Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Mud, Glorious Mud and other excuses; On Spearing

TSA is delighted to return after an enforced absence due to hedonist duties at the 2005 Glastonbury Festival of Musical and Performing Arts.

Unfortunately as the only sport we saw over the weekend (aside from a bleary recollection of watching the Lions Test in a muddy Pyramid Field on Saturday morning) was Hippy Slalom Canoeing and some perfunctory mud-wrestling, there is no real basis for a half way acceptable TWTWTW (That Was the Weekend that Was for those who abhor the humble acronym).

I am fascinated by the weekend's most popular verb: "Spearing". Spearing brings to mind long forgotten history lessons on how hunter-gatherer societies snaffled evening tea, or how the Romans might bring about a rebellious slave's demise.

Of the many barbaric methods of murder that our bloodlusty forebears devised, the spear always caused a special shiver. It seemed to incorporate a sleek, dead-eyed grace into the practicality of killing. It killed you with anonymous precision, rather than the brute force of your mace or your spiked skull flail.

Anyway, my point is that amidst all this talk of blood and gore we're using a similar lexicon for modern day professional rugby as for dusty old early modern battlecraft.
I mean, spearing? Gouging? Biting??!! Danny Grewcock alone would surely have smited the Normans at Hastings had he ridden alongside the hapless King Harold!

Of course the nature of rugby, being the most intensely physical and brutal of modern field sports- take the pads off Gridiron boys, then we'll talk- means that there is an inevitable and accepted level of skullduggery, especially around rucks. But when one of the world's greatest players and captain of his side is allegedly "speared" by his opposing captain and one of his lieutenants, thereby ending his participation in a match, but conceivably endangering his life, one has to wonder if the Renaissance and the Enlightenment have yet to reach the egg-chasers.

Of course the accusations of intentional harm have been vehemently denied by the All Blacks camp, and neither Tana Umaga nor Kevin Mealamu were cited, but the incident has served to highlighted the worrisome issue of "clearing out" at rucks, and how they provide a hooligan's charter for all manner of barbarism to be inflicted.

The great shame of it is that Brian O'Driscoll, at the peak of his career, is missing out on captaining his Lions team in the current tests. While heavy hits and collateral damage will always be part of rugby, it's all fun and games until someone loses an eye.

Just ask King Harold.

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Monday, June 20, 2005

That Was the Weekend That Was- Farce, Fascination and Foreboding

Every weekend at this time of the year bubbles over with top-class sport, and there is sense that this weekend was the overture to a symphonious couple of months ahead. GAA championship matches, Lions tests, Wimbledon, British Open Golf, the Ashes and more await, and last weekend whet the appetite sufficiently, if at times, bizarrely.

The disciplinary statistics for the weekend's Championship matches are compelling. Seventeen red cards and eighty-four yellow were distributed around Ireland's county fields over two days of Championship and qualifier matches. Of course Ulster was responsible for the majority, but the red scare was to be found nationwide.

Armagh carried the day as expected in their replay against Donegal in the Ulster quarter final. It was however Ulster football in excelsis, and the farcical final quarter of the match in which Donegal were reduced to 12 men spoiled what had been a competitive contest, albeit Armagh always looked capable of stepping up a few gears.

There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth about the fact that Maurice Deegan, a Laois man, was given the onerous task of whistling while Clones burned. The thinking being that "one of our own" should be employed, and would be more familiar (acceptant?) of Ulster football's "ways".

There is, however, undoubtedly a movement abroad in the corridors of GAA power to clean football up, one which will not be dissuaded by the rejection of the League's sin-bin project. We could soon see a fundamental change in the way football is played, for if the authorities do not back down from the current pogrom on violence, teams will, happily for spectators, be forced to play a little bit of football from time to time. Observe the sons of Ulster matching to that particular tune....

The GAA weekend as a whole demonstrated the unavoidable primacy of quality. Donegal have no-one in the same league as Stephen McDonnell, and were doomed when he decided to make yesterday his proper entry into the Championship maelstrom. The class with which McDonnell took Armagh's second, and critical, goal was only matched yesterday by the Gooch and his standard virtuoso performance in Limerick.

