Tony Ward: O'Driscoll award snub one of sport's great injustices
Published 01/12/2009 | 05:00
In amateur times, rugby union was always promoted as the ultimate team game. Certainly, given its nature, it had the facility to cater for all body types. A place could always be found for little Jimmy Blobby alongside long Johnny Beanpole in the same starting XV. Few competing codes could offer the same equality of opportunity.
The team ethic was the core principle, guarded almost jealously by the game's administrators. Then, in 1979, the first Man of the Match awards came into being for the Five Nations, as it was then known.
Following the opening Ireland game of that season (against the French in Dublin), I was named the recipient of the inaugural award. At training at Lansdowne Road the following weekend I was presented with a carriage clock by Paul McWeeney on behalf of the rugby writers. It was engraved with the sponsors' name, Thwaites and Matthews (to this day I couldn't tell you what they sold), and on the following Monday morning the picture of Paul (sadly long since passed away) presenting me with the award appeared in all the different papers.
No big deal and all with the approval of the IRFU -- or so I thought! To cut a long story short, within 48 hours I had received a typically frosty and impersonal letter signed by Bob Fitzgerald on behalf of the IRFU. The bottom line of the message was that individual awards were out. As it transpired, in the remaining three games I received two more nominations, with Colin Patterson receiving one (v Scotland) for the now outlawed gong.
Fast forward a couple of months to May when the first ever Player of the Year awards (approved by the four home unions) were held, at Lingfield Park Racecourse in Surrey.
Patterson and I, as the Irish individual match recipients, were allowed attend but with the IRFU proviso that if either of us took the overall award it would go to charity and we could not even touch the trophy. No picture, no commercial angle for the sponsors, nothing.
As it transpired, I was named Player of the Year and so went through the motions of standing alongside the award (carrying out Uncle Bob's instructions to the letter and never daring to touch it) before the trophy was whisked off to some Sunshine Homes Charity for auction.
For the record, I still have the original clock on the mantelpiece at home but beyond that, the dictatorial blazers at 62 Lansdowne Road got their way.
I mention this now, as one who hates the Man of the Match idea, to give some clue as to how we -- the so-called elite -- were seen and treated by the game's administrators back then. Of course, these morally upstanding leaders insisted they were at all times "acting in the best interests of the game". We could argue the toss on that one, but time and space prevents us now.
Time has, of course, moved on and now individual awards are part and parcel of the game. I still have great difficulty with the Man of the Match thing because I am firmly behind the end-of-year celebration embracing individual contributions, be it as coach or player. To that end, one of the great injustices was perpetrated on Saturday evening soon after Ireland - inspired by a certain centre and captain - managed to hold off the reigning World and Tri-Nations champions South Africa, thereby completing the almost perfect calendar year.
Having beaten the Lions before taking the Tri Nations with five wins from six (including three over the All Blacks), South Africa were rightly named Team of the Year. Declan Kidney was named IRB Coach of the Year and, with due respect to Peter de Villiers, nobody could argue with that.
The ever-modest Kidney will accept his global acknowledgement with great dignity and graciousness -- "I haven't made a tackle all year" -- yet he, like the rest of us, knows that one individual dominated this rugby season and that player will not now be getting his due reward.
That Richie McCaw is the best flanker in world rugby right now and most probably one of the best ever is beyond debate. I too am a signed-up member of the McCaw fan club (indeed I nominated him the official Man of the Match in his debut game for New Zealand).
But quite how nine former great, distinguished players from around the world -- including our own Paul Wallace -- sat around a table (assuming they did even that) and came up with McCaw as Player of the Year for 2009 ahead of Brian O'Driscoll beggars belief. It truly is one of the great sporting injustices of our time.
The greatest Irish player of this or any other generation has just completed his greatest season -- one encompassing Six Nations, Grand Slam, Triple Crown and Heineken Cup glory, not to mention an unbeaten autumn series. His captaincy has been inspirational and without his presence none of these trophies would be in residence on this island now (well, perhaps the Heineken Cup might have finished a little further south).
Forget the incredible record of 38 tries as well as the countless assists, and instead concentrate on the selfless work ethic this extraordinary player brings to every game he plays. He is the supreme role model at the pinnacle of his powers, with his nomination for IRB World Player of the Year an absolute no-brainer.
For the record, the eight who sat in judgement alongside Wallace were John Eales, Will Greenwood, Gavin Hastings, Raphael Ibanez, Francois Pienaar, Agustin Pichot, Scott Quinnell and (most interestingly) Tana Umaga. The more you put in a room, the bigger the mess.
Democracy and fair play? I ask you. . .
Had the award gone to Fourie Du Preez, as the one credible alternative, it would have been easier to take but quite what McCaw has done to merit the overall nomination (for the second time) this calendar year escapes me, and I repeat his playing ability and impact are not at issue.
This is the ninth year of the IRB Player of the Year award, with Keith Wood the inaugural winner and so far the only Irishman to take the individual award. It was, by coincidence, the only other time O'Driscoll received a nomination (think the Brisbane Gabba and his superb try in the first Lions Test in 2001).
However, this time around his contribution has been so much more than that. He was the biggest single difference to Irish fortunes and, I would contend, the main reason why Irish rugby is where it is in the world rankings since Kidney took control.
The real pity is that it appears unlikely he will ever now gain the ultimate acknowledgement his extraordinary talent and durability deserve. He should now be celebrating victory over South Africa alongside a place in the IRB roll of honour with Wood, Fabien Galthie, Jonny Wilkinson, Schalk Burger, Dan Carter, McCaw, Bryan Habana and Shane Williams.
The band of nine -- however illustrious -- who made the call have got it badly wrong. The game, Irish rugby and most of all O'Driscoll, have all been done a great injustice. It appears 'Darby O'Gill and the land of the little people' -- at least in a rugby context -- is still in existence.