Monday, December 28, 2015

The Year in Sports

Dublin’s All-Ireland title, their third in five years, makes a strong case for Dublin’s status as Gaelic football’s team of the decade. Not least as there could still be more titles to come.

This is not to say that they are invincible. And if anyone wants to quibble with Dublin’s achievement he or she could point out to the poor quality of opposition Dublin have met in finals – Mayo in 2013, and Kerry’s extraordinary collapse. There is also the continuing embarrassment of Leinster football, an embarrassment that looks set to continue with a bizarre venue having been chosen for Dublin’s first Championship away game since Biddy Mulligan was a slip of a girl.

But these are pointless cavils. Dublin are the best team in the country because they have the best players. And those best players don’t look like they’re going anywhere just yet.

Who can challenge them? The stark division between haves and have-nots continues, as mortal counties are crushed between the twin rocks of the back-door system and that most exclusive club that is Division 1 of the National Football League.

Kieran Shannon of the Examiner has made the point this year that addressing the League structure would be far more helpful than codding ourselves that the Championship will – or can – be changed. The Croke Park grandees have paid this not one blind bit of heed, and seem determined to bring back the unloved B Championship. Sigh.

Of the potential challengers, Tyrone may have overtaken Donegal in the pecking order, but otherwise it’s as-you-were for the Big Four. The people of Mayo will wonder if Stephen Rochford is the long-awaited Messiah but the reality is that the team is now manager-independent, really. Unpleasant though it was, the putsch of the previous management team shows that this Mayo panel is now complete in every way.

Everything you read in the papers about Mayo being short a forward or being too loose at the back or not knowing what to with Aidan O’Shea is just paper-talk. Only some truly poxy luck has kept Mayo from winning an All-Ireland since the revival of the 1990s, and luck has to change sometime.

Christy O’Connor had a typically excellent piece in the Indo a few days about the Kilkenny Hurling Imperium, and how it continues even though the playing standard is not what it was. The kings will be kings until someone rises to challenge them, but who that someone might be is anybody’s case.

Your correspondent is a great fan of the Banner County but, although far from a hurling expert, I will eat every single hat I own if Clare win the All-Ireland. Although hailed in the media as a triumph, the inclusion of Dónal Óg Cusack in the Clare back-room team is a sure-fire recipe for disaster. Neither Dónal Óg nor Davy Fitz are noted for their ability to get along with regular people. How in God’s Holy Name they are meant to get on with each other is a Sixth Glorious Mystery. It’ll all end in tears before the hay is saved.

Speaking of tears, it is a generally odious thing to say I told you so, but this is the still the Season of Goodwill so I will chance my arm. This is from last year’s sports review piece in this space:

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.

And lo, it did come to pass. It was speculated here before the event that the Rugby World Cup would be a crashing bore, something that did not go down well with the public at the time. It wasn’t a crashing bore, but anyone who’s paying attention and is brave enough to be honest with him or herself can see that the game is changing massively, both in the way it’s played and the way it’s organised. The question, then, is whether the change is evolution or devolution.

Rugby has generally been the best of all sports in adjusting its rules to remain true to the spirit of the game as teams seek every edge, but it’s behind the times now. There are too many games decided by penalties at the breakdown which, when it comes to great sporting spectacles, make for rather Hobbesian viewing.

A sign of that evolution – or devolution – was in an offhand comment from Brian O’Driscoll while holding a mic for BT Sports during the recent Ulster v Toulouse game at Kingspan Ravenhill. O’Driscoll has a keen eye and praised Vincent Clerc for taking up a particular defensive position at one stage in the game, and that’s great. But nobody every paid in to watch Simon Geoghegan defend, or David Campese or, God save us, Doctor Sir AJF O’Reilly. If rugby isn’t about running with ball in hand it’s about nothing. Dangerous times for the ancient and glorious game.

Rugby has ruled the roost as the Nation’s Choice for the past number of years because people like winning. Martin O’Neill’s achievement in getting Ireland to the European Qualifiers may challenge rugby’s dominance. It was funny to note all the soccer journalists second-guess O’Neill all they way until the team actually qualified, by which time the u-turn was made in a cacophony of screeching brakes and stench of burning rubber.

As it was with the players, not least the much reviled Glen Whelan. It is worth closing, then, by noting that not everyone was derelict in his or her duty by Whelan when nobody was singing because nobody was winning. The great Keith Duggan wrote a marvellous piece in the Irish Times about Whelan, his role for Ireland and the nature of the professional soccer player back last June. Treat yourself friends, and check it out.