Letterkenny loveletter.

Reaction following an Ireland win is fascinatingly different to that which might have prevailed should England have secured this, or any other, #6nations, is it not? People all over the place seem pleased, for starters. I’m sensing a good-natured rolling up of sleeves or a philosophical ‘roly’ under the stars for most neutrals, as folks from Ballymena or Clonakilty march purposefully past into the pub. Most would recognise, however, the scope for either discord or hopefully debate around the concept ‘win’ when (as happened here) another protagonist has bitten at the arse of the victorious by er… beating them.

So did the best team land the trophy? Were champions Ireland sufficiently good at Twickenham to score a moral victory too? Is that the or any kindofa question? And does that question matter? I think it does: it is, after all, the stuff we’ll be talking about.

Half the fun of course is in the denial of (the undeniable truth of) that table, at the head of which now sits Joe Schmidt’s charges. And clearly allegation or conversational hare number one might be that because England beat them, Ireland are not the best team. Knowing we can’t measure any of this stuff I’d still like to do some sizing up; how ’bout you?

Look having no aspiration for journalism, I have neglected to check how often it is that the annual Northern rugby shindig is won by teams who got beat along the way and who are therefore susceptible to this judgement of wider values. Maybe that doesn’t matter either. The argument we are about to have is absolutely about the sweaty/swervacious/intuitive/finger-in-the-wind sense of it all – because that’s a) fun and b) human nature. So were Ireland or England better? And/or who deserved it more, this 2014 Six Nations Trophy?

As the road and the evening rises, I suspect my friends Danny, Sean and Brian in County Donegal, may, in the purity of their ecstasy, be breaking out treasured hooch of the Very Special Occasions Only variety, and I in no way want to subvert that glorious ritual. (Oh and by the way – no driving Brian!) However, they too will be distantly aware (probably) of issues of legitimacy/quality and kindof… honour. Because fans love to win with style, with class – yes and deservedly. Which legitimises my line of enquiry, I think; I’m in the metaphorical round and buying my share, I promise.

The coincidence of St Patrick’s weekend, O’Driscoll’s retirement and a #6nations trophy pretty much compels all of Ireland towards a big night out and I wish to god I was in Letterkenny to share in that. But instead I will ask of that European pool of generosity the following question… again. At Twickenham, was the confidence and control (even) that Ireland showed for periods of that match sufficiently impressive to cancel out the win (with home advantage) for Lancaster’s hugely improving side. Or does the view that England have blossomed to such an extent that even Welshmen might now confess to finding them good to watch hold sway on this?

Tough call. There were times in the England-Ireland fixture when I thought the Irish might cruise to a quietly magnificent away win. They recycled and blocked with such confidence that I was purring ’bout the brilliance of Schmidt – guesswork of a sort, inevitably – but I’m still happy enough to throw in the idea here that the Ireland gaffer may have been star of the tournament. Good sides – well coached sides, sides inspired by their coaches have purpose about what they do. And Ireland epitomised that, certainly for periods of the first half. But the fact is… then they lost.

There was something of that about Ireland again today, I thought. Once they got a hold of the ball, they went effortlessly through the phases and two tries came critically early; they looked like a team that believed. If Sexton had slotted two relatively simple kicks, they may have sustained a lead and utterly snuffed out any French response – after twenty-something minutes, that’s the way it looked.

France, perhaps inevitably, given the pasting they have taken from most of us, rose to their full height – or in Basteraud’s case bulk – and responded. The game became scrappy and tense rather than brilliant but this was more because the French aren’t good enough to do brilliant than anything else, I thought. Ireland struck again early in the second period and held on.

England smashed Italy with some style and this is the point. If you were an alien with some mysterious understanding of ball games but no pro-celtic baggage, you might be raising a green sucker or two in approval at the transformation of Lancaster’s mob from dour to something close to devastating. If nothing else that culture shift towards dynamic and open play deserves universal – or extra-terrestrial? – approval. In Brown and Farrell… and possibly Burrell and Launchbury and Lawes, they had players who might reasonably be nominated Player of the Tournament in some poll or other.

