There are speculative reasons why someone who arguably played his best club rugby for a star-studded London Wasps side never received a full Ireland cap, but Peter Bracken has some of his own.
Capped at numerous other levels for his country, the Offaly man first sampled international tour duty as part of the Irish schoolboys squad, who remained undefeated on a trip to Australia.
”We had a life experience, as well as the rugby,” he said.
“A lot of those players went on to play professionally and some got senior Ireland caps, like Peter Stringer. That year we also played England, Scotland and Wales, winning every game.
“Then we hit Australia, coming up against a different rugby style, as we played various teams throughout the states. Then lastly, we played the Australian schoolboys, which was a tight contest, but we came out on top.”
Amateur rugby at UL Bohemians and RFC Galwegians led to a brief stint with Munster before four years on Connacht’s books convinced Wasps that Bracken could make the transition to the English Premiership in 2005.
The following year, a call-up for the Barbarians against England at a packed Twickenham further suggested a playing career bound for an upward trajectory.
“The Barbarians have a tradition of at least one uncapped player and that was me for that game,” he said.
“I came in, joining guys I used to look up to and absolute rugby legends. We had Bob Dwyer coaching, Matt Burke at fullback and Joe Roff… and they’re just the Australians.
“We also had World Cup winners, like Raphaël Ibañez. They were so talented, there wasn’t much coaching involved (laughs). We had a couple of light training sessions and just went out and played. We had a very basic structure, a few lineout calls and played expansive rugby.”
While with Wasps, the tighthead prop won the 2006 Anglo-Welsh Cup and the next year’s Heineken Cup, earning a place in the Ireland touring squad to Australia and New Zealand, preceding another to Argentina.
(Photo by Richard Heathcote – World Rugby via Getty Images)
“I knew coming into the first training session of the first tour that under Eddie O’Sullivan I was never going to get capped,” Bracken said.
“The Argentina tour especially hurt because 31 players went out and 30 got capped, so what was the point? That was an understrength squad because the established players were at home.
“Australia and New Zealand okay, the squad was settled, but to go with a third-string squad to Argentina and not get a game was baffling. Sometimes decisions are down to rugby and sometimes personality and I think it was the second one, unfortunately.”
Subsequent to silverware with Wasps, Bracken joined Bristol in 2007, but six months out with a neck injury and other factors limited his game time.
“After the highs with Wasps, the idea was to push on and after Eddie O’Sullivan left, maybe get another chance with Ireland,” he said.
“The Bristol coaches didn’t rate me. When I first arrived, about five lads were injured, but in the first training session the packs were split into three groups and I was with the academy lads, and that didn’t change for 18 months.
“I got the neck injury, which also didn’t help my first season. I went back into pre-season optimistic, but soon got disillusioned and luckily Harlequins rang me, asking why I wasn’t playing and if I was causing trouble. Harlequins had one or two injuries and before the sentence was finished I said, ‘yes’. Bristol’s players were fantastic, but it comes down to one person’s decision and that’s the head coach.”
After Harlequins, Bracken saw out his playing career at Newport Gwent Dragons and French side US Carcassonne. He then took on his maiden head coach role at the Connemara All Blacks, who only avoided relegation from AIL rugby the previous campaign due to divisional realignments.
“I assessed their strengths and weaknesses, and they weren’t fit,” Bracken said.
“They were a small side, but skilful and natural footballers. There was no point in putting them in the gym, to build up muscle and try compete physically with other teams. The plan was to out-skill and tire everybody else out, and it worked. Being a relatively light pack, we concentrated on scrum technique and got the better of most sides heavier than us. We ended up mid-table and it was an enjoyable year.”
In addition to coaching scrums at various amateur and professional teams, such as the Boston Irish Wolfhounds, Castlebar and the Irish women’s side, the Tullamore native has provided specialised scrum technique analysis for over 20 years through his company, the Scrum Doctor.
“Not including the top divisions in Ireland, the scrum is still neglected today,” he said.
“The best you’ll get from most clubs is some old fella, who used to play 30 years ago, teaching lads what he did. It doesn’t apply anymore and can be dangerous. I go to clubs and there’s guys in their 30s and it’s the first time they’ve received scrum coaching.
“If the coach isn’t a front rower, they don’t know what they’re doing and the scrum gets ignored. It’s a case of getting lads in there to push. If you’re getting pushed backwards, you’re not pushing hard enough.
“The best thing that happened is when World Rugby changed the rule several years ago, reducing the hitting distance. Now, teams are set and there’s only a couple of inches of engagement. You don’t have the same danger level that you had before, when there was a one-metre gap and you were bashing away, with scrums collapsing all the time.
“It’s easier these days, but without technique, if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re going to get hosed. It can still be used as a weapon and to dominate teams, physically and mentally. I thought it would be an easy sell, to offer world-class coaching to amateur clubs, but it hasn’t, unfortunately.”