A single tackle in a rugby match has rarely generated such debate and controversy as the one the virtually unknown Fineen Wycherley rocked World Player of the Year Johnny Sexton with in the opening minutes of the Munster-Leinster Guinness PRO14 game at Thomond Park in December.
The 26,000-plus spectators roared their acclamation and it annoyed Sexton to such a degree that he pulled off Wycherley’s scrum cap and threw it in his face, the vast majority in red baying for a yellow card for the Leinster number ten. Though those clad in blue demanded a similar fate for the Munster number six on the grounds that the tackle might have been just a little late!
Ronan O’Gara was watching in New Zealand and was so impressed that he tweeted: “Well done Fineen, just the new breed of animal we have been dying to see”.
The excitement has now died down, leaving the powerfully-built (6 ft 5 ins, 17 ½ stone) 21-year-old Bantry prodigy to look back dispassionately on the whole occasion.
“Growing up, Munster v Leinster were the big games,” he says. “The whole family used to go to them so it was a massive thing for me to hear over Christmas that Pete (O’Mahony) was being rested and I was getting the chance.
“I knew I had to start well, that I had to get into the game early. I wasn’t trying to take anyone out. Because it was Johnny Sexton, I think it was blown up a lot more than usual. It was about getting me into the game rather than me trying to take him out. It was just for me to settle the nerves and after that I knew I was ready, it put a bit of an edge on me. And no, I wasn’t happy about the scrum cap, I had to buy the new one.”
Munster coach Johann Van Graan wasn’t keen to get involved in more debate about the now-infamous tackle, except to note it typified the youngster’s attitude.
“Look, I won’t want to comment on the incident itself, but he is a guy who stands his ground. Even in our training environment he is never shy of contact. He will never take a backward step. That is just his personality. A lot of players can make a lot of noises but they don’t always back them up with actions. Fineen does that.
““He was one of the lads I didn’t know when I originally came to Munster. He was academy player of the year. The thing that impressed me the most about him were his actions on the field.
“He had a terrific pre-season, he just kept running and performing day in day out. Together with Gavin Coombes, the two of them really worked hard in the pre-season. Every single day, I would catch them here on the stairs going into the gym doing some extras.”
“I’ve been here now two or three years and have had a good run of games,” says Fineen. “This time last year I had to have ankle surgery and that meant a 10-week break. I knew that fellas like JK (Jean Kleyn) and Dazza (Darren O’Shea) were much bigger than me and that I had to put on a lot of size. So I just focused on that for the 10 or 12 weeks to be able to start the pre-season well to make an impression.”
While Fineen is grateful for the game-time that has come his way, he was smart enough to realise 12 months ago that, as he puts it, “I had to put on a lot of size”. He has succeeded in doing just that with his equally determined young brother of similar mind.
“Josh is putting his own stamp on it. He’s been playing really well for the 20s, he’s very fit and has nailed down a spot at loosehead.
“My parents, Catherine and Florence, keep travelling all over the place. My dad was always big into rugby. We have a big family, I have three other brothers (Jason, Gary and Nathan) and two sisters (Latisha and Saskia), and every one of us has played at some stage. The girls play with Bantry.
“I went to Roscrea (Cistercian College) for fifth and sixth year. My grandfather had gone there. We won the Leinster Schools’ Senior Cup for the first time ever in my first year, beating Belvedere in the final. The second year Belvo got the better of us in the final. I made my debut for the As late that year and got into the academy and I’ve been here ever since.”
Part of the hardening process for aspiring Munster talents is to blood them in the All-Ireland League with the various clubs. The Wycherley brothers pitched up camp at Young Munster and have no regrets.
“I’d say I’ve only played ten games for the club but I’ve felt I got better after every one,” Fineen said. “It is very similar to the physicality of a PRO14 game. I remember a few games against Garryowen and they were a real test under the lights on a Friday night in Tom Clifford Park. Playing for Young Munster against Garryowen the pressure is nearly greater, the slagging is massive and I really enjoyed those games.”
His form in a Munster shirt is now making selection difficult for van Graan.
“He had a few opportunities early in the year, had some good performances. But the one that turned it for me was the Cheetahs game away when I gave him an opportunity on the blindside flank because Jean Kleyn was playing such a good brand of rugby the whole year, I couldn’t leave him out.
“Fineen just forced his way in on the blindside flank. After that I decided to keep playing him there. At this stage he is starting just behind Pete O’Mahony on merit. I can’t keep him out of the team. He is exceptionally quick for a big man. He wins collisions, he is a good carrier. He is incredibly aggressive in defence in the maul. And he has got an engine. The fact that he can play at blindside flank for 80 minutes is good for the group. I believe he will end up at four lock.
“But he just wants to play and he is a young guy, he is so hungry for information and feedback every week. He just wants to improve so brilliant to have him.”
And Wycherley is certain too that the well of talent in west Cork is far from running dry.
“When I was 16, there was no one playing the game but recently I went out for a training session and there were 20 or 30 there. The interest down there is massive.”