It is strange to say about a team of Kerry's strength in depth, but yesterday he carried them. Of course they had the options to ultimately over-power Limerick, but Cooper's display will leave many managers thinking: "stop Gooch, stop Kerry". Of course that theory is based on glaring folly: you can't stop the Gooch.

Dublin's own stripling hero, Jason Sherlock, proved an impact sub in the true sense of the word as his side pulled away from a feisty Wexford in Croker yesterday. There's nothing like a goal in the Hill 16 end to light the touchpaper on a Dublin summer, whether the flames will be enough to engulf Mick O'Dwyer's total football Laois will be one of the many intriguing questions in the weeks ahead.


The weekend's grandest farce occurred many miles from Clones, in Indianapolis to be precise, as six cars lined up for yesterday's F1 Grand Prix, and 200,000 American petrolheads bayed their dismay.

Just as the sport had become interesting again, it disappears back up its own exhaust pipe in a fug of technicalities, and it seems, with all the maturity of a playground scuffle. David Coulthard put it best: "I have never experienced anything like this in my career before. It is remarkable we could not find a solution to go racing, we have the crowd here and to come here and not race this is going to leave a long-lasting bitter taste in people's mouths. As a driver I am embarrassed by this situation."

FIA were forced to adhere to their procedures in not allowing a chicane be put in place, opposed by Bridgestone-using Ferrari, or allowing new tyres be used for the Michelin cars affected by the problem with their tyres durability. Any other outcome yesterday would surely have resulted in legal action being taken by a wronged party, but the fact that so many people were subjected to such a sham will be grossly damaging to the sport's image, probably terminally in the US.


The Lions "Wednesday" team polished of Otago on Saturday much as they have in their other provincial victories- with no great ease, and by squeezing the set-pieces.

The Lions have shown little to suggest a Test win is possible. It would seem clear (and the likely selection of Stephen Jones and Jonny Wilkinson seems to reinforce this) that Clive Woodward intends to triumph in an attritional battle, kicking for the corners and pressurising the All Black scrum.

One can't help but feel that there hasn't been enough shown from the Lions backs to win the series, and while they have been defensively very sound, the All Blacks should have enough possession, and have more than enough talent, to make this lack of firepower count.


Could be a great week for Kiwi types after Michael Campbell's nerve held over the closing holes to win the US Open yesterday. Its his first major, but is yet another success for Jos Vanstiphout, the Belgian "mind guru" who 'encouraged' Retief Goosen to victory in the same tournament in 2001.

Vanstiphout will have enjoyed Campbell's victory all the more in light of Goosen's 11-over par collapse yesterday, Goosen having dispensed of his services after that victory in 2001.

Funny how these things come back to haunt you in sport...

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Saturday, June 18, 2005

On the Pale, and Being Outside Of It

Tomorrow Dublin footballers attempt to take the next step on a quest that has now lasted ten years: the restoration of Dublin to the top echelon of Gaelic Football. They will be narrow favourites to dispose of Wexford, one of Leinster’s several upstart counties that have taken advantage of Meath and Dublin’s relative turmoil in recent years. They are not, however, considered genuine contenders for an All-Ireland title.

To those of us who grew up in the eighties and nineties it is strange indeed for Dublin to be so firmly resident in the chasing pack as they have been since 1995. It is even stranger for those of us who grew up outside of Dublin to view them with condescension, to be dismissive of their threat. While they were by no means the sole dominant force in that time, and indeed were some way behind Meath and Cork, and later Down in terms of ultimate achievement, whenever they played, it was thirty-one counties versus one.

It’s not too hard in sociological terms to surmise why. Leaving football aside, Dublin overshadows the rest of Ireland to such a degree as to make someone outside of the Pale feel as if they are an irrelevance. Everything revolves around the city. The majority of news items seem to be based in the city. If a teenager wants to go and see is favourite band in concert, he goes to Dublin. He will very probably end of up in Dublin later on in life in college or in employment. The city’s development in recent years has only exacerbated the country’s eastward tilt.

