AFTER a hell of a lot of high-profile calamities, sporting thought has finally evolved to the consensus that great players don’t necessarily make great managers.
The same is not yet true of punditry. Since the season dot, the legends of the field have hung up their boots and picked up a mic, or perhaps a pen with a ghostly hand doing much of the heavy lifting.
The public, eager for education and insight into a world they seldom fully understand, tune in. In exceptional cases they are pleased and fulfilled. Usually, they are left with banality and truism and a fast-fading memory of what this man did to earn his place on the airwaves.
And so into this breach strides Brian O’Driscoll, quite probably Ireland’s most respected and loved sportsman of all time. The 141-cap man joins Newstalk’s Off The Ball show from September where he’s going to comment on rugby matters and co-host the show on occasion. He’s even going to offer his thoughts on other sports.
Newstalk – as well as being a 'a six-figure sum' worse off – are cock-a-hoop. Their sports editor Ger Gilroy said: “We are thrilled that Brian has decided to join the Off the Ball team … his giant sports brain will be picked clean on a regular basis, we can’t wait.”
I’m not sure Gilroy and Newstalk’s optimism is well founded.
To be a good pundit you need several attributes. First of all you need to have a deep understanding of your game. Then you must be able to articulate your knowledge to the audience in an entertaining manner. Most importantly, you need to have the will to communicate your knowledge to the audience – that is, be brave enough to tell the truth as you see it, and not a watered down version of the truth.
Having a deep knowledge of the game is frequently assumed to be a given with a great player. Yet you often find that they don’t know as much as you might expect, especially when it comes to the history of the sport and of players and teams from before their era. In that instance, a decent newspaper rugby correspondent can be stronger than a recently retired player.
O’Driscoll is unlikely to fall down in this manner, seeing as he has been around for most of the professional era and, increasingly, footage from the amateur era looks like a different game. Also, it is clear to anybody from the way O’Driscoll played the game that his tactical awareness and rugby intelligence is second to none.
So will he be able to articulate that intelligence to the listener? Here is where the problems begin. Is O'Driscoll an accomplished communicator? On the evidence so far, I don’t think so. I must have listened to a hundred O’Driscoll interviews and I honestly can’t remember anything he’s ever said off the top of my head. Ronan O’Gara on the other hand, who made this punditry switch at the start of the season, was regularly thought-provoking and incisive as a player, even during a two-minute interview on the field after a game.
With O’Driscoll, media always seemed to be something he had to do. As captain or resident rugby genius he was obliged to face the press, which he did in a courteous and, let’s be honest, almost entirely boring manner. Now that he has chosen a career in media he will have to alter his outlook, fast.
Most important to the transition will be his bravery. How, you ask, can anybody question the bravery of Brian O’Driscoll? This guy has played through injury as a matter of routine. You could almost say the same for concussion.
True, he is physically brave – incredibly so – but is he morally brave? Well, O’Driscoll has never said anything remotely controversial which, given the amount of times he has spoken to the press, is some kind of achievement – but not the kind of one that will build and maintain a radio audience.
Essentially, if Brian O’Driscoll the radio presenter/pundit is going to be a success then he is going to have to be a lot closer to Brian O’Driscoll the man, not the PR version that gets wheeled out for the cameras to do a lot of talking while saying nothing much at all.
He is also going to have to come to terms with the fact that if he going to perform his new role properly then he is no longer going to be universally popular – particularly among his former teammates.
If, for example, Gordon D’Arcy has a string of terrible games for club and country, the O’Driscoll we know would say something like, “every player goes though challenging times, no more so than myself. What’s key is to keep believing in yourself and keep going through the right processes. No player has done more for Leinster and Ireland than Darce … he has set himself outstanding standards and nobody needs to tell him that his last game wasn’t his best. He’ll be hurting and he’ll be eager to get out there and put it right the next day, which, given the player and the man he is, I know he’ll do.”
That nonsense won’t fly anymore. Instead he’ll have to say, “D’Arcy is playing poorly because he is not doing X, Y and Z right. Here is where he is going wrong. This is what he needs to do to fix it.”
Maybe D’Arcy would take it in the right spirit. But what about Jamie Heaslip? Sean O’Brien? Luke Fitzgerald? Paul O’Connell? Tommy Bowe? Paddy Jackson? Dave Kearney? Someday, somebody’s going to get the hump. And half of the country that worships him now will think “ah he’s turned into a mouthpiece since he’s retired” though all the while they won’t be able to stop themselves from listening because even the most conformist of punters will know deep down that this is the straight dope.
Throughout his career, especially in the later times, we often heard that O’Driscoll didn’t need to speak that much to inspire his teammates; his example through his deeds on the pitch was more than enough. He walked the walk better than anybody. Now, he’s going to have to be all talk and not worry what others are saying about him.
He might find that it’s not so easy after all: sitting in the stand giving your view. It can be a lonely place – if you’re doing the job right.