England were often good and sometimes alarmingly watchable, both against Italy and in the Six Nations generally. It may be that only the intensity of the ‘rivalry’ between the warring parties keeps Wales in with a shout against their World Cup 2015 opponents on current form, such is the great leap forward from Lancaster’s men. They surely ran the ball back more freely – more liberally even – than anyone else. The nature of their intent was sharply different to previous England sides, the coaching staff clearly now having committed to an all-court game demanding pace and invention as well as balls-out defending. Good on them for that; they are both right and righteous, methinks.

Whole lot of sentiment here, then. Weighing up in the abstract the feel of a title run-in. Doing that all over, I guess.

Ireland won though and their outside centre will understandably garner what I will foolishly call the Lions share of media coverage subsequent to that victory. O’Driscoll for me has had a flawed championships; he made errors against the French as well as the fairly occasional sharp intervention – chiefly that trademark low-slung burst and absurdly casual switch, eyes fixed everywhere but where the ball’s fizzing or popping. The man’s a genius alright, for his brutal combination of rapidity and control – and for his savvy. But his specialness is surely a cumulative phenomenon? Year after year of explosive burst and soft hands, violent challenge and then god-given, frame-freezing awareness. He, certainly, is a deserving champion.

@Jiffyrugby doesn’t get much wrong, yaknow. And he may have it about right when he says the definitive question of this tournament is the one England will surely be asking themselves – “How did we not win in France?” Well… they didn’t. And Ireland? Ireland did.

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Triumph by degree.

Triumph. Glory. Worryingly loaded terms, both, as though there’s no escaping the association with imperial excess or sultry machismo – both of which I oppose with every laddish ounce. ‘Tis a challenge, this all-consuming contemporary imperative towards proportion – one I typically moon at, as you know. Is there really no way to write innocently in the post post-modern age? Shame, eh? If it’s too rash to affix words like them there onto mere sport, even on the understanding – you do understand, right? – that nothing’s rilly that serious and… my eyes they are a twinkling. The cunning plan then will revert to a crypto-psychological airing of notions around degrees of triumph. In sport, this weekend; rugby football in fact.

(You know) I love the talk around this stuff. The banter, sure, but maybe more so that slightly higher grade proffering of views about the shape of sides, the intent, the possibilities. An example? The leaking out from this cloud of (often though not always) nationalistic passiogubbins of the contention that the Scottish back three may be the best in the 6nations. This is not an assertion that could have been made with any degree of seriousness in donkeys years. Hold with that thought then combine with the impressive and surely contagious positivism practically washing out of Scott Johnson and key elements seemed in place ahead of the Italy game for either a triumphant expression of 15-man rugby or …yet another Murrayfield trauma. It was pretty much the former, something approaching a try-fest and a crucial breaking out from those dispiriting Scottish failures. A triumph of the Thank Christ For That variety as well as a champers-popping treat.

Caveats will need to be included re the relative weakness of their opponents. Italy, whilst playing again with occasional verve were suicidally open at times but Scotland the nation has every right to bristle and glow over the arrival of a competitive-plus back divison. Despite being clad in a kit they apparently modelled on motorway signage, the home side hustled with an altogether more convincing energy than for some appreciable time. They flipped and flashed in and out of the overtaking lane; not uncontrollably or recklessly but with the clear purpose of getting someplace quickly. The threat was there – a real threat, you felt – as opposed to the bound-to-end-in-fumbling-failure version that had become the depressing norm.

In a compelling and genuinely exciting game freed up rather than stifled by expectation, tries surely loomed. Sure enough Vister darted and stepped (far too easily in fact) off his wing to score. Then in one of those moments when action and symbol clang together, Matt Scott juggled one off his chest before bursting free. (Insert that particular instant into almost any midfield scenario for Scotland over the last five years and surely the chance would have gone to ground; this time the centre scurried clear to score unopposed.) Even Sean Lamont – who had scored but a single try in 42 matches – found himself likewise in freedom’s honeyed pastures as he gathered up from the deck and bolted… with surely some quiet ecstasy?

