The Man Who Fell To Earth

Jeremy Staunton: not only could he have been a contender, he should have been a champion. How Irish rugby failed one of the most talented players of his generation is still beyond me.

The Mole read an anecdote about Jeremy Staunton on a message board about four or five months ago, and it has stuck with him since: an Irish rugby fan was at Welford Road with his English Tigers fan mate for a Premiership game, and Staunton was introduced off the bench relatively early in the match. “Great, Staunton,” the Tigers fans said to his mate, “no more tries.”

That’s the way Staunton’s career has turned out. He’s the boring veteran, the guy who’s good enough to stick around, but never really made it. He has become a Chris Malone figure, in other words.

The Mole, on the other hand, remembers Jeremy Staunton in the early days of his senior career, when it seemed like the sky was no sort of limit. The guy had it all. He played a match for Munster U19s against Leinster U19s in front of a more-than-half-empty Donnybrook where he was so much better than every other player on the pitch it looked like the Munster Branch had faked his birth certificate and bought in an All Black ringer to play in the No10 jersey. He ran through gaps, and then ran away from the cover; he punted balls from inside his own 5m line into touch in the opposition half; he absolutely walloped Leinster loose-forwards in the tackle, hitting them twice as hard as they hit him. He wanted the ball all the time, as though it was soccer or basketball, far less structured games than rugby.

He was big and strong as well; really strong. The stats don’t sound too impressive now that we’re used to enormous backs – 183cm [6’0’] tall, and 95kg [15st] – but he was that sort of size even then at 19 years old, a really solid customer. While there was nothing willowy about him, he wasn’t a little low-slung stump either … if the dark hair and the sallow skin reminded you of a bigger Tony Ward, in the Mole’s eyes the easiest point of comparison in terms of build, strength, skillset, physical ability and outlook would [somewhat ironically] be Felipe Contepomi.

Jeremy Staunton in action for Ireland ‘A’ versus England ‘A’ as a teenager – this was back in the days when ‘A’ fixtures were a feature of international weekends, not occasional one-offs.

His rise was meteoric, by any standards: he was playing outhalf on the Irish U21s as a 18 year old in March 1999 and then for the Ireland A side a month later. It wasn’t too much longer before Warren Gatland called him into the full Ireland squad for a tour to Australia in the summer of 1999, and he was on the bench for the second test about six weeks after he had turned 19-years old.

More than three years younger than Ronan O’Gara and selected in that touring party alongside outhalves David Humphreys and Eric Elwood, it seemed like Staunton was about to take international rugby by storm.

Meedja Darling, Darling

He was certainly the Next Big Thing [capital N, capital B, capital T] amongst the Irish rugby media. And why wouldn’t he be? The guy was creating a huge stir in senior rugby as a teenager. This wasn’t a case of a brilliant schools player looking phenomenal against kids his own age; this was a teenager absolutely tearing it up against some of the best players in the entire country.

‘“I’ve never played with a better young player,” admitted Garryowen’s captain [The Mole: Killian Keane] in tomorrow’s AIB AIL final against Cork Constitution. “He’s on a different level and that’s with good players around him. I have played for Ireland albeit only for 30 minutes, he has an U21 international in the centre and at times he looks head and shoulders above the rest of us,” said Keane. “Only Keith [Wood] has come near to making the same impact as a young player that I remember. Of course they greatly contrast, but they can both create the same buzz.”’

The Mirror, 1 May 1999 [… and really worth checking out the full article; not only does it capture the excitement that surrounded Staunton’s breakthrough year with plenty of juicy quotes, it also makes a prediction that should have come true].

It never happened. Why it didn’t really pan out for him is due to the weight of a good few factors: this is a typically real life situation, with no one clear-cut reason for success or failure.

Guess who?

RADGE!

The biggest issue was – of course – the presence of Ronan O’Gara in the Munster squad. If it’s hard to think of a Munster team without O’Gara in it, that’s because there hasn’t been one for about fourteen seasons: you have to go back to the winter of 1998 and Barry Everitt in the outhalf jersey. ROG wasn’t anything like as precocious as Staunton in terms of his introduction to representative rugby, but once he got his hands on the Munster No10 jersey under Declan Kidney, he didn’t let it go.

The roots of the relationship between Kidney and O’Gara go mineshaft deep. O’Gara was a PBC Cork lad, where Kidney was a teacher and basically in charge of rugby, and as O’Gara himself says in his autobiography, “he was a big influence on me in those years”. It wasn’t always a favourite son approach: Kidney didn’t pick ROG for the Irish Schools team to play against Australia in 1994 [something that ROG still hasn’t forgiven him for apparently – ROG in grudge-holding shocker].

More importantly, when you look at the absolutely phenomenal career O’Gara has had, you’d be fighting a fierce battle arguing against the decision to back him instead of Staunton.

