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Brian O'Driscoll on dreary Lions, Rassie, cash-hit IRFU and needed changes

By Liam Heagney

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In different circumstances, Brian O’Driscoll would be having a whale of a time this weekend by putting his status as a legendary former Ireland and Lions rugby midfielder to very good use. Ryder Cup is usually a great excuse to cosy up to the world’s best golfers, but the pandemic served up a sting in the tail for the 2021 edition. No European-based celebrities were allowed to take a place on the team for the Celebrity Ryder Cup, the party-pooping red tape insisting only USA-based people could be chosen on this occasion.

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It’s why O’Driscoll was sat in his Dublin living room, talking to RugbyPass over Zoom, rather than smashing a ball about on the fairways of the famed Whistling Straits before the main golfing event got going between Steve Stricker’s USA team and Padraig Harrington’s visiting Europeans. “It’s a selected crew that gets to go over there,” he rued. “I was in touch with a guy who does the celebrity Ryder Cup and they had to pick Europeans all based in America because no one can fly over for it.”

A bit like the absent Lions fans for the quickly forgotten South African tour. Normally, the fuzzy glow of the quadrennial adventure would last for months on end, but this latest southern hemisphere adventure was consigned to the bin as soon as Morne Steyn did what he did twelve years ago and kicked the series-clinching points.

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The identity of the match-winner was about the only similarity to what unfolded in 2009, a raucous, technicolour dream of a trip that O’Driscoll himself was involved in. Numerous memorable moments happened back then, but there was nothing to linger in the mind from this particular dreary misadventure. “It was not the most exciting tour for sure for a multitude of reasons,” agreed O’Driscoll, the veteran of four Lions tours and the scorer of one of their greatest tries of all time, a 2001 hop, skip and run through the Australian defence from halfway in Brisbane. “We all realise fans make sport and none more so than fans make Lions tours. 

“Not having supporters out there and the energy they bring to a stadium, the atmospheres and having to create that yourself, we have gotten used to that in rugby over the course of the last 18 months but it really felt wrong from a Lions perspective. And then on top of that, the rugby was not the easiest on the eye and so I don’t think any of us the week after the third Test were wishing there was any more rugby to be watched, that there wasn’t a fourth Test. We had all had our fill at that stage… we went to be entertained as a public but it is not your job as a team or a head coach, you play to win. 

“There was none of those (memorable moments), just two maul tries in three Tests. You look back on big moments in tours but it didn’t feel there were too many. It’s unfortunate because for me it is the best Lions tour. To have to wait another 12 years for those players to get to experience what South Africa has to offer, they were in a bubble and it wasn’t a Lions tour as we know it, it was just a version of it. But we have got to make the most of the time we are living in and that, unfortunately, was the best version we could achieve.”

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Instead, the main talking points came off the field, the infamous Rassie Erasmus video rant dominating the chatter while there was also a debate about whether Gatland should be appointed Lions boss for a fourth tour when they visit Australia in 2025. “I’m not waiting with bated breath as to what World Rugby will do,” he reckoned about the Erasmus referee-berating issue which is now eight weeks old and seemingly in limbo.

“Because it has been drawn out for as long as it had you would have to anticipate it will be a minimal issue from their point of view with what Rassie said, it will be a slap on the wrist perhaps. Unfortunately, he maybe has changed things and not for the better. He definitely questioned the whole respect the referee conversation that we are so proud of as a rugby community. 

“And regarding Warren, there was talk very quickly afterwards that the Lions were in communication to do the tour in four years’ time. I guess a lot will depend on his appetite and where he is going to be, or whether there is a need for new blood. Three tours as a head coach is pretty impressive for any coach. To have won one, drawn one and lost one very narrowly is not to be sniffed at.”

Another rugby topic to be taken into account from an Irish perspective is player contracts. With fans finally allowed back in Irish stadia, the IRFU is finally back in business following the harrowing effects of the pandemic on its bottom line. Wage deferrals, delayed contract offers and all the rest of it made for a messy time.

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With the IRFU even now still claiming it is down on its uppers, it begs the question as to whether the time is now ripe for the administrators in Dublin to loosen its grip and perhaps come to an arrangement with its highest earners that they can temporarily head overseas to maximise their earning power in a way similar to how some All Blacks head off for six months or a year and then return to the fold.  

As it stands, any player playing their club rugby outside of Ireland isn’t considered for national team selection but might the pandemic financial black hole force some level of a rethink? “There is no issue with going away provided you are coming back,” suggested O’Driscoll. 

“If you were a player like Tadhg Furlong and if Japan is looking for tighthead props, why wouldn’t you potentially write that into a contract that you are entitled to go away for a big payday for a year like all the Kiwis are doing and yet come back and still be around in time to potentially be able to play for Ireland. You would have to imagine that there is definitely scope in the future for players to be able to do that, but probably only the ones that are world leaders in their position and have better bargaining power. 

“I understand why the IRFU do it [only select home-based players]. It would become a money play and you do run the risk of a mass exodus (if you pick from abroad) and I do think you will lose control on individuals because contracts will have huge variances as to what they can and can’t do, what training camps they can be at. It will impact the national team so from that perspective I can absolutely understand why they do it. 

“It does feel occasionally you might shoot yourself in the foot but that exception to the rule probably doesn’t outweigh the overall law in itself in that you are more likely to get to control the quality players that you need, having them play in the games that you want them to play in and then hopefully get them to peak for the right times. 

