Maggs takes fast track

 

Kevin Maggs is a fully-fledged member of the pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming school of rugby players. His touching sense of wonderment is understandable too. Six years ago, incredible though it seems, he hadn't even taken up rugby.

Maggs played soccer from the age of 11 until 17. "I had played the game at 10 but you don't know what you're doing then, do you? Some people would say I still don't now. I didn't actually play rugby at my local school, Lockleaze, because they'd had a fight in a rugby match a few years before in which one of the guys broke his back. The school banned it so we played football."

On leaving school he went to South Bristol College, linked up with a few rugby playing friends and joined a club in Bristol called Imperial. Nonetheless his belated start to the game was anything but auspicious. "I played a few games for their under-19s and we got banned for fighting as well."

The turning point was a Bristol Colts trial. "I just spoke to Alwyn Price after the match and I've been at Bristol ever since. I can't believe what's happened since. It's unbelievable like," Maggs admits, in an accent he swears is not that thick by west country standards, but is still mercilessly aped by roommate and fellow centre Rob Henderson.

In his first year with the Bristol under-19s, who were enjoying an almost unblemished season, Maggs was largely confined to a place on the bench, before going on to captain both them and the under-21s in the next two years. A successful tour with the under-21s in South Africa saw him promoted to the Bristol senior squad on their tour to Atlanta in the same summer of '95, "and I've been in the first team squad ever since."

"A few of the lads I played football with at school went on to play professionally. Michael Johnson went to Norwich first of all and he signed last year for Nottingham Forest for ú2 million. We were in the same teams all the way up and we're still good friends, like."

There was also Andy Holt, who signed for Nottingham Forest and had a spell at City, as well as others who joined Bristol Rovers. "I weren't too bad but I never made it."

Not that he'd swap places with any of them. The attractions of rugby and college were immediate, not least socially. "It was good crack and I just picked it up from there. I didn't think anything would come of it."

His maternal grandfather, Michael O'Neill, who passed away five years ago, hailed from Limerick. "It's all down to him really. Unfortunately, he died just before I picked up with Bristol. We still have relatives down by the station. My family have been coming over every year for the last four or five years but I haven't been able to visit them because of rugby. My mum, my dad, my nan, uncles and everybody come over in September, and tour around Ireland but always in September."

The Irish thing was always there then, so at the outset of last season when each of the Bristol squad was asked to set targets for themselves, Maggs listed a desire to earn some form of Irish representative recognition. It eventually came about by a stroke of pure luck.

In April, Brian Ashton attended a Bristol game, ostensibly to watch Barry McConnell, Paul Burke and David Corkery. Bristol had actually sent a fax to the IRFU in January outlining the player's cv and Irish credentials, but in a damning indictment of the IRFU's communication process, Maggs's qualifications were still not known to Ashton over three months later. Fortuitously, Maggs was mentioned to the then Irish coach in passing after playing quite well in the centre.

Making up for lost time, Ashton moved swiftly. The Tuesday after the game, the IRFU contacted Maggs to ascertain his availability and request a copy of his grandfather's birth certificate. Maggs was put on standby as replacement for Jonathan Bell for the Development tour in the middle of Bristol's relegation play-offs. On the Friday he was named in the touring party, and after Bristol's win over Beford on Sunday, he linked up with the Irish development squad in Limerick 24 hours later.

"I had to cancel two holidays to go to New Zealand for five weeks. I must be mad, mustn't I?" Maggs says jokingly now.

Things tend to happen quicker than expected for Maggs and so, although he was brought on the Development tour theoretically as a longer-term investment, his solid tackling on the otherwise porous flanks and a couple of tries against Bay of Plenty led to him playing against both the New Zealand Maoris and Western Samoa.

"It was bloody hard," is his first comment about that tour. "I came back and asked myself if I ever wanted to go on tour again like. I tell you I was absolutely knackered. I come back to Bristol and I was like 'I didn't want to see a rugby ball ever again'."