Still, were you to make that argument … 

O’Gara and Staunton were both outhalves; indeed, apart from a very brief interval with Bryn Cunningham at the wheel, Staunton followed O’Gara into the Irish U21s No10 jersey. The principal difference between the two players was that Staunton had the athleticism to play practically any position in the backline, while O’Gara’s physique was a definite limiting  factor.

O’Gara talks openly about it in his autobiography:

‘… when [Barry Everitt] was injured for the final game of the [Ireland A] campaign, Jeremy Staunton was picked to start against Italy and with me on the bench* [The Mole: Staunton bagged one of ten tries that day in a facile 73-17 win. The backline scored seven of them, which suggests that his play at outhalf wasn’t anything to be sniffed at]. I got on for the last two minutes to win my first Ireland A cap but the reality was that Staunton was on a fast track and I was being left behind. He didn’t turn nineteen until the end of that season, which made him three years younger than me, and he still hadn’t played for the Munster senior team but he was being talked up as the new sensation of Irish rugby. Was I jealous? Of course I was.

O’Gara in his baggy-jerseyed Cork Con days. Gerry Thornley was knifed by the subbies on his preview to the game: he originally wrote,”May eventually play for Ireland … about a hundred and thirty times” but they left the part after the ellipsis on the spike. There was wailing and gnashing of teeth on D’Olier Street.

He was the Garryowen outhalf and they were our opponents in the final of the All Ireland League. There was a lot of media attention on our duel that week and neither of us was pushing it away. Gerry Thornley interviewed both of us for a big feature in the Irish Times on the morning of the match and while he was positive about me he was gushing about Jeremy: “Although he’s error-prone, he’s young, gifted, deeply self-analytical about his game, fiercely competitive, eager to learn and destined to be a pin-up boy of Irish rugby. It’s almost scary to think how good he could have become.” There was a panel alongside the interview where we were analysed in different categories. Under the heading “Potential”, Thornley wrote a long paragraph describing how I may eventually play for Ireland. For Staunton he just wrote three words: “Sky’s the limit”.’

Con won the final that day, with O’Gara knocking over the winning penalty in extra time. Jeremy Staunton never won an AIL medal [fade to black].

Deccie’s Dilemna

Kidney was in the enviable situation of having two talented young outhalves available to him for selection at Munster. Unfortunately, outhalf is a position where one isn’t enough, but two can be too many.

“Quarterback controversy” is a phrase borrowed from American football, but most rugby fans will be able to translate it across the sports: two gifted players competing for one vital position. Before Staunton was twenty years old, there was already one occurring at international level.

O’Gara debuted in the 2000 Six Nations for Ireland under Warren Gatland. David Humpreys had been battling to wrest the No10 jersey away from Eric Elwood since RWC95, and had finally established himself as first choice outhalf in the last Five Nations tournament in 1999, starting all four games as a 27 year old. The next season, Humpreys started the first game of the championship against England [with Elwood on the bench as an unused substitute], which saw Ireland take an almighty 50-18 battering in Twickenham. Gatty cleared the decks and brought in ROG to make his debut at home against Scotland in a 44-22 win – with Humphreys coming off the bench in the second half – and retained the Corkonian for the next match against Italy, where he kicked a whopping thirty points [six penalties and six conversions].

The next game was the epochal 25-27 victory in Parc des Princes in which Brian O’Driscoll announced himself on the world stage with a hat-trick of tries. ROG started in the No10 jersey, but it was Humpreys who sealed the game with his nerveless place-kicking. In the last match of the tournament Ireland surprisingly succumbed at home to Wales, but the rivalry between O’Gara and Humpreys was already well-established.

In light of the gunfight at international level over the No10 jersey and his steadfast backing of O’Gara in Munster, Kidney was presented with an awkward dilemna with Staunton bursting on to the scene. He already had a young No10 in the Cork Con man; he didn’t need a second one. These were the days before the Celtic League – there was just the interprovincial championship and the Heineken Cup on the provincial calendar, and the rest of the season was dominated by the AIL.

Killian Keane on Irish duty for the Development XV that faced Samoa in November 2001 in Donnybrook. He had been capped in 1998 and had already turned 30 years old by the time of the Samoa game … a little late for development.

The Baleful Influence Of The AIL 

You get the feeling that having Killian Keane at No12 for Garryowen didn’t really do too many favours for Staunton in the long run. In the short term, I’m sure that it seemed ideal: Keane [born August 1971] was a wily old midfield fox with almost a decade on Staunton, just the man to point out the pitfalls before the young fellah fell into them.

Unfortunately, the short-termism of the league and the primacy afforded the AIL amongst the Munster clubs didn’t just hamper Staunton’s career, it actively damaged it.

A lot of people were under the impression that you could win the Munster jersey by playing well for your club; that’s the way it had been for decades. Munster was a representative team. Few people had caught the paradigm shift: Munster was now a club in its own right. Unless there was a stray jersey going around, you weren’t going to earn a run at one of the occupied ones playing for Garryowen or Con or Well or Munsters or Shanning … ROG had a firm grip on the red No10 jersey, and that was that. Find a new position.