“It’s hard to argue with the fact that other than World Cups the consistency that this national team has had over the course of the last ten years in particular compared to their history of being a good team for a year or two and then falling off a cliff. There has been a really strong consistency for the most part over the last ten, 15 years.”

An issue that especially niggled players in Ireland was the delayed contract offers. It was about eight years ago when the IRFU promised that every star player contract would be sorted out by a January deadline in advance of a Six Nations campaign, but that line in the sand had been regularly muddied in the David Nucifora era. For instance, it was only last May, a few days after he was chosen to tour with the Lions, that pen was put to paper on the deal keeping tighthead Furlong in Ireland until summer 2022. 

O’Driscoll agreed the delay can’t be good for players but he felt some slack must be afforded to the IRFU in the current climate. “It’s very hard to call it on the current landscape because things have been so different over the course of the last two years, yet no player wants to find themselves in a vulnerable position where they are one injury away from having a slashed contract because it is so late in the day. 

“The earlier in the season the better it is in your head. You play with greater freedom and with no financial uncertainty, it gives a release of pressure. The players are no different than anyone sitting in an office. If you thought that your contract was up in the summer and you weren’t sure what your position was in May, that is going to create pressure and a considerable amount of stress. 

“Rugby players are no different and you will find when this phase vanishes into the past that you will hope the contract negotiations will be brought forward to pre-Christmas and players will be able to enjoy the latter parts of their year.”

One particular curiosity about the IRFU’s determination to hold onto its best talents is how it has never explored the possibility of some players expanding their experience by hooking up with London Irish in the Premiership. That league would give players a different type of rugby experience to what they know with their provinces, as suggested this week on RugbyPass by Exiles boss Declan Kidney. But with IRFU powerbroker Nucifora having never even had a conversation of any kind with ex-Ireland coach Kidney, it seems as if a potentially positive outlet is being purposely ignored. 

“It is a viable question,” suggested O’Driscoll about the IRFU breaking bread with London Irish. “That was definitely the case back in the ’90s and early 2000s. Certainly, when I joined Leinster and was in the Irish set-up, a number of the players were in London Irish or just returning to Ireland from London Irish. It was seen as the go-to destination for Irish players. You had Jeremy Davidson, Mal O’Kelly, Conor O’Shea, Niall Woods, all these guys were over there playing in the ’90s just as professionalism came in in ’95. 

“It would make sense to have something, having a foothold in the Premiership as it continues to grow and continues to improve. I guess it is just an alignment of the ownership there and the IRFU and whether they can come to some sort of agreement. I can understand why Irish are looking for that Irish identity as well which has been lacking in the last 15, 20 years, maybe since Bob Casey finished up as a player. But having Sean O’Brien come over, there was talk of Keith Earls last year, those guys are important to bring a genuine Irishness to a team called the London Irish and having a credibility to what their history is and what they stand for.” 

Regardless of that non-relationship, change is imminent in the running of Irish rugby. Long-serving IRFU CEO Philip Browne recently announced he is to take early retirement while there has also been speculation that high-performance boss Nucifora will head back to Australia when his existing contract expires at the end of the 2021/22 season.

Asked about the changes, confirmed or otherwise, O’Driscoll said: “You need innovation, don’t you? If you don’t innovate you die and Philip has done a phenomenal job over the course of the period of time I have known. He is so low key, there has been no ego involved but he has been very efficient in the job he has done and he should get huge credit for that. 

“But with him stepping aside you have got an opportunity to bring someone in that might change things up a little bit rather than keep the status quo, that brings a different type of energy, brings something that perhaps we’re missing from other leagues of other unions and bring you into the digital age a little bit more from an experiential point of view. It’s a great opportunity for the union albeit I would lavish lots of praise on Philip for a job well done.”

His verdict on Nucifora wasn’t quite fulsome. “Good and bad,” he figured. “That elusive World Cup semi-final remains elusive and that was a big carrot that he had talked about and ultimately we haven’t managed to get there, but the reintroduction of a sevens team, the development of the women’s game has been impressive with more funding going to both.

“You can see from the men’s XV game that it has grown as a result of the sevens, some sevens players getting international experience. There have definitely been some good aspects to what David Nucifora has done albeit we will have to wait another while for that World Cup semi-final.”

Every time there is a failure in Irish rugby, Ireland not delivering internationally or the provinces not dominating in the Champions Cup, there are grumblings about the unconvincing PRO14 which this weekend was transformed into the United Rugby Championship with the inclusion of the best four South African franchises. It’s hoped their involvement can up standards long term and make the league a more credible tournament compared to the Premiership and Top 14. 

“I’m very hopeful for that,” continued O’Driscoll, who this past week was a judge on the BT Sport Innovate 21 show. “It has been disappointing the last few years and that is not because Leinster have had a monopoly on it and have won it as often as they have. Huge credit to them for that but I just feel that it’s been lacking quality, the games where international players are away.

“If you look in the Premiership that is happening now as well but it doesn’t feel like their standards slip significantly which I feel that is the case in the PRO14 and we need better quality sides to come in with big reputations, with better athletes, and hopefully drive the standard because we are going to see South African teams competing in Europe as well which is a good thing.”

“With that coming from next year on that will drive the standard again and mean the players won’t be able to be rested like they were in the past and you will have to drive the depth of your squad an awful lot more rather than just rely on finishing top eight or whatever it might be and limping into the top tier of European competition. That has to be earned now and that will, in turn, drive the standards of the top tier of Europe as well.”

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Brian O'Driscoll on dreary Lions, Rassie, cash-hit IRFU and needed changes

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