I grew up in a Gaeltacht area in Donegal, and throughout the summer the local Irish college took in hundreds of well-dressed, sleekly-coiffured, confident, or, well, arrogant young children of the suburbs to learn their Modh Conniollach and how to French kiss. As ever when one feels colonised, one resents the invaders.

So when Dublin filled Croke Park on summer Sundays, with their tens of thousands of supporters appearing to have the mass and belligerence of a British soccer terrace, and the natural famed “swagger” of their football team, one inevitably made common cause with the opposition, likely to be, like us, from rural Ireland, and likely to share the same disdain for the city slickers.

But it got to the stage in 1995 as Dublin had fallen, year by year, to schneaky country fellas and groundbreaking Ulstermen, that their success against Tyrone in that year’s All-Ireland final felt like their due, and gleaned a lot fewer grumbles than it would have a few years earlier. It was something of a valedictory success for many of the team which had pushed for the ultimate glory over the previous decade.

As Dublin attempt to reconstruct a sense of self-belief that appeared to have dissolved to nothing at the end of the Tommy Lyons regime, one senses that this year’s Leinster will be crucial. It will do Dublin no good to go into the qualifiers. To recover the strut and cockiness, silverware must be one.

While Leinster this year does not appear to contain a solid All-Ireland contender, it is (in stark contrast to their hurling brethren) intensely competitive, with all four teams in the semi-finals being in contention for the provincial crown, Dublin will not fear any, and nor should they, but are a long way yet from viewing their competitors with the traditional sense of superiority, testament of course also to those counties’ improvement.

But it is inevitable that someday soon Dublin will regain that sheen, the confidence and the innately urban momentum that their great championship campaigns can engender.

I for one look forward to that day. I can’t wait to hate Dublin again!

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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Ballad of FC Hollywood (trad.arr.)

On a warm summer’s night, in the year of ‘05,
Came the bravest young men that were ever alive;
To fight ‘gainst their foes, strive proudly for glory,
So that vict’ry would be at the end of the story.

Atletico Buckfasto stood brawny and mean,
A greater clatter of guttersnipes there never was seen!
Would Hollywood’s famed flair vanquish the threat?
Or would it be plain that their match they had met?

The sky did darken, and the wind it did rise,
Quite dramatic a setting for six a sides!
But when the ref ‘pon his whistle did blow,
Such a battle commenced, my Lord what a show!

From end to end the play soon raged,
Hollywood the team more usefully engaged;
But chance after chance in that first half was spurned,
These three precious points would be fierce hard earned!

Enda Mulry shot wide, Geoff Rooney did too,
John O’Donnell was fouled with the goal in full view;
Buckfasto were strong, tried a shot from afar,
Alert Tommy Martin tipped it over the bar.

Thirty minutes flew by and both teams changed ends,
A common tradition upon which half-time depends!
But legs became weary, though the spirits were strong,
And Hollywood overused the ball they call “long”.

Set-pieces and corners were the tale of the day,
And at last came the chance to put one away!
O’Donnell hit post, to Buckley it landed,
Six inches out and the keeper well stranded!

Now Killian my boy, you’ve played many a game,
Your courage and heart have won you great fame;
But when you blazed that one over, the best chance that we’d got,
If I’d had my pistol you could well have been shot!

The match neared its end, Hollywood grew slack,
But Ryan and Keane kept it tight at the back.
Buckfasto called for the whistle to sound,
But those Hollywood men are the bravest around.

Seconds to go, the ref checks on the time,
Mulry’s just chased one back to his own line,
With one final surge to glory he sped;
The script of a draw he never had read!

Down the left wing he jinked and he weaved,
And saw a sight he could ne’er have believed;
Rooney in space, if the pass could be made,
A chance of a goal as the seconds did fade.

The pass was a good ‘un, the ball was slipped through,
Still Rooney was left with it all to do;
But without a care, a worry or a fret,
He flicked it expertly into the net!