This is where the modern Munster set-up would be looking to maximise their resources: with two international class talents in O’Gara and Staunton, they’d want to get both players in the team, rather than have one sitting on the bench. To do that, Garryowen would be instructed to give Staunton gametime at 12 or 15. Uh-uh. Not happening. Crotty’s at 15 and Keane is at 12. We’ve got a league to win here, and we need our outhalf playing outhalf.

Jason ‘Dutchy’ Holland was a rugged, clever footballer who had sharp basics and good physicality for a guy who wasn’t a big beast of a player. He was an ideal minder for ROG in the early days of the young out half’s career.

Dutchy Holland, Munster’s Midfield Rommel

Dutchy Holland wasn’t one of the accented bluffers that so often crop up in the narrative of Fergburger’s tales of know-nothing provincial extravagance. He was a hard-nosed, talented midfielder who knew his rugby inside-out and was only really a yard of pace away from being an absolutely first-rate player.

The formative years of the Heineken Cup were the formative years of the provinces as professional entities, and there simply weren’t the same number of games as there are in the current schedule. Alan Quinlan has written before in his excellent Irish Times column that it was the Celtic League and not the Heineken Cup that sounded the death knell of the AIL as a top-class competition, but that’s a story in itself.

Back in those early days of the last decade, tactical substitutes were a long, long way from being a dominant factor in games, and the whole squad system was in its infancy; you could get by on a team and maybe three or four subs for the entire season.

Retaining Dutchy [born August 1972, so roughly four and a half years senior to O’Gara] as a wise old head to shepherd ROG through any growing pains at outhalf was an eminently sensible move, because when O’Gara debuted for Munster in 1997 he was just 20 years old; playing the 2000 HEC final he had only recently turned 23. Dutchy was his minder and his foil, a level head on level shoulders.

Putting a 19 year old Jeremy Staunton in there beside him, a guy who at that stage had his eyes on the No10 jersey himself, may not have proved ideal for either O’Gara or the team. Staunton had more natural talent than Holland, but his lack of experience made him totally unsuitable in the role of a steady hand outside a young outhalf. With Peter Stringer at scrumhalf inside O’Gara, you can understand the conservative view that there was already enough youth at the hinge of the team.

However, [and those who don’t like ‘What If’ scenarios would do well to duck out and put the kettle on at this stage … and then come back and skip down to the next heading, because cup of tea or not, this thing won’t read itself in your absence] when you look at the extraordinarily long international careers of O’Gara and Stringer, a big question looms: why couldn’t it have been a Munster trio in midfield, instead of a partnership?

The Three Munsterteers: Rogos, Stringos and Stauntamis

Part of the answer to that question points to the Cork/Limerick divide, of course. O’Gara and Stringer were both Pres/UCC/Con while Staunton was a Garryowen man. The link between scrum-half and outhalf is the most vital relationship on the field, and the fact that Stringer and O’Gara went all the way back to the womb wasn’t just a nice narrative: all that experience of playing together had made them an exceptionally strong partnership. However, the voluble O’Gara has frequently talked about how the connection between himself and Stringer was overstated. Maybe that’s just ROG pushing Strings out of the limelight – far, far stranger things have happened – but the city and club differences should never have been an unbridgeable gap, anyway.

Then there’s the part of how the inside centre’s role was seen. New Zealand were a few years away from bringing in footballers like Aaron Mauger and Luke McAlister at second five-eighth: in RWC99 the Kiwis were selecting Alama Ieremia at No12 and the world champions Wallabies were playing the uncomplicated bosher Dan Herbert inside Player of the Tournament Tim Horan. Irish rugby certainly wasn’t going to lead the way with an innovative ‘two out-halves’ approach in midfield.

The ego issue would have required clever management. There’s no doubt that ROG has an enormous, planet-chewing ego, and everything about the way Staunton played and his astonishingly quick ascension through representative rugby would point to a similar level of self-confidence … call it cockiness if you want. Of course Staunton would have been eyeing the No10 jersey, and of course O’Gara would have been defensive about it. How do you resolve an issue like that?

Managing different personalities in a team environment, especially where competition for a single jersey is the issue, is a minefield. How do you deal with that sort of situation? The Mole’s PhD in Cod Psychology comes in for frequent and rigorous misuse in hypothetical situations like this. Do you tell ROG outright that he’s the better outhalf, but that he simply doesn’t have the physicality or athleticism to play centre at all? That’s the ‘pat on the back and kick in the balls’ approach to stop a confident player getting too cocky, but it’s by no means a sure thing. Do you tell him that Staunton is always going to be the better No12 and that he can play outhalf pretty well himself … but that that the two of them can make a hell of a midfield partnership that’ll raise both their stock?