The electrifying interception by the fullback Hogg that caterpaulted him almost the full length of the pitch was the game’s stand-out moment. As exhaustion closed in around his utter joy he drifted somewhat from the posts but this naivety was not chief amongst the concerns of the baying crowd, who expunged a decade’s frustration at butchered opportunities with a tremendous hollering. Would that a certain Bill McClaren had been there to describe the moment. Hogg, certainly, is a Lions contender – though quite possibly behind both Wales’s Halfpenny and Ireland’s Kearney. And maybe England’s Goode!

It’s true then, Scotland can attack, can even cross the whitewash; how fabulous. This ritual unshackling – so sweet, so thrilling in its nature – we can justifiably, with an affirmative slug of fine malt, file under the ‘t’ word. For the Italians, destined to make incremental progress contradicted by days such as these, it must have hurt. Going to Murrayfield believing they were in the best shape for aeons, having duffed up the French? Facing the side most obviously and most frequently vying with them for that wooden spoon? And getting mullered? They will need to gather yet more steel into the matrix of what they are building and go, again, in search of that second win in the 2013 tournament.

In Paris, Wales beat France in the first duff game of the 6nations. Or so the general perception will go. Led by Ryan Jones, they dug out a win whilst the French crowd broiled. The game was clunky, with few passages of quality handling. Halfpenny got man-of-the-match but it could easily have gone to his skipper, the eloquent Jones, who is one of those blokes you really want to do well for his utter but intelligent commitment. In the context of where the two sides are at – in the 6nations, in terms of their ahem development – there was a quasi-spiritual aspect to the game, with the French flailing about for something to believe in (a way of playing?) and the Welsh needing ideally to reassert their own pattern but more prosaically, to win. In reality, this was not the rugby of or for the gods.

The French were almost unbelievably poor; shambolically led from half-back, almost comically unimaginative with ball in hand. Apart from the occasional mega-hit from Bastereaud, they seemed either dilatory or glazed-eyed, unable to see or burst through the slough of nerves. Michalak was not the only one to play what felt like a career-ending role in the game.

Wales must of course take real credit for much of the host’s embarrassment. In team meetings they will surely have spoken about denying the French rather than levering the game open. But it wasn’t pretty – in particular that first half, where Phillips was again in contained and containing mode. Slowly going through phases until an error inevitably came; monitoring rather than playing. Fortunately for Wales, the longer the game went on the worse the hosts seemed to get; it hardly mattered that the Welsh back line seemed pedestrian by their standards and that the word ‘urgency’ appeared to have disappeared from the Franco-Welsh lexicon. Wales, solidly marshalled by Biggar, abided. And yet…

Sure, us Welsh-sympathetic types naturally hoped for a searing run from Davies or Cuthbert but the reality shelved most of that indulgence in exchange for the blanket thrown over the pitch. Bravely and with great discipline the forwards smothered and the backs kept the seal intact. There seemed not the remotest possibility that the French would score but in the absence of guarantees, things remain tense, yes? Even from the depths of their paucity some blur of French brilliance might spark? Pas de chance, as it ‘appens. They were – unpredictably – relentlessly, predictably crap.

As the thing rumbled in almost classically turgid style towards deserved victory for Wales, so the restlessness in the crowd grew. With every concession of possession by Les Bleus a chorus of the gallic equivalent of harrumphing gathered. The Welsh were ahead, without a meaningful cushion in terms of points but ahead. Following George North’s powerful burst for the line humiliating whistles and prolonged booing broke out around the stadium. Music to Welsh ears. French supporters left – disgracefully, in my view – in disgust. This was the kind of low-diff, plough through-the-sodden-meadow victory that practically erects a conveyor belt of foaming pints of beer on the players bar. Exhausting but rich in terms of its bond. There was at least a whiff of the Brotherhood of Redness about it; the redeeming, the reclamation of something, through powerful, powerful unified work. I would have let Ryan lead his men in a pint or two last night. A triumphant one.

