Monday, December 17, 2007

The Sporting Year in Review and Preview

Tá ubh Cásca ag an nDorchach agus an Nollaig ag teacht - ní nach ionadh gur theip orthu go leirThe Irish Times reported on Saturday that the IRFU will have the results of their investigation into the World Cup debacle presented to its executive committee today. Whether or not the IRFU’s executive committee will go so far as to present those results to the great unwashed remains to be seen. It isn’t that terribly likely though. It is the nature of the bureaucrat to abhor revolution, and revolution could be the only possible result of the publication of the full story of how Irish rugby sank from its greatest heights since the days of Jackie Kyle to its current bleak prospects.

Sports historians of the future will surely puzzle to figure out just how the country was so willing to believe in the potential of the Irish rugby team and its spinmeister coach against the firm evidence of the facts. Ireland’s farcical win over England at Croke Park was presented as a combination revenge for Skibbereen and the re-heading of St Oliver Plunkett rolled into one. It was, of course, nothing of the sort. A fourth win in a row is not an epic event whose consequences ring down the centuries; it’s just something that happens every year, making it less like the Battle of Thermopylae and more like the Rose of Tralee. The destiny of the team had already been written when they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against a very average French side indeed in the first game of rugby played at Croke Park. And even then, when a bizarre series of results left Ireland with a chance of, if not a Grand Slam, a Championship at least, something that hasn’t been won since the days of Ciarán Fitzgerald, they couldn’t even do that. Ireland humiliated themselves in running up the score on Italy, only to leave the door open and let in two easy tries at the death. It was humiliating, and it was lauded as some sort of triumph by a media blinded by God knows what.

The naked Emperor was exposed at the World Cup in a series of deeply humiliating games, and now a big, black cloud looms over Ireland in the coming Six Nations. The Golden Generation looks old and tired; it is the nature of the sporting god that old age doesn’t appear progressively, as it does in real life, but appears in a thunderclap. An Spailpín Fánach’s fear is the combined warnings of both Brian Moore and Oscar Hammerstein II about letting life’s golden chances pass you by have gone unheaded by the Golden Generation, and they will now have the rest of their lives to regret it. As for those waiting in the wings, well, while typing this a vision came to An Spailpín Fánach of Master Jonny Sexton being coursed in St Denis on February 8th next year by the sort of dogs of war that exist in French back rows, and it wasn’t one bit pretty. What a shocking pity. What a terrible waste.

The World Cup itself was a success, on the whole, after something of a shaky start. The format still needs work but the tournament did throw up its epic matches and had worthy champions. At a time of change in world rugby, it’s nice to note that, the scorching Bryan Habana apart, the stars of the Springbok team were its second rows, Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha. For your correspondent, the lasting image of the World Cup final will be of Bakkies Botha slamming into a ruck and an Englishman shooting off at the other end, like the final ball in a Newton’s cradle. Deserving champions.

A title also neatly fitting the current All-Ireland football champions. Thinking about just how much Kerry dominate all conversation to do with Championship football is a strange reminder of how just how far the Kingdom had fallen in that bleak decade from 1986 to 1997. That barren decade is probably a live issue in the Kingdom itself, and they’ve making pretty darn sure that it’s not going to be repeated.

Kerry, like any imperial power, are good as assimilating the tricks and techniques of enemy powers in order to strengthen their own campaigns. The Romans adopted war elephants after the Punic Wars and, in rather a similar vein, Kerry have adopted a considerably harder edge to their football after their defeats to the Northern Powers of Armagh (once) and Tyrone (twice) in 2002, 2003 and 2005. Kerry avenged the 2002 final last year, but no-one will have been more disappointed than Kerry themselves that Tyrone were so beset by injuries as to deny Kerry the opportunity to claim full vengeance. No matter; Kerry have never been snobs, and are equally willing to dispatch both prince and pauper on their way to another All-Ireland title. An Spailpín has to confess to being rather pleased that, as Kerry prepare for a three-in-a-row quest, it is Paul Galvin that will captain them. Galvin symbolises the new Kerry resolution, but he suffers from something of a divisive image, nationally. As far as your correspondent is concerned, Galvin is An Spailpín’s kind of fella and would be deeply, deeply grateful if there were anyone approaching Galvin’s stature in the sweet county Mayo.

There is not, of course. An Spailpín has learned never to say never when it comes to the perpetuating torture and delight of following the Mayo football team, for whom the Grail quest of the Knights of the Round Table compares to a quick stroll to the shops for forty tea bags and a pack of Viscount biscuits. Johnno, TD, can hear that ticking clock louder than most of course, and he will deeply interested in knowing who from the old guard will be willing or able to put in another season in the lists. Johnno’s experiments last year in the Championship failed more or less utterly and the one nugget that did wash up is now in Australia. More luck to that young man – while we may miss his absence here ní maireann an óige, and he needs to make the most of it while he can. In the meantime, Connacht remains as treacherous as ever. Roscommon have the twin threats of their own fierce native pride in the primrose and blue and the fact that John Maughan is more than capable of putting one over Johnno, and certainly has done so in the past. Sligo have made a shrewd choice of manager in Tommy Jordan, a man that will know the Mayo players inside out and, in this grim GPA dawn, knows that a lot of those mystery men with bags of gold will be interested in hotshot young managers, and kicking Johnno’s ass would be a fine way for Jordan to present himself to the nation.

South of the Mayo border, the appointment of Liam Sammon is a deeply fascinating decision by the Galway football Board. It’s always rather narked Galway pride that they needed a Mayo missionary to return them to football’s top table, and how deeply happy they would be if they could prove they could do it without Johnno. A deep football thinker and good friend of An Spailpín Fánach is the opinion that the job has been there for Sammon for years if he wanted it, and he’s only taken it now because he’s retired from teaching, and therefore has serious time to devote to it. How interesting that will make things.

A quick glance at Paddy Power tells us that Kerry are an astonishing 6/4 to win the All-Ireland in September, and both logic and experience tell us that the price is just about right. Dublin, Tyrone and Cork are the next four contenders and then it’s 14/1 the field, which is the way things go when the favourite is so short a price. Whatever about Tyrone (and An Spailpín is very inclined to agree to agree with his friend JP that Peter Canavan’s retirement has been seriously under-estimated as a factor in Tyrone’s decline since 2005), your correspondent is pretty sure that neither bud not bye will be putting a paw on the silverware come September. Kerry are probably the best bet at 6/4 but, as people are greedy and fancy those big fat prices – maybe a tickle on Meath at sixteens is the answer? Stranger things have happened.

FOCAL SCOIR: An Spailpín cares little for soccer anymore, but the farce surrounding the appointment of the next Republic of Ireland manager means that it’s more or less impossible to resist boldly going where, it seems, everyone in country has gone before. Therefore, An Spailpín Fánach lines up to make his prediction of who will be presented with orb and sceptre, and plenty of soothers for the likes of such sensitive souls as Mr Ireland and Mr Robert Keane. To An Spailpín’s mind, there is only combination that, like Great Art, is both completely unexpected and utterly inevitable. The new Ireland manager will be, can only be, Roddy Collins. You heard it here first.

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