Sport Rugby

Sunday 25 February 2018

An hour with Fitzy would go a long way for Heaslip

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

'he was like a St Bernard, a loveable, bulky, gentle old thing possessing great strength under the gracefully floppy exterior. Someone you knew would always come top your rescue."

The words of Clem Thomas, former Welsh flanker and doyen of rugby journalists capturing, in essence, the qualities that made current chairman of the Six Nations Council and former Lions Captain Billy Beaumont great in that role.

The demands of captain in the professional era have changed dramatically from Corinthian times and yet the presence of an imposing figure is still central to the success of any side.

Because Beaumont's Lions lost the test series (3-1 to South Africa), despite winning every other game on that 1980 tour (only the second time that had been achieved), the England Grand Slam-winning captain has never got the credit he deserved as an outstanding leader.

Captains, like players, come in many different forms. My own involvement in representative rugby spanned a dozen years (1976 to 1988) and, in that time, I played under many different captains for Munster, Leinster, Ireland and, indeed, under Beaumont with the Lions.

RESPONSIBILITY

It was a veritable who's who of provincial and international rugby at the time. At provincial level Pat Whelan, Donal Canniffe, Donal Spring, Anthony O'Leary, Moss Finn, Tony Doyle and Declan Fanning were some of those charged with that responsibility.

Up a level to 'B' (now Wolfhound or 'A') and it was Robbie McGrath and Ciaran Fitzgerald calling the shots.

From John Moloney, the late great Shay Deering, Fergus Slattery, Fitzgerald, Willie Duggan, Donal Lenihan to Willie Anderson, some of the greatest names in Irish rugby have worn that most prized armband.

A quick trawl through the list and it can be deduced that, with the exception of Lenihan (lock) and Finn (centre/wing) – hooker, back-row and scrum-half are the positions best suited to rugby captaincy.

I, too, would go along with that, yet Brian O'Driscoll (centre), Willie John McBride (lock) and Tommy Kiernan (full-back) have been three of our greatest captains.

There have been many others too, like Ronnie Dawson, Ray McLoughlin, Karl Mullen – all front-row forwards.

We have always been blessed with our quality of leadership in this country, but what is it that makes a rugby captain great and how do demands differ now to way back when?

In the past, the role of the captain was, if anything, much more demanding than that of the coach. Bear in mind the coach didn't even have a vote in the selection of 'his' team.

That was the job of the Big Five and the token two sub-selectors. The responsibility of organisation in the build-up, plus overall control and motivation, was the the job of captain.

It was a hugely onerous task and when compared to today's level of support is almost beyond comprehension.

Now there are so many coaches and specialists involved that after each one has had his say there's little left for the captain to impart.

However, there are still very real demands in the decision-making process, specifically surrounding goalkicking, plus one-to-one communication on and off the field.

The captain no longer needs to be the motivator he once was prior to kick-off, but on field, he must be all of that and more.

For me the best captains weren't necessarily the best talkers, but, for sure, they were the best listeners – the ones who came to you in the build-up and took on board what you had to say.

The captains who allowed for individual traits, for personality differences and temperamental quirks were the ones who pressed the right collective button at team meetings and in the dressing room when it mattered.

At provincial level Whelan and Canniffe were the best, while at international level, Johnny Moloney and Donal Lenihan best embodied the attributes outlined above.

Lenihan, much like Beaumont, never got the credit he deserved as a natural leader. Next to Fitzgerald, he was the best I had the privilege of playing under.

When he spoke, you listened; when you spoke, he listened; where he led, you followed.

But as the prototype leader, Fitzy had it all. He had that never-say-die passion. When he looked you in the eye and talked about "giving everything for the cause," you knew he meant it.

He never ever demanded anything from you he didn't demand of himself.

The "where's your f***ing pride" moment is mere window dressing for those privileged to have played alongside this most natural leader of men.

When it came to decision making in the white heat of battle, he was controlled and assertive, but more than anything, he listened, trusted in others and made his decision instantly.

If asked to sum up the outstanding characteristic of the captain supreme, I would say he was at all times true to himself.

Jamie Heaslip has found the new responsibility tough going, but listening to Declan Kidney in midweek, I have little doubt the head coach will persevere.

On the evidence to date, I don't quite share his take, but, for now, I will bow to that probable decision to retain the status quo for the French game.

I can't think of anything more beneficial than were the current incumbent to contact Fitzy, the former double Triple Crown winning captain, for an hour of his time. It would be a part of the day very well spent.

Tullamore celebrate 75th anniversary

This afternoon at Spollanstown will mark a historic occasion for Tullamore RC when the Leinster League Division 1A Trophy will be presented to the Offaly club captain Aaron Deverell after the final league match of the season against Newbridge.

The All-Ireland Junior Cup champions and Leinster League winners, who also reached the last eight of the Towns Cup and are about to commence the AIL Round Robin, is celebrating 75 years of rugby in Tullamore and going from strength to strength.

It is the first time in the club's history that they have taken the much coveted Leinster title and what makes the achievement all the more remarkable is that they have done so with a squad drawn entirely from the midlands, with most of them graduates of the under-age system.

The current winning squad boasts players from the well known local rugby hotbeds of Daingean, Clara, Blueball, Belmont, Ferbane, Kilcormac/Killoughey and Tullamore, while coach John Moylan from Nenagh is assisted by local John Burns, as well as All-Ireland hurling medal winner Vinny Wyer.

Blackrock take on

holders in last four

The draw for the semi-finals of the Powerade Leinster Schools Junior Cup was made by Leinster players Andrew Conway and Tom Denton in UCD yesterday. One quarter-final fixture, between St Gerard's and Newbridge, still has to be replayed on Wednesday in Donnybrook (2.30).

SEMI-FINAL DRAW

Sunday, March 10: St Michael's (holders) v Blackrock, Donnybrook 3.0.

Tuesday, March 12: Belvedere v St Gerard's/Newbridge, Donnybrook 3.30.

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport