Edward Newman spoke to the St Michael’s student on the eve of the opening of the IRB U19 World Championship in Belfast
WHAT stood out most of all in Brian O’Driscoll’s early days as Ireland captain was the outside centre’s sheer belief in Irish rugby and its ability to take on the world and beat them.
Some might confuse it with arrogance, but it was a belief system in defiance to the “that’ll do” Irish sporting attitude, one against which Roy Keane rages. In the lead-in to a game against Australia in their 2002 Autumn International, O’Driscoll responded to a question from the press suggesting Ireland would be hard pressed to beat the 1999 World Champions by saying: “Why shouldn’t we win?”
It’s an attitude that has served him and Irish rugby well since that seminal day in the development of the current Ireland senior team. And it appears the next generation are carrying an identical headset into major tournaments. Take Conor Cleary, the Ireland U19 inside centre, who on St Patrick’s weekend led St Michael’s College to a first Leinster Schools Senior Cup title.
O’Driscoll would be proud of Cleary’s response to a poser that it’ll be seen as an upset if Ireland beat heavyweights Australia or South Africa in the upcoming IRB under 19 World Championship in Belfast. Cleary comes from a different angle. “I wouldn’t see it as an upset — I think it’s an upset if we get beaten. I wouldn’t like to think there is any team better than us.”
What Cleary brought to Michael’s Cup success this year — in what was his third season playing at Senior level — was a winning attitude.
“It was an immense thing for the school. Hopefully titles will come flooding into Michael’s from now on. I think there have been some good teams throughout the years but there always has been this lack of belief. I hope this year’s Cup win sets the tone — that other teams will go out with the headset that we’re going to win.”
He acknowledges too that “the mentality of winners” was brought to the Michael’s camp by coach, Mark McDermott. “Mark wouldn’t accept anything less,” says Cleary.
But the St Michael’s student is not alone in carrying this positive headset that is currently en vogue in Irish rugby. He says Ireland under 19 captain, Paul Ryan (who led Blackrock College to Leinster Schools Senior Cup success in 2006) brings “that mentality — you either have it or you don’t.”
Cleary, who was born near Heuston Station, played mini rugby with Old Belvedere and now resides in Bray, is relishing the challenge against some of the world’s top teams.
“There’s never an easy international especially at World Cup level. We’re expecting Australia and South Africa to be very big, even in the backs they’re normally 15, 16 stone. I think the nine and 10 from Australia have already made their Super 14 debuts. So we’ll have to put some pressure on them from the start.”
His belief in everything that is intrinsically Irish is reflected in his choice of favourite centre in world rugby, Gordon D’Arcy. “As a number 12 I love watching him play. Each time opposition get to him, he is always over the gain line. His ball presentation is always brilliant.”
Ireland play their three pool games against Australia, Scotland and South Africa in Ravenhill.
And responding to a suggestion that there will be pressure to perform in front of the home supporters, Cleary’s answer is: “Pressure is for tyres!”