Walking tall after so many highs

 

MALCOLM O’KELLY INTERVIEW: Gerry Thornleytalks to the the Lions, Ireland, Leinster and St Mary's College secondrow who has finally decided to call time on his golden career

FIRST GIRVAN and now Mal. A golden generation is coming to an end alright. And Malcolm O’Kelly was very much a key figure in that era. In terms of pure natural talent there has no more gifted lock than O’Kelly, with all due respect to Willie John McBride, Paul O’Connell, Donal Lenihan, Neil Francis and the rest. Big Mal was a total one-off.

Eric Elwood once told the story of the Irish squad arriving in South Africa in 1998 and, as way of overcoming jetlag, all of them were immediately sent off on a run. O’Kelly returned to the hotel about third or fourth, quicker than all the other forwards and most of the backs, went straight to the team room and declared: “Is there any food, I’m starving.”

On that tour, Ireland had just fallen 12-6 behind coming up to the last play against Western Province. David Humphreys’ restart came down just outside the South Africans’ 22. O’Kelly, remarkably, somehow still won it. But for Jonathan Kaplan wrongly deeming Ireland’s 13-man lineout illegal, they’d have snatched a win which wouldn’t have been possible without O’Kelly’s desire.

That heart, that stamina, that work-rate. The bigger the game, the more he busted a gut. Lifting or no lifting, he’d have ruled the skies. Memories will always remain of him dominating the England lineout at Twickenham in 2004, and his try-saving covering tackle by the corner flag on Mark Regan, along with many other virtuoso performances.

To the astonishing athleticism can be added superb hands. The soft, skip pass for the first of Brian O’Driscoll’s hat-trick against France in 2000. Those galloping runs, such as the try from half-way against Pontypridd in Donnybrook, while Leinster coach Michael Cheika yesterday recalled last season’s game against Wasps at the RDS “when he picked up that ball and ran nearly 50 metres to score. He picked the ball up one-handed, very skilful. Maybe sometimes he overplays his ball-handling ability perhaps,” he noted with a knowing smile, but “all in all he is a class act and I think his record stands for itself really.”

That he has always been one of the most engaging players around is also beyond dispute. As Philip Danaher once said of him “Mal lives in his own world, but it seems like a nice world.” But that always belied a strong work-ethic and professionalism. “He may not be the captain’s style of player,” observed Cheika, “but he embraces his role in the team a different way, more like a colleague in the changing room. He was always open to become better as a player.

“He is sometimes the butt of the team joke with regard to tardiness or attention to detail regarding the calendar per se,” Cheika admitted, “but he does all his own work to get himself right and that’s not easy week in, week out when you have experienced so much football. He is still in great nick.”

Walking away isn’t easy. “I must say I’ve really struggled with it,” O’Kelly admitted yesterday. “I’ve really had to think hard about it and it hasn’t sat easy with me.” He sees himself as a test case, but remains optimistic about the future. Ask him what he’ll miss most and, quick as a flash, he says: “The changing room, definitely, will be what I miss most, without a shadow of a doubt. Just that bit of craic and banter, that more than anything I’ll miss. It’s probably hard to find a replacement for that.”

It all began, about 25 years ago, with the DLSP under-11s. “Under-11 O’Daly Cup winners,” he announces, proudly. “That was the crowning achievement. I remember actually playing (against) Peter Coyle (the prop subsequently played for Leinster as well). He played for Navan and they had an unbelievable frontrow, obviously; Peter Coyle and two other mutes! And we managed to beat them in extra, extra-time.”

He had wanted to play in the Community Games in Knocklyon but to his acute disappointment was just over-age. “I just went up to Knocklyon once to play in a practice game and loved it; clothes-lined a few people. Absolutely loved it, like. I was bigger than everyone else and I ran around like a lunatic, and I was absolutely gutted that I couldn’t play.”

A team-mate and friend, Andy Keating, was being driven up to the mini-rugby on Sunday mornings in Kilternan by his dad Martin, and one day Mal “just jumped in”. Keating has remained a good friend, and was O’Kelly’s best man at his wedding to Stephanie.

He combined playing in DLSP with Gaelic football in Ballyboden before switching to schools rugby at Templeogue College.

“There was a clash and I had to make a decision, which was difficult, but it was the right decision obviously. I don’t think Mr Ó Rúactairí will hold it against me now.”

The very notion of using those humble beginnings as a springboard to a 15-year professional career encompassing almost 200 competitive matches with Leinster and over 90 for Ireland “didn’t exist”, as he puts it himself. He didn’t even envisage himself even playing beyond school until a school visit from Kevin Potts.

O’Kelly’s dad Colm had played in St Mary’s as a six-foot prop up to a few games for the firsts and the J1s, and has a sevens medal, and was an engineer who worked abroad for many years, mostly in Germany. Hence O’Kelly was born in Chelmsford, Essex, and after a brief interlude in the Netherlands was reared from four onwards in Ireland.

Colm and Mary bought their first house in Limerick. “My mother didn’t want to leave, she loved Limerick. But there was just no communications set-up so the business was closed up in Limerick and he had to move to Dublin.”

So you could have been a Munster player? “That’s how close it was. Blame the communications set-up in Ireland.”

