A legacy to remember

When Mal O’Kelly joined Leinster they didn’t have dressing rooms but when he left the only thing they didn’t have was a ladyboys’ tag

“I want you to listen very carefully, because one day you’re going to realise this is the truest thing you ever heard. This game has got to be about more than winning. You’re part of something here: Lombardi, Tittle, Sammy Baugh, Unitas; hundreds of great players; those men on the wall — you’re part of that now. Along the way I want you to cherish it, because when it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

- Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino) in Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday

HE misses the dressing room most. He’s happy with the decision he made but a part of Malcolm O’Kelly will always miss that room. The banter and slagging, even if he was the butt of much of it; the mischief and the camaraderie. Yet he doesn’t miss the Leinster dressing room remotely as much as Leinster missed having a dressing room.

For years they didn’t have one, just like they had no sense of tradition, no clubhouse, no pictures on the wall. If you wonder how they went from ladyboys to champions, he’ll attribute much of it to something as basic as those four walls. BC (Before Cheika) he knew players from Munster far better from all their time hanging out in the Irish team room than he did players in his own Leinster lineout.

The Leinster lads literally weren’t close enough. Even into Michael Cheika’s third season in charge, superstars like Contempomi and O’Driscoll were still togging off out of the back of a car.

“No one thought much about it at the time,” says O’Kelly, looking fresh and fit enough to play in Cardiff today.

“Our coach’s office would be in a portable building. Our physio would be in a portable building. And we’d be in our cars, putting on our boots. We had a meeting room all right and would have meetings there and then go out and train, but afterwards we’d just hop off into our cars.”

Some of them would head to David Lloyd’s leisure club in Riverview where they’d shower and change alongside the other punters. Mostly fellas would just dash straight home.

“Lads were training hard all the time but there was little social aspect to it, and so less buzz, less fun. It was often said that Leinster weren’t tight or cohesive enough and there was something to that.

“But then Cheika insisted that we had a base, out in Riverview and UCD. And if you speak to any of the lads now, they’ll say one of the key things in our success was the creation of that changing room. I know it sounds ridiculous but it brought ustogether a lot more, just being in the same sphere. If a new guy comes in and you’re already there togging out, you’re going to talk. Guys that you thought you did know already, you got to know so much better; and guys you didn’t know at all, you got to know well.”

O’Kelly illuminated that changing room. For starters, he was one of the most talented forwards of his generation, making him at one point the most capped Leinster and Irish player of any generation. Here wasn’t your archetypal lock of old who’d just thump and drink all round him. O’Kelly had quick feet and quick hands, could pull off corner-flag tackles and pull missiles out of the sky.

As Bernard Jackman, a hooker, would concede in his book: “Mal caught balls that were overthrown or crooked that he had no right to catch.”

Yet if O’Kelly’s talent was tailor-made for the professional era, his off-field disposition was not. “If he was in the Academy today,” Jackman would write, “Mal wouldn’t last seven days. They say if you see Mal in the airport ahead of you, there’s a good chance that you’ve missed your plane.”

Philip Danaher put it nicely, once saying: “Mal lives in his own world but it seems like a nice world.”

That was the thing. What was sometimes infuriating was often endearing too, and as Jackman would ultimately conclude: “When Mal’s part of the setup, everyone is happier, more relaxed and more entertained.”

Cheika could appreciate the paradox that was O’Kelly. The tardiness and zaniness belied a wonderful competitor and teammate. In Cheika’s eyes O’Kelly had been “an unbelievable influence” in transforming Leinster into champions, was “always open to becoming better” and displayed tremendous steel overcoming a series of groin injuries.

“He may not be the captain’s style of player,” Cheika would acknowledge, “but he undertakes his influence in a totally different way, more as a colleague in the changing room.”

O’Kelly’s dual personality is probably best encapsulated by a story Jackman recounts in Blue Blood. Last season, O’Kelly stuck his head through the gym door during a weights session. “I suppose I’m late?”

Instead of fining him — a futile measure, they’d long discovered — the fitness coaches ordered all 12 players present to clean up the gym the following morning, with O’Kelly designated as group supervisor. So, at 8am that next morning, they all reported for duty, wearing their mandatory aprons or pinnies, bar their supervisor who was exempt from wearing such attire. And for three hours they went around on their hands and knees, scrubbing and cleaning, with O’Kelly telling them that if they were going to do it, they might as well do it properly.

