Sunday 22 April 2018

Always chasing the dream, always prepared for the call

Isaac Boss believes he still has plenty to offer Irish rugby, writes Brendan Fanning

I saac Boss no longer looks like a witness from Witness. For a while there all he was missing was the half-mast trousers and an address in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He says he has cut his hair and shaved the beard to trim a few years off his appearance. He is 31.

You get to think about that sort of stuff when you enter that territory. Now he talks in terms of contracts, not how many years he has left. Optimistically he hopes there are a couple more dotted lines to be signed after his deal with Leinster ends next year, before he plays out his days on the Third Zs somewhere. And that's the plan.

"When I'm finished, if my body is okay, I'll still be playing somewhere in some club, whether it's just with a few mates or whatever. There was an old fella when I was growing up and he was still there in his 60s, still playing. Still full-on tackling and that sort of stuff, in one of the reserve sides in Tokorua. He was a bit of legend to the boys. I used to think: 'Jeez, I hope someday that'll be me out there'. Hopefully you'd have sons that you might get a chance to play with. It's a nice thing."

He has unfinished business in Ireland however, for the grand plan has come up well short of its target. His hamstring injury on Friday night is unlikely to interfere with that either. "I'm having it checked out today but it's nothing too major and hopefully it'll be fine for next week," he said yesterday.

Unlike most boys growing up in Waikato, Isaac Boss didn't dream about playing for the All Blacks. When he saw the national team he saw its domination by Auckland, the Manchester United of New Zealand. And he had no time for Auckland. To play for Waikato, indeed to reach the century mark with Waikato, that was his goal. And, eh, to play for Ireland.

The combination of having a grandmother from Co Antrim, and not loving the men in black, and fancying himself as someone who could get to the top on his own terms, convinced him his future lay overseas. And stubbornly he refused to be nudged further up the pecking order towards All Black status for fear of shutting the route north.

"My only regret is that I didn't come earlier," he says. "I actually had that opportunity to come to Leinster, when Matt Williams was coaching in '03/'04, but at the time I still had a couple of things to do on my degree (in management studies) and I thought I'd get that behind me first. Maybe it's a dream that I'm going to use it but I probably won't now. With hindsight I should have come over at the time and who knows? Maybe I could have come to Leinster and burst onto the Irish scene and it could have been different. But hopefully I've got a few more years in me yet."

It took a while for Boss to settle in Belfast when he arrived in 2005 but pretty soon he had the look of someone who could transform one area of the Ireland game. It is remarkable that Eddie O'Sullivan's side won three Triple Crowns with such a limited running game at halfback. If Ronan O'Gara's forté was distributing and directing, then Peter Stringer's was purely passing. If the scrumhalf broke then a posse had to be raised immediately before he was ambushed and the ball lost.

Boss had the capacity to change that, to bring a robustness and athleticism to number nine that would divert the attention of opposing back rowers from Ireland's number 10. Since 2005 the Boss option has been used just 13 times, and only four of them out of the starting blocks.

The team was successful without him and O'Sullivan, who was all for getting him over from New Zealand in the first place, feared that Boss's distribution would upset the rhythm. So the Kiwi was put on the back burner and when Declan Kidney succeeded O'Sullivan he turned the heat off altogether. Decent form with Ulster last season and excellent displays for Leinster haven't changed that.

"Everyone's got to back themselves and be pretty confident about that sort of stuff though it does get demoralising at times you know. Earlier on I thought I could have had more caps but . . . realistically, looking forward to the World Cup, I'd be absolutely gutted if I didn't make it. As I am every time. But he's only picked me in one squad in the last three years and I got three minutes against Samoa in November so I'm not really figuring in his thinking. I think he's had his mind made up for a while. It might need an injury to one of the other three (O'Leary, Reddan and Stringer) and that's being absolutely honest."

Does he get any sustenance from the first-rate job he's doing for Leinster? Is that not making a compelling case ?

