It shouldn’t even be close.
Who has been the greater sportsman: Roy Keane or Brian O’Driscoll?
A rugby game could sometimes go a full 80 minutes and someone in the stands wouldn’t necessarily be able to identify the man wearing number 13 as anything special. You couldn’t watch a football game featuring Keane without him making his presence known to everyone, from a Marc Overmars being on the end of one of his tackles to the man watching in Row Z.
O’Driscoll merely changes games — albeit like no one else in rugby — Keane dictated them.
O’Driscoll plays a sport that most of Europe is completely oblivious, let alone indifferent, to, for all Leinster’s claims to being kings of that same continent. For almost a decade Keane was the most important player in the biggest franchise in world sport, something no Irish sportsman will probably emulate again.
And yet it is a very real debate, which of them is the greatest team sportsman this country has ever produced, which is a measure of O’Driscoll’s brilliance and durability as well as Roy’s flaws. Because two things that O’Driscoll has over Roy are two of the most important criteria by which you can judge a sportsman: who is the greater role model for your kids and who would be the greater team-mate?
You could never imagine Brian O’Driscoll taking out an opponent like Roy shamefully targeted Alf Inge Haaland, not even Tana Umaga on the grounds of justifiable retribution. And as frustrating as his own World Cup was in 2007, you could never picture O’Driscoll giving an interview during that tournament ranting about what a farce Eddie and the IRFU had made of it all.
There’s been a lot written and said about Saipan this past month. Didn’t we all go mad 10 years ago? What were we like? We laugh it off, claiming that we’ve all wised up and even Mick and Roy only care so much now about who was right and who was wrong.
The reality is though it remains a fascinating and important case study, with lessons therein. And the one thing that continues to escape people is why did Roy give that interview to The Irish Times the day after he’d initially threatened to leave the set-up? Forget what he said in it, or what preceded and followed it; why did he give the interview when he had agreed to stay on and the understanding was that everyone was ready to move on? Even if Mick McCarthy never took issue with it, what was to be gained by agreeing to that interview?
Reading through it 10 years later, word by word, in the cool light of day, it remains insightful, candid, witty, but now, above all, baffling and self-serving. No one needed for him to explain/justify in detail why he blew his lid with Alan Kelly, not even the Irish public as he would claim in his autobiography, and especially not his team-mates.
He would say he happily agreed to the sitdown with the Times because the interviewer didn’t ask normal run-of-the-mill questions and the Irish fans deserved an explanation for what really triggered his bust-up with Kelly the previous day, but both reasons only played to Roy’s intellect and vanity.
In agreeing to that interview, Roy Keane violated one of the most basic and precious codes in team sport — the team comes first. Contrary to what his critics would claim, Roy’s crime wasn’t to walk out on his country; you could argue that his defiance was an act of patriotism and in the long term served Irish football well by publicly addressing its shortcomings. Where he was out of order was putting the interests of his team-mates secondary to his own. He let down his team more so than his country.
Even another militant Cork sportsman like Donal Óg Cusack would never dream to air his objections to Gerald McCarthy on the eve of competition. A journalist even contemplating such an extensive one-to-one interview would be firmly if politely rejected; park it until the winter. But for Roy it didn’t matter what Shay Given might think of him giving that interview, it was more important that the keeper up in Rockmount knew about the insufferable standards he had to contend with.
The Leinster players had to put up with substandard conditions during the first half of O’Driscoll’s career. A superstar like him would have to tog off in his car, such was the lack of dressing room facilities. Leinster would address it, driven largely by O’Driscoll who would have been inspired by the example of Keane. The difference is O’Driscoll did it in-house. He played with lesser players throughout his career but never looked down upon them, played under poor coaches but never publicly demeaned them, especially on the eve of major competition.
We still give Roy the edge over O’Driscoll. In our eyes, no one from this country will ever surpass what he has done in world team sport. But what he did on his team on the eve of that World Cup diminished him as well as them.
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