Jordan Larmour: Rugby’s gain is Irish athletics’ loss

Could more be done by Athletics Ireland to tap into rugby’s apparent pool of talent?

Leinster’s  Jordan Larmour  scores a spectacular try against Munster at Thomond Park. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Leinster’s Jordan Larmour scores a spectacular try against Munster at Thomond Park. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

There is nothing worse in this business than coming late to a story. No excuse either. It doesn’t help when one of your horses actually has bolted but even those of us living above the snowline can no longer hide from the illuminating talent that is Jordan Larmour.

His inclusion in Joe Schmidt’s Irish squad for the opening two games of the Six Nations – the only uncapped player among the 36 – doesn’t just continue his shooting stardom; it effectively completes Larmour’s journey from underage rugby and hockey international to full-blooded senior. Still only 20, there’s no turning back now. 

Zen masters have always said if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. Still not many people had heard much about Larmour until he scored that wonder try against Munster at Thomond Park on my birthday. No matter how many times you have seen it, or how late you came to it, one doesn’t tire of watching it.

Plenty of rugby analysts have already described that try better than I ever can: Larmour fielding an up and under just outside his own 22, deftly circling while tucking the ball under his right arm, twice skipping off his left foot to his right to beat not one but two tacklers, racing towards the middle of the field; then, shifting off his right foot and veering left, dodging a third tackle, before switching the ball to his left hand to fend off the fast approaching Simon Zebo. Touchdown. 

To the trained athletic eye there’s even more going on – the perfect sprint technique combined with faultless foot work. No matter what the precise distance (the 100m being the most typical), every sprint run goes through four phases: the start, the pick-up, the acceleration, and then maximum speed. 

Larmour’s start – even from the standing position – was textbook, perfectly relaxed and alert; his pick-up is classic sprinting too, maintaining the drive position for as long as possible; his acceleration phase ticks all the boxes, upright body, chest out, shoulders back; then once he hits maximum speed the relaxation and control is never lost. 

There are other little details: feet touching the ground for the minimum possible amount of time; the pumping knee-lift, the shifting of weight towards the upper body, and of course the hips upright and forward. 

For humans, a distance of 40-50m is sufficient to reach top speed; not even the finest Italian sports car, proportionally, is capable of that. Larmour reaches top speed within that range, and even after crossing for the try still has something left in the tank. Breathing hard, but not breathless, and again that’s all proper sprinting technique. It’s why Jesse Owens was able to break three world records and equal a fourth within an hour and a quarter, back in 1935, and probably why Usain Bolt never once seemed out of breath at his peak.

Athletic talent

Larmour is clearly an exceptional athletic talent – further proof of one of the oldest rules in sports science: the best sprinters are born, not made. Or should that be the other way round? His former coaches at St Andrew’s College have rightly come in for praise too, particularly David Jones, because everything about Larmour’s physique is in tune with his talent (not forgetting he missed the 2016 season with a torn cruciate) – and potentially he’s the best Irish athlete since... 

What is certain is that the boy can run, and God knows what Larmour might have done on the hockey field had his rugby not got in that way – or indeed on the track. It’s worth imagining nonetheless. 

When, in this newspaper, Gordon D’Arcy recently described Denis Hickie as “the original Jordan Larmour” he possibly didn’t realise Hickie was a similarly exceptional sprint talent. He won an Irish under-15 100m title back in 1991, running for Metro St Brigid’s, and might well have been a world-class sprinter had his rugby not got in the way.

 I know that because Pierce O’Callaghan, the doyen of Irish athletics statisticians, has just compiled an entire list of national underage champions from 1891 to 2017 (all 21,000 of them). There are other future rugby internationals alongside Hickie, including Cian Healy, under-17 javelin champion in 2003, and Neil Francis, under-20 javelin champion in 1982 (a few more familiar names in there too). 

Other rugby players went on to represent Ireland on the senior athletics stage, including sprinter Michael Kiernan and sprint hurdler Brendan Mullin, hammer thrower Gary Halpin, and Victor Costello, actually the last Irish international rugby player to also throw his weight around the shot put circle, and still the only Irishman to have competed in both the Olympics and the Six Nations.

Larmour will never get to display his sprinting talents on the track, rugby’s gain being athletics’ loss, etc and is another reminder that our pool of athletic talent will naturally drift towards more successful sports.

In raw sprinting terms, he’s probably our best since Paul Hession, who still holds the Irish records at 100m (10.18) and 200m (20.30), both set in 2007, only since then it seems Irish sprinting hasn’t so much flat-out plateaued as gone downhill.

Yet given the still very low percentages of schools or underage rugby players who turn professional or represent Ireland at senior level, could more be done by Athletics Ireland to tap into that pool of talent? Now more than ever the country needs it. 

There is still the argument the young athlete, at some point, could have another choice to make, and to compete on the top of their stage, or even break onto it, may be tempted to resort to doping. Only rugby can’t hide away from that argument anymore either.

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