Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 December 2014

My Celtic cousins have secret of success: Kyran Bracken

Former England rugby captain and World Cup winner Kyran Bracken could have played for Ireland.

He was born in Dublin and lived in Skerries until he was four. As well as that his mother was an Irish hockey international.

So in stark contrast to some of those who have won caps over the years in a variety of codes by virtue of rather more tenuous links, Bracken’s Irish qualifications stand up.

He and his family left for Liverpool and at 13 he was awarded a rugby scholarship to Stonyhurst School in Lancashire where fellow-2003 World Cup winners Will Greenwood and Iain Balshaw also studied. His teachers included Brian Ashton.

So when Bracken was offered the chance to play for England, he took it. He has no regrets.

He does, however, have great admiration for the way Irish rugby runs itself, enabling it to compete alongside nations like England and France despite having far fewer players and much less money. Three out of eight spots in this weekend’s Heineken Cup quarter-finals underline the point.

Recently he was in Belfast doing promotional work for Gordons Chemist and during his visit I met him for a chat over coffee about rugby in general and the Celtic nations’ version thereof in particular.

“The Welsh, the Scots and the Irish will always punch above their weight because their players are centrally contracted,” he says.

“England need to do that, too. If they did, they could probably become the best team in the world.

“But the problem is that for so long the RFU have allowed the clubs to die on their feet and go on losing money over a period of years while they (the RFU) have just continued to cherry-picked their players.”

In illustrating his point he highlights last season’s Leinster v Northampton Saints Heineken Cup final.

“In the first half, Northampton blew Leinster away,” he says. “But then their season caught up with them and Leinster ended up winning a game in which they’d looked dead and buried at half-time.

“Northampton play dozens of games; Leinster play maybe 15 meaningful fixtures plus of course the internationals.”

Resting players is another aspect of the Irish system he admires.

“In top-level team sport, rotation is vital,” he says. “You see it in football all the time. Look how many times a club like Manchester United will rest a player during the season.

“Now someone like Leinster’s Brian O’Driscoll had played maybe 26 games in the whole year, was up against Northampton players who had played something like 40 which is stupid.

“You’re looked after when you’re centrally contracted, as the Irish guys are, but England’s players have two employers — their clubs and the RFU — so they end up having to work twice as hard.

“Unlike England, Ireland haven’t lost players to French clubs, for example. So the system you have works.

“I think the facts bear that out — there are three Irish sides in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup, one English and two from French. Let’s just say I wish England had centrally contracted players like you guys.”

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