Renaissance Man

Donncha O’Callaghan is the classic workhorse of a rugger team – for Munster and Ireland, he has consistently tackled himself to a standstill, while taking a back seat to the like of Paul O’Connell (and even Micko) when it comes to leadership and taking the team forward.

For a man who is among the most decorated in Irish history (2 HECs, Grand Slam, 2 Lions tours, 90Ireland caps), the general impression is of a follower, a man who needed the Axels and Paulies of this world to step up on his behalf.

This impression has, ironically, been fed by the man who coached him to his finest moments – master mind-bender Deccie. Deccie never tires of telling us how valuable Donncha is to the cause, how we are lucky – nay, blessed – to have not only Paul O’Connell and Micko, but Donncha as well! And his most famous faint praise of O’Callaghan has become the most notorious – that Donncha is in the team for his “unseen work”. We’re not sure what it is either, but it was used to mask declining tackle counts and effectiveness on the ground.

For his continued selection in Irish XVs for the last two years, Donncha has become something of a bête noire on these pages, mocked as Stakhanov – a reference to the way he is inevitably described by all and sundry – the dedicated pack mule who can take a back seat when it comes to decision making and tactics.

Broader skillsets from the likes of Dan Tuohy and Mike McCarthy were ignored for the safe option of Donncha, and it became somewhat of a yardstick for conservatism in selection. Recall as well Devin Toner having to call the lineouts on his debut, and the reason for our frustration becomes clearer.

By the end of last season, O’Callaghan looked a busted flush – short of impact, short of physicality and short of the kind of carrying ability modern locks can bring to the game – he had lost his Munster and Ireland jersey to Donnacha Ryan.

But a strange thing has happened – Rob Penney has come in to Munster with a vague idea of playing a different game than the traditional bish bash bosh they are famed for, and he has had his difficulties in implementation. Paul O’Connell has spent long spells injured and Ronan O’Gara has increasingly resorted to playing an old style kick for territory. The third survivor of the 2006 breakthrough, Donncha, has been a most impressive adherent to the new plan.

O’Callaghan derided himself as “Johnny Robot” for slavishly following coaches instructions, but this is remarkable – a man who rarely strayed more than 1 metre from a ruck regularly pops up on the wing and has even attempted a few offloads. In addition, he has actually upped the stakes physically – carry the ball into contact even slightly too upright, and Donncha will engineer a Munster scrum quicker than you can say “over-used phrase to describe forcing the opposition into a maul and getting the put-in to the resultant scrum”.

What’s more, the famed leadership qualities we assumed weren’t present have begun to assert themselves. In the build-up to the Embra game, Donncha was highly visible in the press telling all who would listen that, for all the grumbling about Rob Penney’s tactical revolution, it was the Munster players who weren’t executing, and blaming the boss was the easy way out. He delivered a powerful message to his underperforming colleagues – that the type of performance seen against Cardiff was simply unacceptable, and the onus was on them to deliver.

Munster have never been short of characters to deliver this kind of message – Jirry, POC, Quinny, Axel or Radge for example – but to see O’Callaghan deliver it was still something of a stunner.

So perhaps his bosses down the years have missed something of a trick when it comes to O’Callaghan, and it took a new broom in Munster to eke out hitherto-unseen leadership qualities. Or maybe he feels he needs to show example to some of his forwards. Or maybe he’s just having an Indian summer and Penney told him to do the presser.

Either way, it’s a most interesting and welcome development.  It’s also in stark contrast to the supposed leadership qualities being brought to bear by the other experienced campaigner in the team.  You guessed it: Radge!  Picked in the team for his wealth of experience, quite what he was doing kicking out at second rows we cannot know.  It wasn’t the first time this season ROG’s attitude towards the outcome of a game has looked somewhat feckless.  It might not be the worst thing for Munster if he is banned from the final pool game, or the Six Nations opener for that matter.

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16 Comments

  1. Michael

     /  January 16, 2013

    Radge getting binned from the 6n is definately good news for Ireland.

    In many ways, Kidney is the luckiest coach around. If it wasn’t for injuries, the likes of Gilroy, Zebo and the Marshalls would never have seen the light of day.

