Monday, December 21, 2009

The Sporting Year in Review and Preview

Rugby swept the boards at RTÉ’s sports shindig last night, and it was very hard to claim injustice over it. The Kilkenny hurlers may feel a little hard done by after their four in a row, while Giovanni Trapattoni must have been in with a shout for Alchemist of the Year, nearly making gold from some extremely base metals indeed.

But when you look back on the year you realise that rugby in Ireland has never had as good a year as it’s had this year. Or anything even vaguely like it.

Things looked dim this time last year. Declan Kidney had finally been given the keys to the car, but the team looked very much like the Over the Hill Gang in the autumn internationals. And then Jamie Heaslip went on his remarkable gallop against the French and really, rugby hasn’t stopped galloping since.

An Spailpín Fánach is firmly of the opinion that if Gavin Henson, rather than Stephen Jones, had taken that final penalty in Cardiff the campaign could have ended on yet another downer, but screw it. Ireland had enough bad beats over the years. The team were due this break.

Not least Brian O’Driscoll, their captain and inspiration. Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers famously wrote of Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven that, in all his years in the saddle, never had Eastwood ridden so tall. So it was with O’Driscoll this season.

It was reasonable to assume – and the assumption was certainly made on this blog, and more than once – that O’Driscoll was shot, that he would hang up his boots unfulfilled. The events of the 2005 Lions tour seemed to have left their mark and O’Driscoll looked like a man playing out the string in recent seasons.

Instead, he compensated for the effects of age on his speed with some tremendous tactical application, he remains Ireland’s best forward as well as back, and ever single time that Ireland needed something this year it was either O’Driscoll who started the fire or put it out.

And he won a Heineken Cup with Leinster and was the Lions’ best player in South Africa too. Would we were all over the same hill.

The Kilkenny hurlers were the only other contenders for team of the year, securing their fourth All-Ireland in a row in what must surely have been the best hurling final of the decade. Some people, including your correspondent, left Croke Park thinking that the best team had not won, such was the awesomeness of Tipperary display, but Jamesie O’Connor put it in perspective on Newstalk’s Off the Ball the week after the game. Jamesie made the point that while he didn’t think any Tipp back played badly, Kilkenny still ran up 2-22. Somebody must have felt the blade somewhere.

The tragic thing is, of course, that while Kilkenny march imperiously on and Tipperary rise as worthy adversaries to their neighbours, the actual game of hurling is dying on its feet. While the GAA busied itself with the dog and pony shows of the Christy Ring and Nicky Rackard Cups, the noble game is in crisis in counties that are just behind the big three of Kilkenny, Tipp and Cork.

Wexford, Offaly and Clare have all won All-Irelands in the past fifteen years but they’re failing apart now. Nobody can follow who’s beaten whom in the Byzantine current Championship structure while the county that is in most danger from the rise of rugby, Limerick, seems seem intent on committing hari-kari. It’s tragic, and heartbreaking.

Tragedy and heartbreak were two words that were being bandied about after Thierry Va-Va-Voom became the Thief of Saint Denis. An Spailpín isn’t buying it. Ireland had their chances to win it, and didn’t take them. You can’t hang Henry and then say you’d have done exactly the same thing yourself, as so many Irish players have said.

Giovanni Trapattoni deserves a world of credit for getting the team as far as he did, and the RTÉ soccer panel, once the finest in the business, were craven and disgraceful in their condemnation of il vecchio italiano during the campaign. One the panel spoke with neither fear nor favour; this time, it clear that Eamon Dunphy had an agenda because the soccer team had been grousing about what Liam Brady said about them while a panellist himself. But Eamon knew that Trapattoni was a free shot, and he took it. Shame on him.

Finally, there was on constant in a changing year, as Kerry took Cork’s candy from them again. Nobody seems to realise (bar the Kerrymen themselves, and they’re far too cute to let on) that in Kerry the Munster Championship is simply an extension of the League, and they act accordingly. No other county targets August and beyond as the Kingdom do, just as no other county who have a star playing in Australia could bring him home to get him his medal and then ship him back again to the kangaroos and koala bears. Pearse Hanley please copy, God help us.

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