Wednesday 21 March 2018

Alan Quinlan: In 2008 I knew Rob Kearney would become an Irish leader - It's time for others to step up

Time for Schmidt’s men to step out of O’Connell and O’Driscoll’s shadows

Rory Best and his team-mates belt out ‘Ireland’s Call’
Rory Best and his team-mates belt out ‘Ireland’s Call’

Alan Quinlan

Mick Galwey looks us up and down, wearing his red Munster shirt with its white collar, his mood as dark and depthless as the night-time sea.

What does he see? A bunch of young men standing at a career crossroads? Or something else? Is that the moment he believes he can cajole good players to become great ones, waverers to truly follow?

All his career he'd seen Irish teams lose. Teams that hadn't the head for it. Defeat was too easily accepted. But a year earlier, some things changed. No Munster team had won in Ulster in 20 years. Then this one did.

No Irish province had ever won in France. But we ticked that box too. Then we went to Saracens, the same Saracens who had Francois Pienaar, Richard Hill and Tony Diprose in their back-row and I was so inspired by their presence, I didn't even bother to get intimidated.

We beat them, too. 35-34. But that was then and this was now. This was Thomond Park and a different kind of pressure. We were winning, 24-23, staring at glory and then in the blink of an eye, the lead was gone. It was 24-30 now and stoppage-time had arrived.

So had Gaillimh. He saw us all walk, heads slumped, to gather under the posts and he just wasn't in the mood for any misery, self-loathing or self-doubt.

"I'll tell you what we're going to do," he said, his voice full of conviction and emotion. "ROG is going to take that kick-off, we're going to reclaim that ball, we're going to score and going to win."

And that was it.

None of us said a thing. No one articulated our thoughts but subconsciously, we all replied 'okay, if that's what we have to do, that is what we will do'.

I remember the look from Gaillimh as clearly as I remember the tiredness in my legs. I was spent. Or so I thought.

A year earlier we'd have accepted defeat, would have taken the moral victory, would have mentioned the fact that Pienaar had lifted a World Cup, that Hill would probably do the same thing in 2003 and we'd have walked away happy but unhappy.

Not this day, though. Something changed in us. And so much of it stemmed from Galwey's speech.

When I reflect on those words, what strikes me - in cold print - is their simplicity. It wasn't the Gettysburg Address. It wasn't Al Pacino in 'Any Given Sunday'.

But they were transforming. I was tired and they gave me energy. I doubted my ability and then didn't after he spoke.

And all around me, people were the same. ROG (Ronan O'Gara) has since spoken about that day, about how part of him didn't want the try to be scored, because part of him knew what that would entail - him standing up having to kick the pressure conversion and shoulder responsibility for the hopes and dreams of 15,000 people in a stadium and thousands more watching from home.

But he conquered his fears and nailed that kick. That was the last day anyone could call him a follower.

After that match, he was a leader. And so was John Hayes.

I'd been with John from the early days, through to near the end of his career. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he stood up to speak in the dressing room in front of everyone.

That just wasn't his thing. But was he a leader? Absolutely.

If a job had to be done, he'd put his hand up.

That day, we did reclaim the kick-off - John Langford, if memory serves me correct - ensuring we claimed a penalty. "Hit the corner," Galwey told ROG. Down it went. A new scenario brought with it a different kind of leadership.

And Keith Wood was born for moments like that. Unlike John, he wasn't shy about speaking in front of a dressing room. He was a natural at it, as were Paul O'Connell, Jim Williams, Langford, Anthony Foley, Gaillimh.

But while words matter in rugby, actions matter more. And Wood knew that. He'd lead from the front, charge at the opposition, set the tone. This time, though, he had to be calm. His throw had to be perfect and Hayes' lift had be timed perfectly. Both were. Up into the sky, Woody sent the ball and up into the sky, Hayes pushed Langford.

Job done? If those men weren't leaders, they'd have said so. But look back at the video. Hayes gets up off the floor and throws his body into a Saracens defender to create the space for Keith to squeeze over the line for the crucial try. Woody scored, ROG converted, the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup beckoned and a final would subsequently be reached and a team that could conceivably have disappeared from view instead became stronger.

Fast forward 16 years.

We're in Twickenham now.

A new generation of players are standing at the same sporting crossroads. If they were looking for excuses, they've a list of them at the ready. Injuries have piled up; refereeing decisions have gone against them; O'Connell, O'Driscoll and D'Arcy have retired.

Pundits have said the team are in transition - and whenever that word gets thrown out, you're quickly forgiven if you lose.

Aren't you?

Well, I spoke to a serial winner last week about this precise point.

Martin Johnson captained the Lions to victory over South Africa in 1997. He was England's captain when they won the World Cup in 2003, the same year they put manners on us in a Grand Slam decider at Lansdowne Road. He knows the game as well as anyone which was why his words struck a chord when he said: "If you've got 50 caps to your name, then play like someone who has 50 caps. Don't play like a rookie on your second or third cap! You have to show the reason why you've been picked so many times. You have to stand up."

Did all of Ireland's players do that last week?

Defensively, unquestionably, they did. With their backs against the wall, they showed unbelievable resilience in the first half, put their bodies on the line and stopped wave after wave of English attack.

That takes balls.

But physical bravery isn't enough in international rugby. There are other ways to show your courage and one of those is to demand the ball.

Gordon D'Arcy used to do that. I'd notice it, either playing with him for Ireland, or against him for Leinster. He'd pop up looking for possession from either ROG, David Humphreys, Johnny Sexton or whoever was the ten.

He'd see a space and want to go through it. He'd sense the need to change the tone of a game, to get Ireland or Leinster on the front foot, to give something of himself for the team.

And it made me think of Robbie Henshaw. As a player he's getting better all the time but there is still room to grow. Does he need to become more vocal? Does he need to intimidate his opponents and scream, as loud as he can, where the opposing weak spots are?

Similarly, does Devin Toner have to just say, 'right, I'm 6"10, I'm the line-out caller, and if we get nine line-outs in a game, I'm going to call all nine on myself and back myself to win them. And if some of my team-mates don't like it and think I'm being greedy, then I don't care, because I'm in charge here, this is my responsibility and I'm doing this for them?'

That's how players become leaders.

That's how a team that goes 13 points up on Wales, six ahead of France, four clear of England can go closer to winning those games rather than drawing once and losing twice.

And it is what needs to happen now. It's time to grow, time to apply yourself the way Brian O'Driscoll used to do in training, when he'd go stone mad if players didn't have their game-faces on and were carelessly dropping balls. Or, if you're a younger player, you've got to be like Rob Kearney in an Enfield hotel in 2008, when Declan Kidney asked us for our opinions on how things could improve.

Rob, a young lad at the time with just one Six Nations campaign to his name, stood up and questioned if the Munster players were as passionate playing for Ireland as we were for the province.

As it happens, we were. But if there was a perception that we weren't, then we had to accept that and change it. We had to make a bigger effort to mix with players from other provinces, to let old rivalries die and fit in better with those around us. That day, I just knew Rob Kearney was going to become a leader for Ireland. But we need more and more of them to stand up now the way he did then.

Leaders are made, they aren't born.

Irish Independent

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