Finally came England. With a win we’d be calling truly impressive if the game hadn’t been so decimated and reduced by conditions. My guess is England would have despatched Ireland with something to spare had the ball been less appallingly soapy. As it was, even the initially imperious Farrell was largely flummoxed by the pitiless rain.

England started superbly, with that kind of away team composure coaches dream about. Even early on there was no real width but Farrell prompted then penalised the Irish for any transgression. When the homesters awoke it was with that intemperate flame that might either overwhelm or threaten self-immolation; they were fierce but unfocussed. Sexton was ordinary – then hurt – and the Irish fumbled. The intensity was right off the scale but ambitions were promptly scaled right back as allegedly straightforward catches were dropped and the ball was lost in contact. The mid-section of the match was relatively poor, with periods when Irish forward dominance seemed likely to be critical cancelled out by further error. England were always more efficient but the midfield never had, nor were ever likely to have quick ball or space to create. The English back line was admirably watchful and assured in defence whilst being anonymous going forwards.

Tuilagi, having come on early in the second period had the two sole try-scoring opportunities of the game but in each case his spatial awareness and footballing skills let him down. Was I the only one waiting for him to get a run at O’Gara? That run never came. England eased to victory, to a strangulating, appreciative-slap-on-the-back-engendering win rather than anything too… too triumphant. Lancaster will live with that. And – cue the unwisely charged denouement – England march on.

 

Wanna check out my triumphant ebook? Out now on Amazon – amzn.to/SSc9To. Recommended by Brain Moore/Paul Hayward/Kate Webb. Intro by Paul Mason.

 

Wales New Breed – same old.

David Lacey once wrote brilliantly of the journo’s need, on occasion, to invent a spectacular new breed of cliché with which to describe sporting drama. Following the er… apocalyptically wonderful contest between Ireland and Wales yesterday, I am shamelessly either jumping on or over the moon that is Mr Lacey’s bandwagon; I think. Because words provide suddenly insufficient ammunition to fight the necessary war with the need to reasonably but excitedly represent the alleged actuality of this extraordinary fixture; (Brian.) The truths of this particular occasion being heightened almost beyond belief.

Coming into this their first 2012 Six Nations fixture, the Welsh squad were entitled to feel somewhat buffeted by worries aired (by commentators like me) regarding perceived weaknesses in their group. In particular, injuries to players as diverse but central as Roberts, Priestland, Jenkins, Wynne-Jones, Rees – whether they be niggles or more long-term knocks – threatened, some of us imagined, to seriously undermine the Welsh challenge. Certainly it may have appeared that Wales pool of brilliance was in some danger of dilution; this, the argument went, would be a great shame for the tournament, as Gatland’s crew have already done enough to suggest themselves as the purist’s and neutral’s favourites.

The size of the strapping on Priestland’s thigh as he jogged rather carefully out did little to assuage the concerns of those doubters and worriers. However, the day after an encounter with Ireland that if anything confirmed Welsh Power not frailty, all of us need to shake away some of our cynicism and enjoy ; this Wales appearing now more deeply brilliant as well as more resilient than feared.

In the first twenty minutes in particular, the combination (again) of all-court skills executed with utter confidence even under conditions of pretty extreme physical stress (step forward Messrs O’Connell/O’Callaghan/Heaslip et al) and passionate bias from a characteristically boisterous Dublin crowd were mightily impressive. All things considered – or perhaps all superfluous things forgotten – the Brotherhood of Redness continued in emphatically the same style as at the recent World Cup, to the extent that in the opening quarter they threatened to simply bewilder the home side through what I am tempted to call – during a period of proportion amnesty – an understated tour de force of dynamic movement and expansive glee.