And selling ROG on it would be the easy side of the argument: he gets to keep the No10 jersey. What do you say to Staunton? Maybe you play to the guy’s self-belief by first telling him that he’s got way more gifts than ROG has … but then let him know that at the moment, ROG is the better No10. Tell him that he has the potential to be the outstanding No12 in this country and one of the best in the world, and that you want both of them as the two pillars of the team’s attacking strategy; even if he has his heart set on the No10 jersey, playing at a high level at No12 for a season is going to make progress a hell of a lot faster than sitting on the bench in the No21 jersey.

Positional Switch

Kidney couldn’t predict the future: he wasn’t able to foresee that No12 would become the problem position for Munster over the next decade, and that in Staunton he had a potential long-term solution already in his squad. Thus, when the positional switch did happen for Staunton, it happened all wrong.

There’s a perception that the roles of outhalf and fullback are similar. It’s quite a superficial idea that’s mostly based on the fact that both players kick the ball more often than others on the pitch. During the 1997 Lions tour, Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer recognised that they had to include the goal-kicking prowess of Neil Jenkins somewhere in the backline in order to win the series, but that it’d kill their chances stone dead if it was in his favoured position of out-half. He was selected at fullback, and the gamble paid off: the Boks generally failed to capitalize on his positional inexperience and lack of pace, and he place-kicked like a metronome. Could they have gotten away with that gambit against the All Blacks? Not a chance.

In the modern game [flat cap alert] fullback and outhalf are very different positions. An outhalf is consistently in the centre of the action, while a fullback is consistently removed from it. Fullbacks can expect to defend wide-out and on their own, rather than as part of a midfield defense in traffic. Outhalves plan and direct attacks through continued phases in possession; fullbacks get a significant proportion of their possession from opposition kicks, a long way behind their entire team.

A fullback is expected to be a strike runner, and a naturally talented runner in broken play; he has to be a capable finisher to boot. An outhalf undoubtedly prospers with a break, but ROG is a great example of the fact that you don’t need searing speed or quickness to play at the highest level as a No10. It’s far more typical these days to see a sometime-winger play fullback than a some-time outhalf.

Dominic Crotty was Declan Kidney’s preferred choice at fullback for Munster, and started the 2002 Heineken Cup final against Leicester in the No15 jersey. Crotty was capped for Ireland four times in the 1996-97 season, and briefly recalled for a game against Canada in 2000. He was 27 years old at the time of the 2002 final, and Staunton was just 21. Crotty was intelligent, diligent and reliable but not spectacular – just the sort of player that Kidney liked in his backline.

Kidney’s attempts to turn Staunton into a fullback from an outhalf weren’t necessarily fruitless – he scored 30 of Munster’s 40 points against Connacht [7 penalties, 2 conversion and a try] in an August friendly in 2001 – but they never really took advantage of his playmaking skills, his imagination and his physicality in traffic. He had been playing outhalf all his young career, and taking him away from the centre of the action detracted from his game.

Furthermore, Kidney consistently chose the more experienced Dominic Crotty at fullback ahead of him; Crotty had seen some international action on the wing in 1997 [when the fullback berth was occupied by either Jim Stapleton or Conor O’Shea] and was an established player at Garryowen; as mentioned above, this was Staunton’s club as well. Even if he was fullback at Munster, he was outhalf at Garryowen.

That nobody had the wit at either Munster or Ireland to see that Staunton had all the tools to make a long-term international No12 is an indictment of the four coaches involved: Kidney [1998-2002] and Alan Gaffney [2002-06] at Munster, and Warren Gatland [1998-2001] and Eddie O’Sullivan [2002-08] for Ireland. I don’t really buy the “everybody’s out of step but me” argument on this one; although I suppose that nobody every does. It should have been obvious.

Gatland Axed, O’Sullivan In

Just as Gatland inherited a team with two international-class outhalves in Eric Elwood and David Humphreys from Brian Ashton, O’Sullivan inherited Humphreys and O’Gara from Gatland. They had the tools at their disposal in the No10 jersey; they should have been looking to make the most of the talent available in other positions.

Gatland, as he has proven everywhere he’s coached, is an experimenter and believer in youth; O’Sullivan was big on experience, and it has often been said that it was more difficult to get off his teams than it was to get on it. The psychology of it can be reduced to simple terms: Gatland believed that competition inspired good performance, while O’Sullivan believed that stability inspired good performance. Gatland could be ruthless about dropping players for under-performing, while O’Sullivan valued loyalty and staying power, ‘the bigger picture’.

Kevin Maggs was brave and durable as a No12, but it’s incredible that he managed to pick up no fewer than 70 caps for Ireland between 1997 and 2005 – that’s more than Jerry Guscott [65] or Will Greenwood [55], who were indisputably world class. For a centre with that many test caps, KM was a pretty ordinary player. The Mole is a Maggs fan – show me an Irish rugby fan who doesn’t admire him, and I’ll show you a real curmudgeon – but even his biggest fan would admit that he had some massive limitations, i.e. he couldn’t kick at all, he didn’t have much of a passing game and he didn’t have real pace.

