In the ever-fascinating world of fans’ perception of players and their abilities, one factor that’s surprisingly important is what the player looks like – both to male and female fans alike. Male rugby fans may not be considered the most meterosexual bunch, but make no mistake, looks matter.
Demented Mole, under his ‘Hugonaut’ guise on the Leinsterfans’ forum, once wrote that he thought Rory Best to be just as good a player as Jerry Flannery, but that Flannery’s hair and superman posture generally elevated people’s perceptions of him, while Rory Best was bald when he was 23 and looks like a Nordie farmer. It was a fair point. I’ve seen Flannery’s hair in person and it really is extraordinary. Who wouldn’t allow it to colour their opinion slightly? What a player looks like can have a surprising influence on just how he’s perceived by the public.
Some players undeniably have what Moneyballers refer to as ‘good face’. Having ‘good face’ needn’t mean being good looking in the conventional sense, though that hardly hurts either. Sergio Parisse would be a brilliant player no matter what he looked like, but it’s no harm that he looks like a film star while trying to fill all 15 positions for the Azzuri. And the reliably invigorating sight of David Wallace smashing defenders hither and yon was only improved by his looking so ruggedly handsome in the process. Few would be ashamed to admit a slight man-crush on either.
The player with the best face in Irish rugby right now is Peter O’Mahony, with Donnacha Ryan in close pursuit. In fact, they both look rather alike. Neither are what you’d call conventionally handsome, but they both have amazing features: deep-set eyes and weird bone structure. They look permanently angry, ready to start a fight at a moment’s notice. Perfect, then, for the all-out war that is the forward battle on a rugby pitch.
The interesting thing is that O’Mahony’s face has had a misleading effect on how he’s perceived as a player. Mention O’Mahony’s name and people will tell you he’s a fearsome warrior who won’t take a backward step, as tough as they come. Have a look at his snarling features and you wouldn’t doubt it. But watch him in action, and in fact, you’ll probably conclude he’s not really that type of player. Yes, he has a tendency to look for trouble on the pitch, but the faux-hardman act is really his weakest suit and something he shouldn’t bother with.
In fact, he takes a backward step fairly often. He slips the odd tackle and, for a blindside, isn’t great at trucking slow ball around the corner of the ruck and over the gainline. He’s no Joe Worsley. What he is, however, is a talented footballer; a very skilful handler, brilliant lineout forward, and a slightly willowy flanker who can get up a good gallop when further out from the ruck, where he can use his long-armed hand-off to good effect and is capable of beating defenders in a little bit of space. His ground and tracking skills are also very useful. His skillset is really closer to, say, that of Jamie Heaslip’s than many have let on or than you might think – by the look of him anyway.
Another whose appearance can be deceptive – in a different way – is Tom Croft. He looks every inch the English yeoman, magnificent of physique and with a chiselled face that can only be honed in the finest English public schools. It’s tempting to believe the hype that he’s the world’s best blindside. Now, Crofty is not a player without his strengths, and his good moments can be spectacular, but he doesn’t influence a game over 80 minutes. And no blindside should ever be bundled into touch by Paddy Wallace. He’s just not quite as good as he looks.
Demented Mole recently wondered aloud why Devin Toner was such a figure of ridicule outside – and sometimes inside – Leinster. The answer might just be the cut of the chap. Not quite filling out his 210cm frame and with a face that looks almost boyish, he doesn’t quite fit the desired mould of second row hardman. Regardless of how good he is or isn’t, prehaps he just doen’t have ‘good face’. Don’t underestimate it.