Leamy puts pain in the past


RUGBY: JOHNNY WATTERSONtalks to the backrower who is finally pain free and focusing on a plane ticket to New Zealand

THE LAST two weeks have been ones of charting the progress of broken bodies back to match fitness. Stephen Ferris, Tomás O’Leary, Jerry Flannery, Ronan O’Gara and Rob Kearney are all hoping to make perfectly-timed runs through the summer.

Denis Leamy counts himself fortunate to be part of that list too but the Munster flanker understands more sharply than the rest how the dynamic in a team can change when you go missing through injury.

Leamy has had a tough enough time to have considered retirement. In his absence and return the emergence of Seán O’Brien and the cementing of Jamie Heaslip’s reputation at number eight have made the Irish backrow both a crowded area and a confined space.

But Leamy is back now without the knee pain and that has been a triumph. A plane ticket to New Zealand is at the forefront of his thinking.

“I could have missed it (World Cup) in terms of final retirement,” he says. “From that point of view, yeah. I had a very bad knee injury and it was probably a bit worse than I realised at the time.

“It’s only now when I’m looking back that I realise how difficult it was. I probably under-estimated how bad it was and it dragged on for a long, long time and into last season as well.

“You don’t want to make excuses but I guess it is something I under-estimated a little bit. When it did happen originally I said ‘look, I’ll do my six months and get back’.

“Fine. It wasn’t that easy. It’s taken a long, long time and it’s only in the last three or four weeks that I’m pretty much pain free. I’ve had a few injuries and it’s been the toughest injury I ever had. It was a difficult one to manage and to even feel confident about.”

The Munster backrow played in the last World Cup in France. But it is not an experience he wishes to draw from. Bordeaux is a no-go area for those who were there and while Leamy was Eddie O’Sullivan’s first-choice number eight for all of Ireland’s laboured pool matches, the tournament has been airbrushed from history. Meeting O’Sullivan again in the first match as coach of the USA team could just jar their collective memories.

“A lot of us who were involved in that World Cup try not to remember too much about it,” he says. “It’s a disappointing moment in our careers that certainly didn’t go according to the script. We prepared very, very well and for it to end so disappointingly . . . the thought in the back of your mind is that you are better off moving on.

“I’ve a huge amount of time for Eddie and a lot of respect for him. Hopefully on that day we can get the points.”

With that in mind Ireland coach Declan Kidney has decided on more of a rugby-orientated program for the players. Ireland will have played five friendly matches before leaving for New Zealand compared to just two against Italy and Bayonne four years ago. As a prelude to things to come in 2007, Ireland fell over the winning line against Italy at Ravenhill Road, a controversial last-gasp try from O’Gara saving Ireland’s blushes in an untidy 23-20 win. Ireland hope this August to play their way into form.

“I think what he is trying to do this time is play a lot more rugby, four or five matches before we even fly out,” says Leamy. “It really doesn’t matter how low your body fat is, how much you are pushing on a bench. I think the last time it was one international and one friendly, against Bayonne, so it’s a lot different. We were really well conditioned last time out and we were very, very fit. But we were probably all under-cooked in terms of battle hardness. That’s probably where we fell down.”

As a result there is also inbuilt caution this time around. While Ferris and Keith Earls have chimed that they believe Ireland can win the World Cup, the experienced Leamy is less forthright.

“It’s a fresh start. A lot of new players have come in. I think we’ve got to take this step by step and game by game,” he says warily.

“We probably didn’t do ourselves any favours last time going to the public and the media saying we were going to get to the World Cup final and we didn’t look at the process. The game we have to worry about is the first game against the USA and make sure that by the end of the pool stages we are still in the competition.”