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10 years on from 'manic aggression': Behind the dressing room door on rugby's Croke Park debut

‘Everybody feels they were there,’ but O’Connell’s famous speech would only emerge much later.

TODAY MARKS A full decade since the most famous speech in Irish rugby history was roared out within the sanctity of the dressing room.

We all know at least parts of it: whether it be the rousing call to arms.

If someone’s walking, if someone isn’t filling a gap you get on his case. If I’m fucking walking I want to hear about it

The visceral shock and awe imagery:

I want them standing back going: ‘what the fuck is going on here?

And everyone who’s paid even a fleeting glance at an Ireland international this century knows the chorus:

… fucking manic aggression! Did you scare anyone? Did you fuckin’ put the fear of God into anyone?

Maybe Paul O’Connell has delivered better speeches than his effort as stand-in captain that day. There are unquestionably inspirational deeds he has performed ahead of more pleasing results. Yet still, the sight and the sound of him demanding everything and more from his team-mates before the first rugby match to be played at Croke Park struck a chord with more than a nation, but rugby fans everywhere.

Paul O'Connell leads the team out into Croke Park Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

O’Connell himself may have preferred if we never heard that speech before Ireland took on France at the home of the GAA, but the rest of us have Nathan Nugent and Dave Berry to thank. Even if the phrases have become so ubiquitous that we often forget where the credit is due.

“It’s just part of the lore. Everybody feels they were there,” Nugent, co-director of Reaching for Glory, told The42 this week.

“That’s when you know something has transcended being a documentary or anything. People own it. I’m sure he’s got that thrown back to him many many times, but that was just him in the moment.”

As is so often the case with the very finest quotable lines, it wasn’t designed to enter the rugby lexicon as smoothly as it did. Berry and Nugent weren’t quite sure of the golden nugget they had until they pumped up the volume back in the editing room. It wasn’t a perfect clip, but that’s what made people listen all the more intently.

“After the France game (Dave Berry) said: ‘they seemed to be animated, but I couldn’t really hear them’. Then I watched it back and said: ‘there’s definitely stuff we can use there, it’s pretty good’.

“But when we brought it back to an edit suite and watched it we went: ‘yeah, definitely!’

“As an editor by trade, I always think: ‘is there a way to condense this or cut it down?’

And I just had to go: it’s going to be messy, because the moment is authentic. People  don’t care that it’s not pretty, they just care that they’re seeing something real.”

Even then, the Manic Aggression speech didn’t even rank as Nugent’s favourite O’Connell line in the doc. That came at the half-time interval a fortnight later.

“The one that struck me most was during the England game when O’Connell says: ‘No one here is tired. I feel like I haven’t played yet… we should be going bananas for 40 minutes!’

“Dave showed me that straight after half-time and I just went: ‘that is pretty brilliant!’ There are moments here that are purely authentic.”

Catching golden moments like that don’t come easy. It takes years of trust-building to develop the camouflage needed to blend into an Ireland camp.

Nugent and Berry worked together on similar behind-the-scenes productions for RTÉ, first turning their clips into footage for recaps and promos before deciding to stretch the reel out to make a documentary.

They made a number of fly-on-the-wall films for both rugby and GAA under the title ‘Final Words’, which included Ireland’s 2004 Triple Crown win, and would go on to deliver ‘Ireland’s Grand Slam journey’ and ‘ROG’ to our screens in 2009 and 2014 respectively.

By 2007, the pair were part of the furniture in the Irish camp to such an extent that the camera just wasn’t noticed in the minutes before and after taking the field. The only acknowledgement of the hot mic and red recording light seemed to come between meetings and sessions or during gym work in quips like Donncha O’Callaghan’s mention of ‘Gaillimh’ when he was enticing O’Connell to pummel a punching bag with even more gusto.

Donncha O'Callaghan and Ronan O'Gara Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Dave was better at embedding himself in the dressing room situation than I ever was – he had more of a brass neck! I would look after the outside a bit more and he would quietly sit inside the dressing room until he was told to get out.