  2. Seiko

     /  January 16, 2013

    DOC likes to portray himself as a total eejit, some have fallen for the routine. Every coach he has had has rated him highly. Incidentally, Gert Smal is a big fan and that is why he gets the nod for Ireland over Tuohy etc. One thing that stands to DOC, and that is amazing fitness record – he never gets injured – one reason for keeping him in every squad.

    Michael – Kidney could have played Trimble instead of Gilroy. Zebo was capped in NZ on the wing. He could also have put any number of players to fullback like Earls, Madigan, Bowe, but he picked Zebo who has never played there before. Thats a big call.

    I don’t understand the delight in O’Gara not being available for the 6Ns. It could affect Sexton’s performance to have Jackson/Madigan breathing down his neck (if he is a success) and if he isn’t, it could destroy Jackson’s confidence. How much gametime would Jackson/Madigan get – 5 games x 5 minutes = 25 mins (for 6 weeks of bench warming). Meantime, back at the ranch who will be covering for Madigan? I presume Ulster must have planned to give Pienaar a break during the 6Ns considering he has played non-stop for the last 18 months.

    • Leinsterlion

       /  January 16, 2013

      Spurious reasoning there for keeping a visibly decaying ROG involved in the international setup.Giving Jackson/Madigan/Keatley game-time is more important than your highly hypothetical arguments of Sextons “confidence” being ruined or Jacksons confidence being ruined(how?). ROG has been done for about three years at international level. If your desperate to have a player in ROG’s tactical mould involved, Steenson is essentially a carbon copy, clamour for his involvement.
      As for covering for the whichever of the provincial backups are called into the camp. Noel Reid could do with gametime at ten as he has shown he has no future in the center.
      At Ulster Niall O’Conner will fill in. ROG has no place being near an international setup.

      • Seiko

         /  January 16, 2013

        I’ve no wish to keep O’Gara in the international setup. There are pros and cons for dropping him though. Giving Jackson or Madigan 25 minutes of rugby in the 6Ns is not on the pro side of dropping him though, particularly as Jackson will be heading into a Heineken Cup QF with approx. 25 minutes of rugby in the previous 8 weeks.

      • Leinsterlion

         /  January 16, 2013

        There are no pros as regards keeping him then, you just dont want to others rotting on the bench? Thats an issue for DK and his lack of use of the bench, JS should be rested for Scotland and Italy, both woeful Tier 2 nations that should be targeted for blooding youngsters (as we didnt do it during the November internationals).
        The back-up should get both starts against Italy and Scotland. If they dont, DK is admitting our best players are barely above Tier 2 nations, and we need to play our best to beat substandard teams that the SH 3rd stringers regularly hammer.

      • Seiko

         /  January 16, 2013

        I seem to recall losing against Scotland and nearly losing against Italy recently when a young, but fairly experienced at club level outhalf was being blooded at international level!
        Sexton doesn’t like being subbed and shows it. Not good for his replacement.

      • Buccaneer

         /  January 16, 2013

        @Leinsterlion thats a great shout about targeting the italy and scotland games. I would like to see some new combinations all over the park and at the very least, Mads or PJ to start one of them. Even if Sexton does start one of them have the 2 Marshalls either side of him. If not now when……..

  3. That was a really impressive intervention by DOC last week, he managed to push aside questions about the game-plan, focus on the players and take some of the slack off the coaches. There’s been some talk about the players having to stand up and tell the coaches they didn’t want to play like this and it was great to get the insight into a senior player’s attitude towards it.

    Regarding ROG, I think the petulant kick-out on Sunday was just another symptom of his frustration this season. He’s not suited to the rugby Munster are trying to play and he’s been forcing things. He cuts an increasingly frustrated figure on the field a lot of the time these days.

  4. If anyone has read DOC’s biog there’s an interesting tidbit in there from the EOS days, where DOC made the cardinal sin of deciding the carry the ball himself instead of shovelling it out to POC during training, EOS lambasted him for it. This is a player who hasn’t just been on 2 lions tours, he was also selected as a captain for a midweek game. He takes his game very seriously and in recent times seems to have realised that the “joker image” of his antics outside of training had also an influence on how people perceived him as a player. Since Penney’s arrival he’s had a new lease on life and genuinely seems to be enjoying the fact that he’s allowed to go outside the set-play box he’s been restricted to for so many years.

