This is the latest entry in the five favourite players series. You can check out the Welsh edition here.
Continuing our move around the “home nations”, we take a dip into the Irish sea and move over to the land of our Guinness-loving friends. The last few years have been a time of sustained success for the Emerald Isle, with a first-ever victory over the All Blacks, Six Nations championships and a few grand slams.
Ireland has unfortunately not managed to break their curse of causing any damage at a Rugby World Cup (unless you’re a Wallabies fan, in which case you’ll always remember 2011).
During the research for these articles, I realised more and more how much I love the position of number eight; so many of my favourite players have played there. Heaslip is right up there. He was just outstanding
I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I did not realise how good he was until I moved to the UK, where I was fortunate enough to watch him play on a more regular basis for both Ireland and Leinster. A lot of New Zealand fans probably remember him as the man who lashed out at Sir Richie, but Heaslip was much more than that moment of madness.
He was a two-time British and Irish Lions tourist, multiple Six Nations winner and one-time Grand Slam winner. Standing at an imposing 192cm and weighing in at a hefty 110kg, Heaslip was a surprisingly agile and quick number eight.
If you haven’t seen it, check out his 2016 try of the year against Italy. Heaslip completed the easiest part of catching and falling over the line but I remember the game vividly and he was in everything. His ball-carrying was brilliant and set up the team to play their style of attritional rugby. A two-time nominated world player of the year, Heaslip was a sensational player and one I feel fortunate to have watched.
Paul O’Connell could lay claim to being one of Ireland’s greatest ever forwards. A simply brilliant player who could do it all. I vividly remember watching the 2005 Lions tour to New Zealand and really taking note of him, who I had not seen too much of prior to that.
He is class personified. I liken him to John Eales in the way that he played: tough and uncompromising but also someone who never crossed the line. O’Connell was a 2006 player of the year nominee, a three-time tourist with the Lions and captain in 2009. It’s impossible not to mention his leadership qualities. O’Connell was captain of the Ireland national team and his beloved Munster with great success, winning titles all along the way in both sides.
Sadly, one the moments I forever think of with O’Connell was his last on the pitch as a player. Wales played Ireland in a pre-Rugby World Cup 2015 friendly in Cardiff. After many years playing for Munster, O’Connell had decided to step down from Irish international and provincial rugby and was taking up a contract with Toulon.
Sadly for O’Connell, he tore his hamstring from the bone in the match meaning he took no part in the Rugby World Cup and was unable to take up his contract with Toulon either. In his brilliant book, he mentions this awful event and the conversation he had with his wife right after the injury, which tells you everything about him as a man. Nothing about the injury or his pain – either physical and emotional – just “sorry about Toulon”. That says it all really.
Keith Wood was an absolute revelation in the front row. A surprisingly quick and agile front-rower, the man affectionately known as “Uncle Fester” was an absolute joy to watch and one of the finest hookers Ireland has ever produced.
An ex-hooker used to pour beers at my local and he told me “hookers are normally the smartest players in the team”. Never having stuck my head anywhere near the front row, I tentatively agreed with him, however, when looking at Wood’s career, I definitely agree. Wood is famously remembered for scoring four tries in a match at the 1999 Rugby World Cup, the last a terrific bit of play where he latched onto a brilliant chip behind the opposition winger to score in the corner.
Wood was sensational in open play and relished trucking the ball up into opposition defences or popping a deft pass moments before being tackled. He was a two-time tourist with the British and Irish Lions, first on their victorious 1997 tour to South Africa and then their 2001 tour to Australia. Wood was the inaugural winner of the IRB World Player of the Year in 2001, beating out some rather healthy competition.
He was subsequently inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2014 with some of the finest ever players to grace a rugby pitch. In retirement, Wood became a television pundit in the UK where he provides sound analysis and some high-quality banter. Would expect nothing less of “the smartest player in the team”.
The sheer mention of Sean O’Brien will remind many Wallabies fans and one Robbie Deans of horrific memories of the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. O’Brien was an incredibly tough and hard-hitting back-row forward for many years for Leinster, Ireland and the British and Irish Lions. An unbelievably strong man, O’Brien appeared to swat away defenders at rucks with ease.
The World Cup pool game against the Wallabies was where O’Brien announced himself to us “southerners” – I vividly remember having a beer with an Irish mate pre-game and being supremely confident of the result. I will say that Deans’ decision not to pick another openside did hurt him that day, but O’Brien was brilliant. He was on another level, forcing turnovers at will, and the Wallabies forwards became more and more frustrated at their inability to win any ball.
O’Brien was also the scorer of the finest Lions try I have ever seen against the All Blacks in 2017. Unfortunately, as his career went on, he paid the debts his body borrowed early in his career and was sadly hampered with injury and struggled to stay on the pitch. He will always be one of my favourites to watch.
I’m not even sure where to start with this man, but if I were picking a centre combination of my absolute favourites, 12 would be Tim Horan and 13 would be Brian O’Driscoll. The finest Irish player I have ever seen and one of the very best of all time.
There are many things I think of with O’Driscoll, the first being his scintillating try during the 2001 Lions tour to Australia where he burst through the midfield into a bit of space, then stepped Matt Burke to score. My dad and I stood up, mouthed something I can’t repeat, and from then on he was on notice!
O’Driscoll made the difficult look effortless, often having a cheeky wink and a smile after the event. Make no mistake though, he was a fiercely competitive player who wanted to win. The vision of him splitting open a midfield defence was one of the great sights in world rugby.
His career achievements are just incredible: four-time Lion, captain (albeit briefly), Six Nations player of the tournament three times, Six Nations all-time top try scorer, Six Nations Grand Slam-winning captain and countless trophies with Leinster. He was an out-and-out champion wherever he went.
In retirement, he has become a TV pundit providing excellent analysis in the United Kingdom. A simply brilliant player, he was was worth the price of admission alone.