Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Sporting Year: Review and Preview

Hurling is a game in crisis. The League doesn’t matter to anyone, and the Championship has so very few meaningful games. Even worse, not only is hurling not growing in the non-traditional (football) counties but the ancient game is in clear and visible decline in counties that are not only considered hurling powers, but that have won or contested All-Ireland finals in the past fifteen years. None of this is good.

And despite this litany of disaster, hurling still provided the greatest sporting moment of the year when Tipperary overcame Kilkenny in a game done scant justice by such weak adjectives as epic, magisterial, unforgettable, monumental. The 2010 hurling final showcased everything that is great about hurling, right down to the post-match singing of the Galtee Mountain Boy, singing that showed exactly what makes the GAA great – the perfect synergy of people, place and culture.

What this means for hurling in 2011 and beyond your correspondent cannot say, not being a hurling man, other than to remark that if this is ever lost, there will be a hole in the country’s soul that can never be filled.

The football final was not as good, but the football Championship was outstanding. The Championship started as an exclusive club where twenty-nine teams were warm-up acts for a Big Three, but Down reminded everybody with eyes to see that the great prize is there to be won by those who dare, rather than ceded by those who dare not. Small consolation to them as they lost their first ever football final, but a beacon to the rest of the country.

We will hear a lot in the first six months of next year about how that beacon shines for Dublin, something that annoys the country outside the pale more than somewhat, and does the least service of all to Dublin and Dublin GAA. This isn’t because of hype – talk is cheap, after all – but because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the game.

If Dublin are to survive using their new system, they will revolutionise Gaelic football with their three man forward line and twelve backs. An Spailpín Fánach doesn’t believe this tactic will work, but it is certainly going to be one of the stories of the year. Until the system is found out.

2011 bubbles with anticipation. Can Mickey Harte build a Tyrone 2.0 as the new generations comes through and his great servants retire one by one? Can Cork push on or was this the last hurrah for the weight of their panel? Can Sligo recover from their shattering Connacht Final loss? Have Roscommon finally turned a corner after a decade of misery? How much longer can Padraic Joyce carry Galway?

Every country has its narrative. James Horan’s first Mayo team will line out against Leitrim in Ballinamore on January 9th. An Spailpín hopes to be there. The road goes ever on.

In rugby, after reports of their demise were greatly exaggerated some years ago, the Golden Generation are finally gathered in the Last Chance Saloon. Declan Kidney’s mission for 2011 is to nurse them to the World Cup in October, and a last hurrah in a World Cup quarter-final. To get to a semi-final, something Ireland have never done, would be an outstanding achievement, and a fitting finale to several careers.

And possibly the last hurrah for quite some years; despite what the IRFU-istas write and would have you believe in the papers, the future is not bright. Scotland is on the rise, the deep and unaddressed flaw in the system that sees players not being developed because it makes better short-term sense to buy foreign props or stand-off halves, and the sheer weight of English and French money make the future challenging in the extreme for Irish rugby. It was fun while it lasted.

The World Cup was terrible for anyone outside of Spain. It would have been impossible to believe twenty years ago, but the World Cup itself may be in danger. Newsweek’s respected political columnist Jonathan Alter tweeted earlier this year that Qatar paid €7,500,000 per vote to stage the World Cup in 2022. It’s the only way the thing can be understood. The super clubs are on the rise and international soccer is on the decline. This is the future.

And finally – Irish sports lost their voice this year when Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh announced his retirement. His like will not be seen again, but there is hope for the future. It’s not likely, but maybe now wouldn’t be a bad time to get the ball rolling.

RTÉ Radio ought to try a little lateral thinking and appoint Seán Bán Breathnach of Raidió na Gaeltachta as their chief Gaelic Games commentator. Hector Ó hEoghagáin tweeted about this before Christmas, and it’s the only way. SBB is an outstanding commentator and, while English is his second language, Seán Bán is considerably more fluent and passionate in English than some of the current RTÉ men with microphones. The campaign begins here.