Sunday 24 September 2017

Irish blood, English heart, Bracken just can't call it

Skerries-born World Cup winner expects another Dublin grilling

Kyran Bracken in action for England against Ireland in the Five Nations back in 1999
Kyran Bracken in action for England against Ireland in the Five Nations back in 1999
David Kelly

David Kelly

PADDY Johns has never forgiven Mick Galwey for breaking his nose even though Mick Galwey didn't break his nose. Kyran Bracken did.

"I remember when Paddy joined Saracens, he was shaking the squad's hands as you do when you're a new signing on the first day," winces former England World Cup winner Bracken in memory.

"He wouldn't shake mine. 'Ya broke me nose!' he said in that thick accent of his. And I said, 'What do you bloody mean? You're six foot six!'"

"Twickenham '94!" roared Paddy.

The penny dropped for Bracken. Or, rather, as the forwards coach Willie Anderson described him to his pack on the eve of that year's Five Nations tie, 'Kyran effin' Paul effin' Patrick effin' Bracken!'

The MBE would come much, much later. At least he got out of the old cabbage patch alive. During the game, Peter Clohessy politely intimated that he may not.

"I remember being in the changing room beneath the old wooden stand," says Bracken now. "Our captain Will Carling, addressing the team about the passion of the Irish and blah, blah, blah. I could hear was this screaming and shouting next door.

"And all I could hear was my name." He still hadn't made the field and was quaking.

Flash

"Then the first lineout," recalls Bracken, "maybe there had been others but this is the only one I remember. Martin Bayfield, our eight-foot second-row taps the ball down from outer space.

"It seemed like everything happened in a flash but for me it was the slowest of slow motion. So slow.

"I could feel the billowing of green jerseys coming at me, the anger in their eyes, their desire to get hold of me. And I just felt myself getting sacked and then I'm sure the whole numbers one to eight got a good go at me with their shoes.

"Simon Geoghegan scored in the corner. And then I had that humiliating walk of shame back to the sticks with my shorts ripped to shreds. So when people ask me what my most humiliating moment in my rugby career was, that was it."

The second was the nose that he didn't break. At one stage, the big Portadown dentist had attempted to take a swing at Bracken from the side of a maul; unwittingly, at the other side, so had Mick Galwey.

The Kerryman's shot landed perfectly; except it landed upon Johns' snout, not Bracken's. "He didn't forgive me either for years," guffaws Galwey. "Paddy said Kirsty (his wife) complained about being kept awake from his snoring for years. Still, they have four kids…"

Funny thing is that, although Bracken was virtually hewn from Dublin Bay, the Skerries-born scrum-half never "rejected" Ireland; although it proved a handy motivational urge for the feral Irish in '94.

Instead, Bracken was encouraged by his father, Joe - another dentist! - to take an invited trial with the old fifth province, the Irish Exiles.

He was studying law in Bristol University and playing social rugby; his ambition was to find a club, not a country.

"My intention was always to play for England despite going to that trial and, in those days, there was never really a question of having to opt anyway. So it wasn't as if I went and then my hopes were agonisingly dashed or anything like that."

Unfortunately, he was knocked out. The selectors told him to come back the following year. By then, he had hooked up with Bristol RFC and his career path beckoned.

There would be more concussions though. Many, many more. Bravery or foolhardiness - Bracken played out his 1993 England debut against the All Blacks despite having his ankle crushed by Jamie Joseph - forced him to predominantly ignore them.

"I was told during my career to stop playing because of concussion," says Bracken, who won 51 caps during his 11-year international career.

"I took four successive knocks to the head. I woke up saying, 'Where am I?' each time. They told me to stop. The secondary concussion is the dangerous one. I went to a specialist and they told me it was unwise to continue. Another bang on the head could cause serious damage. I got very worried, I was 28 at the time. I was upset.

"But I took the calculated risk. I stayed away from contact for six months and then I was fine. But I don't know if I'm fine. I won't know for years to come unless it's an issue.

"It's about getting back on the pitch no matter how you feel. My mates are out there and I don't want to go off for something silly. It's a real problem in the game.

"We've all seen what happened in America with all the players suing. There's no doubt that myself and so many players have gone through concussion.

"I'm good friends with Dr Barry O'Driscoll who resigned from World Rugby because of the issue, and there's a massive concern with the whole George North situation.

It represents what happens up and down the country and throughout the world. Players don't come off because they're rugby players and supposed to be gladiators.

"The psyche of the performer is to stick it out and some people are renowned because of it."

When Bracken (below) played, players predominantly sought space; now they gleefully ram their heads and carcasses into walls with the force of a small car crash, as GPS figures have demonstrated.

Sometimes he gets wistful. If 1994 had been unforgettable, 1995 in Dublin was forgettable. Understandably. Both teams toasted the extinction of amateurism to excess.

Prop Victor Ubogu had told his mate to back him at unfathomable odds to become first try-scorer; when, unfathomably, Ubogu scored the first try, he showered both teams with champagne on a credit card soon to be expanded with bountiful bookies' cash.

Except his mate hadn't put the bet on. "I miss those days but I still think the game is beautiful," he says. "Conor Murray is the best scrum-half in the world and I love watching him control matches with Jonathan Sexton. Ireland are an extremely well-coached side."

Sunday is the defining day for this championship and, Bracken reckons, for this Ireland side who he reckons are a good bet for the World Cup.

"It's a very important game for both teams but predominantly Ireland, I feel.

"They're a really good outside bet for the World Cup. To win a World Cup you need consistency of selection and world-class players.

"Ireland have both of those things. They have that consistency at half-back and world-class players in all positions, O'Connell, O'Brien, Healy, Kearney.

"They usually like the underdogs tag but the pressure is on them to perform now. For England, to win in Wales and then lose in Ireland, psychologically, would put a dampener on the rest of the Six Nations and the World Cup.

Zenith

"I can't call it but the pressure is on Ireland which is nice for once. They look like they know what they're doing, whereas sometimes England haven't looked like that.

"Murray is the best in the world at the moment. His tactical kicking now is at its zenith and he can control the game.

"It makes a huge difference when your nine can take the pressure off the ten. It's a lot like Ruan Pienaar. He's evolved into a world-class player. Sexton is clearly world-class and Ireland depend on them playing well.

"Joe Schmidt will be extremely tactically aware and I don't think England are quite there yet. I'm hoping to be surprised by an England win."

In any other year, Bracken might have hoped to play in tomorrow's much-cherished Anglo-Irish Legends game but even this gentlest of Donnybrooks in Donnybrook is beyond him now.

"I broke my hand the last time I played that fixture," he says, "and I thought to myself I've done enough challenges and been beaten up enough times by the Irish to not go through all that again."

He will, though, be in town for a speaking engagement this morning and he has secured tickets for dad John and mum Jane (who did play for Ireland, in hockey) although on second thoughts…

"I've faced the Haka, been trampled upon by an Irish pack but nothing has prepared me for speaking to a roomful of Irishmen.

"I just hope they don't stone me!"

Irish Independent

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