Patient number two seizes chance
Frankie Sheahan provides proof that one man's misfortune can beanother man's opportunity, Gerry Thornley writes.
They also serve who only stand and wait? After understudying Keith Wood on the replacements' bench for province and country 41 times, Frankie Sheahan has had to serve his time alright. Last Sunday, though, he finally stepped out of Wood's shadow and into the spotlight.
When he won his first cap as a half-time replacement in the rout of the USA two summers ago, he told himself that it was a big deal, likewise when he made his full debut against Romania last summer. But starting his first Six Nations match, after 10 championship stints as a replacement, was the real deal. For starters, it was the biggest crowd he had ever played in front of.
"I was as nervous as I've ever been before a match. I hardly slept the night before. I was resting but I wasn't actually asleep, you know that kind of way? But I didn't mind because I'd slept well all week. I was happy with how the week's training went and I was as well prepared as I've ever been for a match."
Sleepless in the Berkeley Court hotel the night before, nervous as a kitten in a new home on the morning of the game, Sheahan began to breathe easier and relax, funnily enough, once he hopped on the team bus for the short journey to Lansdowne Road.
His mood was further lightened by Mick Galwey and Peter Clohessy, the Claw cracking jokes five minutes before kick-off. Being surrounded by the Munster pack helped as well. Cue the first lineout. Eh, crooked.
"It was the worst possible start. Niall (O'Donovan) had said to me all week 'have your first lineout planned'. We had a good laugh about it after because we had a plan. I'd said 'ah yeah, it's all sorted.' We were supposed to do a quick one and the ref stood in the way, the thing was delayed. I had time to think about it. It was marginal, I didn't mind getting blown up for it, but I let the biggest 'F' out of me. 'Please don't let it be one of these days'. But the second one went to hand and we scored a try off it, and then once we started getting on top the confidence grew more. I kept the lineouts simple enough."
Not for the first time he starts discussing the Castres match four weeks ago when "some of the media took me to the cleaners", his laugh perhaps disguising perfectionism as well as his sensitive side. He highlights how well Castres did their homework and competed at the tail of the line especially. He points out: "You might have 20 throws in a match, and have 20 perfect throws, but we might only win 15 lineouts." He'd regard 17 or 18 as a good day on the oche.
Paul O'Connell scored Ireland's second try off another lineout, when the hooker would often be at the scoring end of such a maul but not doing so had its flip side for his father. "My dad offered free drink in our bar (Morton's) in Cork if I scored a try so I think he was fairly relieved when I didn't come up with the ball."
Frankie done good all round, even if, as usual, it was less eye-catching stuff than the bald wonder gets up to. Aside from the solid set-pieces, he did his usual nitty-gritty close-in, and alertly and adroitly pilfered a couple of Welsh turnovers on the deck.
Sheahan is more of a throwback to the traditional hooker. A likeable guy with a ready smile, few players work harder at their game and few have deserved a day in the spotlight more than he. Suddenly it looks like he'll get a run in the team, with Wood now extremely unlikely to lead the team at Twickenham and even doubtful for the subsequent game against Scotland.
In the glow of the last few weeks, you can see he's never felt better about himself as a player. But he reminds himself that you're only as good as your next game. "It will be nerve-wracking again but it will be great," he says of the Twickenham showdown.
He'll never forget his long stints on the bench, though, and he sympathetically lauds the introduction of all seven replacements last Sunday. "I think if the game is going one way or the other, blood your subs," he says, and talks of past frustration.
"Hooker is a pivotal position, fair enough, and if it's a close game I won't expect to get on. But there were some games last season when we were winning by 30 or 40 points and I'd been training hard all week. The team would be delighted and I'd be going in for a shower when I didn't need a bloody shower," he says, laughing self-deprecatingly. "You're putting on a brave face and you're delighted the team has done well, but you feel like a fool as well."
It can't be easy understudying a legend and an institution, nor indeed finally taking his place, but assistant Ireland coach Declan Kidney, who taught and coached Sheahan for six years at Pres Cork, applauds Sheahan for not trying to be something he isn't.
"It's great to see someone who has worked so hard and has been true to himself finally getting it."
Sheahan says it makes sense for him to play to his strengths. He revels in the physical confrontation of rugby and in winning. That's why, when he looks back, it'll be hard to top the last two weeks, preceding the win with Ireland by winning with Munster away to Stade. "Winning against the odds like that is just the best feeling in sport," he says.
It was always that way with Frankie. He was born the middle child of five in Toronto where his parents had emigrated for 10 years and his mother was the Rose of Toronto. He was introduced to plenty of sports by his parents - Gaelic football, hurling, tennis and swimming. But the first day he played rugby at the age of nine he knew it was the game for him.
"Unbelievable. The first three weekends I was in Crosshaven, Youghal and Galway. It was just the game I was always going to be good at. It just suited me, putting the ball in my hands and running hard."
He fluctuated between prop, lock, hooker and flanker, before reverting to hooker when called up to the Pres, Cork senior team that won the Schools' Cup.
He credits various school coaches with his development, Pat Walsh, Martin "Buster" Lawton and then senior coaches Kidney and Paddy Atridge. "That's where I would have got my real discipline from. He (Atridge) was a hard man, he trained us hard."
With a degree in economics and geography he sees himself going into business one day. "We were always taught in school that it was only a pastime. It was Declan, actually, who told me that and ironically the two of us are earning money from it now."
When first called into the A squad, Sheahan could see a pecking order with him fourth in the queue, and that was enough motivation for him. Promotion to the senior squad came for the Twickenham game two seasons ago, when Sheahan unfortunately hogged the headlines in the aftermath of that 50-19 defeat for headbutting a critical Irish fan in Jury's hotel in south Kensington, for which he was fined and reprimanded by the IRFU.
"The amount I've matured in the intervening two years is phenomenal really and I suppose I kind of lost the head that night. I've had plenty of encounters like that since, without responding like I did, of course. I'm mature enough to turn my back and walk away. It was my first time involved in the international team. I didn't know what to expect. You live and learn, y'know."
Donal Lenihan, too, was a rock. "If it wasn't for him it would have been a nightmare. He stood by me. I'd say that was the lowest point I've known in rugby." The episode is bound to be revisited this week, though his memories are of England stuffing Ireland. "They'd love to stuff us again," he warns, before talking up Ireland's strength in depth and the quality of players now on the scene.
He had set himself targets of coming on as a tactical replacement this season, of winning the European Cup, and of making the tour to New Zealand, with the World Cup the abiding ambition. "I hope that the teamwill really mature in the next year and a half, and would then be setting realistic goals like winning the World Cup. That has to be our goal now. We've come on leaps and bounds, hopefully we'll get up there by the time it comes around and we'll be taking on these Southern Hemisphere teams and beating them. Because we're not far off it now."