Say it with flowers and tax breaks
By Michael Moynihan

I AM introducing the Grand Slam backlash single-handedly. Right here, right now.

The motivation is not entirely sport-based, or even team-based, but aimed at one man.

Brian O’Driscoll. A good man to have alongside you if a 17-stone Welshman needs to be lifted out of the road, or if you’re in dire need of someone to plough through hefty Saxons for a close-quarters try, but really, the flowers for the engagement have rather undercut Brian’s image.

If you have been hiding under a stone this past week, allow us to explain that O’Driscoll compromised Irishmen everywhere by going to the extraordinary lengths of spelling out WILL YOU MARRY ME in flowers on the lawn of the house he shares with Amy Huberman, who is now the Ireland captain’s fiancée.

You can relax again: we are now taking off our bright-and-shiny Xposé frock and donning again the stained chinos and lightly-crusted PLAYA DEL INGLES t-shirt which make up the dress code on the sports desk.

However, the indignation still enshrouds us like a whiff of wintergreen. We bow to no-one in our admiration for O’Driscoll, who is not so much a riddle wrapped in an enigma as a savage competitor wrapped in a silkily-skilled package. Ordinary people do not plant Tom Shanklin on his rear end, nor do they get up from a (frankly illegal) dunt from Riki Flutey.

However, by raising the expectations of Irishwomen everywhere when it comes to affiancement, the great centre has done his fellow Irishmen no service.

And a couple of questions need to be asked: as O’Driscoll paused at the bottom of a ruck near the Welsh line in the second half of the Grand Slam decider in Cardiff, was he (a) weighing up whether to go high or low in an effort to get that vital touchdown or (b) wondering whether the red chrysanthemums were a bold enough statement with the purple-and-yellow freesias?

We need to be told.

SOMETHING else worth telling emerged from the GPA’s statement during the week. Submerged in the players’ statement was a reference to the GAA player grant scheme being an effort to establish parity of esteem between hurlers and gaelic footballers with professional sportsmen.

The obvious aim of the statement was to get politicians and public onside ahead of the upcoming budget, which promises to make John Bruton’s proposal to tax children’s shoes back in 1982 look like a golden age, and in that context the GPA have signalled a willingness to take a reduction in funding.

However, there are other financial initiatives which may also come under the beady eye of the Department of Finance. Much has been made — and rightly so — of the innovative tax break which allows professional Irish sportsmen claim back 40 per cent of the tax they paid on their playing salaries over the ten years before their retirement.

It has been identified as one of the trump cards, for instance, that the IRFU has been able to play in their efforts to keep most of their internationals playing for the Irish provinces, as the incentive only applies to Irish-based professionals.

That in turn has proven far better for the players physically than the Zurich Premiership treadmill, for the provinces’ success in the Magners League and Heineken Cup, and for the Irish team, given the result in Cardiff two weeks ago.

But if the GPA scheme is in the cross-hairs, who’s to say this scheme isn’t? In an era when the Taoiseach is openly conceding that people’s lifestyles are going to suffer in the next few years, every euro that the Exchequer might be able to retain in tax will come under scrutiny.

If incentives for Irish players to remain at home don’t exist any more, engagement flowers might still be on the agenda, but they may have to be bought in Gloucester or Toulouse rather than Glasthule or Togher.


don’t think we’re operating anywhere near our optimum’

THE right foot is encased in a white running shoe just this side of groovy, and obscured by a table leg.

One week ago, however, it was watched by all of Ireland. Ronan O’Gara’s late, late drop-goal ended six decades of disappointment to secure Ireland’s second-ever Grand Slam but now, however, he’s talking about last autumn, and his call for Irish players to buy into the jersey.

It was typical O’Gara: outspoken, rigorous, challenging, but always thinking of the team.

“Everyone can see that this team’s been different in this Six Nations compared to previous years,” he says. “We’ve been looking to ourselves to do that.

“But the reason you’d say these things isn’t for controversy. I’d say these things because time is ticking for me — when I hang up my boots I want to have medals, and it’s only in the last few years that we’ve started to gather medals. That’s the critical difference.

“I don’t say things for the sake of getting opinions out there. I only comment when I feel there’s a valuable input to be made. I didn’t say those things to the media, either — I said it to the players, we had a few weeks to think about things, and then there was a meeting over Christmas and barriers were broken down.