Joy unconfined, celebrations began,
They leapt in the air, elated to a man,
For ‘twas more than three points that were won on that night,
The great Gaffer upstairs made sure all was right.

Now football men, all thee take heed,
Very carefully this tale you’d do well to read.
Even if in the relegation zone you sadly do dwell,
Victory can be yours, you never can tell.

Now I’m old and grey, my sight it is failing,
And nobody believes the tales I am telling,
But there never was a greater story to pen,
Than the tale of those brave Hollywood men.

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Monday, June 13, 2005

That Was the Weekend That Was

The Lions miaowed to defeat against the New Zealand Maoris on Saturday for the first time in their history and seemingly confirmed to an already ever-so-slightly confident nation the hopelessness of their ambitions to win the Test series over the forthcoming weeks.

Pessimists amongst Lion-watchers have now one shining focal point for their gloom. The failure of the Lions to even compete acceptably at the breakdown against the Maoris, and the resultant effect on the amount of useful possession and momentum they enjoyed, added to the looming presence of Richie McCaw and debilitating absence of Lawrence Dallaglio, would seem to confirm the suspicion that the back row will be from whence the tourists' doom comes. Cue Clive Woodward's selection of Neil Back for the match in Wellington. The aged Leicester man could be Woodward's last throw of the dice in this area.

In truth most of the Lions difficulties stemmed from this area; rarely were they able to generate forward movement, save for the odd Matt Dawson snipe, meaning the talent in their backline never had a chance. It is difficult for Brian O'Driscoll, as a centre, to provide the sort of inspirational leadership a Martin Johnson could in a match such as this. All the same, two miserably struck kicks by the captain at crucial times did nothing to alleviate the Lions' sense of despondency, although his late try almost provided the spur for an unlikely rescue act.

Pass marks for O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, less so for Gordon D'Arcy, but the real winner among the Irish was Shane Byrne. Steve Thompson's throwing at the line out was disastrous, and to have a key set-piece malfunctioning so badly against the All Blacks would be fatal. Byrne played the last ten minutes, nailed a couple of simple throws, and the Lions achieved an undeservedly respectable score line. Whether Woodward will sacrifice Thompson's physicality remains to be seen.

Saturday could well turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the Lions management. All their failings were starkly evident, leaving them two weeks to rectify them. They will hope too for complacency within the All Blacks' ranks, and one suspects the Kiwi nation could well contribute to that between now and Saturday week. *******************************************************************************

Kevin McBride's hulking physique adorned all this morning's papers, the Clones man's unlikely success against the artist formerly known as Iron Mike earning him fame like his hitherto uneventful career had not known.

The Irishman is now speaking confidently of a possible future title challenge. Without wishing to denigrate McBride's achievement, it is only a year ago that Tyson was thumped by another unheralded bum, Danny Williams. You may remember that Williams spoke similarly hopefully about winning a belt, before reality intruded in the shape of Vitali Klitschko's fist.

Even in the currently impoverished heavyweight division, one suspects that the notoriety attached with finally ending Tyson's career will be McBride's only lasting glory.


Hurling is dying. How one can make such a statement when there are exponents of the game like the current Kilkenny team around may seem bizarre, but when a Leinster semi-final is as grotesquely uncompetitive as yesterday's demolition of Offaly was, it is right to fear that the game seems to be withering worryingly in many places.

Predictably, Kilkenny have reacted explosively to last year's All-Ireland loss, and appear to possess awesome goal firepower, an area in which they were strangely deficient last season.

Kilkenny's hot-house hurling development policy means they are now frighteningly far in front of their Leinster rivals. Despite Wexford's unlikely triumph in 2004 the province is now bereft of competitiveness.

The opposite, of course, is true in Ulster football. Brian McEniff almost produced another expertly crafted study in the art of the underdog against Armagh, Oisin McConville's late point denying a win to a Donegal team that would have deserved it. It would have made a joyous companion piece to last year's defeat of Tyrone, which also featured a 14 man Donegal team.

