He’s never the biggest, strongest or most talented player. No, and probably not the fastest either. He lives in the margins and sees the game differently. If you’re looking for a superlative then he’s the bravest, prepared to put his head where the rest of us wouldn’t put our hands or boots.
Remember Jean Pierre Rives ? The blond head of him always with a rusty patch from someone’s boot. But that’s not all. The scrapper knows the rules better then the referee or coach know them. He also knows which side “our” linesman is working and the opportunities for robbery this affords him. The opposition hate him, hurt him at every breakdown but would have him as first name down on their team, if he was their player.
Around here, sometimes we let our bias inform our opinions. We know this game; we know the players and their families. There are pictures of our brothers, fathers, uncles and grandfathers with folded arms and funny hair on the walls in Greenfields and Dooradoyle. We’ve soaked it up from the pram to the pub. We’ve met our wives and girlfriends because of rugby. We talk to our friends about every last detail, every subtle nuance, every missed kick and every dropped goal. We can’t consider a life without the game. We turn twenty-eight or thirty and try to stop playing but a yawning chasm appears and the vertigo forces us back to our clubs for one last arthritic season, when we move up to second row or out to the wing where we can do less damage, with the thirds .
And because of this immersion, this religion and passion, we think of Brian O’Driscoll as Bonoesque. We use words like… words like… well… words about the length and colour of his hair, or his accent or his recent appearance on the Late Late or his celebrity girlfriend. We invent reasons to dislike the peroxide little fucker and those funny finger triangle signs he made when he scored that hat-trick in Paris. But Drico is the arch scrapper and had he played for the red madness, there would have been another couple of European cups. This year he scored two tries for Ireland that should never have been scored, two tries no one else would or could have scored when he dived low and fast into a sea of legs and gained the last and vital fraction of an inch.
The scrapper understands inches. He’s not much for the big applause-winning hits, the showy lifting and driving back in the centre of the field as the crowd oohs and aahs when the crash test dummies go through their patterns and sequences. He works on the inside, in that grey place where the referee can’t see and the ball is marginally on their side but still reachable. He works within the tangle of arms and legs, always knowing where the ball is and what the referee can’t see. When he leaves the field he is always marked. His head, his arms, and his back. For him a 50:50 ball is a no brainer; he excels when the odds are against him, when the situation seems impossible.
Before Ronan O’Gara kicked that conversion to beat Saracens at the death, that last match before the fire chief reduced the capacity in Thomond Park from 18,000 to 12,000, when Francois Pienaar brought the harrumphing Fezzes and his quarter million sterling contract to Limerick, before Ronan kicked the conversion, Keith Wood scored an impossible and implausible try. The Fezzes were defending Ballynanty from the red chaos. Time and time again players picked and went but to no avail. The forest of knees and thighs held out. There was a smell of wet dog around the place as we huddled against the cold, the rain and the darkness. It had become a game of inches, of centimetres, a game played in the margin. There was as much room on the suffocating terraces as there was in the never-ending sequence of rucks and mauls. The bleak Balla back wall matched the impending gloom of the final score, so near yet again.
You’ll never see how he does it. He works under the nearest available cloak, whether that’s the referee’s blind side or the indistinguishable colours of mucky wet jerseys. Keith Wood comes up with ball, the referee has his hand in the air and the cheer goes up. We scratch our heads and wonder what the fuck, how did he get through? We never ask if he actually scored as opposed to moving the ball an inch further when the players started to celebrate a little early and we don’t care that the opposition are a chorus of indignation at the awarding of the try. In the game of inches the scrapper is king.
The modern game makes it more difficult for the arch-messer, the fourth official with his replays and his multiple cameras, the pockets, platforms and patterns which define a strategy. But it doesn’t matter really, you’ll never stop him working the periphery, challenging the rules and playing the referee right up to the limit of his ability, experience and patience.
Rives was a classical pianist and played for the only straight rugby team who wore pink. They talk of him now as being the successful captain of a dominant French team but they forget the frustration and torment this non-conformist caused the opposition, the way he turned a game with the flick of a wrist or slowed progress by just being in the wrong place.
If you look close enough on Sunday mornings, you’ll see the scrapper out there among the hundreds of other kids learning the game in fields around Ireland. He won’t be the one putting his hand up with a question; he won’t be wearing gloves or shoulder pads either. He won’t be winning sprints or being the best at drills, but if you wait for the game at the end and look even closer, he’ll be fabricating a game of inches where winning the ball from an implausible situation is the only thing and then, feeding it to a fast kid when there’s another more obvious recipient that he knows is slower. We’ll cheer the fast kid as he dives over for “his” try, but we’ll also know that we have a real one out there, a real rough diamond.
Previously by Sniffle: Neglecting the soul of rugby