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Player Focus: Malcolm O’Kelly

Player Focus: Malcolm O’Kelly

Talismanic second row Malcolm O’Kelly has enjoyed quite a career to date. Sunday fittingly sees his ‘number up’ as the maths master draws level with Mike Gibson as Ireland’s most capped player.

Talismanic second row Malcolm O’Kelly has enjoyed quite a career to date. Sunday fittingly sees his ‘number up’ as the maths master draws level with Mike Gibson as Ireland’s most capped player.

St Mary’s, London Irish, Leinster, Ireland and the Lions – it’s hardly been a seven-year itch for the 30-year-old giant, but taking to the Stadio Flaminio sward for the 69th-time in green will surely rank as one of the many highlights of an international career which began with a bump in 1997, and a 63-15 Dublin loss to New Zealand.

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O’Kelly, who has been started by Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan in 14 of the last 16 tests, is a testament to the professional era – all lurching legs and octopus arms on a 6ft 8in frame that thunders through much unseen work.

The Irish lineout which, along with Paul O’Connell and the accurate arrows of hooker Shane Byrne, O’Kelly has taken to being the best in the world, is his calling card.

Eleven steals against the English throw were crucial in last March’s infamous dethrowing of the World Champions at Twickenham, and O’Kelly was to the forefront of that in what he describes as “the greatest moment of my career”.

Always a banker for set piece ball, the Essex-born star is also now a pivotal weapon in the loose – as evidenced by a game-leading 12 tackles in November’s 21-19 defeat of Argentina.

Debuting against the All-Blacks, O’Kelly was quickly marked out by coach Brian Ashton and his 1998 successor Warren Gatland as the ideal foil to teak-tough Ulster lock Paddy Johns – with the dour-faced jumping duo standing out despite Ireland’s wooden spoon performance in the ’98 Five Nations.

The sheer durability of the Leinster second row can be summed up by the fact that he is one of only three lock regulars to still figure in the home nations squads, from the ’98 Five Nations.

The others being France captain Fabien Pelous and 35-year-old veteran Gareth Llewellyn – who made his Wales debut back in 1989!

Roll on 2004, and Pelous was forced to apologise to O’Kelly, on as a replacement in Paris, for a supposed stamp on the Irish lock’s head during the 35-17 Six Nations loss to Les Bleus – one of only two occasions that O’Sullivan has plumped for Munster tyro Donncha O’Callaghan in the last 12 months.

A lack of form back then saw O’Kelly lose his starting place, with O’Callaghan and O’Connell, who captained the side at the Stade de France, gaining ground on the elder statesman.

O’Kelly though, one of 11 Irish players to play in all five of their 2003 World Cup games, is made of stern stuff and showed excellent form in the remaining 2004 Six Nations games and the autumn tests to dispel any doubts of his demise.

He led from the front in his second start of last season, dotting down a 28th-minute try in the 19-3 victory over Italy and creating much havoc with a barnstorming 11 carries. Not only that, but on a windy Dublin day, the lock also managed to finish as Ireland’s leading tackler with eleven hits. Expect more of the same in the Eternal city.

This current provincial season has also been good to O’Kelly – with the record-equalling lock already through the 80-cap barrier for Leinster and a Heineken Cup quarter-final to come against the Leicester Tigers and old friend Martin Johnson. Lions coach Sir Clive Woodward hailing his performance in October’s 30-11 Pool 2 defeat of Bath at Lansdowne Road, will have been noted too.

On the night when Gordon D’Arcy also injured his groin, Woodward commented: “Obviously I was looking out for the centres, but I thought (Malcolm) O’Kelly had an outstanding game.”

A ringing endorsement for 2001 tourist O’Kelly, who is surely just five games away from another sought-after milestone – a second Lions tour ticket.


Malcolm O’Kelly (St Mary’s College & Leinster, Ireland)

Date of birth: 19th July, 1974
Height: 6ft 8in
Weight: 256lbs
International Caps: 68
Points: 30 (6 tries)
Debut: New Zealand, 1997