Christmas is time to shine for fringe men
No festive fun for aspiring players as derbies provide chance to stake claim
One of the main sacrifices of professional sport is the abandoning of traditional Christmas pleasures. That, on one level, is the easy part. The hard part is keeping yourself mentally focused when all those around you, especially family and friends, are switching off and letting loose.
The importance of Christmas matches was brought home to me a number of seasons back. It happened when I was playing for Munster and preparing for an inter-provincial derby against Connacht. Early on St Stephen's Day, the day before the game, I left the house to head for the usual captain's run. Like the scene out of 'It's A Wonderful Life', the streets were deserted. Most people were enjoying well-earned lie-ins or nursing the effects of the day, and night, before.
For those playing professional rugby that festive feeling is not experienced. Instead, Christmas is about something else -- it's about grasping the opportunity.
Emphasising that, the captain, Paul O'Connell, called the team into a huddle at the end of the training session. "Tomorrow is the chance to show how good you are. There can't be any excuses or bitching if you don't take this chance."
Immediately you could feel the resolve tightening within the group. Along with myself, there were a number of younger guys like Barry Murphy, Denis Fogarty and Stephen Keogh getting the game time that they had been itching for. Naturally, there had been previous disappointment at not getting more opportunities, but now the time had come. The challenge for us was to not let the moment pass by.
This Christmas, as ever, there will be huge opportunities for players across the provinces, but particularly in Leinster and Munster, the teams most likely to be affected by the IRFU's player management programme.
When the internationals get time off, players like Jordi Murphy, Noel Reid, Dominic Ryan, Quinn Roux, Aaron Dundon, Tom Denton and Darragh Fanning for Leinster will have the chance to show their strengths.
A couple of explosive performances here from Murphy or Ryan could propel them into the reckoning for the next rounds of the European Cup, while also showing they have the mental toughness and professionalism to perform at a crucial stage in the season when distractions abound.
Similarly, Munster's Duncan Casey, Dave Foley, Dave O'Callaghan and Billy Holland are all likely to feature in the Christmas derbies.
Casey demonstrated what he is capable of in the closing stages of the home game against Perpignan with some powerful carries, while Holland, Foley and O'Callaghan are consistently skilful and tireless performers. The challenge for these players is to once more play at their ultimate best within a small window.
The advantage of putting in a strong performance is also greater in the context of the provinces' recent inconsistencies at European Cup level.
Strong individual displays will be noted at this point mid-season, and, come the new year, they will provide the management with more options.
The intense rivalries that go with these provincial derbies add to the pressure on the players to produce. It's also an advantage as it feeds the hunger and drive that makes the games so entertaining.
I always remember a line from Marcus Horan as we got ready for a scrummaging session about the importance of being "the best team in Ireland." Knowing your opposition and dominating them gives no better cause for celebration.
Ultimately, players cannot choose the time they will get to prove themselves. It doesn't always happen in the glare of a Heineken Cup, or as part of a team of seasoned internationals, or in just one-off games.
Very often the opportunity comes in a low-key league game in Rodney Parade or in late December in a bitterly cold and wet Sportsground. The task for those on the fringe is to retain the mental resolve to perform to your peak at any given moment.
One player who epitomised this attitude, to the point where he has now became one of the most valued Irish internationals is Donnacha Ryan, who this week signed a three-year contract extension.
He is an example of someone who gave everything, regardless of surrounding circumstances, until it was impossible to ignore his athletic and aggressive performances.
There will always be other stories of players who don't take their chances or who fail to play to their potential, those who look back and talk about what might have been, what they could have done.
Christmas gives us the chance to see what players are ready to avoid that path.
Gatland quota call clouds real reasons for criticism of Lions selections
The suggestion this week from Warren Gatland, that a quota system should be considered for future Lions tours, gives an insight into the shrewd and calculating nature of the Welsh head coach.
Clearly sensing that there is no public appetite for such a contrived method of selecting teams, based on a set number of players from each country, Gatland believes there would be no risk in at least having the issue openly examined.
By dealing conclusively with quotas he can also head off any potential parochial criticisms of his team selection, which may arise in the next tour to New Zealand.
It will also possibly put paid to some cynical sentiments, like those about 'Wales' taking on the Wallabies in the final Lions Test.
However, Gatland's emphasis on the idea of quotas, seems to misread the nature of the criticism about his selection.
Critics weren't concerned about his perceived lack of Scottish or Irish players. Rather, especially in the third Test, the problem was simply about the ability of those that were left out.
Without having to rehash the whole Jonathan Davies/Brian O'Driscoll selection controversy, one issue was clear: no one was arguing that O'Driscoll should have been picked on the basis of his nationality.
The argument for his selection was on the grounds that he was simply playing better than Davies.
A 'debate' about the issue of quotas, only serves to cloud the real reasons about selection -- whatever they may be.