“There was an honesty policy in the squad, and once that’s there you could see fellas in green play for each other similar to the way fellas in red play for each other. I haven’t been in an Irish camp where that’s been as prominent in a long while.”

Not surprisingly, he points to a fellow Corkman’s influence over the squad as critical. O’Gara acknowledges what Declan Kidney has brought to the table for Ireland.

“He’s brought in a new management team, a new squad — a lot of new players — and made everyone feel part of it. And at times that was even frustrating, because you might have 40 fellas at training and from a selfish point of view all I’d be really concerned with would be the first fifteen, or the match-day 22. It’s difficult enough to run that but Deccie was on about the squad and we got a great squad ethos going.

“He and his staff brought that, and that’s what separates him from other coaches, his ability to run a tight, friendly ship.

“He’s always been grounded, but I think he’s had a gradual progression, which probably helps — he’s had disappointments as well and he’s learned from them. And now he’s reaping the rewards.”

Rewards. There have been many suggestions that rugby in general and players in particular will benefit from the Grand Slam. Has the enormity of the win sunk in yet?

“Not at all. I don’t think there’s a realisation. I remember that it hit me for the first European Cup, but for this it took probably until Tuesday, and it seems to be getting sweeter every day.

“A few of us, probably led by Brian, Paul and myself, needed to win a Grand Slam to have credibility on a European or world stage. That would be something factual, rather than an opinion, about players; as much as people have opinions about players, what certain players have achieved is not up for debate, and this is something for the positive locker.

“It’s something that can’t be taken away. A nice feeling.”

The Ireland dressing-room after the win last Saturday wasn’t manic, he says, but suffused with an inner happiness. It was a mood in keeping with how the season had unfolded.

“There was no panic during the campaign, which was weird. There have been plenty of games in which myself and Paulie would have snapped at each other, but last Saturday with five minutes left he called the pattern of play, and it was a drop-goal pattern. No drama.

“That shows composure under pressure, because strictly speaking there should have been a bit of panic.”

OF the previous games, the most frustrating for O’Gara was the England clash, where he landed just two kicks out of six.

“That was the only one that was close, and that was down to me not kicking points. We were 10 points minimum a better team than them, and I never felt we were going to lose, but they got a last-minute try that put a different spin on the scoreboard.

“Afterwards I was disappointed and frustrated — and a little lost compared to other times in the past, when I knew what was going wrong.

“I’d say that week I’d taken over 100 kicks at goal and probably missed three. I was shocked — not from a cocky point of view — but if I’d known what to correct I’d have done it there and then.

“Maybe I was too relaxed against England. It’s a fascinating thing – I try to talk to a few people about it, and what I’d link goal-kicking to is golf. Line-kicking or kicking from the hand isn’t really like goal-kicking, and golfers have told me that during the season there are times when they’re not too sure when their drives are going, while other times it’s easy.

“It’s the same with goal-kicking — some days it’s easy, while other days you think you feel you’re doing the exact same thing but … as my dad says to me, though, you’re not a machine. The body feels different some days, and you just have to trust it.”

HE had to be trusted last Saturday. O’Gara has often been targeted by other teams, but Wales looked to send runners down his channel at every opportunity. Hardly a surprise, he says.

“No, it makes sense for them to go after me. Me, Brian (O’Driscoll), Gordon (D’Arcy) and Wally (David Wallace) are the line of four, so it doesn’t take a genius to work
out where to run. We do that,

“Our coaches have a fair idea that we’ll know who to go after — (Stephen) Jones is a good defender but we went after him rather
than (Gavin) Henson or (Tom) Shanklin.”

Jones is a good kicker as well. As he lined up that potentially heart-breaking penalty from halfway with time all but up, his Irish counterpart felt exactly what Irish supporters everywhere felt.

“Sick. I don’t know if the occasion got to the ref, but we shouldn’t have won that game on penalty count alone, something
like 16-5, some of them bad decisions. The ref is such an important figure at this level, but that gives a team field position, territory — all important elements in a tight game.”

And what next?

“People are probably asking ‘where to for this team now’, but I can genuinely say this is a starting point – in terms of game planning, creativity, I don’t think we’re operating anywhere near our optimum.”

Outspoken. Rigorous. Challenging. Always thinking of the team.