Typical Mal. The reason they were there seemed to elude him, but once his dander was sufficiently up, he expected and delivered one’s best.

O’Kelly is sufficiently self-aware to appreciate he often only ran as fast as the dog that was chasing him, but when that dog would be at full pelt O’Kelly was untouchable. When Stephen Jones dropped an injury-time drop goal in Cardiff in 2003 to put Wales ahead, it was O’Kelly, not an exhausted Brian O’Driscoll, who ordered Ronan O’Gara to land the restart on the 15-metre line. O’Gara overcooked it yet O’Kelly still managed to get his hand onto it to set up O’Gara’s match-winning drop goal.

Six years later, however, when Jones and O’Gara again exchanged drop-goal heroics in the 2009 Grand Slam decider, O’Kelly wasn’t even in Cardiff. Although he would still receive a medal for his five-minute cameo against Italy, Declan Kidney had cut him from the squad.

“I didn’t see it coming,” smiles O’Kelly, self-depreciatingly. “I’ve f**ked up so many times over my career. And it was never mistakes on the pitch; it was always mistakes off it. That time I missed a meeting for the second week on the trot. It wasn’t that I was sulking or rebelling; it was an itinerary thing. I didn’t realise it was on.

“Don’t ask me what I was doing instead; I can’t even remember. But maybe if I had been playing more regularly, my mindset would have been different, more attuned. And I’d say that’s what Deccie saw — a guy who wasn’t really contributing — and that’s why Deccie did what he did. And I can understand it now. Definitely. I’d probably do the same thing myself.”

He’s mindful that it wouldn’t just have been on the field that he wouldn’t have been contributing hugely back then; in the meetings he did attend, like the famous Enfield retreat, he was probably too passive for Kidney’s liking. “I wouldn’t have been a big fan of all those talks. I remember Pádraig Harrington came into us all right and that was great, but I was more interested in how he could help my golf swing than my actual [rugby] game.”

He’ll admit he was disappointed with Kidney for some time when the latter quit Leinster for Munster after only one season in 2005.

“I enjoyed Declan being with us. By that stage I was keen to develop my leadership skills and Deccie helped me a lot in that regard; he’s a great man-manager. But it was a real low point when he moved on. He lost a lot of us for a while there when he decided to do that.”

Again, though, there are no hard feelings towards Kidney or those who got game time ahead of him. “I would have so much time for Paul O’Connell, as a man and as a player. Donncha [O’Callaghan] deserves everything he gets; the amount of work he puts in.”

He watched the Wales game from The Swan Bar on Aungier Street. “I think even if I had been watching it from the bench over in Cardiff, not getting any game, I would have been less happy than where I was. It had been frustrating being involved with Ireland at that time for me. Of course I was envious as hell but it actually served me well. It drove me on. After that I was very keen to have my own day.”

It would arrive only two months later, yet when he thinks back on that 2009 Heineken Cup campaign, the quarter-final and semi-final are as fondly recalled as the coronation in Murrayfield. The 6-5 quarter-final win might now be best remembered for Bloodgate but it’s Leinster’s desperation that day that stands out for O’Kelly. “That was a game we had no right to win. It was purely our desperation that won that match.”

Only a few months earlier, O’Kelly’s old team-mate Neil Francis had labelled the team “ladyboys”. O’Kelly has met Francis since and got on fine with him, never bringing up the L word. But he suspects Franno regrets saying what he did and O’Kelly will admit Leinster didn’t take it well at the time, especially Cheika. “It was very obvious, because he had it up on our wall.” But it wasn’t so much what Francis said that toughened them up as something the sport psychologist Enda McNulty mentioned about how they talked to themselves.

“By 2009 guys were very aware of the threats that were out there in terms of non-performance. There would have been times when I’d have questioned myself or made a mistake and lose the ability to move on. You could be down on yourself. ‘We’ve lost this match.’ ‘I can’t do this, I’m too tired.’ But Enda told us to remember that’s just your mind playing tricks on you.

