Throughout last week as I read about Anthony Foley, saw clips of the great days of Munster rugby and even when I saw the heartbreaking, and I would argue intrusive, photos from his funeral, I thought about icons. Irish rugby has known many of them. Foley was an icon. The Munster obsessed boy from Clare who went on to become the stoic leader that eventually lead the red army to the promised land in 2006 will go down as one of the greats. Many of the men he soldiered with are afforded similar cult status (Gaillimh, The Claw, David Wallace, Jerry Flannery, ROG and Paul O’Connell to name just some of the Munster men).
Leinster have also known icons such as BOD, Felipe Contepomi and Shane Horgan. However the most striking thing to me as my mind went through these cult heroes is that I don’t think there are many icons left. I believe rugby has an issue at the moment with icons (i.e. there’s an absence of them).
I would have to exclude Connacht from this theory, John Muldoon will go down in Connacht rugby folklore, as will Bundee Aki. How could their first league success not breed a crop of legends? In the traditional big two however, I don’t get the same sense and I’ve spent the past few days wondering why.
Injuries are a big reason. Peter O’Mahoney is old school Munster, a man born maybe 10 years too late who wears his pride and passion on his sleeve. His injury against France in the World Cup robbed him of a year at his peak. He was inspirational on Saturday so perhaps I’ll change my mind if he gets a run of health but there in lies my point. The modern game is so attritional that players rarely get a couple of seasons in which to really build up a head of steam. I think the damage players are doing to themselves in what equates to several weekly car crashes is robbing them of their primes. I’m thinking of Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy when I say that.
More permanently I’m thinking of Stephen Ferris. The blindside flanker was a monster, someone to bring a level of physicality to the game that teams couldn’t handle. He has of course provided iconic moments. The clip of him picking up and carrying Australia’s Will Genia in the 2011 World Cup is one of the great Irish sporting moments. However his early retirement after injury upon injury left us all wondering what might have been. Hopefully O’Brien and Healy aren’t heading the same way but even now they never seem able to stay healthy long enough to get back to the height of their powers.
I think success has something to do with it. CJ Stander is a hero down south but I would think Munster need to get out of their cycle of mediocrity for him to join the list of the truly great ones. Jonny Sexton and Isa Nacewa have known success and their great deeds will live long in the memory but their current incarnations are tied to an inconsistent Leinster team that is fighting to be the 6-8th best team in Europe nowadays.
The final reason I can come up with is the modern game itself. Systems are so refined, defences so airtight, that a game today between two any way equal sides consists of each side hammering into each other waiting for the other to make a mistake leading to a penalty or a line break which rarely leads to a long distance try anyway. O’Driscoll and Darcy made their names weaving in and out of defenders on the international stage, a near impossible feat for players born in the wrong era such as Simon Zebo and Luke Fitzgerald (another man robbed of his glory years by injury). Gary Ringrose seems to have a bit of magic in his feet, hopefully he gets the chance this November. For the moment though, rugby is about the team with the right plan and discipline. The maverick is a dying breed.
In Paul O’Connell’s new book he tells of how Joe Schmidt is looking for each player to do their job as outlined, if you don’t do this he’ll simply put a line through your name. I’m a massive Schmidt fan but you see my point, the system and processes are king which is why more limited but disciplined players like Dave Kearney will probably retire with more caps than Zebo.
If Ireland were to beat the All Blacks in one of their two chances over the next month, icon status would be afforded to the lads out there on the pitch. The same goes for if one of the provinces gives two fingers to the money fueled English and French clubs by going on a serious run in the Champions Cup. I really hope that happens because as one Irish icon was laid to rest far too early last week, I become increasingly worried about the growing accuracy of the phrase “We’ll never see his like again”.