Monday, December 29, 2014

The Year in Sports: Review and Preview

A year when Kerry won the football and Kilkenny the hurling does not sound like a year of revolution in Irish sport. And neither was it, really. Kerry have been béal-bochting all year about how this was their best All-Ireland yet because no-one gave them a chance, but the nation might be well-advised to take that with a pinch of salt. The 1975 team weren’t expected to win that All-Ireland either, and they turned out to be pretty handy in the end.

But the question of how long can this keep going on is getting more and more urgent in football. Ulster is the only competitive provincial Championship now. Connacht may be next year, or it may not. Leinster will be a parade, and Munster the usual two-handed set. This isn’t good for anybody, but how it’s to be remedied is the Gordian Knot of the GAA.

Two solutions get the most media airings. The first is a dual-Championship, for haves and have-nots. The second is a Champions-League style thing, because the Group games in the Champions League are always such heart-stopping affairs.

Neither of these solutions is acceptable, because both work against the very spirit of the GAA. The spirit of the GAA is representation of where you’re from, and competing against your neighbours. The GAA is not a professional sport, and neither are the inter-county competitions the be-all and end-all of the Association. If anything, they are brocade and it will be a bleak day for the Association if that is ever forgotten.

In an interview on the invariably excellent Second Captains podcast, former Roscommon goalkeeper and aspirant All-Ireland-winning Roscommon manager, Shane Curran, reckoned that for Roscommon to win an All-Ireland, one million Euro will have to spent every year for fifteen years to raise standards to that of the elite counties.

Reader, if the Association spent more time wondering how winning All-Irelands costs one million a year for fifteen years than worrying about Rachel Wyse and Sky’s threat to the Purity of the Gael, it might come a lot closer to finding out why the Provincial Championships aren’t competitive any more.

It is an interesting thing that hurling remains free of accusations of creeping professionalism, uncompetitive provincial Championships and cynical play. After fifty years without a drawn All-Ireland hurling final, we’ve now had two-in-a-row and each final since the Tipperary revival of 2009 has been hailed as the greatest-ever.

Would it be monstrous to wonder about this? Is there a case to be made that the hurling Emperor isn’t quite dressed for the weather? The back-door may be a pox on football, further punishing and humiliating the weaker counties for whom it was theoretically introduced, but at least people can understand it. The complex steps of the hurling Championship are like a puzzle escaped from a cryptologists’ laboratory.

For all its faults, there is general consensus that come the August Bank Holiday, the best eight teams in the country are still in competition for Sam. Can the same be said for Liam, or could the best team fall in Munster and then die the death of a thousand cuts in the purgatorial struggles of the hurling back door?

Such complexities are far beyond a Mayoman’s understanding, of course, but is it time hurling people started to wonder aloud?

The other sport about which the nation seems to be labouring under a particular delusion is rugby. The sports page previews this week will speculate about Ireland’s chances as an outside bet to win the Rugby World Cup, which will be held in England’s green and pleasant land next autumn.

Reader, Ireland have never won a World Cup playoff game in the seven times the competition has been held, including two years, 1999 and 2007, when Ireland couldn’t even get out of their group. The Irish rugby public should think about crawling before thinking about walking.

Will the World Cup be worth watching? An unthinkable question once, but getting more and more relevant now. The best sports columnist in Ireland, Keith Duggan of the Irish Times, wondered recently if rugby hasn’t become a brilliantly-coached bore in recent years, and a perusal of the stats solidify that case.

The former Welsh out-half, Barry John, once said that he could tell how a game would go simply by looking at how the out-half handled the ball in warm-ups. In the amateur game, the out-half dictated the game from his regal throne standing-off the scrum. Now, the only thing that separates out-halves is competence. There are thin degrees of difference between them at international level, but they’re like the thousandths of a second that separate cars in Formula One. Too miniscule to take seriously.

Rugby Union is now a game of continual tackling in defense and not turning over possession in offense. Tackling has become the be-all and end-all of the game that sneaky attackers are now making sure they get tackled, in order to turn the laws to their advantage, as Will Greenwood noted in the Telegraph.

Union may dominate League in England since Union turned professional twenty years ago – the RFU’s turnover is four times that of the RFL – but League’s influence over Union has proved so strong that the codes are closer than they have been in over one hundred years. Good news for the stand-up, pay-up moneymen coining it at every turn, but for what the French used to call la gloire? A victim to progress, I’m afraid.