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Hard as nails

1. Peter Clohessy: DOWN in Limerick, mothers still scare their children by telling them the Claw will be after them if they don't go to bed.

Not the biggest or strongest prop to have ever played the game, but Clohessy gave ground to no man and he was the focal point of a Young Munster pack that terrorised opponents in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.

When the world champion Australians came to Musgrave Park in 1992 expecting to cruise past a much smaller Munster side with only a handful of internationals, the Claw was so destructive that Wallabies coach Bob Dwyer launched a tirade afterwards against the "animals" that inspired a shock home victory.

For much of the 1990s, discipline issues clouded the fact that Clohessy was one hell of a good rugby player.

He was suspended for stamping on St Mary's Steve Jameson during an AIL match and for the same offence against France's Olivier Roumat in Parc des Princes in 1996. He had little love for the French and his attitude was, do unto them as they would do unto you, famously sending his former Munster colleagues a rallying message before the 2006 Heineken Cup final: "Sow it into those French b*****ds."

Towards the end of his career and with professionalism turning the spotlight increasingly on indiscipline, Clohessy adjusted to comply and played fantastically for Munster and Ireland until his retirement in 2002, just as hard but with the wildness in check.

He ended up with 54 caps and his place secured in Irish rugby folklore.


A seriously hard b****rd. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Blair 'Paddy' Mayne (DSO and Three Bars, Legion d'honneur) played six times for Ireland between 1937 and 1939.

He also played three Tests on the 1938 Lions tour of South Africa when it was said he used to relax by "wrecking hotels and beating up dockers". That propensity for pugilism was reflected by his achievements in the boxing ring, where he became Irish universities heavyweight champion in 1936 and was only beaten on points for the British title.

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Mayne was a second--row from Queen's University in Belfast and reports describe him as a barrel-chested enforcer defined by his fitness and ruthless love of contact.

When World War Two broke out, Mayne joined the No 11 Commando and after leading his men to success in the Litani River operation in Lebanon against the Vichy French force, he was recruited as one of the founding members of the Special Armed Services.

It was Mayne's deeds with the SAS that truly established his legend: his night raids behind enemy lines in Libya and Egypt are said to have seen Mayne personally destroy 130 enemy aircraft during the course of the war.

Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1944, Mayne led the SAS superbly and with considerable success in France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Norway, working alongside resistance fighters and being rewarded with the Legion d'honneur. Field Marshal Montgomery recommended Mayne for the Victoria Cross in 1945 after his role in saving a squadron of troops pinned down by heavy gunfire, lifting the wounded one by one and putting them in his jeep while mowing down the enemy.

After the war, Mayne was crippled with back pain and went on frequent drinking and fighting binges around his native Newtownards. He was a local hero (a bronze statue stands there in his honour), although he regularly beat up and hospitalised policemen sent to keep him under control.

He died in 1955 aged 40 when he drove his sports car into a lorry after another drinking spree.

3. Paddy Johns

You couldn't meet a nicer gentleman off the pitch, but once he suited up for battle, Johns refused to take any s**t. He had the misfortune of winning his 59 caps between 1990 and 2000, the grimmest period results-wise in Irish rugby history.

As well as being an excellent second-row and No 8 for Dungannon, Ulster, Saracens and Ireland, Johns led by example by standing his ground in the face of every onslaught. It was an example that saw him appointed Irish captain in the late 1990s and he will always be remembered for the infamous 'Battle Of Pretoria' in 1998.

South Africa were world champions and in the midst of a record winning run, while Ireland were still adjusting to professionalism, regathering under Warren Gatland after Brian Ashton's disastrous period at the helm and trying to gain respect.

Having won the first Test comfortably, the Springboks began trash-talking the Irish in the lead-up to the second and Johns had had enough.

Determined that his team would stand up to the intimidation, the Ulsterman tore into the opposition, with particular focus on South Africa's captain Gary Teichmann. Running battles took place all over the park, with Johns leading the way.

After dishing it out to Teichmann , Johns gave giant second-rows Mark Andrews and Krynauw Otto a beating and his team-mates weighed in behind him -- not least substitutes Peter Clohessy and Trevor Brennan.

"Paddy lost control that day; he was leading from the front and it was a terrifying sight," recalled team-mate Dion O Cuinneagain. Ireland lost heavily, but they had made their point and that match could be seen as the start of the turnaround that would lead to a raft of silverware in the 2000s.

4. Trevor Brennan

Unremittingly hard and unfailingly courageous, Brennan was also a superb back-rower who would have won many more than his 13 caps but for his reputation as a bad egg.

