Sport Rugby

Thursday 14 December 2017

Nothing cheesy about 'strings'

Billy Keane

Billy Keane

Our government is giving out free cheese. Back about 20 years ago, or so, thirsty misfortunates were trying to pay for pints with butter vouchers.

It's as if we're in a time machine hurtling back to the past. Michelin restaurants will soon turn into cheddar kitchens and the turkey-less Christmas glossies will be full of recipes for leftover Easy Singles.

And before those of you who assiduously avoid all mention of bad news turn to the death columns in the hope that a rich old aunt has snuffed it in Hoboken, let us quickly make a connection between the cheesy jokes and today's game between Ireland and Samoa.

Ben Gunn dreamt of cheese in the way other men dream of women. He lived alone on 'Treasure Island' and unlike our regulators, he kept a careful watch on pirate gold. 'Treasure Island' was written by Robert Louis Stevenson and he is buried on one of the Samoan islands.

So, there you have it, but there's more.

Jim Hawkins was the hero of 'Treasure Island'. The boy Jim hid in a barrel and overheard the pirates plan their mutinous plots. It is said the young Richard Bruton was much taken by 'Treasure Island' and consequently he never discusses anything of any significance near beer kegs, in the vicinity of pickle barrels or close to wheelie bins.


Peter Stringer is the Young Jim of the Irish team. Our hugely esteemed, venerable and erudite colleague Sean Diffley maintains Stringer is the best Irish scrum-half ever. Who are we to disagree? That's not meant as a criticism of Eoin Reddan, Tomas O'Leary or Isaac Boss. It's just a simple case of a personal choice between four fine scrum-halves.

Stringer wins because he conducts his pack with a bullwhip baton.

It's all about tempo and he beats out a progressive rhythm with the quickest pass in the business. There's no step back or sideways or thinking time and so the out-half gets an extra second on the ball. I'd love to see him team up with Jonny Sexton.

O'Gara, who is at his best when playing with Stringer, almost rescued the game last Saturday with that delicate kick for Tommy Bowe. Today he will reach 101 caps, an almost impossible task for an out-half. The open season on 10s is all year round. The Samoans will probably run at O'Gara. The players he faces are just getting bigger, faster and stronger.

The Irish back-row will have to track back and protect him. The extra line-out ball and slick passes will allow O'Gara the time to kick-pick his spot in the Samoan half and we will do the fancy stuff in their territory.

The second-row is vital to our game-plan. Donncha O'Callaghan has rightly been given a three-year Munster contract.

I just wonder though what happened to the wild-eyed tearaway who stormed through Martin Johnson and Ben Kay as if they were swinging doors. O'Callaghan needs to up his game and we have no doubt that he is well capable of that.

Devin Toner, only an inch or two under the ceiling, is a very good line-out jumper even if he does lack the physicality of O'Callaghan right now. You have no chance of winning anything if you do not win your own line-out throws. Toner has bulked up considerably over the summer and if he dominates the line-out today, and I expect him to, Kidney will play him against the All Blacks.

Ireland could do with Paul O'Connell. In a way the break will have done him good. He was overplayed and a Lions Tour does nothing much for Ireland, who are short of players as it is.

The question of player welfare has been bothering many of us for some time.

The IRFU have a protection system in place, but the recent revelations of Bernard Jackman and John Fogarty point to the fact that rugby at the highest level inflicts long-term damage on the participants.

I have no doubt that many players play while injured. The law requiring a concussed player to take a compulsory break is implemented, but only where players have been diagnosed with concussion in the first place. How many front-liners have been diagnosed with concussion in recent years?

The truth is players hide the symptoms and some coaches just don't want to hear bad news. It brings to mind Muhammad Ali and the terrible beatings he took for our entertainment. There can be little doubt that many rugby players will pay a high price in the decades to come for their 10 years or so of glory.

I can't think of any solution other than limiting the number of games played which, in fairness, is being done in Ireland. At least in boxing you have weight divisions, but in rugby a 12-stone out-half can be hit by a 21-stone prop.


Stringer boxes above his weight. He's not as small as you might think. He just looks small standing beside giants. Stringer is a boing-boing bouncy ball and he can take the big hits because of his unique ability to go with the belt, unlike most who stay rigid and suffer accordingly.

Instead of gimmicks and the continuous defeatist cant from certain quarters, maybe we should think of little Stringer and memorise a little Stevenson. The writer lived for a while in California. It is said he found some of his inspiration for 'Treasure Island' while wandering around Pebble Beach, years before the golf course was consecrated.

Maybe Stevenson harvested these lines as he looked out over the Pacific from Spyglass Hill, the site of another famous 18. His words are for Ireland and not just the rugby team.

"You cannot run away from a weakness; you must sometimes fight it out or perish. And if that be so, why not now, and where you stand?"

Nothing cheesy about that.

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