Sunday, February 20, 2005

Only in RTÉ

Even as I type, the national broadcaster has just finished a feature on its Week in Politics show about one of the big concerns for Irish society in the next twenty years. Villages on the outskirts of Dublin, like Sallins in Kildare, Ratoath in Meath and countless others, have undergone massive and unprecedented growth in the past ten years as people working in Dublin but who have no chance of affording a house in Dublin buy in those villages and then try and make the best of it with no infrastructure, three hour commutes and all the rest of it.

A very fascinating and revealing piece, and hugely relevant to the electorate in the upcoming by-elections in North Kildare and Meath. This is a new block of voters who will wield unprecedented influence in what have been primarily rural constituencies before this. The only snag is that none of those new voters will have seen this piece of public service broadcasting that's so relevant to their lives because the National Broadcaster, in its wisdom, broadcast it at a quarter past eleven pm on Sunday night. If you're going driving to Dublin from Sallins tomorrow morning, you've been tucked up in bed long ago.

What did RTÉ have on when you were up? Fair City and that Gay Byrne Schooldays program. This has clearly been Kermit D. Frog reporting - what a bunch of muppets.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Stop the Madness - Pave the Fields of Athenry, Put Up a Parking Lot

At about a quarter to eight this morning, Ian Dempsey played a single on his radio show that he reckons will go to number one in the Irish charts when it's released next week. It's for the Christina Noble Children's Charity, and it features Christina herself, backed by the Irish rugby team and some generic disco beat, singing "The Fields of Athenry."

It's the worst thing I've ever heard, and I've heard Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh say "and it's heartbreak for Mayo!" more times than you've had hot dinners. It's just appalling, appalling. It symbolises everything that's bad about post-Catholic, Tiger II, SSIAs on the Way Ireland. It's awful, awful, awful. Horrible.

And since when did The Fields of Athenry become the anthem of Irish rugby, by the way? The Munster hordes sing it even though their authentic anthem is the very fine "There is an Isle," and those of you whose rugby memories extend beyond Brian O'Driscoll may remember when Lansdowne Road used to sway to the Alive Alive Oh's of Molly Malone.

I think the Fields of Athenry is a very fine song but familiarity breeds contempt and, after hearing Christina croaking out her verison to the boom boom disco beat, the sooner those freebirds fly away as far as they can the happier I'll be.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Literacy, Anyone?

Thirty errors, between grammar and punctuation, in this seven hundred and sixty-one word Western People preview of the All-Ireland club semi-final this Sunday. Is this a record? I know that the Western's Cork-based TCM string-pullers are notoriously tight with the dollars, but good God almighty, an error every thirty words is just shocking.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Croke Park and Garrison Games

It's very hard to think of the Motions Committee of the GAA, who are meeting tonight to discuss what is and what is not infra dig with regard to Rule 42 of the GAA, without thinking of the 1991 movie Point Break. Not because Point Break was anything other than awful of course - who can think of either Keanu Reeves or Patrick Swayze without shouting "Timberrrr! at the top of one's lungs? - but because one of that movie's leitmotifs was a series of bank robberies perpetrated by a gang who wore facemasks depicting former presidents of the United States.

Not that the venerable gentlemen who sit on the Motions Committee would rob banks, of course - they are too well stricken in years to get up to what is blatantly a young man's caper, and Quinny is loaded anyway - but they do behave in a very strange fashion, and they do not take kindly to their machinations being exposed to the cold light of day.

Which is a pity. The GAA is a unique Irish success story, and its remarkable ability to keep on keeping on while persistently and repeatedly shooting itself in both feet is another achievement that is seldom replicated elsewhere. Consider the trauma and hand-wringing that's occurred over the rules changes in football, resulting in the current disastrous compromise that is neither one thing nor another - what could be more fundamental to a sporting organisation that ensuring that the rules stay in touch with the evolution of the game, and that everyone knows what is and what is not on? And yet the GAA arches and twists to try to accommodate all opinions, and ends up pleasing nobody. Somebody said once that a camel is a horse designed by committee - the GAA stables many, many camels.

Any organisation that has so much difficulty with quotidian discussions about relatively minor changes is inevitably doomed to visit the nine circles of Hell when it comes to making a decision as fundamental or as far-reaching as the proposed leasing of Croke Park to the IRFU and the FAI while Lansdowne Road is being redeveloped. This cuts to the heart of the GAA's very being; so much so, in fact, that certain parties long thought dormant are putting themselves about, having realised that so great a decision is not be chanced on a democratic whim.

