Saturday 24 March 2018

Everyone reaches their own level in sport -- my journey was just a little bit more unconventional than most

Neil Francis taking a breather against England in the Five Nations of 1991
Neil Francis taking a breather against England in the Five Nations of 1991
Neil Francis beating Scotland’s John Jeffries to the ball in the Five Nations of 1991
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Most children when they set forth onto their chosen sporting careers are beset with challenges the complexity of which is beyond the easy understanding of an adult. A week is a long time in a budding eight-year-old's life. That inestimable loss against the crew down the road would fester the whole week. You would get them next week, although you would be forgiven as an eight-year-old for thinking that the dish best served cold was ice-cream rather than revenge.

Many obstacles had to be overcome before you could stake a claim to be on the Granada FC starting XI. Not only did you have to clamber over the aspirations of scores of other kids, you had to go out and beat kids who had dashed the dreams of their contemporaries from other areas in the South Dublin region.

In any embryonic sporting career these were the conventional hurdles. Be better than your contemporaries or your immediate opposition.

Me, I had a superstar prevention unit rolled up and personified in my mother. In the early 1970s we played in Brazil yellow. They weren't quite as good as us, we wouldn't have swapped our centre-forward, not even for Pele. We also had blue knicks and white socks. Some of the kids had these little sock sporrans to keep the socks up that had their number on them, superfluous and completely useless, but they looked cool.

The thing was that, to be really cool, you had to have a pair of Gola boots. That yellow bolt of lightning down the side of the shoe. Flash bleedin' Gordon. Then the Gola logo on the top of the heel -- kids used to pirouette around to look down their leg at the insignia -- It didn't matter if the match was on, as reassurance that you were wearing the finest sporting apparel meant you were cool and you were in.

I joined up at Christmas time. Mark McCormack personally handled the transaction -- there was, of course, an exit clause. Santa knew what he had to do, Gola boots, moulded or steel studs, it didn't matter. Gola!

I think losing that Rugby World Cup quarter-final in 1991 against Australia at Lansdowne comes a distant second to the disappointment of finding what sat in the shoe box that Christmas morning. A pair of 1930s Stanley Matthews ankle-high, clod-hopping, potato-digging, agricultural bogger boots. No Flash Gordon stripe, no Franz Beckenbauer into the back of the net. No Gola. Not in! Out!

I think I only officially forgave my mother about three months ago. To add to the agony I got a pair of blue and white heavy woollen socks that fell down to my ankles after the first kick and if it was raining would come off in the boot.

The slagging was inexorable. If Al Capone had seen these boots he wouldn't have bothered throwing his victims into the East River with concrete leg warmers. No sock sporran either that was rinky dink. As were the Gola boots. I wanted rinky dink.

These were a solid pair of football shoes that would last for generations, but this only compounded my woe. No keepy-uppies, no pace, couldn't pass the ball, couldn't run with it. Everything was done in elephantine fashion. All the kids nutmegged me. I couldn't trap a land mine.

There was no squad rotation so I spent most of the season shivering on the sidelines. I knew I could play though, because I was good in the schoolyard with sneakers. I could risk yet another stand-off or I could make them -- Al Capone-like -- disappear. One Sunday I walked home from a game in my socks so they would have to be replaced too.

For once my mother listened to me and it was like Handel had hidden in the Gola box and the Hallelujah Chorus erupted as I opened the precious container. A passport to cooldom. I became a fixture on the under 10s and we laid waste to South Dublin for three years.

I played Gaelic football too. I had grown and was very quick. I could field the ball, jump and had good hands. I was able to kick long and reasonably accurately. Gaelic football is a simple game, you don't have to hold the Lucasian Chair of Applied Physics at Cambridge to understand it. Problem was, if we weren't scoring I was picked at centre-forward. If we couldn't win the ball I was picked in midfield and if we were conceding at the back that's where I was put. All in the same game. This precipitated a trend in later life where I constantly argued with coaches because I felt I was smarter and that we should play a different form of the game. I was sick of all the toing and froing and it came to a convenient end when I started in Blackrock College.

My grandfather and father had also gone to Williamstown and I went with no notions or expectations having been podiatrically challenged and overcame that obstacle. It never occurred to me what the trigger points were to moving up the sporting ladder.

Certainly there was no element of pre-determination or destiny about how I managed to get up through the ranks, particularly when you consider the base point.

I approached the school's sporting and academic edifice with an easy-breezy indifference which ranged from feckless abandon through to aimless Mitty-filled hours of daydreaming. I did enjoy the school though and had a vague interest in rugby. Encouraged by a few friends, I tried out for the under 13s.

I found training tiresome and didactic. I knew how to play soccer and Gaelic but there were too many rules in rugby and I couldn't quite grasp the basic premise. Bill Crooks, the coach, probably realised that I had ability and in fairness tried me out at nearly every position on the field, with no success. There was very little time for special projects and Bill lost patience. So did I and to be truthful I didn't actually like the physical contact involved in tackling or being trampled underfoot at rucktime. It didn't come naturally. After all, in the girlie game the slightest touch and you could rollover on the ground 20 times in faux agony. It was also suggested that I get rid of the Golas and buy a pair of ankle high forwards' boots, but after the previous trauma I was not ditching the Golas.

