Monday, December 29, 2008

The Sporting Year in Review and Preview

The man Irish rugby cannot do without. Go bhfoire Dia orainnOne of the many stings of the current recession is the memory of what was. The squandering and the waste of the riches that once were, and are no longer. As far as the rugby public of Ireland are concerned; you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The cold hard fact of the matter is that Ireland and Italy are the only countries in the Six Nations that have not won the Championship in the past twenty-three years. And not only have England, France, Wales and Scotland won multiple championships in that time, each of them has at least one Grand Slam as well in that period. What have Ireland to show for this? A few devalued Triple Crowns and a lot of old blather about rugby in Croke Park and Paul O’Connell pyjamas.

That was the good news. The bad news is that it’s about to get worse. The lack of foresight that characterises Irish government is also becoming clearer as the golden generation ages in Irish rugby. The rise of the provinces – well, one of the provinces – as an entity in the international game comes at a cost. Time was when the clubs were the next level down from the international team; a provincial cap was not a necessary precursor to an international cap. Now the gap is too wide, meaning that there are now only three teams from which Ireland can choose her international side. There is a ragbag of exiles, parental rules and Hell-or-Connacht, but the reality is that the Irish pick of players has never been so small.

Look at the current out-half situation. If Ronan O’Gara slips coming out of the betting shop some frosty January morning Ireland do not have anyone who can replace him. Nor is one likely to appear; in the professional game, the choice between accepting losses as the cost of developing young players in specialised positions and flying in some nearly-was from Australia is a starkly simple one. Munster is now in danger of eclipsing Ireland as an entity in the national sporting psyche – did you notice how both Ronan O’Gara and Anthony Foley were pictured on the front of their autobiographies in the red of Munster rather than the green of Ireland? – but in ten years’ time, how many Irish eligible players will be playing for the Irish provinces? Grim times.

Thank goodness, then, that the Championship still rolls on, giving the summer meaning and definition year after year. The football championship was another classic this year, as Tyrone confirmed their place as the team of the decade. Kerry’s team of all talents lost focus over the Galvin affair, and the behaviour of former Kerry greats in defending the disgraceful antics of their former captain did the proud county no favours. Perhaps if Kerry had cut Galvin loose the Monday after the Clare game they would be All-Ireland champions today? Hubris is Greek for getting too big for your boots.

And how wonderful it is that Kerry have responded to Tyrone’s victory by recalling Jack O’Connor to the colours. O’Connor has a chip on his shoulder the size of the rock of Gibraltar, and he is brought back solely to put down the Ulster rising. How delicious would it be should Kerry meet Mayo in another All-Ireland final? O’Connor’s frustrations would be Olympian. Mayo would get hammered out the gate, of course, but the weeping would be louder in the Kerry dressing room. A backwards sort of victory for the heather county, but at this stage we’d take it.

Not that Mayo should worry about September too much in 2009. Worrying about September, in fact, is partly what has got my beloved native heath into this mess in the first place. It was common in Mayo to remark, in the post-five o’clock agonies of another Final defeat, that we would have been better not getting out of Connacht. Now that wish has come true, how odd that the gloom has darkened rather than lifted.

One of the reasons behind the remarkable momentum of John O’Mahony’s return was the idea that Johnno was the man to take the team “the final step.” Instead, Johnno has dismantled that fine team of 2004 and 2006, and what is to come in their place is far from clear. Falling to a risen Ross in June would find a far less forging Mayo public.

In hurling, the black and amber imperium extends the boundaries of its empire. Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh – who else – said it best when the third goal went in against hapless Waterford in this year’s All-Ireland final. “Kilkenny are going after this three-in-a-row,” he said, “like they had never won anything before.”

An Spailpín Fánach notes with sadness the way Kilkenny are being portrayed in some quarters as being “bad for hurling.” What’s bad about taking the game to new heights of excellence? How can that be bad? It’s up to the other counties to match them, rather than have Kilkenny fall back to the chasing pack. If anybody wants to win anything, they have to stop feeling sorry for themselves first.

Speaking of which. The Cork dispute has extended now to the footballers. The Cork County Board’s choice is clear. They must enter teams in all competitions as usual, staring in January, or else absent themselves from competitions. If some players don’t want to play, that’s their privilege. There is no slavery here. The Cork Board should simply find someone else and play them, or else not enter competitions, just as Kilkenny, say, don’t enter the football or Mayo don’t enter the hurling championship. It’s quite simple, really. I’m sure I don’t know what all the fuss is about.

Finally – An Spailpín seldom bothers with the soccer, due to the high preponderance of cheats, cowards, spivs, divers and other wastrels in that game. But I am an unabashed admirer of Giovanni Trapattoni, and the more he digs in over the so-called Andy Reid controversy, the more I like him.

The fact of the matter is that Ireland just do not have any world class players right now. Andy Reid is not a world class player. He isn’t. So Trapattoni has to take what he’s stuck with and he’s making the best of that. Seven points out of a possible nine is good going, and the home support getting anxious because of an overly-defensive style just don’t realise that they’re dealing with a man with a completely different way of looking at the world. Catenaccio isn’t a type of pasta you know.

Perhaps they’re like this fellow over on the right, pictured after Trapattoni’s Italy lost in World Cup in 2002, who demands that Trapattoni be hanged with his fecking catenaccio. I translate out of the fear that as most of those boys who would criticise the vecchio Italiano struggle through their Star of a lunch break, the language of Dante and Da Ponte is more than likely beyond them. Bulgaria are next up at home in March; if Trapattoni can get a result, Ireland have one foot on the plane to South Africa. No-one in the state will be able to afford the trip to go out and watch them of course, but still. It’s the principle of the thing.

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