One of the toughest things in sport is to maintain elevated standards contingent upon real ambition; that is, in this case, on the belief that generosity, pace and control works. Wales executed this fabulous/ludicrous plan with a now customary flourish, bursting through phases and fearlessly throwing the ball about with irresistible energy. It was simply pretty close to magnificent as an alround team performance and I make no apology for labouring this point about how important the Welsh positive worldview is; fans know what good and exciting looks like and for the dragons to be modelling a winning (in every sense of the word) version of the game is especially heartwarming. If it seems either glib or pompous to talk of a wonderful example being set, then blame Lacey for licensing such sloppy talk.

I suspect the Irish fans may not entirely see it that way, the greens themselves making a wholehearted if slightly more prosaic contribution to the game that nearly bundled them through. With O’Connell and O’Callaghan disrupting the line-out to good effect – in O’Callaghan’s case by waiving and bawling at Huw Bennett to pressurise the throw – this was on the face of it always a contest rather than a procession. Amongst the vaunted beasts of the Irish back-row Heaslip grew into the game and mid-match and beyond things felt poised. And yet, somewhere mysteriously beneath, until the binning for the errant Bradley Davies, quiet supremacy in favour of the Welsh existed.

To be more specific, throughout this outstanding game of rugby, Wales characteristically put pace and width on the ball, meaning that the likes of Jonathan Davies and George North in particular rampaged widely and to great effect because they were trusted to do exactly that.
With a leanish, meanish and engaged Mike Phillips pulling the strings in the manner of old, that (sorry, here come those clichés) mercurial Welsh Whirligig-thing was fully operational. Despite the fact that a) Warburton did not emerge for the second half and b) Priestland’s goal-kicking was poor, Ireland – indeed all of us – were periodically breathlessly overwhelmed. Almost.

In point of fact the greens were still in it, then ahead, then pegged, then the full technicolour tensionfest kicked in as the game seesawed to that gut-churning climax. Ireland may have been robbed by two controversial decisions – Davies surely should have gone/Ferris (less surely) innocent when pinged as guilty – but
few neutrals would have argued which was the classier, more ‘deserving’ side. It was Wales, who were both inventive and focused.

For any side to construct phases in the last moments of a game, away from home, against a seriously committed opponent, in the knowledge that any error would be terminal
is impressive. For those phases to lead seamlessly from within a dozen metres of your own goal-line to a central position within kicking range is a statement, I would argue of class. And the manner in which this fraught enterprise was achieved spoke of a maturity that the likes of the aforementioned North and Davies have no right yet to own. The crucial penalty awarded, it seemed entirely appropriate that the generally excellent Halfpenny should smash it emphatically between the uprights.

Ultimately, when Mr Barnes of Somewhere Now in Hiding, England finally tooted that final toot, the elation and relief on the faces of this new breed of Welsh Hero was there for all to see and surely enjoy. Again The Story centred upon their liberation of oft-shackled ideals; for it bears repeating that winning is nearly everything but winning like this… is winning.

There’s no action at all

The colours are beginning to gather and swirl.  Or at least in my head they are.  And this year, there is a freshening up of if not the hues or emblems then certainly some of the imagery.  Ireland swap perennial likeable erratic celtic scurrying for stolid consistency. England go skinny-dipping into a brave new brick-pond.  Wales – dashing and smashing Wales – seek quietly desperately to do what they just did once more.  France try fundamentally to get a grip, Italy to get a win (again) and Scotland… Scotland gathers once more into a determined huddle with a rare degree of authentic belief.  This much at least suggests itself from the recent announcements of 6 Nations personnel.

On balance it seems great; a feistily competitive tournament awaits; an even one perhaps, where England may have been transformed from the Great Boring Shadow over the affair into The Real White Fluffy Bunny of Hope.  Ideally.

Or where Wales accept the challenge of doing that thing all over again and do, whilst breaking down the walls of tradition through being majestically/counterintuitively pragmatic in order to win.  Or where Scotland really really actually actually do beat people they threaten to beat on paper, following their allegedlyinfact real progress.   And these are just the obvious shifting gems in my own particular admittedly Brit-centric kaleidoscope.