His club gave him an extra week's break, making it three in all, but like many on that overworked tour he was still mentally fatigued by the time the season started. "I was tired when I came back. I'm pleased that I'm involved in the squad and the Five Nations and everything, but I'm not having a great season at Bristol. I'm playing well enough but results-wise we're still losing games which makes it difficult like." Nevertheless, it almost had to happen that Maggs found himself making his international debut in almost a worst-case scenario - against the All Blacks at Lansdowne Road after 51 minutes with the score at 51-15.

John McWeeney had been riddled with nerves before the game, and had been sick during the interval as well. "Pat Whelan shouted to me: `Maggsy, take your track suit off.' I was absolutely s---ing myself," recalls Maggs with self-deprecating candour. "The doctor said `we're going to watch him (McWeeney) and you could be going on.' So then another 10 minutes went by and I thought he might be alright. But when they told me to get ready I was absolutely scared stiff. It's the most nervous I've ever been," recalls Maggs.

He laughs even more when recalling the ensuing half-hour's rugby. "I nearly knocked myself out; I got burnt by Jeff Wilson. Not that effing great really.

"The lads had been brilliant for the first 30 minutes but then we tired and they just kept pounding away and wearing everyone down. Obviously I was delighted, I would have liked to start the game or maybe even play in the centre. But when I went home on the Monday I just celebrated all day."

Picked ahead of McWeeney from the start against Canada, there followed one of the least celebrated try-scoring debuts of all time, courtesy of his roommate's quick, blind-side transfer. "Great hands from Rob. I can't explain the feeling. It's brilliant. I should have maybe got three or four really but the ball just never came my way."

Injury to Henderson meant Maggs was moved instead to centre, the position he prefers - "Probably because you're more involved in a game. You've always got to keep moving and thinking, whereas on the wing you can be out there and not see the ball for 50 minutes, and then get it for two and that's it. I just like being involved, where everything happens."

The down side was the defeats by Italy, Scotland and France. "I was devastated that we lost against Scotland. I just couldn't believe it. I mean we made so much space out wide but we just couldn't finish it off. It's soul-destroying. I've lost so many games this year by one point or two points, and it's worse than getting hammered."

There were a few more straws in the wind after the French defeat. "I was pleased that we proved most people wrong and they didn't put 50-odd points on us, and I was also pleased that it was a step up from the Scotland game in a lot of respects, as rega rds everyone's commitment and aggression.

"Again we had the chances and we could have scored," he adds, which included a chance for himself when Maggs couldn't quite hold onto a low inside pass from Conor O'Shea after one of Conor McGuinness's sniping breaks. "I was gutted at the time. I just couldn't hold onto it," he says, holding his hands out in front of him. "Maybe I could have caught it, rounded my man and scooted in. It's a nightmare. It just seems that the rub of the ball is not going my way."

Nor the way of most Irish players. Maggs, admittedly has had little opportunity, having been successfully used as a decoy runner much of the time against Scotland. "I haven't really been able to show anyone what I can do with the ball in space, especially in midfield.

His defence, though, has been well tested, and has come through impressively. When we spoke, he had been relishing the physical midfield contest on Saturday with Scott Gibbs and Alan Bateman, but the former has pulled out of the Welsh team and there is still a doubt about Bateman.

Still, it could be Gibbs and Bateman or Laurel and Hardy, and he'd still be pinching himself. Here he is, flicking through the remote in his room in the Castletroy Hotel and preparing for his sixth successive international barely two years after breaking into senior rugby. "This is just unbelievable now like. I just treat every game as my last and just try and play the best I can, so I'm involved in the next one."

That old clichΘ then, one game at a time, or one day at a time sweet Jesus, applies. He'd daren't be presumptuous enough to even think about the tour to South Africa. "I don't take anything for granted," he says, quite genuinely. Then again, he hasn't planned on any summer holidays just yet either.