Monday 22 January 2018

O'Kelly warns 'daunting' Twickenham clash will test Ireland to limit

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Having won five of his 92 Irish caps against England at Twickenham, Malcolm O'Kelly is better placed than most to discuss Ireland's prospects on Saturday.

"Daunting" is the word he uses to describe the venue where he suffered heavy defeats on his first three visits before finally winning twice, in 2004 and 2006.

The combined losses finished with an aggregate scoreline of 130-46 as the familiar feeling of dread came over Irish rugby fans as the strains of 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' began to emanate from the swathes of white jerseys in the stands.

So, when he sits his massive frame down in the beautiful surrounds of Farmleigh House, exactly a year to the day since he was dropped from the Ireland squad by Declan Kidney, he says he's not entirely envious of his former team-mates as they prepare to do battle.

"I don't know if I'm jealous of them," he said before a ceremony to recognise the 2009 National Awards to Volunteers in Irish Sport winners.

"Twickenham's a really tough place. It's the home of England and they're an extremely strong side and an incredibly strong rugby brand. There's an incredible history and for years I, and internationals before me, went there and you were facing a massive task."

The Irish team ended their Twickenham hoodoo on March 6, 2004, as Girvan Dempsey scorched over for a try in an epic 19-13 win over the world champions which was arguably O'Kelly's finest hour.

The big second-row dove-tailed brilliantly with Paul O'Connell to destroy the English line-out, while his memorable tackle to deny English hooker Mark Regan an almost certain try in the corner prevented a heartbreaking defeat.

"It was incredible because they were World Cup champions and the year before they had beaten us convincingly at Lansdowne Road," he recalled.

"We really felt we were a team that were capable of winning over there and we'd come, not so much close there, but we'd put in some strong performances.

"They were more in transition than we were, but it was still a massive feat for us to do it and we required big games from all of our players. We managed to find it in us to overcome them; even though we were at our very best, it was a struggle. This time again, even if Ireland are at their very best it will be touch and go whether they can pull it off.

"It's hard to know where England are at now and it's hard to know after the French match where we stand.

"I think when England get ahead and things start going their way they're a very strong side. They can close down a game and maybe the brand of rugby that Ireland play isn't as suited to coming back from a deficit."

As a former record caps holder, O'Kelly was keen to pay tribute to John Hayes, who will become Ireland's first centurion on Saturday.

"It's unbelievable," he said. "In fairness to him, he has probably been the most important player for the Irish team over the last 10 years. I remember speaking to Deccie (Kidney) in New Zealand a long time ago and he off-handedly said it to me that he's the most important man. He's just been an absolute rock."

Irish Independent

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