I’m actually guessing England’s necessary evolution will stereotypically not feature some flamboyant casting off of the recent dull iron.  The talk of youth and the manifest rejection of Tindall/Banahan and arguably Easter points to a healthy injection of pace and flexibility, with the newboys Farrell and Barritt for example looking suitably geared up to facilitate that requirement.

Yet talk really is cheap when it comes to the international level; particularly in reference to ‘playing a more expansive game’.   Getting notably duffed up in the first ten by a politically motivated Scots back-row might throttle back rose-tinted English  ambition pretty sharply I sense.  And more specifically, if Lancaster does go for Hodgson Farrell Barritt(?) as 10-12-13, half of England as well as all of Scotland will be initially concerned with how they cope, never mind how they play.

Hodgson has been widely admired as a top and consistent performer in the Premiership but am I alone in wondering whether he has the temperament or (go on, say it) The Bottle to boss things on an international stage?  Particularly one that specifies Murrayfield first-up.  His nature and my memory of said nature suggests otherwise.

But such is the lot of the 10.  Current expectation, history and some large hairy geezer all bearing down…

Unquestionably though, the ability or otherwise of the English to reinvent themselves into a modern/competitive/fit for purpose top level international side is clearly going to impact on the destination of the 6 Nations trophy.  Not particularly because any of us expect them to win it but because they have, as they say, players.

But do they have a team?

Wales have different pressures.  A near-magnificent Word Cup adventure; a coaching triumvirate in Gatland/Edwards/Howley that gathered them then to a collective peak of confidence and execution, now needing to do that most challenging of things – rinse and repeat.  Dangers of expectation and of maintenance; maintaining that spirit; maintaining intensity without shackling that glorious expression; maintaining composure when suddenly Faletau/Warburton are getting knocked back.  Defending without distraction when every fibre screams out for release.  And maybe most pointedly, plastering over cracks where key players should be.

I have a hunch that Priestland, perversely, may find life in the 6 more testing than it appeared at the World Cup.  His chief attribute seemed then his general coolness – the boy making no claim to threaten the exclusivity of King John and his mercurial followers in the national out-half slot.  He succeeded in being effective without sparkling and I wonder how that key balance – territory versus terrorism? – will play out this time.

Hook is surely a bigger talent, but one flawed or compromised or perceived to be, following the occasional interception of a killer pass.  Given that much of the gut-churning tension generated by test matches inveigles its way into the heads/hearts/feet/hands of the number 10’s, the pulse of the Welsh side will calm or quicken according to the quality of will and the steel shown by Priestland or by Hook.   Because – in one of their bigger calls? – the coaches have dispensed with the doughty Stephen Jones.  May youth and imagination prosper.

The Irish fascinate me.  Not just through their capacity to produce the world’s finest and most rewardingly sustaining drink – although many a thesis could be written to conjoin Guinness and creative genius – and then link that dubiously to numbers 4 to 7/possibly 8 on a rugby pitch.  (I’m not going there, quite.)  But Ireland have been and do remain a threat mostly(?) when the O’Connells to the Heaslips seem possessed of an electrically charged, patriotically driven fury.  Then low-centred centres have relentlessly exploited newly-exposed soft-centres.  That is still likely to be the Irish Way.

To be more specific, there are times when the Irish carry irresistibly – when the pick and go is developed into a carousel of green violence few can resist.  O’Connell will be selflessly but in every sense leading this charge; as skipper and as totem for that special kind of focussed but physical examination.  Ireland do have quality in the backs – witness the omission of Luke Fitzgerald – but a certain BOD has often been the baton-carrier into the lethal phases, has he not?

It strikes me that Bowe in flight is a classy but a pretty rare sight in recent times because of this sniping midfield obsession; one which works fiercely but historically only intermittently, often off the back of a roaring home crowd. Is this, I wonder a reflection of the lack of ubertalent as well as a mark of the propensity for world-class defiance?

