Belfast Telegraph

Monday 20 October 2014

McBride has pride in current Irish heroes

Willie John McBride says modern rugby is not without its stars but he can't look beyond his old comrades like Gareth Edwards and JPR Williams as some of the best the game has ever seen

Even at 70, the fires that once burned so fiercely they propelled him to the captaincy of his country and leadership of the 1974 British & Irish Lions, continue to fuel Willie John McBride’s fascination with his sport.

He lays his views before you, like cards on the table; face up and with no attempt to deceive. “There are obviously some better things about the game today. It is much better organised and so much better supported. The professional game has brought people to the sport who never had any interest in rugby,” he says.

“I understand the modern game has to have sponsors, TV, hype and all the build-up around the scene. It has created this great flow of interest no matter what country you go to.

“But I played in a team with a back line of Gareth Edwards, Barry John, David Duckham, Mike Gibson, John Dawes, Gerald Davies and JPR Williams. Please don’t tell me the game is better than that today.”

It’s a decent point. Nevertheless, McBride is far from an old soldier living in the past, content only to play over in his mind famous old battles. For a start, he watches the game closely on television, much his preferred medium nowadays.

“Why would I want to travel for hours to a ground and then be miles away from the pitch, high up at the top of some enormous stand,” he asks? “I can see it much better sitting in front of my television and it’s very pleasant here. You even get a cup of tea at half time without any queuing . . .”

The pleasure he derived from Ireland’s wondrous year of 2009, was considerable.

“What Ireland has achieved is magnificent and I got great pleasure from watching them last year. Brian O’Driscoll in particular has been tremendous in all the games he has played. For him to have been there so long at this level and to have played with the consistency he shows is absolutely outstanding.

“He is a superb player in his position but really he is another forward. He can obtain ball at the breakdown that no other back can do. His technique and anticipation is tremendous, he has got everything in his game. He would have been superb in our game years ago.”

But McBride doffs his cap to another Irishman he so enjoys watching play. “I think Rob Kearney is a lovely player. He was superb on the Lions tour.”

Ronan O’Gara or Jonathan Sexton as the starting No 10 in the side to face Italy this weekend at Croke Park? McBride has no doubts. “I would go with O’Gara, he is playing well. Remember last year at Cardiff, Wales targeted O’Gara; he was beaten, knocked and pummelled for 80 minutes. But he still had the character and commitment to knock over that crucial late drop goal.

“Ireland are the team to beat now, we are the team under pressure. But the great thing is, we have had a superb autumn and after all that success of last year it is about how well they can carry that pressure.”

Is McBride worried Declan Kidney’s men might crumble under the pressure of expectation as so many past Irish teams have done? Hell, no; he thinks this lot are completely different.

“I see absolutely no reason why they can’t win the Grand Slam again. I certainly believe they have the players but you need the little things to run with you and you don’t need injuries.

“We need a full squad for selection. But we do now have cover for players and some outstanding performers. For example, Tommy Bowe has developed very well.

And Andrew Trimble is coming back again; he scored a superb try against Bath last weekend in the Heineken Cup.

“But I am a bit worried about Stephen Ferris. He is a superb player but I think he is getting too many injuries.

“In my day, we had another superb back row player, Ken Goodall, but he started getting injuries, too.

“In Ferris’s case, is it all this training they do today? I think there are a lot more injuries from training than playing.”

McBride admires plenty of other players around the world in the modern game, most particularly New Zealand outside half Dan Carter. “He is a lovely touch player, a good all-round footballer with wonderful skills and lovely hands.”

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