Rugby Union / Five Nations Focus: Irish captain comes to a pretty pass: As the manager's son-in-law, Michael Bradley is a sitting target. David Hughes reports from Dublin

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The Independent Online
IT CANNOT be easy being Michael Bradley. The manager's son-in-law. The Irish captain. The scrum-half with the most talked about 'pass' since Adam made one at Eve, or vice versa.

He, or to be more precise his infamous pass, has inspired many things, including some of the most imaginative analogies ever to grace a rugby report. 'Shovelling out gravel with a pitchfork', 'Slowly lobbing grenades with the pins long since extracted', 'Elwood is taking the ball off an invisible clothes line'.

It, the pass that is, has also inspired an increasingly technical debate about Ireland's failure to score tries. In fact, almost all the team's ills - from every Eric Elwood kick that is charged down to every cutback from an Irish centre - are laid at Bradley's door. What did the 31-year-old Cork Constitution man do to deserve this? Marry the manager's daughter or something? Well, yes, actually, and it makes him a vulnerable target. And he will again be in the firing line when he leads Ireland against England at Twickenham on Saturday.

At times Bradley must wonder how he became his country's most- capped scrum-half, serving under four different Irish coaches. Especially when it is his three former coaches turned pundits who lead the criticism.

While Jim Davidson has criticised Bradley and his pass in his guise as match-day expert on BBC1 Northern Ireland, Ciaran Fitzgerald has done so in print. 'Bradley has a slow pass,' Fitzgerald wrote, 'and although you can get away with that in some positions you cannot at scrum-half. He limits Ireland's options out wide.'

But, while Fitzgerald absolved Bradley of blame for the Welsh defeat, Mick Doyle has headed off in the other direction. From wanting Bradley as first-choice scrum-half and captain before Ireland's opening Five Nations game in Paris, Doyle had relegated Bradley to seventh choice a week later.

That Doyle should have called for Bradley's omission must have particularly hurt, for the two were very much partners from 1984-87. It was Doyle who gave Bradley the first of his 31 caps against the all-conquering 1984 Australians, declaring that night, 'I love him', before the two went on to share in the 1985 Triple Crown and Championship.

Dizzy days, which have never been repeated since. Bradley endured until the 35-3 debacle at Twickenham six years ago before being dropped, making a one-off return when Gus Aherne was injured against Wales two years later and then beginning his second coming as captain on the tour of New Zealand in 1992.

During his exile, Bradley also opted out of Munster, and played more golf instead. He would probably have lowered his handicap still further but for Noel Murphy becoming the Irish team manager. The former Irish flanker, capped 41 times in the 1950s and 1960s, is a strong-willed, determined and persuasive man. Constitution players tell of Murphy and Bradley having an animated discussion after one club match. The next day Bradley reversed his decision not to play for Munster, so beginning the inexorable process whereby he returned to lead Ireland on their tour of New Zealand two summers ago.

The pass is no quicker, and the legs are slower, thus reducing his threat to an opposition back row. But he is quick to protect his outside-half and his reading of the game is acute. Take an incident in the Welsh game, when Simon Geoghegan's counter-attack drew Ieuan Evans in off his wing. As the ruck developed, Bradley signalled to Conor O'Shea to go blind, giving him a kick to chase which gained Ireland 50 metres.

He has become quite the wily old pro, and played well in that match. At times, though, he must wish he was still on the golf course, but if the brickbats hurt he does not let it show. 'I'm long enough in the tooth in rugby terms to be able to divorce myself from it. If you're an international, you are bound to attract publicity. If it's negative, you have to ignore it and, in a sense, if it's positive, you have to ignore it as well. Such is life.'

He sounds far too weary for his 31 years. 'The more experienced you are the more capable you are of dealing with it,' he says, and such responses are typical of a straightforward, but somewhat shy and reserved man, who likes to withdraw into his circle of family, friends and close-knit club.

That is his 'very strong club base', where he can share in the dressing-room laughter at a family joke told by the current Cork Constitution captain, Charlie Murphy, his brother-in-law. On Christmas Day, the joke goes, Noel Murphy asks his son-in-law to pass the turkey. . .and is promptly required to catch it above his head.

However, charges of nepotism do not meet with an equable response, and Doyle's claim that 'the other Irish selectors may find themselves compromised by this situation' almost brings down the mask which often hides Bradley's innermost feelings.

'I don't mind constructive criticism on matters of rugby, but I don't think anything should be made of the family connection,' he says, with a hint of bitterness.

Despite the critiques and the defeats, he also enjoys being Irish captain. 'I feel as though we've a good side there, and there's a good response from the players to the management. They're trying very hard and it would be enjoyable for whoever is captaining the side.'

The high point was leading Ireland to that memorable, impassioned win over England last season. Bradley admits it will need 'everything going right on the day and Ireland taking all their chances' for that to happen again, but beyond Saturday he will make no further commitment to the cause, thereby fuelling speculation that he will not be available to lead Ireland to Australia this summer or to next year's World Cup.

This raises questions as to the long-term planning of the Irish management and whether they are paying more than lip service to the World Cup. But if Bradley did not want any more of this he could hardly be blamed. It is not easy being the Irish captain.

(Photograph omitted)