“You were better-looking with the beard.”
The flower seller had me on the back foot straight away. Down the Japan tunnel he burrowed and, without being able to name names, he felt the players let their country down at the World Cup.
So much for a casual lunchtime stroll. Instinctively, I wanted to defend fellow Ireland internationals but decided to listen instead. There was no badness in his view. He loves sport – a regular at League of Ireland games and Dubs disciple from the depths of winter into Croke Park summer.
An Ireland supporter, be that hockey, football or whatever catches the general public’s ear.
He stills feels represented by the “rugby lads” but his opinion probably represents the general feeling. Let down. You rarely hear that as a player. Not to your face.
After our failure at the 2007 World Cup – when we believed we were contenders – I wanted the ground to swallow me up. The pressure had become suffocating and we struggled to cope. In 2006 we had rattled the All Blacks in New Zealand, went unbeaten in November and there was that marvellous night in Croke Park against England before it all went so badly awry.
We stumbled into the 2008 Six Nations before Declan Kidney arrived to spark a dramatic reversal in fortunes.
The challenge for Ireland's new management under Andy Farrell is how they reframe the responsibility of playing for your country.
The story about a young Rob Kearney accusing Munster men of having more passion for the red jersey struck a nerve in our 2009 pre-Six Nations camp. The national squad had become very close-knit. Without winning anything, we had proved ourselves a good team before Rob, Jamie Heaslip, Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris and Luke Fitzgerald played their way into the line-up.
But Munster – we all knew – could dig deeper in moments of adversity.
Valued and safe
In the past year Leinster and Ulster players would be forgiven for enjoying time with their province over the Ireland camp. This is where they are able to express themselves, feel valued and safe; you see it in the performances of players like Stu McCloskey and Ross Byrne.
When Kidney told us, also in ’09, that our country needed a lift, the words sunk into our subconscious. People tuned in for enjoyment and, after what we had achieved in Twickenham and Paris in the early 2000s, the very real possibility of witnessing something special.
We want to be a team the Irish rugby public love watching. An aggressive forward pack, unbelievably hard to handle
They knew the Ireland rugby team was capable of winning and producing spectacular moments. But most of all they knew they would see a group with true grit. That’s what my lunchtime pal was on about.
When Kidney emphasised the importance of representing the public, it was the first time I had heard that in almost 10 years as a test player. Every so often it needs saying.
“We want to be a team the Irish rugby public love watching,” said Andy Farrell on Tuesday. “An aggressive forward pack, unbelievably hard to handle. I’ve been on the other side of that.”
I know, I know, three mentions in one column, but he is talking about Croke Park.
If Farrell can tap into these emotions then anything will feel possible again.
Tactics are important to success, but rugby coaching is the business of inspiring individuals to work as a team.
Farrell is as responsible for Jacob Stockdale rediscovering the freewheelin' version of himself that we saw in 2018 as he is for exposing Rónan Kelleher to test rugby with the right support around the 22-year-old hooker. The words used to convince John Cooney or Ultan Dillane about their value to the team will have an important impact on the group.
Finding common language or a collective goal that motivates all is a skill only the great coaches possess. That’s Farrell’s immediate challenge: making each member of the Ireland squad feel valued, and of course well coached, before standing back and letting the player grow.
Eddie O'Sullivan selected me for Ireland in 2004 because of my broken field running for Leinster. There was no other reason at that time. Mike Ford had to show me how to defend properly as a centre.
It wasn't until Michael Cheika arrived at Leinster that I came across a coach who offered me real responsibility. Cheika had an instant feel for my personality. He realised that encouragement was the way to make me improve. By the time Joe Schmidt needed a mature role player at 12, I had become the man for the job.
I've had a coffee with the new Ireland coach. The intensity people speak about is real. He commands respect
Joe’s move up to Ireland coach meant there was clarity about what I needed to do. This had little to do with tactics. It was about working with the players around me, and by doing so I became an integral cog in the tactical approach.
It was about trusting my teammates. And they in turn knew I could be relied upon to deliver for them. And that’s how Farrell will succeed in the early months as Ireland head coach. Look after the people and they’ll look after the performance.
I’ve had a coffee with the new Ireland coach. The intensity people speak about is real. He commands respect. The players will trust his initial ideas. Farrell is not a great coach yet. That can only come with results as the number one. But the necessary character traits are evident.
What will make Farrell a success as Ireland head coach is delivering on all the small conversations he has had with players. And empowering them when he says he will. That’s how you get professional athletes to deliver for a team.
Sounds so simple yet it’s a devilishly difficult task.
Coaching being the business of people, the first Andy Farrell team is largely an investment in experienced internationals. But there’s a lot of energy on that bench. Positive energy. I know exactly what Devin Toner has been feeling these past few months.
Second chances are so rare at his age. Like me, Dev is already seen as a starter or nothing. In my 30s I was seen as a 12 and nothing else. But Toner is picked ahead of Ultan Dillane. It's a big call. Dev will have heard the talk about him. This will fire up a version of him nobody has ever seen before. I know it did for me and I know what Dev is made of. It's an enormous and rare opportunity which I expect he'll grab alongside very aggressive versions of Peter O'Mahony and Robbie Henshaw.
It is important to note that O’Mahony and Henshaw are not dropped.
They are in competition for specific positions and for this match others have earned the starting jerseys. Both of them showed up against the All Blacks in Tokyo, but CJ Stander and Bundee Aki are better foils for the youth woven into this squad.
I know Pete and Robbie will disagree. Both of them will have been disappointed when Farrell delivered the news, but the competitiveness in the squad caused by these selections should prove incredibly positive.
Doris's promotion to the Ireland backrow – while fully earned – changes the dynamic of the entire team
The reserves look like that new rugby phrase: finishers.
Dave Kilcoyne and Andrew Porter are the form props in Irish rugby, but I do not believe they have done enough to dislodge Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong. They can help Ireland finish stronger than they begin.
Anyway, form equals selection is not so simple an equation. The people involved matter.
I would have gone with John Cooney at scrumhalf (heck, I would have started Toner and put Iain Henderson at blindside mainly because the lineout wasn't the weapon it needed to be in Japan). Again, I understand and accept the logic behind Conor Murray retaining the nine jersey.
It comes down to Caelan Doris. The knee bone is connected to the thigh bone. Doris’s promotion to the Ireland backrow – while fully earned – changes the dynamic of the entire team. Number eight is a vital position in test rugby. Doris is the linchpin now. Farrell talked about his physicality in training, which we have also witnessed for Leinster this season, but it’s still his first cap.
Surrounding Doris with an established pack and halfback pairing makes sense. Cooney is unlucky to miss out, but I’m presuming Farrell factored in his ability to break up a stalemate. It’s also an investment in Murray the man.
Long-term investment in people eventually demands a return.
Injuries to Keith Earls and Will Addison made selection easier. Addison proved in the Wales game last August that he possesses everything you could want in a 15. Except durability. That's why Jordan Larmour will become the resident fullback, but the Addison alternative can be used in this Six Nations and for years to come.
The wonder is, can Mike Catt design plays to put Larmour into space?