Saturday 24 March 2018

We must be like terriers digging for a bone

Ireland's Devin Toner, centre, with Paul O'Connell, left, and Mike McCarthy during squad training ahead of their Six Nations clash with Scotland
Ireland's Devin Toner, centre, with Paul O'Connell, left, and Mike McCarthy during squad training ahead of their Six Nations clash with Scotland
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

The waiting room clock is unwatched. The unread magazines curl up at the corners like overdone rashers. The receptionist puts on her coat and pulls the door out after her. Now is the time for the best sporting weeks of the winter and spring. The wait is over, at last.

The Six Nations kicks off for Ireland tomorrow and it would be easier to predict the moods of the weather or the economy. This competition throws up a shock every year, and we must hope the Scots are not on one of their good days or, more importantly, Ireland are not on one of their bad days.

The psychology is easy for Ireland. Just play with the same fervour as we did against the All Blacks and we will win well. That day, we did the ambushing. Scotland are the outsiders with the seer bookies who nearly always get it right. Ireland were the same odds as an outsider in the Grand National against the All Blacks, but we nearly did it.

Moral victories are considered by some to be some sort of national weakness, like the drink. We disagree with the cynics. Ireland can match any team in the world. We have this larder of self-belief squirrelled away from the All Blacks match and we must feed from it when the day comes.

The Scots will come to Dublin with vastly inferior Heineken Cup form. It could be that a game of mayhem would suit them. That's the Six Nations. There is a fine line between cockiness and confidence. Again the answer is easy. Play like you're up against the All Blacks. Fantasise and visualise.

We have never lacked bravery, but we need to learn cop-on. That last try by the All Blacks could have been stopped several times. Then there's the giving away of soft penalties on the floor. Sometime we look as awkward as pick-pockets wearing mittens. Ireland must play the breakdown like a terrier digging up a bone. The All Blacks way.

Coach Joe is a Kiwi and he is as smart as any in the game, but most of us in the south would like to see more Munster players in the squad. Munster have been the most impressive pack in the Heineken Cup. Munster men bring undistilled aggression. Joe will find that out soon enough.

Sean O'Brien's injury means we cannot afford to lose any more of our best players.

Much is made of strength in depth, but even the All Blacks had to send for an out-half who was gone fishing to play in a world cup final. This tournament takes its toll. There are far more injuries now than in the old days. The IRFU try hard to keep players fit and well, but O'Brien was injured in a local derby, in a league in mid-winter. The All Blacks would have wrapped Sean up in attic insulation and turkey foil.

Last year against Italy we were down to a skeleton crew and paid the price when we lost for the first time to the Italians.


There are some very good players coming through, but what about Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy for longevity and service to the cause. Will these two truly magnificent men last the five games?

There are times when we praise players for big hits and for putting their heads into nut crackers. It comes from me mostly out of admiration for their courage and love of country. But there's a price. So many players are carrying the reminders of every blow that struck them.

There's something of the story of Achilles in the injury crises. We need luck. I can still remember our Greek teacher Pat Given and where he stood in the classroom all those years ago.

There are many versions of the dipping of Achilles in the Styx by his mammy to make him invincible. His mother was a nymph and they were always a bit on the giddy side. She held Achilles by the heel which wasn't placed in the river. Maybe she had just done the nails in her local nail bar. And so her son was shot in the heel by an arrow during the Trojan War and died from his wounds. We all have our weaknesses and the collisions and twisting of rugby seek out the vulnerable areas of the body.

I worry sometimes if when we write our stories of hard battles that we are in some way glorifying the smashing of bones. Youngsters are always influenced by tales of heroism.

Why do you think most of the soldiers who are killed in wars are young lads? Parents should be made aware of the dangers. Most of us would take the risks for the love of the game, but professional sport leaves very few without some sort of chronic disability.

We wish our boys well, but we must do more than wish. If you were lucky to be at a Bruce Springsteen concert last summer you were surely on your feet to give the great man a standing ovation. What if Bruce sang out of tune or gave all 93 verses of some nasal, repetitive, lonesome come-all-ye. Would you give him the standing ovation? No you would not and rightly so. But sport is different. There must be unconditional support for the team, especially when they are failing to hit the high notes.

Ciaran Fitzgerald was a great man to get the crowd going. He often raised his hands as if to say we can't hear you. Non- cardable pushing and shoving of opponents always works after a bout of rough play. Players must learn to play the crowd.

So, let's all get together for Ireland. The Greek scholars in our class had a profound core philosophy and it is 'there's no taste off cabbage unless it's boiled with the bit of bacon.'

Irish Independent

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