“It was mainly Dave embedding himself into the dressing room and Eddie O’Sullivan being okay with it initially, then over time he was just used to seeing him.”

The result was a Reaching for Glory: a perfect snapshot of Ireland’s national team at a time when a golden generation were growing in confidence thanks to their provincial exploits in Europe, but were still falling agonisingly short of outright Championships on the international front.

Source: Mark Conroy/YouTube

It spanned a forgettable opener in Cardiff through a heartbreaking late defeat to France in Croke Park. Onwards to the euphoric redemption of beating England in an atmosphere thick with burden at the same venue and then back down to earth with a truly scary finish in Murrayfield until the title was eventually snagged away by France on points difference on the last day.

Watching the film back this week, there is one element of the story that is conspicuous by its absence. Politics, the history that weighed on Croke Park in February 2007, the easy targets of Bloody Sunday, Michael Hogan and the long resistance from the GAA to changing Rule 42. It’s not a decision Nugent regrets in the slightest. This film followed a rugby team that unites an island.

“You want to just approach something like that only through the prism of the players’ perspective,” says Nugent, who is currently in London working on a film by the name of Disobedience, starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams.

“If it affects them deeply then let them talk about it. They were aware of it, but they obviously knew how to manage the weight of it. If they let things get out of hand then they’d spend the week talking about politics and they’re not thinking about the game.

I never felt that we needed to go deep into the politics of it and, at the time, there were many other programmes and documentaries being made about the opening of the Croke Park doors.”

“There’s no end of people, be they politicians and academics who can talk at length on these things. There’s always a danger of elevating what is essentially just a rugby match to something else. You try and strike a balance between (it being a sporting event and) ‘this is a significant moment, because it encapsulates a lot of things for a lot of different people’.”

Winning try scorer Vincent Clerc celebrates his try Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Standing in Croke Park on 11 February 2007, it was impossible to think of it as just another game. Even La Marseillaise took a back seat to the novelty of playing on Jones’ Road. And the large tracts of space around the pitch that made it extremely tough to judge how close Ronan O’Gara came to the touchline as he scampered in for Ireland’s first try at the venue.

O’Connell would dominate memories when the full footage was unveiled in future months, and he was buried at the heart of the game’s defining late moments. Namely the late 25-metre, energy-sapping, 70-second rolling maul that drove a feeling of pride and relief as the green pack rumbled out of their half and earned a penalty which O’Gara duly slotted to put Ireland 17 – 13 ahead.

Soon, the delight would turn to anguish personified by O’Connell as he desperately reached for Vincent Clerc’s leg as the wing poached a last-gasp winning try.

The next day out at Croke Park, the must-win encounter with England was by some distance the fondest memory Irish rugby fans were able to take from 2007. The defining moments of the Six Nations, unfortunately, were those last five minutes against Les Bleus.

By time the music slows and the film approaches its end, Irish players sit in the reflection of the screen. It’s six weeks on from the tournament and they are straddling mixed emotions. On one hand, there are reasons to be positive about the World Cup ahead. On the other, the memory of Clerc in Croker still stings and casts a haunting look on some faces.

“I don’t think it’s going to leave us,” said Shane Horgan as he and Gordon D’Arcy watched the footage back.

“In the grand scheme of your life it’s not that important, but within your sporting life, it’s the most important thing. It will always be there.”

French fans on Clonliffe Rd Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Nugent picks out the ‘classically Irish’ sentiment of Tony Ward that the outcome of the Championship and the absence of a Grand Slam can’t be down to a mere bounce of the ball, but that Ireland must look within for why the game wasn’t closed out.

“It’s almost like Shakepeare, the Julius Caesar quote,” points out the director: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves…”

It rings a bell, sure, but it’s the words of O’Connell, not The Bard, which resonate for sport-loving Irish people 10 years on from that gut-wrenching day.

Subscribe to The42 Rugby Show podcast here:

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Sean Farrell

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