If there is a more compelling sportsperson out there right now than Ruby Walsh, then they’ve yet to go mainstream, writes Brendan O’Brien
We’ve heard a lot of talk about media access and the nature of the relationship between the press and our sporting stars lately, but it was somewhere between Brockworth and Badgeworth on the morning spin from our digs to Cheltenham when the thought struck that a modicum of distance can sometimes be a blessing.
Driving through the Cotswolds in the company of BBC 5 Live is no bad way to start your day, but the experience began to grate long before the traffic backed up around Prestbury Park. Five minutes gave way to ten and spilled over into 15 and, though we switched off before the debate ended, there must have been an hour devoted to ‘Eddiegate’ in the end.
Rachel Burden is a talented broadcaster, and she somehow kept the discussion tipping along at a decent clip, but it was lame and should have been pulled up long before the designated finish line. Chris Jones, a BBC rugby reporter and podcast host, was asked for his views and so were all manner of regular Joes and Josephines from throughout the four ‘home’ nations.
“Can’t believe you’ve got an hour of this nonsense,” tweeted one listener. “It’s nothing, move on.”
Thomas Jefferson once said that ‘the government you elect is the government you deserve’ and the same applies to discourse when it comes to sport. If we insist on taking a bellows to a few nondescript sparks provided by Eddie Jones in this instance then we leave ourselves open to the accusation that we are a boil on the arse of our favourite past times.
That holds for the public and the press.
None of us do ourselves any favours when we zero in on putrefying chum like the England coach’s ill-advised speech made in Japan last summer when there is far more appealing bait in the waters, especially so in a week like this.
Joe Schmidt lacks Eddie Jones’ talent for shit-stirring and self-promotion, but the Kiwi has always struck as a more layered and intriguing figure. If anything, his more nuanced and rationed public utterances have added to the air of mystique around him and, in fairness, there is a widespread fascination as to how the man operates to such obvious effect.
The picture of his personality has been filled out almost by proxy in recent months.
His regimental regime in Ireland camp has long been legion and it has been buttressed by stories of players found wanting in training and sent home as a result until they have their homework done.
It may be apocryphal, but one story has it that at least one player was cut loose only to be phoned at home and quizzed on plays from the training ground even as they unfolded.
Schmidt is one of the most fascinating sporting minds of our time and, though he clearly fumes at the impression of his Ireland side as a bulldozer with only one gear, his refutation of that narrative has made for a far more engaging discussion than the furore over the ‘scummy Irish’ or any slight of Wales as a country. Jones was an idiot, unquestionably, but let’s move on.
Cheltenham duties this week have, thankfully, excused this observer from much of the fallout while also providing the opportunity to study up close the workings of a man who may even make Schmidt seem one-dimensional and positively uninteresting. In fact, if there is a more compelling sportsperson out there right now than Ruby Walsh, then they’ve yet to go mainstream.
Walsh missed four months of the national hunt season with a broken leg — and he managed less than a week back in the saddle before re-aggravating that injury with a fall from Al Boum Photo at Cheltenham on Wednesday — and yet he said more of interest in that brief window than Jones or a Jose Mourinho would in their entire careers.
The champion jockey even accused himself of being a bad husband and father through his long convalescence just minutes after partnering Footpad to victory on Tuesday and he routinely explains his thinking and his tactics in a simple and candid manner.
“Horses blow hot and cold,” he said recently. “They’re not cars, you can’t turn them on and off.”
The man could read out every last page of the British Horseracing Authority’s rule book and make it interesting. And accessible. Last Thursday, he sat down with a bunch of journalists in Paddy Power’s HQ in Dublin and spent 35 minutes talking through his list of possible rides this week. He name-checked 113 horses, 14 tracks and countless jockeys and races in that time. All off the top of his head.
So, enough with the faux outrages, the endless hand-wringing over nothings and the vapid narratives.
Let’s be bigger than that. Let’s all have some perspective.
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