Tony O'Reilly pays tribute to the Great Protector, the finest passer of the ball of any scrumhalf ever to play the game
Published 25/09/2011 | 05:00
Johnny O'Meara was the finest passer of a ball that I have ever seen from any scrumhalf anywhere. No double swing, no two steps before passing, just a fluid swallow-like dive pass or a lightning move to the outhalves' hands. He had 22 caps for Ireland and was perhaps Kyle's greatest servant and saviour.
On his first of 22 caps (as Jim McCarthy says, "With only four matches per year versus 12 per year nowadays, that's about 60 caps today!"), somewhat overawed, Johnny said to Kyle, "Jack, how would you like the ball -- deep, wide, short? And Kyle made the immortal reply, "Just be quick, and put it in front of me!" Both question and answer sum up the men. O'Meara -- modest, indestructible -- with an obvious belief that serving his outhalf was the highest calling a scrumhalf could achieve -- and did so for their 19 matches together.
These qualities, of course, had compensatory effects. He made no great probing breaks; he was an adequate kicker of the ball, but he was fearless and tough; and he took the heat off Kyle in a selfless and highly intelligent way.
Because there was no substitution in those days, he kept many fine Irish scrumhalves on the sidelines who would have a cupboard full of caps today. I think of Tony Twomey of Lansdowne, Reggie O'Reilly of Wanderers, and a legion of other superb players at the base of the scrum in their day.
The end of his career coincided with the arrival of Andy Mulligan on the rugby scene in 1956, but O'Meara displaced Mulligan for the Welsh game in '56, and in doing so, added to the "O'Meara legend". Like only scrumhalves can, Mulligan, who was a reserve, and O'Meara talked about containing Onllwyn Brace, the brilliant running Welsh scrumhalf. Mulligan, who had played against Brace in the Oxford v Cambridge game that year, suggested to John that he stand on the opposite side of the scrum to where Brace put the ball in, and when Brace came back to get the ball, he was to come face-to-face with O'Meara.
It was a winning ploy. The pack were superb and the back row of Cunningham, McGrath and Kavanagh completely outplayed the opposition. O'Meara had a magnificent game, Kyle dropped the goal of the century, and Ireland defeated Wales for the first time since 1949 in Dublin in 1956 (11-3), thanks to O'Meara and Kyle, who completely out-shone the Welsh halfbacks.
I played the second game of my senior career in 1954 against a Dolphin side, who with Norman Coleman, Jim McCarthy, Gerald Reidy, Flor and Pat Crowley, and a host of other fine players, were -- with John O'Meara -- one of the outstanding teams of their era.
In John, they had a player who represents all that is good in Irish rugby, a great club man, a gentleman to his fingertips, a magnificent team player and the grand protector of the great Jack Kyle.
John Anthony O'Meara: born June 26, 1929; died September 10, 2011