Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Fools' Gold? The Sporting Year in Review and Preview

I am the monarch of the sea...Here is Eddie O’Sullivan. Here is the Triple Crown trophy. See Eddie. See the trophy. See Eddie make a right gom of himself parading around Twickenham last St Patrick’s Day with the (newly minted, by the way – don’t think JPR or those boys every saw a goose dish the like of it) trophy, the second Triple Crown won by Ireland in the past three years. France and Wales have both won Grand Slams in those same three years but here’s Eddie O’Sullivan going around like the guy that broke the bank at Monte Carlo. Who’s zooming who, as that old song went?

An Spailpín cannot deny that the years have made him bitter and the gargle’s dimmed his brain, but really – are the Irish sporting public the victims of one of the greatest snow jobs in sports history? Eddie O’Sullivan is coaching a team that is favourite to win the Six Nations Championship for the first time in over twenty years and he himself is current favourite to coach the Lions in South Africa in 2009 but O’Sullivan himself, egomanic and all as he appears to be, is aware that he will have to clear many’s the hurdle between now and then.

Starting on February in Cardiff, of course. The collective mental collapse of the Welsh team this year, as so sadly epitomised by that rambling TV performance of Gareth Thomas' in the autumn of 2005, is like nothing An Spailpín can remember or has read about, and perhaps its most devastating legacy is how badly it tainted Wales’ tremendous achievement in winning their first Grand Slam since 1978 earlier that spring. What a thrilling performance it was, and how begrudged it has been by those who couldn’t tear themselves away from the propagandists of the bully beef school of modern rugby. When an artist with the ball in hand can no longer set a stadium on fire it’s time to give up on Webb Ellis’ game, and the 2005 Welsh reminded us all of just how devastating a talented backline that’s given freedom to run can be.

Of course, we in Ireland have our own backline too, which we are constantly reminded is the best in the world. Hmm. In fact, the Irish team, made as it is more or less in toto from the Leinster backs and the Munster forwards, should be more than the sum of its parts, just as lunatic soup is considerably stronger than its ingredients of porter and cider. But just as An Spailpín implores his readership never, ever to drink that foul concoction, so too does he implore the greatest of caution in placing faith in the Irish backline, which, at time of typing, is looking likely to be: Murphy; Horgan, D’Arcy, O’Driscoll, Trimble; O’Gara, Stringer. In the event of an injury from 15-11, Dempsey goes in at 15 and Murphy or Horgan are moved as appropriate. In the event of an injury to O’Gara, O’Sullivan phones in the forfeit, in the interest of national humiliation not being televised live if we can help it.

Each man of that seven is talented of course, in his own way, but it’s far from a classically talented line, in the way that each man has his little quirks, to say that least. Horgan must be as slow a winger as exists in the professional game, for instance. Murphy’s defence has been worrying at times, while Jim Glennon, TD, made the interesting point on the radio recently that one of the reasons the Leinster pack doesn’t get the mushing that always seems in store for it is because Leinster play with four flankers – the two boys attached to the scrum, and O’Driscoll and D’Arcy beside them. O’Driscoll is as good as we’ve seen, but the totality of the backline – if that’s an intelligible phrase – is a little more brittle than our own media would perhaps lead us to believe.

How brittle, exactly, we may find out in Cardiff, as the Welsh appear to have put psychosis behind them and, after so many barren years, kicked new life into their infamous out-half factory. James Hook, the Ospreys’ fly-half who came on for Stephen Jones in the autumn international against Australia, was a revelation and will surely start at 12 behind Stephen Jones against Ireland. Henson goes back to fifteen, Thomas and Shane Williams on the wings, the best scrum-half in the world flicking it out to them – what’s not to like?

Where Ireland should edge it is in the pack, of course, with Denis Leamy the find of the year and Paul O’Connell now one of the truly great figures in world rugby. However, Ireland have no depth at all, and if, God forbid, injury should strike, big, big gaps will appear, gaps that will be ripped open by Welshmen full of hwyl and the thrilling sight and sound of Katherine Jenkins singing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau.