Hendo in his Munster days. He formed an outstanding partnership with Brian O’Driscoll for the 2001 Lions and should have been at his peak at 28/29 years old when he signed for Munster for the 2001-02 season. However, he barely got on the pitch over the next two years.

Guys like Maggs and Holland are fan favourites, because they deliver and deliver and deliver every week – they’re not outstanding talents, but they’re workers. The average fan can identify with them. The other international No12 option at the turn of the millennium was Rob Henderson. Likeable chap that he was [and remains], Hendo’s international career was a flash in the pan: two good seasons have afforded him enough rugby credibility to dine out for the rest of his life. Kudos to him for getting it together for those 18 months, but the guy rarely got himself in prime shape either before or after that period.

Munster snapped Hendo up after his return from that scintillating Lions tour, but he only started 13 games in his first two seasons and was rarely fully fit. He never came anywhere near to recapturing his Lions form and was pretty much done as an international, making only another two starts before time was called on his test career. Still, once you’ve been to the top of the mountain, fans keep hoping that you can get back up there again: think of Tomás O’Leary, or further afield, Rocky Elsom, who were both in cracking form in 2008-09 and have never reached that level of performance since.

It was Gatland who belatedly gave Staunton his international debut against Samoa in the November International of 2001, and he was rewarded when the Garryowener bagged a try from fullback. However, the IRFU’s version of the Night of the Long Knives fell pretty soon after that, and Gatland was given the bum’s rush. The newly appointed Dagger came down firmly on the side of Maggs, starting him in his first game in charge and picking him in the No12 jersey for 23 of the 30 games until that fateful game when he moved D’Arcy in from No13 [a position that Gary Ella had only picked him in a handful of times for Leinster since the turn of Christmas] to pair with the returning O’Driscoll against Wales on 22 February 2004.

Bright Lights, Big City

By that time, Staunton had left Munster. Two years into Gaffney’s tenure, and having barely turned 23 years old, he signed for NEC Harlequins in London. Paul Burke was moving the other way, which gave an experienced, like-for-like backup to O’Gara for Munster, but it seemed very much like Quins got the better end of the deal.

Staunton tries to break free against Neath in the Celtic League Final, February 2003. Munster won 37-17, with Staunton kicking two penalties and two conversions when O’Gara went off injured.

The odd thing is that he probably got more responsibility and gametime under Gaffney than he did under Kidney. In Gaffney’s first season [2002-03] he was played exclusively as a fullback, and started seven of Munster’s eight games in the Heineken Cup on their way to a tough loss in the semi-final against Toulouse. In the second, Staunton’s last at the province, he moved between fullback and outhalf, but his days were numbered by Christmas.

The record-holding All Black try-scorer Christian Cullen arrived at the end of 2003; at 27 years old he should have been at the peak of his powers, and the controversy surrounding his omission from the All Blacks squad had been absolutely enormous. It was seen as a huge coup for Munster rugby. Cullen wasn’t just a world class player, but an attacking threat who had redefined the fullback position and scorched his name into the history books. However, he was already physically broken down and struggled with serious injury after serious injury, and while his class was immediately apparent, he spent more time in the stands than on the pitch for three of his four seasons at the province.

Jeremy Staunton’s career at Munster [click to embiggen]: he got a fair whack of gametime once Gaffney was installed as head coach and the Celtic League swung into action, but the arrival of Christian Cullen put the kibosh on his days as Munster fullback.  After two seasons where Rob Henderson had been a bit part player through injury, he was able to put together an 18-start, 6-try season for Munster in the centre in 2003-04 … and so all of a sudden the No12 jersey looked like it was sewn up for the foreseeable future as well.

Staunton was never going to get a look-in. What were Munster going to do – play him at fullback and have Cullen sit on the bench? As far as they were aware, the New Zealander was near full physical fitness, and would be raring to go after he got himself right. With his favored No10 jersey utterly closed out due to O’Gara’s form and an all-time great parachuted into the No15 jersey ahead of him, the game was up for him at Munster.  He had never started a single match of his provincial career in the No12 jersey.

He spent the 2004-05 season playing outhalf for Harlequins, booting 217 points in 22 starts, but soul-destroyingly missed a last-minute penalty that would have saved the club from relegation, a miss described by Harelquins chief executive Mark Evans as “the most expensive kick in British rugby“. It wasn’t too long before he found out that he had got the sack. Whether Evans took it personally or whether former New Zealand kingpin Andrew Mehrtens was already signed up, Staunton was out of a job after just one season at The Stoop, halfway through his two year contract. Nevertheless, and perhaps in an unusually sensitive attempt to get him back on the horse, O’Sullivan recalled him to the Irish set-up for a development tour of Japan, where he scored 14 points coming off the bench for David Humphreys in the first test.

Staunton gives Leicester, England and Lions back rower Martin Corry a big fend and tries to get away for Wasps in a high-intensity Premiership encounter. “I’ve never experienced anything like this league,” he’d say in an Independent interview. “Every week there’s a massive game.”

