Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Rugby World Cup Will Be a Crashing Bore

The Rugby World Cup is the Mona Lisa of rugby union. We all pretend to love it but deep down, we all know it’s not really worth the queue.

Former Wales, New Zealand and British Lions coach Graham Henry wrote a watery preview in the Observer on Sunday in which he posited that a team with ambitions to win the Rugby World Cup must have a world-class fly-half. Graham Henry’s own World Cup was won with a fourth-choice choice fly-half, a man so out of the reckoning that at the start of the tournament Stephen Donald was half-a-world away, fishing.

Dan Carter has been acclaimed as the best fly-half in world rugby for over a decade. And his godlike boots were filled by Mr Nobody? Maybe you could win a soccer world cup with some midfield dynamo from Sligo Rovers filling in for Leo Messi, but it’s very hard to imagine it.

The 2011 Final was a poor game, and a fitting conclusion for a poor tournament throughout. France should have beaten New Zealand in the final. The French themselves should have lost to 14-man Wales in the semi-final, and the Welsh should have carved up by Ireland, who had won their group for the first time in World Cup history.

That World Cup will live in infamy as the tournament that saw the debut of the choke tackle. Historically, tackling in rugby was about hitting someone hard and knocking him down. Les Kiss, defensive coach for Ireland, realised that a law change to help adjust to the professional era meant that, instead of having to knock players over, it is now much more to your advantage to hold them up instead.

The law of Unintended Consequences took over. Running into space is now a schoolboy error in modern rugby. When you have the ball you find the biggest clump of opposition players you can find and head right for them, knowing that your own team are right behind you to support you in the inevitable wrestling match that follows. And then you do that for eighty minutes and pretend you’re playing the same game as Serge Blanco and Barry John and Tony O’Reilly.

Rugby, to its credit, has been good at policing its laws. It’s considerably more aware than some other codes that laws have to be constantly policed, to ensure the game is still true to its original ethos and not twisted out of shape by devious and squirrelly coaches. Unfortunately, both the realisation that the choke tackle is killing the game and that there may be a drugs issue – imagine a sport where a sixteen stone man can pick up another sixteen stone man and hurl him about like he was an empty dustbin having a steroid issue! The idea! – have arisen too close to the World Cup for it to be saved.

This means that, not only will we get the pointless empty-rubber games of the group stages, where the ten nations that compete at the elite level use forty games to lose two of their number, but we’ll also get a whole lot of sterile rugby to achieve even that rudimentary level of crop-thinning.

Not only that, but the organisers have managed to make the most tremendous balls of the seedings, that sees only two nations emerge from England, Australia and Wales, while Scotland and Argentina have been handed Wonka-esque golden tickets to the playoffs. They’ll go the same way as Augustus Gloop once they get there, of course, but still. It’s hard not to feel sorry for whichever of the the Pool A seeds that draws the short straw and has to watch that destruction at home.

The World Cup will be won by the team that makes the least mistakes. England are the sensible bet, as they’re on a softer side of the draw if they win their group. Funnily enough, Ireland could go on a run if they can beat France and win their pool. That would have been a big “if” once, but France are in the doldrums like they haven’t been since before the Second World War.

A quarter-final against Argentina awaits the winner of Pool D, and the winner of that faces, theoretically, a semi-final against England. Neither England nor Twickenham would have any fears for the Irish (the way New Zealand might, for instance) and you can expect the hype to hit record levels should that matchup come off.

The hype will be forced, though. Rugby is played in Intel-esque clean rooms anymore, with all spontaneity or improvisation or joy strictly forbidden. Recycle, recycle, recycle, kick the penalty, recycle, recycle, recycle, kick the penalty. We’ll cheer if Ireland win, but we’ll have to pretend we like it.

Foot rushes, props lumbering towards the line with the Enemy hanging off them, Simon Geoghegan or Brian O’Driscoll flashing through the gap – all these are things of the past. Recycle, recycle, recycle, kick the penalty. Repeat ad nauseam. Fare well, glory. Hail to thee, assembly line. Let’s form an orderly queue, everybody. Greatness awaits.

