Emerging from the Hayes
FEBRUARY 27, Twickenham, and Tim Payne is in party-pooper form. John Hayes is playing his 100th international for Ireland but England's loose-head is determined to spoil the Cappamore man's big day.
The Irish scrum is not being completely ravaged but things are far from comfortable and referee Mark Lawrence is not impressed, particularly with Hayes on the tight-head side. Another penalty, another warning from the South African and it becomes apparent that a yellow card is imminent. Ireland coach Declan Kidney acts swiftly, out comes the shepherd's crook and on comes Tony Buckley with the scores tied and nearly 20 minutes still on the clock.
The reaction in the press box tells its own story. There are worried looks exchanged between Irish journalists and confident smirks among their English counterparts -- particularly those who were there to see Buckley endure an uncomfortable afternoon for the Ireland Wolfhounds against England Saxons' loose-head Nick Wood a few weeks previously.
But, as a clever man (Stephen Hawkins) once noted, if your expectations are zero, whatever you then receive is greatly appreciated.
Buckley had a job to do in those 20 minutes and he did it extremely well -- putting himself about around the pitch and, crucially, locking the scrum when England -- 16-20 behind with victory in their nostrils -- put the squeeze on close to the Irish line.
Seven days later, Buckley backed it up with a powerful performance in tight and loose during Munster's disappointing loss away to the Dragons and his subsequent retention on the Irish bench for tomorrow's meeting with Wales caused not a quibble.
Once again, Buckley has forced us to reassess, for it is fair to say the 29-year-old's rugby career has been an up-down affair. Written up, written off and written up again, this has been the story of a battle between obvious ability and maddening inconsistency, all qualified by a lack of consistent game-time. Nearly 10 years since this leviathan front-row first came to our attention, it is still impossible to predict which will win out.
"You have to see this guy playing prop for Shannon," was the instruction all those years ago. "They call him 'Mushy' and he's massive, he could be the new John Hayes ... "
And first sightings of this giant shaggy-haired young fellah handing off would-be tacklers as he rumbled around the sides of rucks confirmed why his emergence on the club scene was generating such excitement.
Born in Cork in 1980, Buckley went to secondary school in Newbridge College in Kildare where he played second-row for two Leinster Senior Schools Cup campaigns and was deemed good enough to be honoured at Leinster level.
This was 'up' territory, as was his progression at Shannon, where he quickly became part of their AIB League-winning exploits, the club picking up four Division One titles between 2002 and 2006.
There was the continuous educational imperative of having to learn the ropes in the murky world of front-row play but, though he was flagged on the Munster monitor early, professional progress was slow. The word on Buckley in those early years of the last decade was that he was good enough, and big enough, to come through but also a player who needed "a rocket up his ass" to get the best out of him. It is a perception which continues to dog him -- not helped by the fact that he tends to wear his socks around his ankles.
His breakthrough onto the Munster scene did not come until 2005/06, when Kidney (in his second stint as southern supremo) replaced Alan Gaffney. Buckley was by then pushing 25, with Hayes closing in on 32.
In the four and a half seasons since, Buckley has made 70 appearances for the province, (including friendlies). However, 32 of those have been off the bench and there have only been three Heineken Cup starts, two of them last October, when Hayes was suspended.
The Hayes factor has been a constant in Buckley's story and the similarities between the two are obvious. Both are former second-rows whose size (Hayes is 6'4" and 20 stone, Buckley 6'5" and 21 stone) is unusual for a top-line prop-forward and the 'gentle giant' tag could apply to both amiable operators.
Theirs is a good relationship, on and off the pitch, neighbours who frequently drive to squad sessions together, as Buckley outlined last year.
"He lives about two and a half, three miles away from me. Our kids are the same age. His missus and my missus are good friends. We're good friends. He'll give me words of advice if I'm having a problem. If there isn't, we'll talk about other things. We go shooting and stuff together, just to chill out."
Unlike Hayes, Buckley plays both sides of the scrum, although tight-head suits him better, and this has further facilitated the back-up role for province and country -- 12 of Buckley's 15 Ireland caps have also been off the bench, the three starts coming against Canada (twice) and the USA.
A couple of seasons ago, Buckley came very close to a move to Bath, which may have provided regular starts. However, there were family issues to consider plus the fact that Munster wanted to keep him as back-up to Hayes and Marcus Horan.
That long-standing understudy role is unquestionably a factor behind the 'inconsistent' tag but there have been periods where he has been given a run of games with Munster and still failed to make a convincing claim. So, we're back to the ups and downs.
Up: November 2007 -- On his Heineken Cup debut against Wasps, Buckley's hand-off blows gargantuan lock Simon Shaw onto his backside (prompting a trip to the bookies to take up the 50/1 on offer for Buckley and Leinster's -- then uncapped -- full-back Rob Kearney to both make the 2009 Lions tour).
Down: September/October 2008 -- A poor start to the season sees Buckley left out of Munster's squad for the October Heineken Cup pool games, playing instead for Shannon against Buccaneers.
Munster's Australian forwards coach Laurie Fisher is blunt in his assessment: "The fact he may get selected for Ireland doesn't mean he's a quality international player. He can definitely become one but time is of the essence."
Up: November 2008 -- Kidney picks Buckley to play Canada in his first selection as Ireland coach and then brings him off the bench against New Zealand. It emerges that Buckley's poor form in September was down to a four-week, undetected, bout of pneumonia.
Down: February/March 2009 -- Ulster's Tom Court is brought onto the Ireland bench for the Six Nations -- Kidney masterminds a first Irish Grand Slam in 61 years.
Up: May 2009 -- With Ireland's marquee names away on Lions duty, Buckley starts both summer Tests against Canada and USA and plays his part in two merited victories.
Down: September 2009 -- Buckley is destroyed by Glasgow's young loose-head Jon Welsh as Munster lose their first Magners League outing of the season 22-9 at Firhill.
Up: November 2009 -- Replacing Hayes against Fiji after 60 minutes at the RDS, Buckley gives a startling display of storming runs, ferocious counter-rucking and superb handling.
Down: December 2009/January 2010 -- With Horan unavailable due to illness, short-term Springbok signing Wian Du Preez starts ahead of Buckley for Munster's final four Heineken Cup pool matches. Ireland pick Buckley for the Wolfhounds match with England but the Irish scrum is totally dominated.
Down: February 2010 -- Jon Welsh has the upper hand in the scrum again in the Wolfhounds' win over Scotland 'A'. Court makes Ireland's Six Nations bench ahead of Buckley for the France game despite playing loose-head for his province.
Up: February 2010 -- Buckley is selected ahead of Court for the trip to Twickenham and does well off the bench for Hayes as Ireland secure a hugely significant victory.
Up: March 2010 -- Buckley puts in an excellent individual performance despite Munster being comfortably beaten by the Dragons at Rodney Parade and keeps his place on the bench for Wales' visit to Croke Park.
See-saw does not begin to describe that lot but, at the moment, Buckley is on the up -- which is good news for Irish rugby.
Is it sustainable? Only with game-time and, as long as the remarkable Hayes soldiers on, there is no guarantee of Buckley escaping Splintersville.
However, the last two weeks have been extremely encouraging for this talented colossus. Kidney and, by extension, forwards coach Gert Smal have stuck with him for a reason and their judgement commands respect.
At 29, Buckley is entering the acknowledged peak period for prop-forwards and there were definite signs in those 20 minutes against England and in his power-show against the Dragons that the rocket his detractors once sought may have been located.
Now, it's a question of keeping it lit.