On returning to England he swapped RFU Championship rugby at Harlequins for Premiership rugby with Wasps, and would spend much of the next four years there, gradually slipping down the ranks as the club accumulated trophies. He actually left the club and signed a two-year deal with London Irish at the beginning of the 2007-08 season, but after just six starts and two appearances off the bench for the exiles, he was back with Wasps by May 2008 and would remain there until the end of the next season. His early form in the 2008-09 seasons was exceptional, but the return of Danny Cipriani from injury [then at the height of his celebrity after masterminding England’s victory over Ireland in March 2008] put him in the ha’penny place for the remainder of the season. He was then picked up by Leicester and, as he had done in his first season with both Harlequins and Wasps, made a strong impact, playing in 28 games [17 starts] and scoring 172 points. Unfortunately, he partially tore his Achilles tendon in September 2010, which took a serious chunk out of his season and allowed first Billy Twelvetrees and then Toby Flood to take the reins. He was still playing there this season, but despite a vintage performance against Bath in early October where he scored all his side’s points, he was very much a peripheral figure behind Flood and George Ford and didn’t have his contract renewed, leaving him a free agent at 32 years old.

Internationals Abroad 

Unless you’re extremely high profile [Geordan Murphy made the ERC First XV of the first fifteen years of the Heineken Cup at fullback, so he counts], you tend to disappear from view once you’re away from Ireland, at least in rugby terms. That’s the way the IRFU wants it, and it’s a reasonable enough strategy from their point of view: they want players to play in Ireland so that they have control of them and so the Irish international team can be as successful as possible, but they don’t want to handcuff the coach any more than they already do, so there’s no hardline evidence of the stance.

Staunton takes an offload from Gavin Duffy in the June 2007 game against Argentina in Velez Sarsfield. This was his last game for Ireland, and they were held scoreless.

Staunton knew that, and made his choice anyway. He was brought back into the international fold on three occasions for summer tours: the aforementioned development tour to Japan [which took place in the same summer as the Lions tour to New Zealand, and where he twice came off the bench for Humphreys], the tour to New Zealand and Australia in 2006, where he suffered through being omitted from the matchday squad for the first two games [and then was an 80th minute substitution for Andrew Trimble on the left wing against Australia, a typical O’Sullivan replacement strategy in what was a 37-15 loss] and then the pre-RWC07 tour to Argentina, when he started at outhalf in the 16-0 loss against the Pumas. At this stage, O’Sullivan was desperately casting around to find a back-up outhalf for O’Gara, Humphreys having retired from international rugby in 2005. Staunton couldn’t grab the chance offered to him, and it was Paddy Wallace who sat on the bench throughout RWC07 as Ireland self-destructed.

Ireland’s Loss is … Ireland’s Loss

Staunton has only ever played for big, prestigious clubs: Munster from 1999-2004, Harlequins from 2004-05, London Wasps from 2005-07 [and then a second spell from midway through the 2007-08 season until the end of the 2008-09 season], London Irish from 2007-08 and Leicester from 2009 onwards. His has been a peripatetic existence for sure, but he’s always been in demand, and has played a lot of big games and won trophies along the way: the Celtic League with Munster [2002-03], the Powergen/Anglo-Welsh Cup [2006], the Heineken Cup [2006-07] and the Premiership [2007-08] with Wasps, and the Premiership again with Leicester [2009-10]. Professional rugby in England isn’t sentimental or clannish; you don’t get hired if you’re not a hard-working, diligent professional. Indeed, bar some typical teenage growing pains at the outset of his career, nobody has ever said a word against Staunton’s professionalism.

While he didn’t make his first international start until he was 21, that still puts him a hell of a long way ahead of the curve; in the professional era, only Gordon D’Arcy [1999], Luke Fitzgerald [2006] and Rhys Ruddock [2010] have debuted as teens.

Staunton goal-kicking for Leicester: as soon as he left Munster, fullback was forgotten and it was back to outhalf for him. The positional graft never really took.

The key thing to remember is that Staunton’s early promise was evident at senior level, not just age-group rugby. This isn’t the typical tale of a schoolboy legend who burned out early or never kicked on; he had already made the grade. He was playing against grown men and internationals on a weekly basis as teenager, and he was wowing them with performance, not potential. It’s not that he was physically more mature than his peers, as is so often the case with young players whose careers fizzle rather than explode – if anything, he was consistently playing against players who were more physically mature than he was, and who had far more experience of high-end rugby.

To see his talent and the manner in which he played the game so dulled as his career matured was profoundly disappointing. He made a good living in the game and was a good worker, but he promised so much more than that. His story seems to be that of an unfulfilled talent, though rather than lack of effort or crippling injury, it was through circumstances conspiring against him: emerging at the same time as O’Gara, having a once-in-a-generation talent like Cullen brought in ahead of him when he was switched to fullback, and not a single coach having the foresight or imagination to try him in a position that seems like a natural fit: inside centre.

