Passions… I have too many. Rugby is one of them that can take over half of my day without fully realizing I’m that involved with it on an emotional level.
Take, for instance, the rugby world cup in New Zealand in 2011. I was counting down to the start of it like a child to Christmas. It was pure heaven waking up to live rugby games in the morning because the time difference between Ireland and NZ meant that games fitted perfectly in my own RRS-schedule (rest, relaxation and sleep).
My introduction to Irish rugby was on March 9th in 2000, when I haphazardly flicked television channels hoping to find something decent to watch. I ended up on the BBC, seeing Ireland take on France. Even though I understood nothing about rugby at the time, but already dreaming of living in Ireland, I was amazed by the rapturous cheers of the Irish fans because of one man and one man only: Brian O’Driscoll. Reason? He scored a hat-trick of tries and was instrumental in Ireland finally beating France in Paris, something they hadn’t been able to do since 1972.
That was it. I was sold that day in 2000. I was taken in by the rules, regulations, the fan base, the players and the lack of aggression between supporters. Coming from a country where rugby was and still is rather looked down on for all the wrong reasons, I fell in love with it two years before moving to Ireland in 2002. Rugby is one of the top three sports here (the other two being Gaelic football and hurling), and I was yearning to see live games in Lansdowne Road, since rebuilt and renamed as the Aviva Stadium.
Around the turn of the millennium, a band of very talented young players started to emerge in Ireland. Brian O’Driscoll (BOD in short), Ronan O’Gara (ROG), Peter Stringer and Paul O’Connell (POC) to name but a few, the list would be extended as the years went on. Fantastic players like Keith Wood, Mick Galwey and other famous men were on the verge of retiring, and new players were eager to take over. It would lead to Ireland’s and its provinces best decade in rugby ever.
My favourite two players were, and still are centre Brian O’Driscoll, number 13, of Leinster and fly-half Ronan O’Gara, number 10, of Munster. Both have amazing careers, smashing statistics and they showed the rugby world that Ireland was a force to be reckoned with. I saw them win Triple Crowns, Heineken Cup tournaments, Six Nations championships and stand either next to or in front of each other on the rugby pitch.
Over the years of watching rugby games, I learned as I went along. While many people went to live games for the craic (the fun, the beer etc), I watched because I wanted to learn, to be amazed and to revel in pure brilliance on a physical level. I often cheered louder for Ireland, Leinster or Munster than some of my Irish friends, resulting in them telling me I am more Irish than some Irish people. I gulped up such comments and it made me want to watch even more rugby.
Nothing lasts forever though, and with dread everyone could see how O’Driscoll and O’Gara were struggling to get back to form the last 2 years, fearing the moment they would announce their retirement from rugby.
Ronan O’Gara, who played 130 games of which 128 were for Ireland and 2 Lions games, did so a few months ago after being unceremoniously dropped from his Munster and Ireland teams. O’Gara is the 4th best international points scorer with 1083 points. O’Gara’s boot was often like a war machine, punching out penalties and conversions from the most difficult places on a rugby pitch. He was key to Ireland winning the Six Nation championship in 2009 and was responsible for a lot more wins and changes in team dynamics when it seemed tough for some players to grasp wins.
The same can be said of Brian O’Driscoll. Instrumental and inspirational team captain, the enabler of wins where wins seemed impossible and by far the best rugby player ever to exist. No, I am not saying so because O’D is Irish; I am doing so because every superlative written about the man is true. Not only a well-respected player amongst his teammates in the Leinster, Irish or Lions squad, he is well respected outside of the rugby world because of his will to fight.
In one of the last Six Nations games played, O’Driscoll had a lacerated ear, a dead leg and concussion, but said he would be ready to play on. Giving up seems impossible to him, and needless to say it won him many accolades, including the Player of the Decade in Rugby World Magazine. O’Driscoll would also be named RBS Six Nations Player of the Year in 2006, 2007 and 2009.
To his tally of caps, 133 in a total of which 125 for Ireland and 8 for the Lions team, he added 46 international tries, 26 Six Nations tries (record) and 30 Heineken Cup tries (Irish record). He captained 83 of his 125 Irish team performances and is the highest scoring centre of all time. Not bad for a Dublin lad, is it?
