Monday 16 December 2019

One of the greats

Marvin Hagler once joked that, if they ever cut his head open, all they'd find inside was a boxing glove. In 2003, we had Hagler come to Citywest to address the Irish rugby squad as part of our countdown to that year's World Cup.

He proved a fascinating speaker, shining a unique light on the doubt that can, sometimes, creep into a boxer's mind before big fights.

In his introduction of Hagler, the BBC's Jim Neilly recounted a famous fight the American had fought with Thomas 'Hit Man' Hearns that looked set to be stopped early in the third round. Hagler had sustained just the kind of gash to the head that might have revealed if, indeed, he had a boxing glove inside.

The referee leaned over him and mouthed the words formulating in just about everybody else's mind. "Think it's all over guys!"

Hagler, though, was indignant. "Stop this fight and you won't get out of the ring alive," he said to the referee. "You've one round buddy, then it's over!" came the reply. And what did Hagler do once the blood had been towelled from his eyes? He took Hearns apart, ending the fight in that single round granted by a referee who clearly felt he should already have been in the safety of the medical room.

There was, I thought, something of Hagler in Brian O'Driscoll's efforts to stay on the Twickenham pitch two weeks ago, having taken that sickening blow to the side of his head. That same warrior spirit that just elevates certain people in sport to levels of competition that transcend anything we understand as normal.

When I gave the Irish captaincy to Brian in the autumn of 2002, a lot of people didn't quite see that quality in him. He was still in his early 20s and, with his Blackrock College lineage, many people in the other provinces probably saw him as a silver-spoon type. Me? I saw a remarkable young man who was always prepared to put his body on the line.

More than that, I saw a guy with natural leadership qualities, one capable of taking ownership of key moments in just the right tone and with just the right words.

Eight years later, his 100th international cap now looms with his status as Irish rugby's greatest talisman surely beyond debate. The odd thing is that, internationally, Brian has long been regarded as one of the greatest players in the history of the game. Yet, within Ireland, he has had to cope sporadically with outbursts of sarcasm and derision.

We only have to rewind as far as the autumn series of 2008 to locate pretty strident suggestions in some quarters that he should have been stripped of the Irish captaincy. Internationally, that suggestion was met with absolute incredulity. But, in Ireland, a snide little chorus had erupted, pretty much declaring that his race was run.


It's interesting now to see the gushing reverence of those same people as he closes in on a century of caps. The doomsayers have morphed into cheerleaders. So, the man they dismissed as a declining force 18 months back is now the object of their devotion. C'est la vie, I suppose.

I'm sure Brian long ago identified the opinions that matter to him. And, more pertinently, those that don't.

Having had the honour of working closely with and selecting him for a substantial number of those caps, I can only speak of the immense respect and unshakeable confidence his ability engenders in a coach.

His on-field leadership skills are evident to everybody. He is utterly fearless and his ability to make a crucial play at the most defining moment of a game was never more evident than during last year's Championship campaign. I think, had Brian missed any of those Six Nations games, it is very doubtful we would have become Grand Slam Champions.

He has it all in terms of skill, pace and physical toughness. Yet, above all, he has that quality that separates the good from the great: mental toughness. I believe that if you wanted to draw up a profile of the greatest rugby centre to ever lace a pair of boots, O'Driscoll would have to be the template.

He doesn't actually speak that often in the changing room, the team room or on the training pitch. But when he does speak, everybody listens. That's down to respect. A respect you can't simulate or bluff. Bottom line, the guy practises everything he preaches.

One of my biggest personal regrets as Irish coach is that he didn't make it for our opening game at Croke Park against France in 2007. Because the facts are indisputable. Ireland are a different team when he is on the field.

As for today's opponents, if you want to see Wales' Six Nations record in microcosm, look no further than their recent history with us.

They've lost seven of our last nine meetings, yet the two exceptions tell a tale. Ireland's defeats came in '05 and '08 and, of course, Wales ended both seasons as Grand Slam champions. So, it's really been all or nothing with Wales and the Six Nations.

Take away those two Slams and their record in the Championship is mediocre.

In a sense, there's neither rhyme nor reason to them. When Wales have been good, they've played some really glorious rugby. But, like the little girl with the curls, when they've been bad they've been horrid.

It's impossible to tell which face of Welsh rugby we're likely to see today. They've lost two out of three so far and their sole victory, against Scotland, was a Hail Mary job.

That said, they've played some stunning rugby in all three games. Unfortunately for them, that rugby has tended to come when they've already given themselves a mountain to climb.

In fact, it's sobering to think that, if Scotland coach Andy Robinson had managed to get his message through for that last restart to be kicked out on the full, Wales would be rolling into town today rooted to the bottom of the Six Nations table. They have taken inconsistency to an art form, a fact that brought the words "kettle" and "pot" to mind with Warren Gatland's recent assertion that France "lacked consistency."


No question, the Welsh can cause problems for any team. And, as we saw against the French, even a deficit of 20 points doesn't necessarily discourage them.

My view is that Ireland need to make some key adjustments from that recent Twickenham performance, because, if we don't, we will face a truck-load of trouble in Croke Park today.

We certainly cannot afford the concession of 14 penalties again, nor can we reasonably present Wales with anything close to 19 line-outs. Ireland won deservedly in London because of their precision from very limited possession. Today, we need a different tactic. We need to take Wales on up front, do the "hard yards" and earn the right to take the ball wide.

Because of injuries, the Welsh front five is decimated and I believe they'll struggle to go 80 minutes today with their Irish counterparts.

I expect Ireland to win and their captain to do what he has always done in 11 extraordinary years wearing a green shirt. Deliver.

Irish Independent

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