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Sunday 17 December 2017

Blue skies for Big Mal

Reputations: they're a hard thing to shake. Once a label sticks, the marks can remain for a lifetime.

And so it was, as the Leinster squad arrived at Bristol airport following last Sunday's victory in Cardiff, that one of those rare clouds emerged.

Group travel, you see, becomes an occupational hazard even at the best of times for there's always someone who forgets something. Gumshield? Check. Boots? Check. Socks? Check. Passport?

Passport? You can guess the rest. There ensued a slight panic around him while he sat down to rest his weary body after another outstanding 80-minute shift. Eventually an old Ireland match programme was procured and an understanding emigration official waved on the 6'8" lock.

"Eh, the passport's somewhere in Wales at present, probably being copied," Malcolm O'Kelly grinned in the aftermath. "Either that or it's stuck down the seat of the team bus."

Like these occasional lapses, the tag of towering genius that has stuck throughout his long association with Leinster -- a province he has represented with distinction since February 1995 -- seems to reaffirm itself year after year.

His first appearance in Cardiff City Stadium was his 178th in total, a provincial record and counting. And if the quality of his performance last weekend was a barometer of his state of mind at present, then it bodes well for the Magners League table-toppers as they make a dual assault on domestic and European honours.

"Satisfied," was O'Kelly's verdict in the aftermath of the 29-20 victory in the Welsh capital.

"It was another big step up from the Scarlets match in terms of our attitude and discipline after a few weeks off, and we were far more clinical in our execution which was pleasing.

"If ever a game was won based on a sound defence, that game was it."

It's hard to believe that the ex-Templeogue man still musters the same levels of enthusiasm after having spent so long now in the trenches, but the invigoration of youth seems to have rubbed off on him.

"Last Sunday was just a great experience for the likes of Andrew Conway, for example. To cope as well as he did against a side like Cardiff is a tribute to the talent that he is. Fergus (McFadden) really adds to the squad and he has come on a huge amount this year, while Eoin O'Malley is a well-regarded centre who has been hampered by injuries, but we're beginning to see his quality this year," O'Kelly says.

"So the younger players allied to the more experienced players, like Stephen Keogh, who has also been in excellent form for us over the past few months, are coming into a set-up in form and are able to express themselves.

"For the likes of myself, at the stage I'm at in my career, to get 80 minutes and to be in a team that's challenging for honours is uplifting, even though the body's a bit sore. The few bumps and bruises are easier to take when you're winning, but I feel good physically and I just want to be involved as much as possible."



SMART

With tomorrow afternoon's international in Croke Park affording Leinster an opportunity to rest up ahead of the visit of the Glasgow Warriors to the RDS next Thursday, O'Kelly believes that form at this time of the year will only matter provided that it is maintained consistently.

"We have a huge opportunity to cement our place against Glasgow, but they're a smart side who have been in great form this season. They're a top-four team with high ambitions, and we will both be without a few of our international players, which means that it will be another stiff test of our strength in depth.

"Credit to Cheiks (Leinster coach Michael Cheika) who enjoys giving opportunities to young players. But, as a senior player, he also gives me the confidence to lead and it's an aspect of my role in the squad that I really enjoy.

"The margins between winning and losing are so small in the Magners League that you have to play to the peak of your powers every week or you will come up short.

"Last weekend we knew that we had to front up because it's never easy to win in Wales. In my early days I came up against players of the calibre of Scott Gibbs and the Quinnell brothers -- all outstanding individuals. Martyn Williams is just an incredible player and he always asks questions of his opponents.

"We knew about the mentality of the team we were facing last week and it will be the same for Ireland on Saturday when Wales will come here and bring a real intensity to the game.

"So you have to match that pace and power and try to dominate. From a Leinster perspective we stepped up from our previous win against the Scarlets a few weeks further back and the danger with sides like Cardiff, and looking ahead to Glasgow is that if you don't bring a physical abrasiveness to these games then they could steamroll you.

"The challenge next week will be to match that intensity and use it as a platform to push on."

Challenging times call for positive reactions. It's nothing new for O'Kelly, for nothing has changed.

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