Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Sporting Year

This year, for what must be the first time in the history of the Gaelic Athletic Association, Dublin struck a blow for the little guy.

At the start of the summer the Championship looked like it would be played between The Big Three of Cork, Kerry and Tyrone, with the other counties supplying cannon fodder when required. As Kevin Egan has often pointed out, long shot winners do not generally win All-Irelands. Your correspondent has no figures to hand, but it’s a reasonable guess that Dublin were the longest price All-Ireland winners since Armagh in 2002.

Kerry left the game behind them of course, but Dublin still had to complete their part of the bargain and pick it up. Kerry have left games behind them before, but teams have not had the wherewithal – or the Kevin McMenamins – to take advantage. Sligo come to mind in 2006, as do Limerick in 2004. Good for Dublin, who are deserving champions.

Kerry do not wash linen in public, but it would be wonderful to know how they’re analysing this loss at home. How do they view Jack O’Connor in the Kingdom?

O’Connor has won three All-Irelands but those were won against teams – Cork and Mayo – whom Kerry expect to beat as a matter of course. In a county with so many wins, those will be taken for granted.

Against teams whom Kerry do take seriously, O’Connor’s record is played three, lost three – two against Tyrone, one against Dublin. There’s huge pressure on O’Connor and his aging team to make up for this next year.

From a parochial standpoint, Mayo had a superb season. James Horan was extremely lucky not to get sucker-punched against London but other than that he didn’t put a foot wrong during either League or Championship. Mayo are looking forward to another crack at it in 2012 – county board shenanigans permitting, of course.

In hurling, Kilkenny and Tipperary served another epic All-Ireland Final with Kilkenny proving there’s life in the old cat yet. The only pity was that the hurling Championship did go according to script, and there were no counties able to keep up with the standard set by Kilkenny and Tipperary.

Galway blew up – again, Cork’s civil war continues and the revolutionaries of the ‘nineties now struggle to keep their heads above water. Anthony Daly had another superb year with Dublin but it still seems somehow easier to see Galway beating Kilkenny twice than Dublin. And it’s more or less impossible to see Galway beating Kilkenny just the once.

The Rugby World Cup is struggling as a tournament. The balance is incorrect. There are ten top-flight rugby nations in the world – the Six Nations, the Tri Nations and Argentina. The other ten are making up the numbers – and are quickly put in their place if they dare to point that out, as Samoa’s unfortunate Eliota Sapolu discovered.

This means is that there are three weeks of group games at any Rugby World Cup that whittle ten teams down to eight. That’s not very effective. It also makes for extremely stilted rugby in the knockout stages, when the terror of losing dominates. The balance between the relatively carefree group games and the all-or-nothing knockout games is wrong.

The final itself is proof positive. New Zealand is the greatest rugby nation in the world and nobody with any feeling for the game could begrudge them, but 8-7 is a scoreline from the 1950s, not the 21st Century professional era. The only thing anyone will remember from this tournament is relief for the New Zealanders, and not much else.

Ireland’s win over Australia is bittersweet, looking back. Ireland had never won a quarter-final before the tournament, and they still haven’t. Irish rugby is at an extraordinary crossroads right now. If rugby can transition from the golden generation of BOD, ROG and POC, then it suddenly becomes reasonable to assume that rugby can overtake the GAA in popularity.

On that point – the chaps on Newstalk’s Off the Ball were floating an idea back in November that, if New Zealand could host a World Cup then so could Ireland, using GAA stadia for the games. They never quite explained why the GAA would want to sign its own death warrant by facilitating the tournament though.

Maybe they’re saving it for next year. An Spailpín will be listening closely, as ever – shirts don’t iron themselves, you know, and listening to Off the Ball remains the best way of dealing with the misery. Here’s to 2012.