier this week, but Leamy's name was not listed among the wounded and he looked to be in excellent shape as he admitted to extracting a sadistic pleasure from Ireland's intense fitness programme.
"You enjoy it, but in a sick way," he said. "We have had particularly tough fitness sessions and had a few guys spewing up their dinners.
"The first week I had Declan pushing a sled for me with weights on it. I was falling off the back of it so Deccie got involved and pushed it the last 100 metres -- got a bit of a ribbing over that."
Leamy looks to have a good shot at winning his 51st cap against the Scots in Murrayfield on Saturday -- Ireland's exacting pre-World Cup schedule is part of an overall policy not to repeat the mistakes of 2007.
"We probably didn't help things in the way we went out in the open and stated that we wanted to get to the semi-finals and final, and when that didn't happen, it was used as a bit of a stick to beat us with.
"It's important this time that we go through the process, we start with our warm-up matches and then it's all about getting out of our pool and we can start to dream from there."
The process for Leamy first involves ensuring his place in the 30-man squad but, once that is achieved, he can take confidence from the knowledge that, when it comes to producing in New Zealand, he has excellent form.
That demands respect, wherever you are from.