In the long run, whether they progress further in Ulster or through the qualifiers, Kevin Cassidy's almost certain loss through suspension will be a tough blow. I can only surmise that Cassidy was paying tribute to Clones' new favourite son with his haymaker on Martin O'Rourke. Indeed such was its venom, that I feel the Gweedore wing-back has a better chance of winning a Heavyweight belt than McBride ever will!


"Hell" (n)- definition- Watching Ivo Karlovic play tennis for eternity. See also boredom (intense, soul-destroying).

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Thursday, June 09, 2005

A selection of Leaving Certificate Questions 2005

1. If a plane leaves Dublin at 7.00am in the morning and circles around some foggy rocks for three hours, how drunk will the passengers be when the plane lands in Dublin at 6pm?

2. Explore the use of one of the following themes in the work of Clinton Morrison: aimless galloping, jammy goals in qualifiers, embarassment by youth, geezerness.

3. Compare and contrast degrees of terror in the following examples: Kevin McBride versus Mike Tyson; the Lions front row versus the Maoris; the Battle of the Somme

4. Which is the correct reaction to Euro 2005?:
a) A wonderful celebration of the broadening of a sport's appeal and the breaking down of traditional gender barriers
b) Why are there women playing football on my telly?

5. Chemistry: Who will win this year's Tour de France?

6. Translate the following phrases into German:
- Can you please tell me the best way to the sex huts?
- Thank you for the beers Fraulein. Now can you please explain to me the principles of the Reinheitsgebot?
- Where can I purchase a novelty leprechaun costume?

7. Locate on the attached map, and describe notable topographical features of, the following possible destinations for Liverpool in the Champions League preliminary round:
a)Pyunik Yerevan
b)F91 Dudelange
c)Kairat Almaty

8. Arrange the following historical characters in order of evilness: Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Peter Kenyon.

9. If an Offaly fan drives for two hours from Birr to Croke Park, how many ham sandwiches will he have eaten in that time? Plot the results on a graph.

10. The inevitable Chelsea transfer sagas will be the highlight of my summer, and not in the least bit mind-numbing. Discuss.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Israel- Lessons Learned

As the dust settles on the debacle of last Saturday, and the Republic of Ireland squad this evening attempt to escort three points from the Faroes and thereby progress closer to the Promised Land of Germany 2006*, TSA looks in constructive fashion at what went wrong and what can be learned from Battle of Lansdowne Road...

*- obligatory lame and tenuous Faroes/Pharoahs/Moses pun

1. Tempo

It has become painfully obvious over the course of this qualifying campaign that Ireland have played their best football when playing with a degree of ambition, and at a tempo that enables our creative players, in particular Damien Duff, to exert most influence. The portion of the match prior to Robbie Keane's injury saw Ireland play some of their most effective football of the campaign thus far. In both legs of the harrowing double header with Israel, Ireland looked poorest when trying to play a more controlled game. It is obvious that Brian Kerr wishes his team to develop the ability to contain opponents, hence the accusations of conservatism directed towards him. There is some merit to this ambition, in that good teams should be able to kill a game when holding a lead, but there is no evidence that this Ireland team possesses any of the attributes required to play like this. On the contrary, the team has looked anaemic and vulnerable when Kerr has pressed cruise control. With razor sharp hindsight, his decision to substitute Keane with Graham Kavanagh took the steam out of Ireland, taking Duff, our best player, out of the game up front, and losing Kilbane's dynamism in midfield gave the Israelis respite from the initial barrage.

2. Leadership
A common mantra since Saturday has referred to the fact that the squandering of a two goal lead and the recklessness of the second half would not have occurred had Roy Keane played. In fairness, Keane the Elder played in Tel Aviv, and that lead was also lost. There is no doubt, however, that without the Corkman Ireland lack direction on the field. One of the often ignored post 2002 issues for the Irish team was not just Keane's absence, but the loss also of Niall Quinn and Steve Staunton, and perhaps also, at a stretch, Gary Kelly. An awful lot of years of experience and achievement were denied the Irish team after the last World Cup, and performances such as the loss in Basel in 2003 and the recent Israel fixtures have been characterised by this lack of leadership on the pitch.

