WHEN you begin a professional rugby career, the overriding feelings for the first few years are of gratitude and amazement that someone is actually willing to pay you to grapple with grown men. Generally, you keep your head down and mouth shut. After this initial period, once you’ve proved that you are not just a competition winner and that you’re in this strange job for the long term, that is when some players can go slightly off the rails. In professional terms, these are your difficult teenage years, and for argument’s sake lets say they last from your early to mid-twenties.
Within your limited little rugby universe, you reckon you have it all figured out, and are all too keen to pass on your wisdom to anyone who will listen. However, rather than creating a reputation as a rugby sage; a dogmatic, overly-vociferous approach to your job, whether within the squad or to the press, makes you come across as an opinionated, entitled, self-aggrandising tit. And yes, clearly, I am speaking from personal experience.
But gradually the penny drops that you are not doing yourself any favours by spouting off (or else realise that no one is listening), and that you may be harming your own career and even the careers of those with whom you work. Even the most quote-worthy mouthpiece – a Danny Cipriani, for example – will eventually pipe down and get on with playing rugby. Which is what made Sean O’Brien’s comments last week regarding the Lions tour so surprising, at least at first glance.
O’Brien is 30, deep into middle-age in rugby terms. He has consolidated his place at the top of the game, has nothing to prove and certainly doesn’t seem like a publicity seeker, so why the sudden adolescent outburst?
I actually read a relevant Martin Amis (see, even now I’m drawn towards opinionated tits) quote yesterday: “Insulting people in your middle-age is undignified, and looks more and more demented as you head towards the twilight”.
O’Brien isn’t anywhere near his twilight just yet, but there is a fair chance that, at the age of 34, he won’t be in South Africa in 2021. So there’s that: he is not prejudicing his own opportunities by being so forthright. But think of the background to his opinions: in Ireland’s last three matches with New Zealand they have either won or gone very close, and did so with an efficient but relatively blunt three-quarter line and without the added athleticism of Maro Itoje and Taulupe Faletau up front. Going into the tour, O’Brien had every right to expect to win, so you can imagine the frustration if his chances of doing so were damaged by something as fundamental as planning the training workload of a Test week.
In commenting explicitly on the quality of the coaching, with specific reference to Rob Howley and Warren Gatland, O’Brien has violated one of the great rugby, indeed sporting, taboos. But I’m sure both coaches are big enough (and well enough remunerated) to take it, and in fact Gatland’s comments during the tour back O’Brien up: “When we looked back on the tape of the first Test, our forwards were a bit heavy-legged. We did a double session on the Thursday in the first Test week. I don’t think it was just the double session, it was the accumulation of three to four weeks of no days off, travel, the games, the trainings, walk-through, everything the coaches do, the meetings.”
Well crikey, why should we expect the Lions coaches to get the preparation for the biggest game of the decade spot on? They’ve only had three years and millions of pounds to get ready for it….
Against my better judgement, I read through a few comments sections relating to his remarks, and sure enough the general consensus was that O’Brien should wind his neck in. A predictable but depressing reaction. Because I’m sure most guys who have played at a decent level read his interview and thought: ‘Yep, fair enough’.
It sounds like a situation every professional player has been in, hamstrung by ineffectual or unclear coaching. It’s just that usually there is nothing to be gained and much to be lost by bringing it to attention, so fair play to him for speaking out.
Furthermore, the man has some serious standing, so if he chooses to get controversial on us it carries a lot more weight than if the same comments were coming from Tom Wood.
O’Brien singlehandedly changed the profile of a ball-carrying back row when he first came on the scene, and, over-trained or not, he still went out and battered the All Blacks in that first Test. But clearly he feels he could have battered them just that little bit more if given a fair crack of the whip.