So I am fascinated by the onward roll of a part-green part-gold generation; which despite its relative consistency has spikes of over and underachievement.  Which of these Irelands, these Wales’s, these Englands will actually turn up?

My opening gambits.  As such they are hardly exhaustive – and I do intend to take on the Scots and the rest more forensically later.   But with kick-offs so invitingly, so deliciously approaching, it does feel good as well as appropriate to be all mouth and no action for now.

BOD or BOFG? Silly to compare!

There is something alarming about Paul O’Connell’s forearms; or at least I think there is.  I hope this has nothing whatsoever with prejudices I may have against Irishmen, Ginger Monsters or ham, but there is something in the club-like nature of that leading section of his limbs which has the worryingly hypnotic power normally associated with unhinged propellers.  Or – I suppose – mad, ginger-haired Irish hams.

Not that the recently reappointed skipper is himself either fully or sectionally unhinged – far from it.  In fact, on the contrary, there is something (else?) both powerful and controlling about the Second Row’s clasping gear.  It appears – it feels – as though he has uncommonly massive forearms; forearms with an extra dimension.   One where even extraordinary physicality is only part of the bundle.

This potential for extra-curricular stature is essential to O’Connell’s appeal.  As a captain – of both Lions and Ireland on occasion, remember – and as a standard-bearer leading the charge.  For a man who lacks pace, he picks and goes as effectively as any Front Fiver, having a weirdly unassuming relentlessness that smacks of indomitable courage rather than extroverted heart.  Again and again, O’Connell leads; again and again – whether in the lineout or into contact – he is present.  Such is the rather wonderful and possibly anti-heroic nature of his contribution.

Being myself mercifully six or seven inches shy of the typical Second Row’s elevation I can only speak from a respectful distance of the frequency and abrasiveness of the clashes of these titans.  O’Connell has had his share.  But what strikes me generally of the man – in particular the later vintage (Limerick)Munsterman – is the degree of control he retains whilst either being, or being in, a tide of hyper-conflict.   The temptation towards devilry when confronted by the likes of … name your most feared or revered international 4 or 5 (Botha?)… has been known to be challenging to the point of decisive – particularly in the modern era – where yellow cards for cynicism, slackness or raw violence do occur.

Paul O’Connell, though I suspect not remotely fazed by the thought of succeeding Brian O’Driscoll as captain of Ireland, is nevertheless succeeding a man who by common appreciation is one of the greats of the game.  O’Connell is not, he will know, quite in that highest echelon – though this is certainly partly a matter of differences in gearing.

O’Connell epitomizes that low-diff grungy but rangy Land Rover thing whereas BOD has the possibility for thrilling, fuel-injected glory.  The Lock, who I am tempted to burden with the BOFG moniker (Big Occasionally Friendly Giant) will never electrify us; 4 and 5 don’t do that stuff.   He will however make us roar, us Lions fans, with an imperious catch and subsequent drive, or a low-slung but vital scurry for yardage as a 10 waits dry-lipped for a drop attempt.

In addition, the aforementioned catch/drive/scurry is likely to be repeated with an efficiency destined surely to grind down or erode the confidence of the opposition.  Thus O’Connell executes.

O’Driscoll and O’Connell; two good Irishmen and true who unquestionably share a capacity to absorb or inflict pain for the cause.  As a result they’ve shared injuries and the breaks in continuity they bring.  But such is the influence both exert that they tend to feature pretty much immediately upon teamsheets at every level, right up to those conferring preciously regarded Lionhood.

As the one (BOD) steps away from some of these privileges, few would question that Paul O’Connell – magnificently armed specimen that he appears – is entirely equipped to be a worthy successor, captain or not.  And that brilliant, thunder-stealing but short-arsed centre cannot, in all likelihood rob him of one particular accolade – that of being the B.O.F.G.