"Well, that's the thing. I was having a joke with Redser today about which of us is going well -- and I think I'm going well -- and it's frustrating because we both want to be playing more. It's good when you do get in for a big game but then the next week you're disappointed again so it's a bit of a rollercoaster. I'm competing here week in, week out with Redser and Paulie O'Donohoe but I'm really disappointed that I'm not in that frame also with the Irish team. That's just the way it goes. All I can do is try and change the man's (Kidney's) opinion with on-the-field tactics. You don't really know what they're (coaches) thinking so we'll just have to wait and see.

"Every player has a different sort of approach but I've always found it tough talking to coaches and saying what you want to say. I always think your actions have got to speak louder than your words, you know? If I go and say: 'Why amn't I getting picked?' And then go and throw a bad pass at training, I'm not really backing up my words. I'd rather be sure I've got my own house in order first."

Has that happened with Ireland? Players are always acutely aware of who is training well and who isn't, and It's been suggested that Boss hasn't always clambered through the window on the few occasions Declan Kidney has thought to open it.

"Jeez, I dunno. I haven't been training with them in a while! Maybe it's a familiarity thing. I know once this season I turned up and the first three passes weren't good ones and maybe I wasn't expecting to be there and I was getting distracted by other things. I remember being away for the week and got the late call to come in the next morning. I was expecting to be at Leinster training. I went in that day and probably wasn't prepared rightly and threw one or two bad passes. I wouldn't say it was a regular occurrence."

Does he feel the ship has sailed?

"Sometimes -- it's hard to say. I hope it hasn't sailed but it does get demoralising after a while. The

day to day is still my core so you keep going back to that job and I thoroughly enjoy playing with Leinster. Sometimes you just get about your core work and you know what's happening and you know the boys in the squad and you know the goals you're working towards and it's just enjoyable. I like that factor."

This is why he joined Leinster. To be playing on a successful team and, even if he is competing week to week for his place, keeping alive his Ireland chances. Staying in Ulster wasn't an option anyway. Just as the arrival of Byron Kelleher in Waikato had hastened Boss's exit, so did Ruan Pienaar's fetching up in Belfast. The saving grace was that Leinster were keen.

If you take the Heineken Cup as the yardstick then statistically the move has had modest results, for Reddan has started six of the eight games. Yet Boss was outstanding in his two starts -- against Racing and Clermont -- and time and again (Toulouse being the most recent example) he has had the desired effect coming off the bench.

So he is still in a far better place than with Ulster. And there was excess baggage there too that he was glad to leave behind. If he was disillusioned by the World Cup experience in 2007, when Reddan leapfrogged him to leave Boss on the bench again after Stringer was dropped for the Argentina game, it was nothing compared to what followed a few months later.

Having reacted badly, he admits, to the RWC experience, he was then was hit with a rape charge from a woman he knew. By the time she withdrew the charge and he was exonerated, it had gotten a good airing around the rugby world.

"The hardest thing at the time was how it affects people around you," he says. "It's a distraught thing to happen but I knew myself I had nothing to worry about. But my mum is at the other end of the world and when she heard that stuff it's not nice. Obviously things started filtering down there as well and people hear things and are asking questions about it and the fact that I couldn't even say anything at the time -- you can't let little details out so people form their own impressions.

"I just had to get on with it. It's in the rear-view mirror now but it shapes the character I suppose, in good ways and bad ways. I think I'm lucky enough in that I was able to handle it reasonably well. It didn't destroy me. But for a while there it was tough and going out on the rugby field was the only way to release it."

Not very successfully he didn't. His form was poor and the notion of Isaac Boss contending again for green seemed remote. You might say that's still the case given Kidney's reluctance to use him, but if the coach could eventually come round to the idea of appreciating Mike Ross then there is hope for the scrumhalf.

"I've travelled the world with rugby and that was one of my dreams," he says. "I look back now and I dreamed of playing with Ireland and I've achieved it, but once I got that mark it sort of took me a while to reset my goals and maybe that counted against me as well. Like, man, this is an achievement and then especially going to the World Cup? I'd always wanted to go and then I got there and it was such a let-down. It maybe took me another year and half to figure out where I'm going from here and to see that I hadn't achieved all I wanted.

"I love it every day, getting out there and getting paid to do what I love. The next few weeks are important too -- if I can get game time in these big matches and play well in them maybe it will prove something and that it won't go amiss."

Here is a young man with a bit to go yet.

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