FOCAL SCOIR: This is the 1,000th published post on this blog over 12 years. I don't post as often as I used to, real life having caught up with me, but still. It's a kind of an achievement, nonetheless.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Mayo Post-Mortem #64 - Defending Without Due Care and Attention

The attending physicians at post-mortems #61, #62 and #63 were in a position to debate whether or not the patient could have been saved. What if Michael Murphy’s goal hadn’t been scored, or Mayo had ever got closer to three points against Donegal? What if Cillian’s shoulder hadn’t been a problem all year? What if Rob Hennelly’s seventieth-minute free had floated over instead of floating wide?

For the current post-mortem, there is unanimity among clinicians. If you’re four points up you then have to go five points up and continue to tighten the screw. Shipping three goals is the diametric opposite of what is required. This year, the terminal event was clear. There is no arguing it.

This year’s is the sixty-fourth post-mortem report to be written in the history of Mayo’s dream-that-will-never-die. The dream-that-will-never-die is a bit of media mythologizing, of course – for many of the sixty-four years since Mayo last won the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, winning just one game in the summertime would have been a cause for celebration. The recent history of Mayo is one of unprecedented success – with, to tweak a phrase from Raymond Chandler, just that one tarantula on the angel cake.

Coming into this Championship, Dublin, Kerry, Donegal and Mayo were the so-called Big Four. Within this Big Four, there is a Big Three – Kerry, Dublin and Donegal have all been sufficiently good enough to win an All-Ireland. Mayo have not. Whether this is bad luck or poor judgement or a hundred other things doesn’t matter. The Roll of Honour only records who won. There are no footnotes or asterisked seasons.

And that won’t change this year. Mayo will return to the fray having found yet another way to lose, and that will increase the pressure of them even more. You may say that isn’t fair, and you would be right. But reader – what on God’s green earth has “fair” got to do with anything? Winning isn’t about being fair. It’s about winning. Anything else is a detail.

The goalposts keep shifting for Mayo. For years the knock was that Mayo had no forwards. Half-way through the Horan era and the emergence of Cillian O’Connor, the knock was that Mayo had no defence. That Mayo’s big problem was Horan’s tactical stubbornness and his team’s Achilles’ heel of conceding soft goals.

This year, Mayo conceded three goals on Saturday against Dublin, and two in the drawn game. None against Donegal, two against Sligo and two against Galway. It’s hard to see this as an improvement.

The deployment of Barry Moran as sweeper looked like a brave new dawn against Donegal, and was hailed as such. Now, that new dawn seems less clear.

Moran’s selection as sweeper seemed a bold and courageous decision at the time. The subsequent selections in the games against Dublin were less so. Watching the game on Saturday, it was extremely difficult to figure out who was marking whom in the Mayo defence. The current substitution policy has not always been easy to understand.

Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly had trouble bedding in having taken over from James Horan, but they clearly have the team playing for them now. Whether or not they can push on and win an All-Ireland remains the question.

Roscommon’s imminent appointment of Kevin McStay as their new manager, over whom Pat and Noel were appointed in such unfortunate circumstances, will add spice to any meetings between the teams next year – and Roscommon are a Division 1 team now as well.

Is it fair to put such a spotlight on Pat and Noel? No, it’s not. But again, fair has nothing to do with it. The pressure will continue to mount on everyone associated with Mayo football until Sam is brought home or Mayo go into decline, as Meath, Mayo’s tormentors of the 90s, have. There is no law that says that Mayo will always turn out. They didn’t in the 1970s. The team have to make the most of their window while its open.

Talk of this being the current Mayo team’s last gasp is nonsense. While some players will retire from the panel, the core group are in their footballing primes. It’s not like they’re going to go stop playing football for the summer and go off playing cricket instead. They are footballers. This is what they do.

And the Mayo people will support them, because this is what we do. A new generation has been indoctrinated into football by the current team. Whether they will grow up to the same Mayo God Help Us tradition as your correspondent’s own generation or a new, winning one will be decided in the coming years.