Paul Kimmage: 'Soft questions, hard questions and how sponsors can heal all rifts'
Twenty-three years (to the day) have passed since Justin Marshall made his debut for New Zealand against France in Paris and became the 948th All Black. On Wednesday, he was the support act to Paul O'Connell in the latest Off The Ball Roadshow at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin.
Twelve hundred people had come through the doors and were regaled with an engaging chat about O'Connell's new life in Paris - he's an assistant coach at Stade Francais - and some interesting observations and the usual bantz and crack from the Off The Ball regulars - 'Drico' (Brian O'Driscoll), 'Woody' (Keith Wood) and 'Quinny' (Alan Quinlan).
"Where are you with the language?" the host, Joe Molloy, inquired. "Is your French decent now?"
"It's not decent, no, it's far from it," O'Connell replied. "But I'm determined to learn it. I love trying to learn it."
"God love the poor person who's teaching you French," Quinlan observed. "Jesus!"
"Marcia," O'Connell replied. "I've a teacher called Marcia who won't explain anything in English to you. So you could have a word like 'commencer' - to start - and she'll spend five minutes telling you in French what it means and you'll be like, 'Just tell me the word!'"
"But I enjoy it. In the club a lot of the players can speak really good English so I hang out by the coffee machine and try to talk French to the marketing staff and they're sick of me now. Mikey (Prendergast) was in Bourgoin 17 years ago and no one would speak English to him, and now no one will speak French to you - they all want to learn English. I go into a shop and they look at me and start speaking English."
"And I start speaking French to them, and they keep speaking English to me, and I stick with the French and walk out with the wrong thing."
It wasn't an easy act for Marshall to follow but Molloy made it easy, whisking the former scrumhalf back to the changing room in '95 and how it felt to become an All Black at the Parc des Princes at the tender age of 22. "I got picked from nowhere," Marshall said. "I was a bolter (to get picked) for the squad, let alone the most important Test match the All Blacks were going to play that year, because we had lost the previous week and it was Laurie Mains' last Test as coach.
"A few legends were rumoured not to be continuing their careers so it was a big moment, and I remember looking at the jersey and (wondering) whether I was man enough to put it on and not let down my family, my friends and all the people back home who would be sitting back and watching."
Molloy asked about the Haka: "We always talk about it from our vantage point, and how players (feel) looking at it. Tell us about being in it?"
"Yeah, it's unique," Marshall laughed, "no doubt about it. When you get brought into the side for the first time (you're taught) to respect it, to know it, and not take it for granted. Everyone is taken into Haka practice, which doesn't involve any coaches or support staff, it's just the players and the leader of the Haka. That gets everybody together so that everybody knows what it's about; how to do the actions; how to do the words, and how to do it with passion. And that's a big part of making sure that it gets the respect that it's due - that you do it properly."
A debate ensued about the nuts and bolts of the dance - where the players stand and project their gaze - and how it had almost been jettisoned in the mid-2000s. "The Haka only used to be performed overseas," Marshall explained. "We felt it was getting too theatrical and overused because it needed to be special; it needed to be done in the right manner, and to have the right meaning, and we felt it was losing a bit of that because we were doing it for every Test match.
"It was around this time we talked about bringing out a new Haka - the Kapa O Pango. I was in the leadership group at the time; we practised it and started learning it and were going to bring it out before the British and Irish Lions series in 2005. But we don't get the Lions very often and if things didn't go well in the first Test, and we had brought out a new Haka, the New Zealand people would have thought: 'What were they doing?' So they ended up (changing it) later." Keith Wood had taken a back seat for most of the evening. The former Irish captain is an intelligent and engaging man, and extremely popular with the fans, but I've never expected much from him as a pundit, and he rarely disappoints.
So what happened next was astonishing.
He had digested Marshall's words about the primacy of the Haka - the respect it engendered and its importance to the team - and thought of a question you never expected him to ask: "How do you square that and how important it is, to (peddling it) in an ad for adidas?"
A deathly pause was followed by a spontaneous laugh from the crowd. "That's one of the hardest questions I've ever been asked in my life," Marshall said.
"Well, answer it so, will you?" Wood replied.
"I actually did the ad."
"You sold your soul for adidas?"
"Well, it was part of the sponsorship," Marshall explained. "Adidas had taken over the sponsorship of the All Blacks, so we were asked to do an ad for the Haka . . . yeah, look, I get that."
And we got it.
That a 44-year-old former New Zealand captain was presented with "one of the hardest questions I've ever been asked" by a 46-year-old former Ireland captain, told you a lot about the sport and the state of journalism in New Zealand.
But there's a lot we can do better on this side of the globe.
Everywhere you look these days - TV, radio, the sports pages, podcasts - there's a former player with a microphone in his hand and an opinion on the play, but they have little to say about the things that really matter to the game: Injury. Concussion. Doping. The abuse of painkillers and medicine. And worse, they are not being asked.
Three weeks ago, there was a remarkable report in The Times about the abuse of steroids in South African schools rugby that prompted a brilliant response from the broadcaster, Dave McIntyre, on Off the Ball: "There needs to be a review done of the Irish rugby policy of bringing South Africans into our games. Yes, the guy you bring in could be clean, but was he clean when he was 18? Was he clean when he was 16? It is rotten to the core that you've got parents involved in the doping of their own sons."
Paul O'Connell works with South African coaches in Paris. Where does he stand on the issue? Where did he stand on the signing of Gerbrandt Grobler?
It was easier to ask about his French.
And what are we to make of the remarkable reconciliation last week between O'Driscoll and the former All Black captain, Tana Umaga? Remarkable, because in A Year in the Centre - his diary of the 2005 Lions Tour - O'Driscoll had been scathing about the treatment he had received from Umaga and his team-mate, Kevin Mealamu.
There was this:
"They dumped me from a great height and I found myself heading for the ground more quickly than seemed natural. Was I speared? I think so. Slam-dunked is probably the expression which sums it up best. Not that it makes much difference - even if they just dropped me they were reckless as to whether I broke my neck or not."
"I am determined to oppose the idea that this is a normal run-of-play, rough-and-tumble injury. It isn't and it needs to be treated differently. I have complained, publicly, about any injury or incident or cheap shot on me, but this needs to be got out in the open."
"Still not a word from Tana. We played back the post-match press conference, and the silence was deafening when Tana was asked about the incident and whether he was disappointed for me. He said sheepishly that there were a couple of incidents that needed looking at. That was his one comment."
"Still feeling cheated and violated. The New Zealand papers are reeling off the All Black party line: that there was no foul play and that Tana Umaga had apologised at the press conference. He did no such thing as everybody knows."
"Graham Henry was challenged three times today on his assertion that Tana had apologised after the game. He stuck to his guns . . . until the NZRFU checked the tapes and then admitted - privately, of course - that they were mistaken. All Blacks can never be wrong and certainly can never apologise in public."
But here they were, 13 years later, drinking Guinness and rubbing noses in a remarkable show of affection in Dublin. "I think it was good from our perspective, and from a public perspective, to once-and-for-all park it and move on," O'Driscoll explained on Wednesday at the Roadshow. "And people still won't (move on) . . . I had that a little bit today when the pictures came out on social media."
There was an obvious follow-up: "How do we square this reconciliation with the photoshoot, and the Guinness T-shirts?"
But Molloy, for once, was not on his blow.
"He called you a cry baby in his book?"
"We didn't talk about that," O'Driscoll replied.
"So you are over it? You are?" Wood asked.
"No . . . Yeah . . . I'm good. Why?" O'Driscoll insisted.
But it wasn't convincing. And we got that, too.
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