I’m a Paddy Wallace fan in that I disagree with the amount of abuse he gets. That’s not actually true – I like how Wallace plays, because he’s a smashing footballer and a brave if undersized defender. His recent appearance at outhalf for an Ireland Select XV against Connacht showed that he’s still a great distributor and can run a mean backline. With that said, even those keen Wallackamaniaks [that’s what we’re called] amongst us may have forgotten that this will be Paddy’s third Rugby World Cup.
I was reminded of this fact when reading over the excellent blog at www.whiffofcordite.blogspot.com; the Wallackamaniaks over there know their oranges from their apples, and even though Paddy’s first cap for Ireland came as a substitute against South Africa in the November 2006 international at Lansdowne Road, he had actually been included in the Irish RWC03 squad thirty-eight months earlier.
Now THAT’S A Bolter
Now, there are all sorts of reasons why this is interesting. Firstly, Eddie O’Sullivan was installed as coach in November 2001; he had a run-in period of 23 months to his first world cup match, including two complete Six Nations tournaments, and Wallace didn’t get a sniff in either of them.
Grand, fair enough – he was a bolter, a late run of good form saw him in. Or did it? Wallace played just three matches for Ulster in the 2002/03 season, and the last one of these was on the 14 September 2002, when he suffered a catastrophic leg-break. He came back from that after Ulster’s season had ended to play amateur club rugby with Ballymena and won himself an All Ireland League medal. He was then called into the RWC03 squad because of Jonathan ‘Dinger’ Bell’s torn achilles tendon on the back of one match for Ulster in just under a year. That’s pretty incredible.
Kidney’s [Foundation] Stone
And then you think back and realise that at the time, Declan Kidney was Ireland’s backs coach alongside O’Sullivan [he was drafted in from Munster following another big run to the Heineken Cup final in 2002], and that Paddy Wallace had been his outhalf when Kidney had coached the Irish U19s to the Junior World Cup in 1998, and that Wallace had scored a try and a drop goal in the final of that competition.
Even with the merry spectre of Kidney’s patronage looming over him, Wallace didn’t get a hint of a look-in during RWC03, and with ROG and Humphreys duelling it out for the No10 shirt and Geordan Murphy and Girvan Dempsey fighting over the fullback jersey in the following Six Nations, he was never really likely to get a run in the first string. Figure in Gordon D’Arcy being called into the No12 jersey on short notice and tearing the entire tournament up on the way to being proclaimed the best player in the northern hemisphere that season, and the game was up for Paddy.
Keyser Soze Period – The Man Who Wasn’t There …
Kidney left his position with Ireland at the end of that 2003/04 season and Wallace – through the vagaries of form, the strong claims to the Ulster No10 jersey of David Humphreys, positional changes and injury [a broken hand ruled him out of the 2005 summer tour to Japan] – was not seen again in an Irish squad until he was called into O’Sullivan’s 2006 Autumn International squad after a good run of performances for Ireland A at outhalf in the Churchill Cup during June 2006, and a convincing start to the Magner’s League for Ulster at No12 alongside Paul Steinmetz in the centre.
He got a start at outhalf against the Pacific Islands in November 2006 [David Humphreys having retired from international rugby after the 2006 Six Nations] in the last international game at Lansdowne Road and had a cracker – I was at that game, and he was magnificent, scoring 26 points.
… Until It Was World Cup Time Again
That essentially sealed his place in the RWC07 squad, even though he hardly got a look in at outhalf for Ulster that season [Humphreys still being the man in possession] and saw only two minutes of garbage time off the bench for Ireland in the Six Nations. That O’Sullivan didn’t trust him to run the backline was proven during the world cup with ROG playing like an absolute drain and Wallace firmly rooted to the bench for all but the added time of a laboured win over Namibia.
He travelled to France that year as a 28-year old with just five caps and only three starts to his name at international level. He goes back to his third world cup as a 32-year old with twenty-eight caps and fourteen starts under his belt, having been brought back into the international fold first by Michael Bradley during the June 2008 tour of the summer hemisphere, and then by Declan Kidney after Luke Fitzgerald had failed to satisfactorily fire in the No12 jersey during the 2008 November Internationals. It’s worth remembering that Gordon D’Arcy was out injured for this period, having shattered his arm in February 2008 against Italy.
It’s sort of mindblowing that a guy who has only for the briefest of moments been first choice for Ireland [maybe the first half of the 2009 Six Nations] will be going to his third world cup. John Hayes went to three world cups as well. The difference is that he was a banker for Ireland for a decade, making 99 test starts over twelve seasons, not Wallace’s 14 starts in six. Luke Fitzgerald and Tomás O’Leary have now missed out on two World Cups since their respective first caps, and both were selected for the Lions a couple of years ago.
Yes, But What’s Your Point?
This is not an attack on Paddy Wallace. If it shows anything, it merely attempts to show that there will very likely be a place in any world cup squad in the future for somebody who can ‘play a bit of outhalf’. The combination could be one of a good few – outhalf/fullback [Ruan Pienaar, James Hook], outhalf/first centre [Felipe Contepomi, James Hook], outhalf/scrum-half [Piri Weepu, Ruan Pienaar] – but it’s a role which can make you an important part of a squad.
For every player that complains about his versatility being a curse – Earls, for example – there’s another who just gets on with the job, takes his caps where he can find them and makes matchday squads, and in Paddy Wallace’s case, RWC squads.
Wallace went from being amongst the Bright New Things of Irish rugby [1998-2001 period] to a guy who missed almost an entire season of rugby through injury and somehow got selected to a world cup squad on the back of somebody else’s injury and who knows what form [2002-03 period], to a guy who fell between the holes and ended up playing a good bit of amateur rugby [2004-06 period] before somebody else’s retirement opened up a spot for him and allowed him to make another world cup squad after only three international starts [2006-07], to a guy who has made himself an international career out of being theoretically able to play outhalf at an international level while only sporadically being called to do it at club level, and putting in a reasonably-good-but-far-from-blinding standard of performance at inside centre [2008-present].
All you Ian Madigans, Ian Keatleys, Scott Deasys, Luke Marshalls, Paddy Jacksons and Ian McKinleys out there take note: versatility isn’t a curse, it’s a gift. You too could find yourself in three world cup squads!