He cites his parents as the biggest influence on his career. One ventures they hardly ever missed one of their son’s matches, and have been avid supporters of their daughter Catriona and her hockey career. Only last Sunday she was part of the Loreto team that won the Irish Senior Cup final in Belfield.

A talented gene pool, which Mal admits his mum would like to claim most of the credit for.

“She’s very sporting. She played hockey and has a competitive edge, definitely which myself and my sister have inherited. Like, she’s so competitive at hockey, tennis, golf, squash. She was particularly good at Community Games. She was a real soccer player. Mount Alton won the Argentinian strip and they used to win it every year. She’d also win the sprint and come home with a bucketload of medals.”

Another former coach, Warren Gatland, once said of him that if Ireland played the All Blacks every week O’Kelly would be brilliant. “I think I was the kind of player, certainly when I was younger, needed the occasion to perform. I remember Trevor Brennan used to say ‘We want the Irish Malcolm O’Kelly playing today’. He was suggesting that I would play better for Ireland than Leinster. But it is kind of difficult, because the intensity of the occasion drives the absolute best out of you. That’s what makes winning the Magners (League) such a difficult thing and why Leinster have done remarkably well to top the table again this season,” he says with some passion.

He’d decided to leave Leinster “two or three months ago” but wasn’t sure whether he was going to retire or move on. He’s grateful he can still not only walk away from the game, but jog or run. He can also reflect on a fairly glittering career. “It has been the advent of professionalism that has allowed us to be competitive.” He thinks back to his Ireland debut in the 63-15 defeat to the All Blacks in 1997 under Brian Ashton, and playing alongside “great players” like Keith Wood, Kevin Maggs, Mark McCall and Humphreys, against what he calls “one of the greatest New Zealand outfits of all time”.

In 2005 at Murrayfield, O’Kelly broke Mike Gibson’s record as Ireland’s most capped player of all time with his 70th cap, and marked the occasion by scoring the game’s first try. The night beforehand, his phone rang in the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh. It was Mike Gibson. “We had a brilliant chat.” He asked Gibson whether he’d like to have played in the professional game. “He wasn’t envious or begrudging, just congratulated me and wished me all the best.”

He harbours no bitterness about being dropped two legs into last season’s Grand Slam, and is grateful that he has a medal from that campaign for his five-minute cameo against Italy. If he has any regrets, it is that shoulder and knee injuries denied him two championships.

“To be honest with you, I should have had 100 caps, and I could have played at Wembley. I would have loved to have played against Wales at Wembley. That was one of the biggest regrets.”

He will soon walk away, either this Saturday night or in a couple of weeks’ time, and will do so with a fair degree of pride and gratitude. “I’m just apprehensive because I love it so much and therefore how hard it might be getting away from it. It’s not going to be easy to walk away from it. But I don’t want to keep playing and dragging out the end of it. I’m happy that I’m leaving it now and hopefully going out on a high. It’ll be hard walking away, but I’ll have good memories.”

Malcolm O'Kelly: Reflections and recollections

High points?

“There are very obvious high points, like the Heineken Cup, the semi-final, that whole road, that whole season last year. The last few years for me – I know they’re so fresh – but for me they’ve been the biggest challenge. I got the best out of myself and realistically I was given a second chance. I had terrible groin problems for three seasons and I came though them in the last couple of seasons and it’s just given me a new lease of life. That I’m really happy about. Obviously there are other highlights you can pick out like 2004 against England. That was a brilliant win for us, Australia in Lansdowne Road; South Africa we beat them here. There are obvious moments and times that every player dreams about and doing, and I’ve achieved them, so I am just so happy and grateful for that.”

Worst coaches?

“Probably Alan Quinlan. Or maybe Keith Gleeson. One or the other.”

Best coaches he’s played under?

“It’s hard to look past Cheiks (Michael Cheika) in terms of what we’ve achieved. I think realistically Cheiks has been the best coach. You could arguably say Eddie (O’Sullivan). He was very successful with us at under-21s as well.”

Best players he’s played with?

“What makes a great player? I suppose it’s a player who can change or win a game for you. Keith Wood, Rocky Elsom or a Brian O’Driscoll. But the likes of Keith Gleeson, say, was unbelievable. Or Dean Oswald; for me sevens can win you a game just because of the s*** they do and we’ve been fortunate to have some great sevens over the years. The unsung heroes. It’s position-oriented really, isn’t it?”

Favourite venue?

“I always liked the Stade de France – in fairness it’s been a tough stadium for me. My career has nearly ended twice there. It’s an absolutely miraculous stadium, fabulous.”

Biggest change he’s seen?

“Biggest change I’ve seen? Bar the money? I suppose just the set-up here. It’s completely changed. People’s view of you. When I started, people wouldn’t know you from Adam. Now you’re walking down the road and it’s like, ‘give me a bit of privacy’. Paparazzi almost! That kind of notoriety type of thing has changed over the years.”

Malcolm O'Kelly

Date Of Birth: July 19th, 1974.

Birthplace: Chelmsford, England.

Height: 2.03 m (6’ 8“).

Weight: 19 kg (18 st 9 lb).

Position: Lock.

Honours: Ireland (92 caps).

Club: St Mary’s College RFC.

School: Templeogue College Lions.

Tourist: 2001 (Australia) 2005 (New Zealand). Leinster: 181 competitive games (73 Heineken Cup, 91 Celtic/Magners League).