Nobody should underestimate the impact that a positional switch can achieve. Gordon D’Arcy might well never have added to the four replacement caps he got off the bench for Ireland between 1999 and 2003 had Ella never moved him into the centre; instead he went on to win the IRUPA Player of the Year award twice [2004 & 2007], the Six Nations Player of the Tournament [2004] and be nominated for IRB International Player of the Year [2004], as well as win the Six Nations in 2009 and three Heineken Cups with Leinster. Big bopping Jamie Roberts might merely have stayed a big-boned winger on the fringes of the Welsh squad if Gatland hadn’t seen his potential as a midfield terrorist. Steve Thompson would probably have been a fat Northampton No8 and not a World Cup-winning hooker.

Staunton had all the attributes to be an absolutely outstanding No12: he was strongly built and a fierce tackler; he could step, he could break tackles and he had enough pace to get away from the defense. He had an absolutely booming boot, and was an imaginative and highly skilled distributor. If you were to compare any young player in Irish rugby to him, you’d be looking at JJ Hanrahan – except a bigger, more powerful version of Hanrahan. He was an incredible talent that somehow got lost in the wash; it’s inexplicable that he never blossomed into one of the finest Irish players of his generation.

One would hope that with the far more structured provincial set-ups that have evolved over the last decade, a talent like Staunton would never slip through the gaps again.

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28 thoughts on “The Man Who Fell To Earth

  1. Marathon blog post, really interesting reading.

    It’s a conundrum that can be difficult to fully explain. There could be an element of the Billy Beane (Moneyball) about it, sometimes having all the tools isn’t enough. Stringer, O’Gara, Flannery etc. are players who passed out more talented and athletic rivals through working even harder. It wasn’t necessary for Staunton to be lazy or less than hard working, but there’s a level further that you can push yourself.

    I’d be inclined to agree with the central tenant that Staunton was unlucky in timing. Developing him as a 12 never really appeared on the radar as an understood option. The English were more prepared for that. We seemed to discover by accident that Paddy Wallace was a 2nd 5/8, he took the long route there. Leinster benefited earlier from the provincial control opportunities and resolved the D’Arcy-O’Driscoll-(Horgan) issue in style.

    Where I’d take a slight issue though is the questions over moving him to fullback. It’s a well worn road and certainly was back in the day. Wallace had been a fullback, Humphreys was a recognised fullback. Simon Mason had been goalkicker from 15. When the fullback kicks and either chases or goes into contact, it’s often the outhalf who tracks back. It was especially notable during the kick tennis exchanges 4 years ago.

    One of the things that Geordan Murphy did so well at Leicester was fill in at first receiver, especially on the blindside (away from the pressure of the 7 charging you down) and kicking/running as necessary. They loved the way he did that (allowing the flyhalf far more freedom to get sucked into contact). It was innovative in its own way within the English game, at a time when Ian Balshaw was the last word in fullback play.

    On that note, I’m not sure whether it had percolated through or been derived independently, but one of the reasons the Australians moved James O’Connor to fullback when he first broke through was based around the idea of using him a 3rd 5/8. Take on more kicking duties in kicking position, allow the 5/8s to go into contact and immediately set up for the next phase and most importantly to switch from flat backlines to deep backlines using dummy runners (Leinster tend to run loop moves). This is exactly how Ireland and Munster try to get around blitz defences. When you watch O’Gara during attacking phases you often notice that he gets skipped/stands out of the way and that there are in effect two stacked backlines.

    Coming through now, Staunton would likely find a professional environment better equipped to bring him to the highest level. At the same time, his career is in no way a failure, he’s been a successful and sought after player, though his nomadic career probably deprived him of the mentoring he needed. Bob Casey was hugely successful at London Irish, but off the map at home.

    The ups and downs of Sexton (and every outhalf younger than O’Gara) shows the difficulties we had in bringing through outhalves in the pro era. It had to be learnt over and required Contepomi to mentor him to bring Sexton in. Keatley almost visibly went backwards when O’Gara came back from his summer holidays, that’s just how he competes.

  2. A very good article. Well researched and tracks just just an individual player but shows our mentality as a rugby playing nation over the last decade towards the most pivotal position in rugby.

  3. A very good article. Its very well researched and what I like most of all is that it offers a great insight not just into the career of one man but how this shows Ireland’s attitude to the #10 jersey over the last decade.

  4. Wow! What an epic tome. I was impressed at being quoted in the IT, but this puts the tin hat on it. 😉

    Fought hard against sleep deprivation to finish it, but despite the quality and readability I still came up just short. Have bookmarked it to finish tomorrow.

  5. What a change of pace….and I’m not talking about staunton! A brilliant lament, my phone is actually crying.

  6. Fantastic article Moley, really heartfelt. I was barely out of short trousers when Staunton was coming through and often wondered why a sub had commentators buzzing when he was called upon. I can only hope his tale is a cautionary one for those involved with running the game, especially at that crucial Schools -> u20s -> Pro gap.