J. Boothman, come on down.

It could be construed that the sudden vigour with which the Motions Committee are fine-tooth-combing the motions proposing the temporary leasing of Croke Park to the IRFU and the FAI hints at a body of opinion within the GAA that gives lie to the GAA's old boast about being a democracy, where a motion from the humblest junior club can change policy. Not if the Motions Committee don't like it, it won't. And this makes the situation even sadder, as the media reaches for the stereotype and the Hillbilly music.

Instead of an open debate certain parties within the GAA and perhaps on the Motions Committee itself seem determined to cut off debate at the pass, rather than thrashing out the issues like adults once and for all. The Irish, unfortunately, do not debate issues well, and for a number of reasons. The media debate about Rule 42, insofar as it has been a debate, has been both lazy and disingenuous. There is only one question that the GAA should be asking themselves about opening Croke Park up to the IRFU and the FAI and that question is: What's in it for me? Any other approach is naive in the extreme.

There has been talk in certain quarters that the GAA "owes" it to the country to allow international rugby and soccer games to be played in Croke Park. The GAA owes the country nothing - if anything, the country owes a considerable debt to the GAA, by whom I mean the anonymous men and women who mark pitches, wash jerseys, sell tickets, bring kids to games and do the thousand and one other things for which there is neither glamour nor thanks but without which the organisation folds, collapses and dies before next autumn. The country owes those poor eejits more than it will ever give them, and that is a fact. Anything else is errant nonsense.

There is another argument that claims that the GAA owes the government, the representative of the nation, because the government stumped up forty million Euro or so to finish the stadium. This is nonsense, of course. On the basis of giving young people somewhere to go in the evenings the Government owed the GAA that and in baby-sitting fees alone. Besides, I don't know of anyone who claimed any of the several building grants that were all over the place in the early nineties opening up their houses to other citizens free of charge because they "took Government money." I hear of very few of those.

Money is what it comes down to. International soccer has always been about money, International rugby now sees the dollar as the bottom line as much as soccer ever did. Therefore, the only reason that the GAA should consider renting Croke Park even for a moment is if they are getting pots and pots of money in return, money that they can use to further strengthen the association. Hurls don't come cheap, you know, and if you're going to bring hurling to non-hurling areas, you're going to get a lot of them smashed before anyone gets good at the ancient game.

There is only one true test of whether or not the GAA is getting enough money for the rental of Croke Park, and that is if Seán Kelly's opposite number in the FAI or IRFU is on TV bitching to Tony O'Donaghue about the price. Anything less, and they've sold for too little.

That established, that the only reason for renting Croke Park during the Lansdowne Road renovation is money and has nothing to do with some bizarre, spurious and unfounded sense of obligation to those great national institutions the FAI and the IRFU, there is one other major hurdle that the GAA has to cross before any deal can be signed, one that cuts right to the heart and ethos of the organisation.

It will come as news to the set who have found a Sunday in Croker an integral part of Summer in the City, 21st Century style, but Croke Park has been there for a long time before the current redevelopment. It was there on Sunday, November 21st, 192o, when fourteen people, between players and spectators, were shot dead by a combined force of RIC, the British Army and Auxiliaries.

The Hogan Stand is named after Michael Hogan, a Tipperary player who was shot and killed on November 2oth, 1920. A spectator who tried to say an Act of Contrition into Hogan's ear as he lay dying was also shot. One body was so riddled with bullets that the coroner thought he'd been bayoneted.

And that is the Hogan Stand that will host the English fans singing "Rule Britannia" should Ireland play England at soccer, something that hasn't happened since 1995, when the game was postponed after half an hour while those England fans rioted in Lansdowne Road. Are some things worth more than gold?

May God help the GAA in its tortured deliberations.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

One Step Closer to the Shamrock Slam

It's time to start thinking of the Shamrock Slam. Twenty minutes into their second match of the campaign, Ireland were in big trouble in Murrayfield. Eight points down after conceding a penalty and a try that began with Chris Paterson waltzing through the Irish midfield like Little Red Riding Hood on here way to Grandma's, Ireland were in danger of living up to their long tradition of being turned to haggis in Edinburgh.