  5. Ben Murphy

     /  January 16, 2013

    More Donncha bashing and damning with faint praise. You’ve said that his stats dropped. Yet he is consistently listed in the top tackle count for Ireland. Like any player he has dips in form but hardly to the extent to which you state.

    Rather than your spurious ‘Stakhanov’ epithet you should consider ‘Boxer’ instead. The steady, hard working horse that was cast aside by people who didn’t understand his contribution.

    • I think you could only call this faint praise if that’s what you’re looking for. To paraphrase: Donners had a stellar career with loads of caps and two Lions tours (capped on both, although the fellas didn’t mention that), HECs, etc; went very much on the wane for a season or so and was kept in the Ireland team while not performing, losing his provincial shirt and with other locks with broader games coming on the scene; yet he’s been reborn under RP, playing in a new style and looking fresh (also examining his role within various squads, the public perceptions of him and how cultivated those himself).

      And the Stakhanov thing is taking the piss out of the media rather than the man, surely?

      My thoughts: generally agree with the piece, and if he is truly invigorated and is able to keep up the current energy and fitness I see no reason he shouldn’t be a live option in the national second row up to and including the 2015 World Cup. Without O’Connell we will still go into the Six Nations with locking options as Ryan, McCarthy, the mighty Stakhanov/ Boxer from Animal Farm, Tuohy and Henderson, with which I’m very happy. Wales could be starting with Lou Reed and a half-fit Ian Evans when we play them in a few weeks. We’re in a much stronger place than some.

      “Unseen work” is terrible analysis.

      I think Madigan should be the 6N back-up ten. Jackson is a work in progress. His skill and natural ability in attacking play as a stand-off is exceptional. However, some of the more prosaic parts to his game still need to be polished. I have Madigan ahead of Keatley and therefore would choose IM in green.

      • Yossarian

         /  January 16, 2013

        I always get a shudder when i hear the term “unseen work” reminds me of EOS justifying picking Simon Easterby(not criticizing player,just remember a game he had same rucks/tackle count as 1 of our props and this line was trotted out while i think David Wallace/keith gleeson or another quality flanker was being left out). mixed emotions on ROG ban-if he gets banned leinsters chances of progressing decrease while irelands six nations looks brighter.worst case scenario 2 week ban!

  6. Rich

     /  January 16, 2013

    Yes – the unseen work is always a dodgy one – a bit like emile heskey – its what he does “off the ball” that merits inclusion – leaving us thinking of a footballers best attrbute being not having the ball……….

    DOC has hung in there long enough doing the donkey work, but at least he can step up now. Lets be honest – kidney is very against picking ulster players and tuohy is a prime example – i doubt he ll even be in the squad. and mccarthy only got a look in because of injury. So DOC ain t going to complain is he?

    ROG is so far away from an international player, if he is still that stupid to trip up a player running past him – WHICH HE DID – then he does nt warrant a munster shirt never mind ireland. if he is banned for 3 weeks – i would bet he ll be back for the last 2 6N games – even if Mad/Keat/Jack come on and play well – he ll be back in. Cos we are Ireland. We pick players who will be 38 for next RWC…….

    • seiko

       /  January 17, 2013

      Rich, where does that baby-faced 20 year old blindside/lock come from who has been appearing for Ireland in the AIs hail from? Or when is the last time that Declan Fitzpatrick could put more than 2 games together because he is always injured and then there is Craig Gilroy who couldn’t get a start with Ulster? What province does Paddy Wallace come from?

      Tuohy got chances on the summer tour and he didn’t measure up to D Ryan. Mick McCarthy was deserving of the chances he got.

  7. @Ben Murphy – don’t make us take out last season’s 6N tackle count stats – you won’t like the results!

  8. TERMAGANT

     /  January 22, 2013

    Less of this please – one of the major raisons d’etre of WoC has been to counter the ridiculous pro-Donkey puff pieces found in the Irish dailies…

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