The former milkman gained his hard-man reputation early on through his fist-friendly approach to rugby at Barnhall and Bective Rangers. Through his lengthy playing career which continued with St Mary's (who he captained to the AIL title in 2000), Leinster, Toulouse and Ireland he was always seen as a player you did not mess with.

In the early days the red mist would get the better of Brennan and he had frequent run-ins with authority, but his move to Toulouse and the second-row saw him marry the toughness to discipline and he played superbly in two Heineken Cup-winning teams.

In Ireland's supine defeat to Australia at the 1999 World Cup, Brennan took on the Wallaby forwards single-handedly and suffered badly as two Aussies pinned his arms while Toutai Kefu wellied into him.

Brennan's playing career ended when he waded into the crowd and attacked an Ulster supporter during a Heineken Cup clash in January 2007.

5. Brian O'Driscoll

The choir-boy looks and relaxed, friendly personality cannot disguise the fact that Ireland's captain is one of the hardest and bravest men to have pulled on the green jersey.

A marked man for more than 10 years, O'Driscoll's body has taken such a fearful battering over the years -- notably when he was taken out in a spear tackle while captaining the 2005 Lions side in the first Test against New Zealand -- that it is remarkable he is still playing at the top of his game.

He has never shied away from the physical stuff and with his low centre of gravity and upper body power, O'Driscoll has a long history of burying bigger opponents in the tackle.

The best example of this came in the Lions' second Test with South Africa in 2009 when O'Driscoll hit Danie Rossouw so hard that the 6ft 5in, 18-stone Springbok was unable to keep his feet afterwards. A 'do as I do' leader who remains critical to Ireland's chances in New Zealand 2011.

6 . Willie John McBride

When you earn the grudging respect of Kiwi Colin 'Pine Tree' Meads, arguably the hardest man to have played rugby, then toughness is not a matter of debate.

McBride may not have been the tallest, most skilful or most athletic second-row, but he was a second-row who refused to be intimidated regardless of the opposition and made a point of being chief intimidator. Rugby was a different animal in the 60s and 70s. Punch-ups were part of the game. You checked your opponent's stomach for battle early and any frailty was quickly identified and exploited. In this era, McBride stood tall, his giant fists an invaluable asset when it all kicked off.

Willie John's reputation was cemented on the victorious Lions tours to New Zealand in 1971 and South Africa in 1974. He captained that '74 expedition and, knowing the inhospitable terrain well from previous unsuccessful experiences, was determined that his team would square up to any bullying tactics. Thus, we had McBride's infamous '99' call when the entire team would mill into their nearest opponent on the understanding that the referee could not send off all 15.

Off the pitch, he condoned savage bonding sessions that laid waste to hotels where, during one particularly raucous session, he once famously responded to a threat of police involvement with the anticipatory query: "Will there be many of them?"

McBride's ruthless approach was probably best demonstrated in the match with Orange Free State, whose giant lock Johan de Bruyn was hit so hard by McBride's second-row partner Gordon Brown that his glass eye was knocked out. Rather than waste any sympathy on the South African, the story goes that Willie John promptly instructed Brown and his team-mates to "hit the f****r in his good eye".

7. Willie Duggan

A wonderful No 8 of the late 1970s and early 1980s, who is best remembered for humorous incidents such as the time he ran onto the Twickenham pitch with a packet of fags still in his pocket after a half-time drag (he once said that if he gave up the smokes he'd be 20pc faster but "would spend most of the match offside").

Sent off against Wales after a set-to with Geoff Wheel, Duggan was the best No 8 in Europe at the time and on the rain-soaked Lions tour to New Zealand in 1977, probably played the best rugby of his career.

The All Blacks, mindful of the Lions' physical threat following the 1974 tour and of Duggan's importance to the team, gave the Kilkenny man an awful kicking in the Test series.

Duggan never took a backward step and doled out meatier punishment in return. The Lions lost the series, but it was not down to their dominant pack or Duggan, who established a reputation as one of the hardest around.

8. PhilIP Matthews

Another back-row who starred for Ireland between the mid-1980s and early 1990s, picking up a Triple Crown along the way, and going on to captain his country. The Ulsterman relished the physical contest and was a devastating tackler on the blind-side.

A flanker defined by fortitude and ferocity, Matthews demonstrated both qualities in the gruelling 15-15 draw with France in the Triple Crown-winning season of 1985. Despite having by far the superior running threat, the French decided to get involved in a war of attrition only to come up against an Irish side, inspired by Matthews, Nigel Carr and captain Ciaran Fitzgerald, that refused to give way. As the body count mounted, Matthews found himself with a dislocated shoulder with only prop Mick Fitzpatrick left among the forward replacements. He played on with one arm for 50 minutes until eventually making way for Fitzpatrick.