Trotting up the field after a long kick found a lineout inside the Irish 22, Irish Number 8 Anthony Foley said something to Ronan O'Gara. An Spailpín is unaware of the substance of Foley's remarks, but he presumes that it was a 21st century echo of Ciarán Fitzgerald's famous "Where's your f****** pride?" of 1985. Because whatever got into the Irish pack's head, they decided they had their fill of being pushed around by Scotland, and decided that they would do the pushing from here on in.

Whatever impact the Irish backline was going to have minus O'Driscoll and D'Arcy, the pack took it upon themselves not to chance it, and leave the winning of the game strictly to themselves. And this is exactly what they did - after an anonymous performance in Rome, the Irish eight were imperious at Murrayfield, none more so that open side flanker Johnny O'Connor.

Not even on the bench for the Italian job, O'Connor was winning his third cap against Scotland and the pressure was mounting on the Galwayman after less than stellar displays against Die Bokke and Argentina. O'Connor delivered in spades, announcing himself in glorious style at a ruck on about the half-hour mark. As Scottish scrum-half Cusiter stooped to reach for the pill, O'Connor came scrambling over the mound of bodies like a puck goat over a particularly rocky mountain, and laid hands on Cusiter, to Cusiter's intense disquiet. From there on in O'Connor was in Cusiter's face, where he belonged. It is the job of every conscientious open-side flanker to bully scrum-halves and make them cry and we can only speculate that, when Cusiter got to the safety of the dressing room and reached for his after-match cigarette, he first checked his box of matches to make sure O'Connor wasn't in there, lying in ambush.

O'Connor's example was matched by his captain, as Paul O'Connell's tremendous physicality battered Scottish resistance into the ground, first on the paddock and latterly in their heads. Rugby, for all its jargon and catch-phrases, is really a simple game that boils down to one simple maxim - tough guys win. Today Ireland proved themselves the toughest, and, barring an unexpected English or French display tomorrow at Twickers, look set fair for a Grand Slam decider against Wales in Cardiff forty-eight hours after St Patrick's Day.

Wales showed no sign of a post-England celebratory hangovers as they dispatched Italy professionally, ruthlessly, and most worrying for Ireland, with no small amount of the élan for which Welsh rugby was famous in its heydey. And that was a hundred year heydey, don't forget. Now the Welsh are back and playing the Welsh way, with a functional if not bed-wettingly terrifying pack and many game-breakers behind the scrum. Stephen Jones at ten is no Barry John but then, of course, neither is anyone else. Henson and Shane Williams are the real deal, and Gareth Thomas is no mug either.

As things stack up now, the Six Nations striates into three, with Ireland and Wales at the top, England/France or France/England in the second tier depending on how things go tomorrow, and Italy and Scotland fighting it out in the tight for the Wooden Spoon. So, allowing the fact that it's far too early for this sort of thing to be outweighed by the fact it's such wizard fun, here is An Spaipín Fánach's Lions Test XV:

Murphy (Ire); Robinson (Eng), O'Driscoll (Ire, capt.), Henson (Wales), Williams (Wales); O'Gara (Ire), Peel (Wales); Rowntree (Eng), Bulloch (Scot), Hayes (Ire); Grewcock (Eng), O'Connell (Ire); White (Scot), O'Connor (Ire), Duine Eile (Tír Eile, ar ndóigh).

I think Paterson will travel as a utility back with the squad, as he can play anywhere along the backs. Murphy edges Gareth Thomas at fullback, the three quarter line picks itself really and it really is a back division of the highest quality. The team would be awesome if Wilkinson were fit but it's looking increasingly like his World Cup medal cost Jonny Wilkinson the rest of his career. I hope I'm wrong, but in his absense O'Gara fills the stand-off half's first duty of generalissimo better than the flaky Hodgson, whatever you read in the papers. Peel is a fine scrumhalf, some positions in the pack yet to be decided.

Monday, February 07, 2005

The Six Nations

It is testimony to the enduring appeal of the Six Nations Championship that five of the six nations still have the whole Championship to look forward to with starry-eyed optimism. At this point, none are happier than the Welsh, who beat the English in Cardiff for the first time since 1993, having beaten the English in Cardiff with metronomic frequency for the thirty years before that.

The English themselves remain confident, assuring themselves that Gavin Henson poxed his penalty in the dying moments of the Welsh game and that the Zurich Premiership is the best in the world. The French know that while they were putrid against Scotland they still won, and can expect a sharp improvement once Messieurs Betsen and Magne return to active service. The Italians were able to draw some comfort from what must have been a heartbreaking loss for them from the fact that if they had made the kickable penalties and the one drop goal they spurned Italy would have ended Ireland's Grand Slam dreams first crack out of the box. Ireland are happy that Italy did not in fact end the Irish Grand Slam dream first crack out of the box. Scotland? Well, the purple is always bonny on the heather in the springtime, and that's something, isn't it?

