Showing the World What We're Made Of

The first game I ever played with the Irish national rugby team is kind of a blur in my mind now. The only thing I remember vividly is that we were playing at the old Lansdowne Road. At that stadium, you have to climb up these steps and then run down onto the field. It’s what I imagine Roman gladiators felt like walking into the Colosseum before battle. I’ll never forget seeing the field, all those supporters, and then hearing my name called.

Growing up in Ireland, I idolized Simon Geoghegan, a former winger for the national team. He was a smaller man who had this unmistakable big blonde mop of hair. And he was always easy to spot on the pitch because of the massive jerseys they used to wear. To me, he was a superhero. I used to run around my house with a rugby ball pretending to be him, scoring imaginary tries for the Irish national team.

I always had a passion for the sport, but what allowed me to eventually realize my dream of representing my country was a certain determination instilled by my father. He was a military man all his life — he was actually a founding member of the Irish Special Forces — and his outlook had a profound effect on how systematic and hard-nosed I can be in terms of what needs to be done to accomplish my personal goals as well as the goals of the team I’m playing on.

I became the 1,000th player to ever earn a cap for Ireland, an honor I’ve always treasured. In the locker room after that first game, I thought, Wow, I’m part of a pretty exclusive club. It was a real proud moment for both my family and me. But shortly after, my focus shifted.

“Ok, I don’t want one, I want more. I want more than this moment.”

That desire for more has fueled my progress as a player throughout my career. And now, many years later, I find myself training for the Rugby World Cup in England next month. The drive never ends.

Professional rugby has only been around in Ireland since 1997, so when I started out, many of the players on the national team had played only amateur and professional senior rugby. But I was part of the first crop of players who only knew professional rugby. We all played either with or against one another in the domestic league, so we each knew just what a pain in the ass we all were to deal with for an opposing side.

I’ve certainly developed some unique relationships with my teammates over the years. When I’m playing for my club, Leinster — one of four provincial club teams (the others being Munster, Ulster and Connacht) — and we’re facing another provincial club, it’s a heated affair. It’s like Manchester United versus Manchester City or the New England Patriots versus the New York Jets. But over time, we’ve realized that once we get into camp — into Ireland mode — the provincial rivalry has to be put aside. That tribal passion we have when we play for our clubs, we all combine it to become one united, crazy, mad, passionate, tribal Irish team. The result is that the intense pressure we put on each other on the professional level is unleashed on international sides.

Our passion on the field shows because we are really playing for something that has deep meaning to our nation. Most games, we’re not the favorites, and we’re certainly not the biggest nation size-wise, either. Even within Ireland, rugby isn’t necessarily the biggest sport — we often compete with Gaelic football, hurling and soccer for the nation’s attention. For these reasons, being competitive at the international level is a massive challenge. But our national side responds to that challenge the only way the Irish people know how.

The attitude is, Alright lads, let’s roll up our sleeves and go to work!

I’ve been a professional rugby player for 10 years. In those 10 years, I’ve only played for one club, and I’ve accomplished everything I can with that club. But I’m far from satisfied. As a rugby nation, we’ve accomplished many great things, but there’s still one big box left to be ticked, one last trophy to be lifted: the Rugby World Cup.

To accomplish this goal, we as a team have to realize our potential. But what drives this squad is our total belief that anything on the day is achievable. The hard work has to be put in and combined with a successful strategy, but at the core of everything, our greatest strength is that unwavering belief in ourselves.

Now let me make something clear: We’re not going to England to get to the semi-finals and be knocked out. I want to win the damn thing!

Yes, I know everyone wants to win the World Cup, but I’m not going to be satisfied with planning for anything less. I want us as a nation to realize our potential. Let’s dream — or, more importantly, let’s not be afraid to dream.

This is the first in a series of posts Jamie will publish leading up to and during the Rugby World Cup in September.