    • Thanks Murray. Really enjoying your recent articles on New Zealand, the Sonny-Bill one was particularly good. I’ve been following the Chiefs above any other team in Super Rugby and he’s made a big step-up again this year in terms of his awareness and his creation of space for the players around him. He’s well on his way to defining himself as the best No12 in the game, especially with Jamie Roberts out of action.

  7. Great read and brilliantly researched. I wonder how Munster would be playing the game today, if it had all worked out differently and Stauton’s early potential had been realised?

  8. Excellent article. I’m not a fan of whatiffery in general, but this piece is well-argued.

    The second five eighths was pretty successful for South Africa in the 1995 world cup, but Ireland didn’t really have the personnel to follow suit, with outhalves who were slow or defensively poor. There was a more obvious model closer to home with Lamaison outside Penaud or Castaignede for France’s double Grand Chelemers, but again, the candidates at home were lacking. The move from 10 to 12 wasn’t made by many players then, with Killian Keane being the only one I can remember doing it when Staunton was on his way up. As you say, Jason Holland was playing 10 for Midleton and turning out at 12 for Munster, so there wasn’t much room for Staunton as a second five anyway. He was a victim of Munster’s success and the limited opportunity for experimentation afforded to provincial coaches at the time.

    As an aside, I don’t know that he would ever have made it at outhalf for Munster as he’d spent too much of his early career doing everything on his own. He was a breaking outhalf but not a creative one. He tried to be puppet and string-puller, and in his later career you could see how his first instinct, which was to look for someone to run past, led to him taking too much time on the ball and cutting down the options for those outside him.

  9. Really enjoyed reading this article. I was playing U-16 when he was picked for the Australia tour in 99. Literally forgot about him until Argentina 07 and thought ‘wtf happened to that fella’! Lessons should be learned from this, however. This has been talked to death but we need to follow suit with others and give youth a chance (the success of North and O’Connor spring to mind!). It’s great news Zebo and O’Mahony got selected but I am worried that iMad, K2, Gilroy and possibly even Hagan and Jackson were not brought along for the exposure.

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  12. Great article. I remember when Gaffney was first confirmed as Munster coach, George Hook on television mentioned Staunton to him. Basically saying there was a prodigious talent in Munster and the challenge was how best to use and nurture him.

    Alas, the challenge was never met.

    BTW, am I right in thinking Staunton played in the “unofficial” non-capped International against France (in France) that Ireland won? First victory against France on French soil in yonks?

  13. The only problem I have with this article is that Staunton played quite a few games at 12 for Garryowen, when Killian Keane was moved to 10. Anyone watching Garryowen at the time will tell you why: Staunton was playing shockingly badly. He seemed to have lost all form in that season (probably 2000-2001) and Garryowen didn’t know what to do with him. They couldn’t keep him at 10 – he was too much of a liability, trying things that just weren’t coming off and distributing really badly – but it seemed impossible that they might drop him.

    This is a well-researched article, but I think it mixes up cause and effect. Staunton started playing badly – it happens to loads of players, they just lose form – and never really began playing well again regularly. As a result, there was never a good reason to give him the opportunities. Moreover, you really gloss over the chances he had in England and how mediocre his play was. The question you asked at the start was: why didn’t he develop as a high-class player? He had his chances in England but it never happened. Why? The reason is that he lost his form and confidence years beforehand and never got it back. Him playing 12 or not is a side issue; he never did anything like enough in the 10 or 12 jersey with Garryowen, after that first breakthrough season, to justify trying it. Whatever he had as a teenager, it was gone by then. He couldn’t make good decisions regularly, choked at the important moments and couldn’t pull off those breaks and off-the-cuff tricks that marked him out as a kid.

    It comes down to the mystery of form. Tony Ward has spoken at length about how he lost his confidence and never got it back, despite nothing being wrong with him physically. When Munster signed Kieran Lewis we were all expecting a star, but he never replicated again the promise that he displayed in a Leinster jersey. You cite yourself several players – O’Leary for a start – who never seemed to be able to play as well again, even though recovered from injury. How many footballers have we seen play a few wonderful seasons only to disappear? Mendieta; Veron; Fowler, Torres; the list is endless. So it is in every sport. The root of Staunton’s failure to develop can’t be blamed on not being tried at 12, we’d have to look at why he started playing so badly after that AIL final. Everything after that period is effect.

    • Cheers, well observed and interesting points. We didn’t expect the number and quality of comments that the blog receives and they’re always good to have. We’re compiling an article at the moment on a few young players and their progress. From researching it, one of the factors that I think is important for young players is to have a champion – be it a coach, manager or senior player – who provides guidance and opportunity. I believe that Paddy Jackson has benefitted from it in Ulster and that Wardie probably suffered the opposite after appearing in a newspaper wearing his Speedos. I also think that it is one of Gatland’s great strengths as a coach. His record with Ireland and Wales of bringing in young players through daring selections and then trusting them has been the foundation of some serious international outfits and significant careers.

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