Scotland not getting hammered in St Denis and Ireland not getting martyred in Rome were the two best results that could have been hoped for by the Irish on a Grand Slam campaign. Ireland coasting by Italy and the Scots getting pasted in Paris could have led to a false sense of security in Murrayfield, and anyone aware of the history of Irish rugby should be very wary of travelling to Edinburgh with anything other than grim Calvinist foreboding in their breast.

At time of writing I don't know what the story with the injuries to the Irish centre pairing is, but it's reasonable to presume the worst. Ireland are therefore looking at missing both salt and pepper from their bag of chips, making for rather bland and greasy fair indeed.

The tempting option would be to revert to type while O'Driscoll and D'Arcy recover, and play a ten man game such as Italy played against Ireland to such good effect. The problem there is that Ireland of 2005 are differently constituted, and have been relying on élan in the backs to scorch past the opposition, and paper over any cracks as might exist in the boiler room. Miserably, that élan is chiefly invested in O'Driscoll and without him, the centre combination of Maggs and Horgan is rather static. The difference between silk and sackcloth, if you like.

This places a considerable burden on the pack, which suddenly looked old and tired against the vibrant and hungry Italians. Irish rugby fans have assured themselves all season that while we are stretched in terms of depth at half-back and prop forward, we are blessed with riches in the back row of the scrum. This proved to be fallacious, and, after his rather surprising omission from yesterday's Roman holiday, if Johnny O'Connor does not have to pack a kilt and sporran along with his toothbrush and teddy bear this weekend the situation is even more critical than we could have imagined.

Presuming that O'Connor does arrive and provide some long-promised bite, Ireland, even with the reduced midfield of Horgan and Maggs, should still havet too much for Scotland. Matt Williams' long and loud complaints about officiating in Paris got very tired very quickly and were France to offer him a rematch I suspect he would have much more material for the composing of pibrochs than he has already. Scotland are extremely limited, and it's hard to see how they would be able to punish Ireland sufficiently to restore the lustre to their proud old stadium. As long as O'Gara keeps making his kicks and keeping Ireland ticking over, that should be enough to edge Ireland past Scotland and give them two weeks off before the arrival in Dublin of everyone's favourite former Imperial Power.

That Imperial Power is in for a good test at Twickers this coming weekend when the French come to town. A France with Betsen and Magne restored to the flanks of the scrum and with some even vaguely functional half-backs should be able to step up a few gears from that depressing display on Saturday, but Twickenham is a hard place to visit and Andy Robinson, a former trencherman himself, must be sorely tempted to return to the traditional English virtues of bully beef. Their pack might miss their leader and inspiration, and the entire back row that won the World Cup, but we're still talking about big strong men here. As Robinson looks to the post World Cup era, he might revert back to basics and the ten man game that led England to the professional era in the first place. It won't be pretty though.

The most fascinating of the weekend games will be Wales' visit to Rome. After twenty years of misery the Welsh are strutting once more and it will have been a strong man indeed that was not moved by the occasion in Cardiff on Saturday evening, not least when Bryn Terfel, Katherine Jenkins and Aled Jones led the singing at the start of the game. But one of the advantages that not having a rugby tradition will give the Italians is that the notion of Wales does not mean JPR, Gareth, King John or Cliff Morgan. It means Free Willy, and it's only after much gesticulation that you get it through to them that Wales is a nation. Of sorts. However, John Kirwan will have noted the kind of pressure that the English pack were able to exert on the Welsh for long periods on Saturday evening, and he knows that sort of squeeze is what his men do terribly well it indeed. It will not be an easy thing at all for the new hero of Welsh rugby, Gavin Henson, to shave his legs prior to the post-game banquet when he finds Signor Bergamasco's teethmarks all over them.

The tournament remains wide open. We are lucky indeed to bear witness and enjoy.

Roy Keane

The next time someone tells you that Roy Keane is an alp, that he let down his country, that the "red mist descends on this fighting Irishman," simply guide them to this marvellous piece by Tom Humphries in yesterday's Observer that explains Keane's genius.

And if that doesn't sell the doubter, give that langer a good kicking. You know Roy wants you to.