Monday, December 19, 2016

The Sporting Year in Review

2016 was a good year in Irish sport. There’s no getting around it. Both soccer teams progressed from their respective groups in the European Championships. The Olympians came back from Brazil, unlike all of the administrators, and some of those Olympians even came back with medals.

Rather than falling to pieces after the end of the golden generation, the rugby team has gone from strength to strength. And the hurling and football Championships remained the heartbeat of the sporting year. Nothing here not to like.

The story was abroad that the winning of three All-Irelands in four years would confirm Dublin’s status as one of the all-time great teams has come to pass. For all the talk of the advantages enjoyed by Dublin - home advantage in every game, pots of money, apparently limitless resources – those advantages were enjoyed by every Dublin team before them, and they did not bring home the same amount of the bacon. The biggest advantage twenty-first century Dublin enjoys is the shameful and embarrassing current standard of Leinster football, but it’s arguable whether or not that really is an advantage in this Qualifier era.

Dublin were truly tested in the drawn and replayed All-Ireland Finals and proved themselves true Champions in that replay. Everything that had gone wrong in the drawn game was righted in the replay. All Jim Gavin’s switches worked, and Dublin are clearly the best team in the land. More luck to them.

Tipperary struck a blow against Kilkenny’s hurling hegemony in a strangely subdued final. It is a tribute to Kilkenny that the withstood the Premier tide as long as they did, showing that incredible defiance that has been Brian Cody’s hallmark during his long reign.

Yet for all that, hurling needs new teams. Maybe Waterford will break through. Clare will certainly find out if it was all poor Davy’s fault after all, while Cork remain in the wilderness, the most telling summer absence since Kerry’s missing decade of the ‘eighties and ‘nineties.

In the wider GAA world, the President of the Association made a remarkable speech about flags and anthems, but the lead on that story was surprisingly missed by most of the media. Surely the real story of Ó Fearrghail’s speech was not the substance – or lack thereof – of what he said, but the fact that getting strong booze out in Abu Dhabi must be far easier than previously reported. Only the foxy devil itself could be behind such bizarre remarks.

The biggest disappointment of the year was the news of Newstalk’s losing of live radio broadcast rights to GAA matches for five years. Newstalk revolutionised radio GAA coverage in this country. Newstalk revolutionised GAA coverage by giving players enough time to settle, to build trust and rapport with the interviewer and then say what they really thought, instead of trapping them in the to-and-fro of dated platitudinous nonsense that is still the house style of the national broadcaster.

But it was in the live coverage Newstalk came into its own. Firstly, it used younger analysts, who were more in touch with the modern game. Secondly, it used two color analysts during the game itself, and a pitchside reporter as well. When it worked well, it worked brilliantly – it was like standing at a game behind two really knowledgeable and articulate ex-players, and learning so much just from listening to them. And when it didn’t work well, it was still excellent.

And now that’s all gone. The media reaction has been to condemn the decision but we aren’t quite getting the full picture here either. Newstalk are strapped for cash and may have offered the GAA a figure that was just too low for them to take seriously. Who knows? The loss is on both sides, perhaps.

In rugby, mouths are watering in anticipation of a Six Nations that precedes a Lions Tour. Ireland and England are joint favourites – or should be, certainly – with the delicious prospect of a Grand Slam game at Lansdowne Road the day after St Patrick’s Day. Or Ireland could screw it up against the porridge-munchers in Edinburgh. God knows it’s happened before.

The prospect of a Lions Tour must be bitter-sweet this time around. The Barbarians were wiped out more or less instantly by professionalism, while the Lions turned into something of a juggernaut. But professionalism has no room for the very concept of a Lions Tour, and the thing is further bedevilled by the growing absence of hosts.

Full test tours to Australia only started in the late ‘eighties, while South Africa was still boycotted over apartheid, and the Australians have never taken to the idea. South Africa is coming into a period of considerable political uncertainly and may not be able to host its tour in 2021. What, then, would be the point in continuing the Lions if only New Zealand were there to host them? Let’s hope they go out with a bang. Nothing lasts forever, and the Lions were the stuff that dreams are made of, once upon a time.