Time to take stock, if only there was the time to do it. In the Top 14, it’s a big game every week. Toulon last Saturday. Oyonnax away this. Life moves swiftly, the days gobble each other up. You get engulfed if you don’t breathe easy.
I know the reasons for moving away from Munster was made in the interest of long-term development, but you park that once you’re immersed in this job. You never know what happens the next day in a rugby culture like France.
Jamie Heaslip is mulling over a move here. So, allegedly is Sean O’Brien. But until such time as someone other than Jonathan Sexton — who received an incredible financial offer — decides to leave the IRFU contract programme, the debate about the exodus from Ireland is moot. You can grossly exaggerate fact. Even taking Heaslip and O’Brien is isolation, one has 60 caps, the other half that. It’s hard to believe O’Brien’s career is still at such an early stage.
Money notwithstanding, it is far better for an Irish player to remain at home, because the top talent gets managed really well there. The comparison with what is happening in Wales is irrelevant.
The Welsh have nothing to keep their players at home for; they have no pride in the provincial product. They’ve achieved nothing in the regions, it’s all about the Welsh jersey.
They enhance their profile by playing with their country, whereas in Ireland, so many of the players are folk heroes because of what they’ve done at provincial level. It’s practically on a par with the international team, which may not be right in some eyes, but the people of Dublin and Leinster and the people in Munster adore those who wear their jersey.
In France, the Top 14 is an incredibly difficult league, but the standard of rugby is very average. It’s a slog, it’s combat every week, 28 games excluding Europe. You’re going out on soft pitches against big packs every week. It’s attrition. Whatever coach can devise a phase game in France will be the best coach. Everything is occupation, ie field position.
The contrast with Ireland is stark. Heaslip and O’Brien will know they get exceptionally well looked after in the IRFU player welfare programme. For that the Union deserve a lot of credit. If anything, you occasionally are under played in Ireland where in France the problem will always be overplayed. I always found with Munster and with Ireland the players were treated like people first. That’s nice compared to being another number on a team-sheet.
The consistency Munster found in the Pro 12 is in stark contrast to the yo-yo form Racing are showing in France. Six months on, I haven’t figured it out even if the amount of different cultures in the dressing room — South Americans, South Africans, French, Irish, Welsh — has to be a factor, especially away from home. Last weekend, in front of our biggest home crowd of the season, we saw off Toulon 14-3. It came after an away draw in Brive. Tomorrow, we are in Oyonnax. Venue makes them favourites, which is odd. I suppose that’s the French rugby DNA and you can’t change that. But the appetite for work against Toulon gives me grounds for optimism. What Munster are showing is that, home or away, they are regaining that priceless ability to eke out wins. Forget performance. It’s all about winning. There might be some reservations with performance if they were seven wins out of eleven, but they are ten out of eleven in the Rabo. That’s very very good.
If you managed to catch the documentary on the last few years of my career on RTÉ last night, I hope you enjoyed it, even if could hardly compare with the Donal Walsh programme on the same channel the previous evening. That puts the worries of a rugby player into sobering perspective.
Mike Phillips said to me during the week, tongue in cheek, how they were going to get a career into an hour and a quarter! If the programme left me with one frustration, it didn’t show I enjoyed my rugby immensely. I don’t think that comes across as clearly as it should. I make the point in the context of the piece where Brian O’Driscoll is sitting behind me on the bus on the way to games, able to smile and laugh and take it all in. For me, that wasn’t possible because I knew that whatever kind of game we were facing into, I would have a direct influence on the ambitions of the team, and their expectation of winning. That’s the life of a ten, who also happens to be the place kicker. People now understand it’s one of the most important positions on the pitch. That’s what I meant.
The programme focuses on the last four years of my career and in that context Jonathan Sexton and Declan Kidney probably play a disproportionately large role. Of course over a 12 year international career, I played twice as long against David Humphreys. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and these days, everyone seems to have one. But it is difficult to have an idea of what’s really involved and if the documentary helped that process, then it was a success for me. There are three stages to professional sport — trying to prove yourself good enough to be an international, being one of the leaders on a team, and then just trying to survive. There is a huge amount involved in playing at that level for twelve years and I hope I made people aware of that. I didn’t play for two or three years, then disappear. It was my life and I took it very seriously. But I got huge rewards.
There are frustrations, ones you can’t influence. Imagine where Sean O’Brien’s head is at the moment, contemplating his future and then, wham, out of action for months with a serious shoulder problem.
Again I stress how only those on the inside see what an unbelievable player that boy is. The ability to beat people and go forward is invaluable to any team he plays with. He is also a brilliant, shining influence in the dressing room. These fellas are rare, so he’s a loss no doubt to club and country. But in Ireland, there’s always a hungry whipper snapper ready to take your place.
We all know that, don’t we?