Master in the middle
BRIAN O’DRISCOLL carried his chosen code so far beyond all the boundaries that even the very best of his heirs can seem little more than a tatty, low-budget imitation.
And yet, it is increasingly difficult to observe Garry Ringrose light up the rugby skies and not feel that Leinster have been granted one more astonishing gift from the gods.
So much of the essence of Leo Cullen’s high-achievers can be seen in the artist-athlete who might just be, pound for pound, the most gifted Irish player of his generation.
He has competition from the outrageously talented band of young twentysomethings at the RDS, none more so than James Ryan, a player who had advanced to the territories of freakish achievement even before his 22nd birthday.
What is certain is that Ringrose is a swordsman of unfailing ambition, a creative force with a rare and transfixing ability to deliver an elegant killing thrust.
In a sport that has come to place a depressing emphasis on bulk and straight line power, the Dubliner’s gifts are more cerebral, a capacity to sashay through the tiniest cracks like some old Brylcreemed legend of yesteryear.
His endowment to the Aviva is a cultivated Federer-like refinement and elegance, qualities increasingly rare in a game unhealthily obsessed with dangerously unsubtle battering- ram collisions.
And, as Leinster face into another defining month – one that could see them tighten their grip on the PRO14 into a third year while advancing into uncharted five-title European territory – purists would not quibble if the midfield laureate had the last word.
In these bleak times, sport has never had such a responsibility to instil joy in the soul of its audience. Ringrose – like Joe Canning or David Clifford or Katie Taylor or Con O’Callaghan – is among the Irish with the natural-born exuberance in his or her play to carry spectators into the realms of fantasy.
Opposition coaches, starting with Munster who can today clinch a second collision in a fortnight with their tribal rivals in Friday’s league semi-final, face a migraine-inducing task of muzzling the Dublin club’s sleekest pistol.
Ringrose returned after the 180- day lockdown without a hint of rust. The range of his game-breaking ability was the difference between Munster snatching a rare Aviva win or again returning to Limerick with heads bowed.
He scored one try, while a trademark magisterial detonation of those dancing feet carried Leinster into territory where the pack could drive Cian Healy over the line.
Ireland enjoy a rare depth of midfield options – from Connacht powerhouse Bundee Aki to Munster’s huge but skilled Chris Farrell, Ulster’s resurgent Stuart McCloskey to Ringrose’s rounded sidekick in blue, Robbie Henshaw.
What is certain is that this quartet, however inestimable, are competing for one centre shirt in Andy Farrell’s side.
Fitness permitting, the No 13 shirt is already reserved. It is not just that, at 25, Ringrose’s game looks ever more rounded – a scorer of fantasy tries, a defender of competitive integrity, a superior craftsman, yes, but also a student with a hunger for knowledge and self-improvement.
Johnny Sexton remains Leinster’s relentless setter of standards, but as the sun begins to set – as it must – on even a 35-year-old of ferocious will, it is Ringrose and Ryan who must assume the baton of leadership.
Blazing Ryan is rehabilitating from a shoulder injury that will sideline him until deep into the autumn, increasing further the onus on Ringrose to put this team on his back.
A stunning 60-metre solo try against Clermont under a blazing French sun in 2017 – two outrageous jinks off his right foot followed by a clever dummy leaving three defenders grasping at air – offered early evidence of his capacity to stir the blood.
Yet, for all his pyrotechnics, there were evident kinks and a naivety to his all-round game back then. As recently as 12 months ago, he was clamped in a crisis of confidence.
A failure to spot an overlap and deliver the killing pass in the Champions Cup final – “If I had the chance back I would always give that pass” – seemed to dent his self-belief.
So much so that by the time the World Cup came around, the consensus, unthinkable now a year on, was that Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw were Ireland’s go-to pairing.
Until Henshaw sustained an untimely injury in Japan, it seemed that Ringrose’s role would be as Joe Schmidt’s super-utility reserve, offering cover in midfield, at full-back and, potentially, even at halfback.
But once Henshaw went down, Ringrose seized the hour, one of the few Irish players to distinguish himself over yet another anti-climactic and underwhelming World Cup misadventure.
Established with Ireland, now comes the defining moments of this strangest club season, a fortnight that will decide the PRO14, followed by a heavyweight European contest with the shamed but still phenomenally potent Saracens.
The same Saracens against whom he had a kick charged down and took that wrong option with the try line gaping in last year’s final, mistakes that sent a normally calm individual spinning into a vortex of doubt.
“It weighed down more heavily than any other game… I just couldn’t shake that defeat off… it was like carrying a weighted vest around,” he admitted in a June interview.
A 40-minute meeting with sports psychologist Enda McNulty, a football All-Ireland winner with Armagh in 2002, enabled him to regain momentum – so much so that he was the match winner in the subsequent PRO14 final.
Right now, he is Leinster’s shining light, with a visa from the gods that permits him to stray, now and then, into the neighbourhood of genius. He might not be O’Driscoll, but neither would anybody mistake him for a mere low-budget imitation of the shining old titan.