The slide into sporting oblivion was fast. At roughly the same time some aspiring kid with notions about himself asked Brian Clough why he was playing for the Nottingham Forest second team? The reply from the master was "because, lad, you are far too good to be playing for the thirds". I didn't even get that luxury and I was on the C team until I gave up well before the season ended. The under 13s won the cup at the end of the year, captained by Brendan Mullin. That did spark an inextinguishable flame of envy because I had as much talent as most of the guys on the team. I just didn't know how to play the game. Diffidence and disinterest prevented any further embrace with the game at that stage.

The next year was seminal. Several spontaneous random acts happened which changed my life. In June, I got jumped by a gang of fellas who knew me. To their surprise I rolled over and put up no resistance. I got a good kicking for my troubles. At the end of the summer the change came and the testosterone flowed and I had gotten much bigger. I got jumped again the weekend before we went back to school, only this time I waded in and the gang scattered. It was a strange feeling, I had got a bloody nose but no sense of fear. For once I had got a true sense of aggression and I liked it.

Term started the following Monday and I dodged trials and a few early games for the 14s. I got summoned in to Fr Tom Nash's (Dean of Discipline) ante chamber.

"I've done nothing," I abrupted.

"Correct, you've done absolutely nothing," he said.

That afternoon there was the stark choice -- detention or the under 14Ds. The bell went and I ventured to the school door. It was like that moment from the movie Trading Places when the vagrant con man Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) is bailed by the Duke Brothers. At the grand stairs of the Federal Court, Billy Ray is free to go except he has nowhere to go. He feigns to step left and then for no obvious reason steps right. I could have gone to detention, home or the Ds -- I went to the Ds, an unthinking involuntary action. It was only marginally more appealing than detention. If I hadn't I would never have set foot on a rugby field again. As it was I regretted ending up with such a bunch of Jack McMurphy-inspired maladroits. I played without distinction, valour or appetite, but found that I was promoted to the Cs, if only because the kid at number 8 was sick.

Number 8, though, was where there was a bit of action and after a hat-trick of tries against mighty mighty Gerard's, I got on to the Bs on merit. This testosterone thing was . . . well, it was more than helpful. I liked carrying the ball, I liked contact, I liked scoring tries. I thought, 'I'm on the ground floor of something here'. The Bs was great fun. Somebody realised that I had ability, ball skill, was quick and I was a hulk of a kid. I was raw and impatient though and the rules still eluded me, as did a place on the firsts. The ambition for upward mobility was missing too. The Bs was respectable and had this snug comfort zone and accommodated quite a number of messers whose company I was more than happy to keep.

That all changed as the 6A was chugging up Carysfort Avenue. In the middle of an awkward chat with one of the dollies from down the road, the subject turned to rugby and how well she had heard that I was doing after scoring another hat-trick on the previous Saturday. I was about to tell her that it was nothing really when the guy who was my immediate rival on the As interjected to say that in fact it was nothing really because it was only for the Bs.

Not only that, but I was operating under false pretences and her thinking she was talking with an A-grader. A packed bus, an uneasy silence and an inability to rescue the situation left me with no option really. As a seminal moment it was pretty unconventional. The thought of JCT rugby the next year had never occurred to me. Comfortable mediocrity on the Bs was to be my portion because that was all I had looked for. That was off the menu now.

The following day I went mad. Biblical barking mad. A vengeful fire and brimstone, four horsemen of the apocalypse, Sodom and Gomorrah will be raised to the ground type of madness and fury. Somebody had to pay for 6A. The gentle boys of Belvedere College came to Williamstown. All I was missing that day was the green skin and the purple trousers. At first there was resistance, after a while, every time I got the ball I scored. As wilfully aggressive a performance as I have ever given. A strange reaction, too, when the final whistle went. I ran to the dressing room, changed without showering and cried all the way home. Emptied. Knowing that everything would change from then on and what a gobshite I was for bringing this down on myself.

A sagely nod from Nasher in the corridor the next day meant a new departure. Confirmation came that afternoon that with only an idiot's guide to the fundamentals of the game I was on the 14 As -- top of the world. A realisation from both parties that perspectives would have to be realigned. The school realising that I would be an integral part of championship-winning sides, me realising that the Golas would have to go.

I loved the game from that moment on. I loved the brand of rugby we played and the sense of brotherhood and community of interest. Winning was something that was imbued at the college and it was very satisfying.

I still had to be reined in from time to time and sensible application of motivation and a cattle prod were endorsed on my behalf.

Everyone reaches their own level in sport -- my journey was a little bit more unconventional than most. Nowadays talent is mapped at a young age in most schools and talent and ability are nurtured methodically and analytically. I am not sure if this square peg would have gotten through, but one thing is certain, I never got closer to being a professional player than I was in school and the structure and order that you were given offered a great grounding although they dissipated the further you went on -- and that included international rugby.

I left the school a confident and assured individual, never once doubting my ability or the way I had been taught to play the game. If I had to start over again, would it be any different? Probably not. Same circus, different clowns.

Irish Independent

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