SOMETIMES it takes a shortage to appreciate water. Or a power blackout to get the fundamental importance of electricity.
The malfunctioning Wallaby goal-kicking in Brisbane last Saturday only underscored the value of Leigh Halfpenny. I don’t think people appreciate how wonderfully well the Lions goal-kicker has done in Australia. It is all well and good having impressive kicking stats and momentum going into the game, but you start from scratch in a Test match. Halfpenny delivered and the Lions won. Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor didn’t, Australia lost.
One of the best quotes I’ve heard in sport came from his kicking coach Neil Jenkins: the postman doesn’t get thanked for delivering letters. Jenkins would compartmentalise his role on the team. I’m there to deliver the goal-kicks for the team. That now applies to his protégé. I adopted it myself as a kicking mindset: don’t be making it into something it isn’t. This is my job, split the uprights every time. What’s the big deal?
I’ve found myself in Kurtley Beale’s end of match position plenty of times, but why does he slip approaching that final kick? There’s evidently something wrong with his technique. Is it pressure? Is it the “lottery” of sudden death? Lottery? There’s no lottery involved. It wrecks my head when I hear football pundits and players talking about the “lottery of a penalty shoot-out.” In fact, it’s the greatest challenge of mental strength available. Goal-kicking is the exact same thing: it’s you vs the posts; in soccer it’s you vs the keeper, but you’ve massive space on either side, so there’s absolutely no lottery. It’s primarily a mental skill but a technical one too.
Beale’s slip was more technical breakdown than poor choice of footwear. I wore moulded studs 90% of my career. With the quality of pitches you have at test level, there’s no issue. If his technique was out by a margin of one quarter of an inch, the capacity to slip on his arse is multiplied. The mechanism obviously broke down.
Goal-kicking is an isolated science, similar in that context to the line-out, but they’re both fascinating subjects. Rugby has become so microscopically detailed that the preparation for it is exhaustive and mentally challenging. That’s what separates the greats, their ability to thrive year in, year out.
That’s what separates Paul O’Connell. His loss to the Lions for the rest of the series is incalculable because it is on so many different levels.
It is difficult at this remove to know how effective he can be this week when he’s not able to back up on the pitch what he’s saying off it. It’s a tricky one. He knows well enough that when you are injured, you’re gone, and the show moves on without you. But he’s just so thorough in his preparation, he’ll prepare as if he’s running out in Melbourne.
And he has presence and respect that few if any others can command. I was mildly surprised that he stayed on in Australia but I can understand the feelgood factor in the camp at the minute, and he wants to be part of it, as he’s fully entitled to be. As an additional line-out coach, he’ll have plenty of involvement ahead of the second Test. He has an extensive list of line-outs, and he’ll be running the Australian line-outs this week to prepare the Lions. These dossiers are extensive and while players are judged, and rightly so, on a tomorrow morning’s game, there’s a mountain of research to be done in advance.
Paul does both, the guile and the grunt. He remains a very humble, intelligent person who retains great values he learned from wonderful parents. He’s hard working off the pitch, which means he’s thoroughly prepared when he takes the pitch.
Secondly, his emotional aura is incredible, that ability to deliver the right speech to the right person at the right time. To tap into a dressing room of individual stimulae. Everyone is different. So what motivates me is different to Leamy, Quinny, Donncha, Marcus, Flannery or Tommy O’Donnell. The one key message that rings in your head from Paulie is: it shouldn’t take much for your family and friends to see what it means to you to wear the shirt. They sit it the stand and they are in no doubt what it means for their nearest and dearest to be playing for Munster. Because Paulie plays for the people of Young Munster, he plays for the people of Munster and Ireland. So tribal. He’s old school and that’s so rare nowadays.
He brings a breadth of attributes that is a lesson in itself for any youngster — play as many sports as they can when they’re young. Golf gave him precision and temperament, he brings the work ethic and discipline from swimming. Again it goes back to the nature vs nurture debate in terms of upbringing, mentors and advisers. I know Paul’s parents, and his brother, Justin — who played with Sunday’s Well — would be his rugby hero. Isn’t it wonderful that Paul O’Connell would look up to his older brother, that such a tradition is alive?
Of course the other side of the coin is Wallaby backs coach Tony McGahan doing cartwheels that O’Connell is missing tomorrow. He has every right to be. They are two strong personalities, Dumper and Paulie, and they would have had plenty of “detailed conversations” over the years, because Paul is so into detail.
His absence from the pitch will mean that some will look to Brian O’Driscoll even more than heretofore. It comes back to the drivers I spoke of last week, and the dilution of a squad through injury. Jonny Sexton was strategically smart in Brisbane, those little chip kicks came off, but he must be prudent with them. They’re high risk.
I don’t think there’s full unity on the Lions gameplan. It wasn’t as smooth as they would have liked so this week there’s been a big focus on getting their phase game going because they’ve some great strike runners. George North? Special. The ball transfer and the step for the try was outstanding. He changed the ball in full flight to his outside hand to ensure his inside hand was free for the fend, but he never needed the fend with that step. Bye bye. What a boost to the Lions that seven points was.
But tomorrow, the second Test, is the pivotal one. You sensed it straight after last Saturday’s final whistle, O’Driscoll had them in a huddle and they were already looking forward, not looking back. Let’s get this job done. When you’ve momentum in sport you keep the foot on the fella’s throat.
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