The Irish could be arriving in Croke Park with their tails between their legs yet, which would be a pity. It’s very hard not to feel conflicted still about this development – one benefit, of the few, will be that the greatest of all international anthems, La Marseillaise, will ring out across the hallowed turf, but everything else that happens – well, it’s been some time since An Spailpín has looked forward to an international rugby match as little. I suppose we should count ourselves lucky Victor Laszlo isn't there to lead the Garda Band, or else we'd be in for a right chasing.

As for the game that Croke Park was built for, it’ll be another fascinating year, thanks be to God. Administrators bend over backwards to make things difficult and disciplinary issues still plague the game but the Gaelic football championship speaks to the Irish soul as no other event, and for that we must be grateful.

Of course, while it may be part of us, that does not mean that we are very good at pinning down what exactly is that we’ve just witnessed, with Championship 2006 being a case in point. The Championship was won when Kerry beat Armagh in the quarter-final, of course. This is clear looking back. It is to Mayo’s lasting shame, and something that An Spailpín hopes John O’Mahony has noticed, that Kerrymen are completely correct when they remarked that their one year of hunger, after the loss to Tyrone in 2005, proved a greater motivation for Kerry than Mayo’s half-century and counting was to Mayo. Something to mull over there.

The rest of what the Kerrymen have been saying is all soft-chat, disinformation and black ops, of course. They’re fierce cute that way down in the Kingdom you know. For instance, their long and loud whinging – out of the sides of their mouths – about unfair northern tactics in recent years prevented the correct analysis of their win over Armagh, which is that the Kingdom out-puked the Orchard County. Kerry hit harder and wanted it more in 2006, just as it was the other way around in the second half of 2002.

Of course, Armagh and Tyrone did themselves no favours either by yapping all the time about systems and training and preparation and the south being twenty years behind in terms of progress and then wondering why their players didn’t get any praise. It’s because you spend all your time jawing about systems and training and preparation chaps. Slow learners, to quote a former Armagh player of a long yester year. And it was unfair, because it led to a lot of bitterness that was unnecessary and it denied stellar players like Steven McDonnell, Clarke, McGeeney et al to maybe get the recognition their tremendous skills deserved.

But standards in GAA journalism is a fight for another day. Now, in the bleak midwinter, when Gaels assemble over hot whiskey and cold black porter, all counties will hope again. Nowhere does hope bloom brighter – although that cagey tribe would be loathe indeed to admit it – than in Roscommon where, after over a decade of misery, the minors won the All-Ireland in a thriller and Kiltoom claimed Roscommon’s first club title in fifteen years. Even now, in his lonesome Dublin exile, An Spailpín can hear the Siren Song of the Ross:

Sligo, Leitrim, going through the motions;
Galway, Mayo, filling up with notions.
We’re staying off the porter, we’re reading books and bowlin',
We’re don’t go out at night, not even Frankie Dolan.
The Ross will see Sam shining bright
In Jimmy Murray’s Bar on Monday night.

Yes. Well. We’ll have to wait and see on that one, won’t we? If you hold a gun to your correspondent’s head and ask him who will lift Sam, there can be only one answer – the County Mayo of course, not least because after all the trauma of the past three years you might as well pull the trigger if Mayo don’t win it – you’d be doing your miserable Spailpín a favour. It’ll be good gas to see how the Mayo – Galway game falls in relation to the date of the general election. If Johnno has to face the polls after Mayo ship a walloping, not only will he not get elected, he’ll be doing damn well to save his deposit, in the unprofessional opinion of An Spailpín Fánach. But if Mayo do get a result – well, it’s game on, isn’t it?

At this stage your faithful correspondent must confess that all judgement is gone when it comes to football. Even to think about it is agony, having come so far. But, in the event of something terrible happening, and Mayo somehow not winning the thing, here’s a tip for anyone out there that likes a bit of a punt: all this myth about a big three is past tense. It’s hype. Yesterday’s news. It ain’t so. Sam is there for those who dare, and if you want a value for money punt on the All-Ireland football 2007, go with – God forgive me – Cork. Billy might be a hard man to love, but he knows what he’s at, and he’s not far away now. Remember where you heard it first. Happy New Year.

Technorati Tags: , , ,