Even in acute pain, with one arm hanging loosely by his side, Matthews did not shirk any defensive duties. Now that's hard.

9.Tom Crean

Not the Antarctic explorer from Annascaul, but a Dubliner who won nine caps for Ireland at No 8 between 1894 and 1896, making the Lions tour to South Africa that year. Renowned for his aggression, Crean scored a famous try against Wales in 1895 when, after levelling his opposite number, he claimed line-out ball and barged his way over the line with four Welshmen hanging off him.

When the mammoth Lions tour ended, Crean stayed in South Africa working as a doctor and joined the Imperial Light Horse regiment when the Boer War broke out in 1899. In the battle of Tygerkloof, Crean was awarded the Victoria Cross when, despite being wounded in the arm and stomach, he tended to other soldiers under heavy gunfire from just 150 yards away.

Crean was in his 40s and retired from the army by the time World War One broke out but rejoined and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1915 and promoted to Major for his bravery on the front line in June 1915. He died from diabetes in 1923, at 49.

10. Jerry Walsh

Walsh was a centre who played for UCC and Sunday's Well and won 26 caps for Ireland between 1960 and 1967, touring New Zealand with the Lions in 1966.

Stories are still told of the trail of bodies Walsh would leave in his wake in the Mardyke and Musgrave Park. Underestimated due to his relatively small stature, Walsh loved blowing players back in the tackle usually leaving them whimpering on the ground. He retired in 1967 to pursue his career as a doctor, but not before scoring a try and battering the Australians into submission with a manic display of tackling during the famous 11-5 win in Sydney.

11. Paul O'Connell

Stood out on his first cap against Wales in 2002 when he squared up to the bigger and more experienced Welsh second-row pair of Craig Quinnell and Chris Wyatt and scored a try despite having earlier shipped a fearsome blow to the head.

The following year, he psyched out the Australian pair of David Giffin and Nathan Sharpe to the degree that it nearly led to a famous World Cup win. He went on to become a dominant figure for Munster, Ireland and the Lions, who he led with distinction on the 2009 tour to South Africa.

O'Connell has never been a dirty player, rather a focal point for physical defiance. In Munster's Heineken Cup clash with Clermont in 2008, O'Connell received a flurry of punches from Canadian second-row Jamie Cudmore but refused to retaliate as he looked to the touch judge to intervene. When that did not happen and the blows continued to rain in, O'Connell drove Cudmore into the ground and unleashed a barrage of punches to decide the battle. A warrior.

12. Tom Clifford

Like O'Connell, Clifford was a Young Munster man and a founding father of the Limerick club's reputation for uncompromising forward play. He won 14 caps at prop forward for Ireland between 1949 and 1952 and toured with the Lions to New Zealand in 1950. Hard as nails, Clifford had a reputation as a man not to be messed with and Young Munster's ground now bears his name with his reputation also contributing to the venue's alternative name, 'The Killing Fields'.

13. Pat O'Hara

Sunday's Well flanker won 15 caps between 1988 and 1994 playing blind-side and open-side with equal ferocity. Defined by his tackling ability, O'Hara frequently left the field puffy-faced and covered in cuts and bruises from the punishment he had received through his disregard for his own wellbeing.

Tormented the giant English pack containing Jason Leonard, Wade Dooley, Peter Winterbottom and Mike Teague during Ireland's famous 17-3 win at Lansdowne Road in 1993.

14. Davy Tweed

The Ballymoney man has become a controversial figure through his staunch Unionist politics and brushes with the law since his days in the Ireland second-row, but Tweed was one of the hardest men on the Irish rugby scene in the 1980s and 1990s.

He had spent years throwing his weight about for Ballymena and Ulster before earning a call-up to the Ireland side in 1995 at the age of 35. On his debut against France in 1995, Tweed had a royal battle with Olivier Merle, the monster French second-row, and emerged with his reputation enhanced.

15. Mick Fitzgibbon

Only won six caps, each of which ended in defeat, but Fitzgibbon will be remembered as one of Ireland's the best 'pound-for-pound' tacklers.

Fitzgibbon would be dwarfed by any of the professional back-rows but despite, or possibly because of, his lack of size, the Shannon man was a kamikaze tackler to the point where he would do himself damage. His display in the 1992 Test defeat to New Zealand in Dunedin earned the unreserved respect of the battered All Blacks.


Ger Earls

Terrorised the Australians in 1992 with his Young Munster club-mates Ger Clohessy and 'the Claw' and was, quite simply, the meanest, toughest, hardest and best player never to have been capped by Ireland.

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