RWC Special: O'Kelly aims high with Ireland

The inspirational 6ft 8in lock is crucial to his side's plans Down Under
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The Independent Online

The final day's events of the 1951 Five Nations Championship still haunt followers of Irish rugby who have been around long enough to remember them.

Ireland needed victory against Wales to secure the Triple Crown and the Grand Slam but on the day could only muster a 3-3 draw at Cardiff Arms Park. The result stirred a young spectator to send an impassioned verse to our local newspaper the following week. She wrote: "Oh, Irish team of '51, when it comes to '52, I wonder what on earth you'll do, without Jack Kyle to rally you?"

For some reason the Ireland supporter obviously believed that the peerless Kyle was about to retire from the international game - something which, in fact, was destined not to happen for another six years, until 1958 - and was at a loss to see how Ireland could cope without his silken skills.

The fear of your side losing their most inspirational player that was so tangible in that letter over half a century ago is just as pertinent today.

All right, not every player in any team game is irreplaceable, but it simply cannot be denied that there are those few, invaluable individuals whose absence is going to hit the side very hard indeed, the sort of players whose inspirational contribution is often well-nigh incalculable, for "talent does what it can, genius does what it must".

Ireland's inspirational lock Malcolm O'Kelly is one such individual as the World Cup in Australia looms ever larger. There are countless Irish followers who point to the many able contenders for the second row, and so there are, but not too many of them are blessed with O'Kelly's skills, strengths, intelligence and sheer footballing ability.

Oh, and let's not forget about his experience. O'Kelly, born in Chelmsford, Essex, on 19 July 1974, is not yet 30, once regarded as a fairly tender age for a lock forward. But the fact remains that he now has six years' experience and over 50 international appearances behind him, very much the case of an old head on young shoulders.

Malcolm Eamonn O'Kelly - to give the mighty lock (6ft 8in tall and weighing in at 16st 9lb) was educated at Templeogue College and at Dublin University and was initially capped for Ireland at Under-21, Student and 'A' level before making his first full international appearance against the touring All Blacks at Lansdowne Road in November 1997.

Ireland, captained by Keith Wood, who scored a brace of tries, were demolished to the embarrassing tune of 63-15 by the rampant New Zealanders. So the fact that he was ever-present in the national team for the next 11 international matches, until injury interrupted his run, speaks volumes for O'Kelly's determination, tenacity and sheer ability, especially at a time when Ireland were going through a very poor phase indeed.

That injury caused O'Kelly to lose out on the 1999 Five Nations campaign, but he regained his second-row spot later that year for the last World Cup in which - as if anybody needs reminding - Ireland failed to shine. This failure, however, was not destined to damage in the slightest way O'Kelly's career, which continued to blossom and soar. Since then, O'Kelly has been an Ireland regular, as much an automatic and integral member of the side as some of his more highly publicised colleagues, like Brian O'Driscoll and David Humphreys, for example, and as an added personal bonus, he was a member of the British Lions squad that toured Australia in 2001.

So, barring injury, O'Kelly will be a vital cog in the Ireland rugby machine which (hopefully) will put on a better performance at this World Cup than their predecessors of 1987, '91, '95 and '99 were able to do.

"These days, it's all about getting the most out of your body," O'Kelly says, "how to run better, how to ease the strain on your back, knees and ankles, and use them to better effect, especially at the line-out. Everyone in the squads selected for recent warm-up matches and training sessions has been doing that. And anything which will give us an edge in Australia has simply got to be worth doing."