Fast-forward to Wednesday, July 3rd – to the current Lions tour in Australia, coached by Warren Gatland, who is also the coach of Wales. He decided he would not add Brian O’Driscoll to the team in their last Test game against Australia on July 6th How can a coach explain such a deliberate, hurtful and ridiculous idea that O’Driscoll would not be needed, seeing that he is the best player ever to grace the world of rugby? Is it because it would be BOD’s last ever Lions game (the tournament is only held every four years, with this being Brian’s 4th tour)? Does Gatland not want to share Brian’s limelight a Lions victory would bring?
These are my own questions, but I am not the only one left to wonder. The press all over the world is also finding it surreal to leave such an important character out of a possible Lions tour victory. Online newspapers, rugby websites and Facebook pages share the same disbelief at Gatland’s choice. Some of the greatest rugby players past and present have come forward showing their disgust at the decision to omit O’Driscoll. Here are just a few comments on Twitter:
“BOD should have retired in May – this was no way for the greatest player of his generation to end his career – at the hands of a crap coach” – George Hook
“Gee BOD dropping out of the team is a huge call. For mine, he has been the stand out unsung hero this series… Defensively huge” – Matt Giteau
“I was convinced Brian O’Driscoll should have been named as captain. It’s catastrophic leaving him out. He’s still one of the top centres in world rugby. He’s a fantastic guy and has been on four tours and knows it all inside out. It’s a massive mistake.” – Ian Robertson (BBC Rugby Correspondent)
“I was absolutely gutted. The first thing that came to my mind was that Deans, the Australian coach, must be laughing all the way.” – Willie John McBride (BBC Radio 4)
If this wasn’t serious enough, Warren Gatland decided to name 10 Welsh players in the 15 players’ line-up. Seems as if dear Warren forgot that the Lions team should include the best players of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales. This is nepotism in its purest form. I’ve never witnessed nepotism in a sport before, and I hope never to witness it again. It now boils down to a different team on the pitch, instead of a Lions team, it looks like it will be Wales against Australia on July 6th.
While many people conceive rugby as a sport for a bunch of brutes, it amazingly is quite the opposite. The famous saying of football and rugby “that one is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans; the other a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen” can be used either in favour of rugby or football, but rugby is quite often referred to as a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen. Brian O’Driscoll is such a gentleman. Reacting to hearing about his omission, he wrote on Twitter: “Obviously totally gutted at being left out for deciding Test but all efforts go into preparing the boys to see it through.” Even when he was looked over for what could have been the biggest win of his career, he chose to be respectful to the team and willing to be there for them. Respect, Warren Gatland, is something you know nothing of. Brian O’Driscoll on the other hand does.
Julius Caesar said “panem et circensus“, meaning “bread and circuses” to keep the public quiet and to help them remember who was in charge. Gatland is now using a more commonplace phrase: “It’s my way or the highway” to indicate he is in charge and he will do as he pleases. It is sad that international rugby has come to this. Rugby will prevail, but Warren Gatland soiled a team, what it stands for and the best player in the world for a long time to come.
To finish I want to add this excerpt of one a newspaper article about Brian O’Driscoll by Tom McGurk, television pundit for RTÉ Sport:
“And then you see him. Your rock in the swirling tide of emotions. There he is, the one and only Brian O’Driscoll, your leader and captain.
Here is a sporting god in shirt and shorts. Here is more tries, more tackles, more moments of genius and more magic than any other being has fitted into a lifetime in rugby. As you look at him you begin to feel his energy, his incredible levels of concentration and organisation swirling over you.
Now he’s spelling it out for you, how we play it, what we do and what we don’t do. The authority of genius; the certainty of perfection. Who wouldn’t want to go into battle with this guy, who wouldn’t want him on the 22 with minutes left and points needed?” (http://www.independent.ie/sport/rugby/lions-tour/tom-mcgurk-dropping-bod-saps-the-spirit-from-a-team-on-cusp-of-glory-29394229.html)
© Willeke Van Eeckhoutte and Ireland, Multiple Sclerosis & Me, 2011-2013. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Willeke Van Eeckhoutte and Ireland, Multiple Sclerosis & Me with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.