But leadership must also come from the bench, and it is my worry that Kerr has yet to mould a team in his image, or one that can discernibly be seen to be carrying out successfully its manager's vision. The performance in Paris was the closest we have seen to such a satisfactory embodiment.

When will teams from these isles learn? Repeatedly in the face of gamesmanship and the dark arts of continental teams Anglo-Saxon/Celtic teams visibly lose the plot. Perhaps the inability to maintain our cool is linked to the aforementioned absence of leadership or experience, but the antics of the Israeli goalkeeper achieved their desired outcome with Andy O'Brien's sending off and the general absence of coolness throughout the team in the second half. Time perhaps to heed Damien Duff's post-match words to the effect that we were too "nice". No surprise that the Duffer plays under the Prince of Machiavellian football, Jose Mourinho.

TSA is not in the business of assassinating managers. Too many have been hounded out of work by fans whipped into a howling mob my mischievous media. However Brian Kerr in putting Gary Doherty on so early in place of Andy Reid sent an unhealthy message to his players. It was the Code Red to go long. The fact that Doherty was played up front alongside Clinton Morrison, himself a player best at holding the ball up, rather than with a more suitable smaller striker more adept at feeding off the inevitable detritus of the Ginger Pele's efforts, doomed the plan. The manager should have encouraged calmness and patience in his players by allowing them to continue to play the ball on the ground, a style he obviously places more faith in than his predecessors.

And for this we must pray. What if John O'Shea's shot had squeezed in in Paris? What if we had held on the extra couple on minutes in Tel Aviv? What if Robbie Keane had not gotten injured; what if the referee had not awarded such a dubious penalty? What if one of those second half chances had been put away? What if the referee had clamped down on Dudu Awate earlier thereby avoiding the raising of Ireland's tempers? Many teams and managers live or die by the amount of luck they enjoy, no matter how much they try to eliminate chance in their preparations. Remember Gary MacKay, without whose unlikely contribution Jack Charlton may have been another footnote in Irish football's grim history.
Lets hope we've used up our bad karma for this campaign.

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Thursday, June 02, 2005


They say there’s a fairytale aspect to this football club, but in the opinion of your humble correspondent the feats of these brave Hollywood boys are more from the fantastical pages of Tolkien than anything Hans Christian Anderson could come up with.

As if last weeks stunning comeback against Bucky Ramblers was not spectacle enough, FC Hollywood conjured up a shock win against the much fancied Vikings, unusually missing their traditional beards and horned helmets.

It certainly was Valhalla for the men in Orange when the final whistle blew, as they had spent the final fifteen minutes of this pulsating tie desperately defending their keep, like Brian Boru in days of yore, defending a two goal lead which had seemed beyond their wildest dreams on the basis of the first quarter of this match.

The slick Norsemen dazzled an often bamboozled and disorganised Hollywood back division in those opening exchanges, with goalkeeper Tommy Martin (on more prosaic detail this week after last Tuesday’s goalscoring heroics) making save after save, the post coming to the their rescue also.

Brian Keane and Damien Ryan, if not at sixes and sevens, were dragged hither and thither, but dug in manfully, and the tigerish Ryan and Richie McEvoy made last ditch clearances to save Hollywood bacon.

If the phrase “against the run of play” ever required definition, then the good folks at the OED need only refer to Killian Buckley’s goal on twenty minutes to give Hollywood the lead. Ryan’s cross was wicked, Buckley’s run brave, and his , ahem ‘shoulder’ was the body part that bundled the ball home. The Vikings scratched their heads a bit at the bizarreness of it all, and indeed Hollywood themselves seemed to half believe some cosmic prankster had caused them to see a mirage in the Booterstown heat.

1-0 was the reality though, and the Oranginos, boosted by their audacity, infected themselves with a ferocious tenacity that yielded the Vikings barely a inch to weave their webs of one-touch passing.

Some semblance of normality appeared to be restored five minutes into the second half, when a Vikings move down the left flank was worked inside and the ball poked home at the back post. Surely the Hollywood resistance would crumble now as the Viking longboats advanced on their crumbling defences?

Not a bit of it!

A mere five minutes later Keane brought the ball out of defence and spotted last week’s hat-trick hero Enda Mulry in the left channel. Keane’s pass was raking and accurate, and Mulry took a touch before firing an exocet of a shot into the bottom corner. Pick that out!

The Vikings to their credit did not panic, but there was an intensity to Hollywood’s defending that suggested they would not succumb again.

When Hollywood won a corner with ten minutes remaining there was no rush from the men in Orange to advance in numbers. Buckley’s dead ball was accurate, but Geoff Rooney still had no right to pull of the flying, diving back header that shot into the Vikings net and gave Hollywood a cushion they were able to defend in the final, desperate minutes.

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Wednesday, June 01, 2005

While the Lions are Away, Domestic Rugby Faces Crisis

As Celtic rugby's elite enjoy the opening days of their relaxing sojourn in the Land of the Long White Cloud, their domestic game appears to be crumbling in their absence. On Tuesday last the Irish and Scottish representatives in th eCeltic Leauge, piqued at the controversial participation of the Welsh in next season's English cup competition, and following a spurned advance to the Italians, cancelled the competition for 2005-06.

The shape of club rugby in the northern hemisphere has in recent times appeared increasingly disjointed. The Heineken Cup, a flagship and a driving force for an extraordinary growth in the sport’s prominence and marketability has not seen a team from outside of France or England amongst its last six finalists. A tournament comprising of only six participating nations must have a broader base of contenders to retain its currently still extant sense of being a genuine marquee competition.

The central corruption within the European club rugby set-up, and as follows, within the expiring Celtic League arrangement, lies in the questionable integrity of a system in which there is such variance amongst the main nations regarding the fundamentals of player contract ownership, club versus country questions and attitude to the very tournaments they participate in.

There is sufficient difference in the practice of professional rugby in Ireland, where provincial players are centrally contracted by the IRFU, and, say, in France, where the clubs are all powerful, to place huge question marks over the ability of a coach at Leinster or Munster to genuinely enjoy anything approaching a level playing field with his Gallic counterparts.

The primacy of the international team is enshrined in Ireland, and the success of the national team in recent years testifies to that fact; but the concurrent attempts to establish a robust Celtic League have suffered as a result. Celtic League matches have too often been used as conditioning exercises for idle internationals in the run-up to Heineken Cup or international matches, and the validity of the competition has been therefore compromised. It follows that its attempts to attract adequate sponsorship and media interests were also affected.

So while there was much consternation in Ireland and Scotland when the Welsh regions jumped in with the revamped Anglo-Welsh Powergen Cup, one can understand their desire to partake in a domestic competition that provided a genuine competitive environment for their teams, rather than the often somnambulant surrounds of the Celtic League.

There has been much casting of blame between the protagonists since the 2005-06 Celtic League was cancelled, but whether one deems either Irish apathy or Welsh skulduggery to be the cause of its demise, the lack of a unifying mission within the Celtic League’s participants has proved ultimately fatal. Quite where the Irish, Scots and Welsh will enjoy the requisite level of competition that both challenges their players and entertains supporters is questionable.

There are broader questions for northern hemisphere club rugby that must soon be addressed. Domestic rugby in England and France appears strong, well attended and evidently successful. Their clubs of course own their own players contracts and their national teams suffer only marginally due to the large player pools available. But the Heineken Cup as been the single most inspiring element in modern club rugby, and one feels that if it is to remain the blue riband event it has become, a synchronisation must occur within the structures of the game to ensure that all of the participating nations have representatives that are competitive in the tournament, and that the correct balance is struck with the international game.

It is difficult at the moment in this country to imagine the IRFU loosening its central grip. One wonders though, if our provinces (in particular Munster, who perhaps more than any other single club have redefined the way the game is supported in the professional era) were to slip into European obscurity, and those magical afternoons at Thomond and in far flung parts of southern France became a distant memory, would we look back on 2005 and see how it all slipped away in bemusement at how the goose that laid the golden egg was allowed to die?

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