“We came up with this mantra stuff. I had one: ‘No doubts.’ It’s incredibly powerful when you say something like that to yourself. ‘Next ball’ was a very popular one with guys; you’d actually hear them saying it after a mistake. It mightn’t sound scientific, it might sound very basic and you might think, ‘Ah yeah, I know all that sh*t,’ but when you’re out there playing, you have a responsibility to use it. You need your energy levels to be a certain height and you have to be thinking positively out there.”

Looking back on the 2006 semi-final against Munster, Leinster were perhaps a tad overconfident after blitzing Toulouse. Three years later nothing was stopping them. When Leinster had their initial warm up in Croke Park, the stands were mostly red. O’Kelly steeled his mind to treat the game like an away match like 06 had effectively been but then when the sides came back out, there were as many blue sections as red “Typical Dubs,” he smiles, “they’d left it last-minute to arrive”. That sight will never leave him.

A year later he wasn’t so much walking away from it all as sprinting away; the day after his last game playing for the Barbarians in Thomond, he was in Rio on the start of a three-month trip around South America. It was something he’d always wanted to do since his Trinity days studying his degree in engineering and his masters in maths, when he’d be bulking up for the season ahead as friends were in Australia or Europe or the States. So he kindly got a pass from his wife, Stephanie, who was a few months pregnant at the time, and started out his journey with Eoin O’Malley and Paul O’Donohoe, another testament to the bond that Leinster changing room had engendered.

On their adventures they’d go hunting for anaconda and cycle down the world’s most dangerous road, the North Yungus Road of Death which necklaces the mountains of Bolivia, dropping 3,000 feet over just 60 kilometres, the road rarely wider than 10 feet. When the two guys had to report back to Leinster after a month, O’Kelly embarked on the Inca trail and went boating on the Amazon, before Stephanie came over for the last few weeks to take in the beaches further north.

Upon their return, he was in no hurry to get a regular job. He certainly wasn’t looking for a full-time job in rugby, but removing himself from the game altogether would have been too drastic, so for the sake of his sanity, he served this year as a part-time mentor to the Leinster A team that competes in the B&I Cup and helped out in the office.

Cian arrived in February. Cheika could appreciate the paradox that was O’Kelly. This life suits him. He keeps in shape by attending Crossfit classes which are decently strenuous and sociable. Next month he starts full-time with a medical device company that produce hip and knee replacement parts, nicely combining his engineering background with all the anatomical knowledge gained from being a sportsman who regularly underwent the knife. “It was the right thing for me to finish when I did. It’s let me do things outside the game that I always wanted to do and I’m incredibly comfortable with where I am now.”

He’s helping Leinster with an upcoming clinic on second-row play; anyone over 6’5” that’s interested in playing pro rugby, even if they’ve never before played the sport, can check out the Leinster website, he plugs. He still plays some over 35s, does some work for Newstalk and a column with joe.ie. There’s not a chance of him this time not going to Cardiff for the big game.

Of course a part of him would love to be playing there. “These days everything is restrictive. Seat belts on. Cycling helmets on. Low cholesterol. No smoking. No this. No that. You go onto the pitch and there’s none of those. There’s a certain freedom where you can just go out and be as physical as you want. It’s nearly like being a little boy again, just going around, letting all your frustrations and competitiveness out. It was a great release for me.”

It was a privilege too. He thinks back now on the calibre of men he soldiered with, like Brian O’Driscoll. “The more I think of what he’s achieved, he’s just incredible. I can’t say he single-handedly won games but when games were there to be won, when they needed someone to make the big play, he’s made the difference more often than anyone else ever has in rugby. It’s pure will. Once we were playing tennis in Portugal and the better I got, the better he got. Even in table tennis in the Irish team room he’d never lose.

”He cherishes the time they had together or little things like making a play and Shane Horgan tapping him on the bum, “Good work Mal”. When he made his European Cup debut against Milan in 1995, about the only thing that Leinster team had in common with the one now was the colour of the jersey. There was no link to all the fine teams of the past, no 1978 moment to draw on. They had to create their own tradition, but create it they did.

Now Leinster are doing fine without him just as he’s doing fine without them, but both parties know: Cheika, Gibson, O’Driscoll, O’Kelly; he’ll always be a part of that.

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox