Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Some Points For Discussion re. Last Saturday etc.

It's the match that won't die. So, never being one to set the sports discussion agenda when we can slavishly follow the prattle of the masses, here are a few more points for rumination regarding last Saturday.

Would God Save the Queen have been so respectfully observed by 'the soccer crowd'?
Sorry to go on about this, really; just one more question, ma'am - my wife is such a big fan of yours.

One of the Proven Facts established last Saturday is that the Irish people are mature,well-rounded humanists, for whom respect for an opponent's national anthem is a natural part of decent manners. To a man.

Anyone who has spent an evening at Lansdowne Road watching the Irish soccer team, however, will know that the patrons of those occasions like a boo. They'd boo anyone given half a chance. Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy; Peter Lovenkrands and Shota Arveladze (the poor Rangers players who were booed by the naughty Provos on the terraces); Taoisigh, Lord Mayors, councillors, FAI honchos, UEFA dignitaries, overzealous stewards. I've even heard a schoolboy international, part of a team who'd won some tournament or other, get booed because he plied his trade at Manchester United.

Generally, fuelled by gargle and a sense of mischief, the Irish soccer fan sees the opportunity of a good boo as part of the matchday experience. Its a similar subclass of popular culture to that in which pantomime resides, a place where cheering and booing represent a satisfying survey of the gamut of human experience.

So, Mr.Mature and Well-Rounded Irishman, are we to believe that, with the first parpings of the God Save the Queen at an Irish soccer match, respectful silence would be observed?

Is there some sort of magic fairy dust sprinkled on the spot from whence O'Gara launched that cross-kick?
Twice in recent years has a moment of play in Croke Park stolen the breath away. On Saturday, when Ronan O'Gara dinked that cross-kick toward a spot of thin air where he had calculated in a millisecond that Shane Horgan's outstretched arms would soon be.

The other time was in August of 2005, in the drawn All-Ireland Senior Football championship quarter-final between Tyrone and Dublin, when Owen Mulligan caught a long ball around the 45 into his midriff, then turned and set off on a shimmying, jinking run that ended up with the ball exploding off his boot and into the Dublin goal.

Both of these moments had their genesis at around the same spot on the Croke Park turf, give or take a few yards. Was this the former site of a fairy ring? Did druids once meet to sacrifice goats on this turf? Did Vikings offer praise to Thor and Odin at this precise point a millenium ago?

Maybe Buddha once napped there on his way to transcendence. Certainly the two players involved achieved a Zen state of high sporting grace, that place where everything around them slows down and the surroundings bend to their will.

Will Croker 2007 be the new G.P.O 1916?
Gore Vidal, the American author and witty type, once said "every time a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies." Circumstances prevented TSA from being able to join the scavenge for tickets for last Saturday, so every friend or acquaintance that informed me that they had secured a prized brief unknowingly stuck a metaphorical dagger in my jealous heart.

And then the occasion goes on to be this big watershed moment in Irish history blah-de-blah and a bloody good game too. So now its one of these "were you there?" things, and your children will come running home from school because their friends are slagging them because their Dad's such a loser that he wasn't even at the Ireland v England match at Croke Park.

Then in later years your grandchildren will slink sullenly from your knee when you tell them you weren't there unlike bloody Zyborg next door (its the future, people will have names like that then. Well, was anyone called Darren in the1950s?) whose granddad was in the Cusack Stand that day. The incontinent old bastard.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Bid For a Signed Ireland Rugby Jersey and Help Oxfam

Jean O'Brien of Oxfam Ireland has asked me to let people know about an eBay auction for an Ireland rugby shirt. Not just any old rugby shirt mind, one signed by the whole Irish team! Well, the 2005 one, but they weren't too bad either don't you know!

So if you're still half-cut from the weekend and fancy divesting some of your vast fortune for a good cause, click here and make your bid.

100% of the winning bid goes to Oxfam, straight into the mouths of starving kiddies, apart from the postage, which pays for post office administration costs, the heartless swines.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Donegal Top of The Class Early On

And so for our first real look at matters GAA in 2007. Or, at least, that part of it that involves actual action on fields, as opposed to stuff about stadiums and payments and committees and all the other things that fill columns in January, but are barely footnotes in July.

The inter-county scene at this time of year resembles a classroom of attention deficient kids in the moments before their teacher barks order and they settle down into their pre-assigned seats to do as they're told. For those few minutes, while their teacher drains her tea-cup in the staff room, anarchy reigns.

Division 1A and 1B in the National Football League are headed by Donegal and Westmeath respectively. Both boast 100% records, neither were expected to do so at this point. Westmeath lead the weaker of the two divisions, not that that denigrates their achievements so far (good wins over a rebuilding Laois, Derry in Celtic Park and Down on Sunday last).

On the contrary, they were so unfancied that the NFL organisers might already have been chiselling out a space for them in next season's division 3 (the 2008 NFL will be organised in four descending divisions based on this season's final places, the bottom four teams in divisions 1A and 1B going into division 3 next year. Phew!). So primacy over the likes of Armagh, Galway and Laois even at this higgledy-piggledy stage is good work indeed.

But Division 1A is meaner-looking bunch altogether. Four of the five teams regarded by the bearded sages of the GAA as genuine contenders for Sam this year (Kerry, Tyrone, Mayo and Dublin) are there. Then there's Cork, last year's Munster champions and All-Ireland semi-finalists.

Donegal, too, are not without their own cred. But they are generally regarded in the vein of a Tottenham Hotspur: haven't won anything since the early 90s, plenty of talent but, nah, you wouldn't back them against one of the big boys.

They've come racing out of the blocks this year though (again with the Tottenham 'top of the league in August' Hotspur comparison). Wins over Cork (away) and at home against Mayo and Dublin have put them at the head of some very exalted company. Of course, as we mentioned earlier, everything's a little scattered at this stage of the season, but its still worthwhile to study the tea-leaves.

Indeed, given that this season's league places have more resonance than usual for next term, and also the now-established truism that the old chestnut about the league not mattering come the summer is, well, a false-ism, you have to take notice.

Dublin were comfortably dispatched on Sunday in Ballyshannon. The Dubs appeared not to fancy it from the start, not that it doesn't blow gusts of horizontal rain in Dublin of course. Donegal were five points to the good before the metropolitans had folded away their AA road map, and though they rallied to 0-5 to 0-3, that oh-so-familiar diffidence allowed Donegal to pull away in the second half. "Winter football is winter football," explained Dublin manager Pillar Caffrey, like a devoted mother excusing her bank-robbing sons by saying "boys will be boys."

Whatever about Dublin, Donegal looked pretty sharp, not a little mean and plenty keen. Two very good goal chances passed up by Rory Kavanagh and Brendan Devenney early on could have ended the contest in the first quarter.
Manager Brian McIver has been busy building strength in depth. Missing through injury yesterday was All Star Karl Lacey, and coming on as subs were such luminaries as former All Stars Adrian Sweeney and Christy Toye, seasoned county man Eamonn McGee, and bright young things Kevin McMenamin and Johnny McLoone.

There was variation in style as well as numbers. Despite the bias of the wind, Donegal won both halves. Kevin Cassidy - another returning erstwhile All Star - dropped back from midfield to aid Paddy Campbell and Barry Monaghan in smothering Dublin's forwards. The oft-won ball was thrust directly into the forwards with the wind, and in the second half Donegal's more familiar short passing game was deployed to suit the elements.

Dublin looked willowy in attack, lacking the physical presence to master the conditions, and the thorny issue of full-back looks no nearer to resolution, as Niall O'Shea was repeatedly roasted by Devenney.

Donegal face Tyrone next, whose defeat of them in the McKenna Cup final is the only blemish on their season so far. Their neighbours are always a good yardstick by which to measure progress. And although they're the smartest looking kid of a scruffy bunch right now, they've shown enough to suggest they could be in the front row come class photo time.

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Ireland Harness History to Trample England

As chance would have it, I happened to be travelling on a flight from London Stansted (although 'Sheffield Stansted' would be almost as appropriate a name for it given its location) to Dublin on Saturday morning. Accompanying me were several hundred members of the English rugby fraternity; their pie-and-ale countenances and Barbour jackets gave them away, if their earthy banter hadn't already.

Even as they read their morning papers, which attempted to set the scene for Saturday evening's thunderous events, they can't have known what they were walking into. On the other side of the Irish Sea a nation had been contextualising itself to a standstill, binding itself up in cultural analysis and historical deconstruction.

The country that flight FR296 landed in had been gazing so intently at its navel that it barely remembered that their visitors were looking to watch a game of rugby, not hear a history lesson.
I'm sure England's travelling supporters' eyes glanced through the think-pieces on what this game meant to the Irish and why they weren't going to rackety old Lansdowne Road this time round. But they probably spent more time worrying about whether the green shoots of their team's recovery under Brian Ashton were about to be trampled by the highly-rated Irish team.

They probably fancied that their pack would do alright, possibly dominate the scrum, but feared that they would struggle to translate their ball into points. They probably hoped for a tight game and that Wilko's boot might edge for England.

By the time half past five ticked round, however, these thoughts were lost in the noise of an occasion that inevitably transcended rugby.

For all that, as we found out against France a fortnight ago, the only satisfactory ending to these epic tales comes on the park. Where that day the volume of the preliminaries seemed like so much pointless hot air when Vincent Clerc crossed to deny Ireland the win, yesterday, pace Seamus Heaney, hope and history rhymed.
It was a good day for rugby, the sport associating itself with so much that was positive. Given that our national sport is currently neither hurling nor gaelic football, but rather Discussing Ourselves And, In Particular, How Far We've Come As A Nation, rugby's association with such a good news day will generate decades of goodwill for the sport.

But back to the 15 against 15 business. The English rugby team has long seemed diminished, especially so in comparison to the last time they attracted so much attention during pre-match pleasantries in Dublin: 2003, and Martin Johnson's eyeballing of Mary McAleese across the red carpet.

Ireland have tougher warriors on their side now, while England have never recovered from the Leicester man's retirement. Jonny Wilkinson, Lancelot to Johnson's Arthur, is back. But the outhalf now resembles one of those rock legends of the 1960s still touring even though all his old bandmates are either dead or vegetarian. When he turns around to jam now, all he sees are plodding session players.

But we're not talking about history, or rock and roll, just rugby. That's what this Irish team are all about; that's why the policy of giving it a lash - especially against the English - has long been jettisoned in favour of ruthless pragmatism. And that's what must have made the loss to France so maddening: that an occasion, or rather the peripherals thereof, usurped the careful planning and finely-tuned psychology that made them sure of their ability to win a grand slam.

The intensity and emotion on the faces of the Irish players as their own anthem played suggested that the peculiar endorphins of the day were flooding their systems dangerously and uncontrollably. Thankfully, the players harnessed them in the most clinical manner possible, turning the crude ore of raw emotion into the gold of a devastatingly convincing performance, England's worst points-against tally in Five or Six Nations history.

The Englishmen on flight FR296 had no idea what was coming.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

God Save All Of Us From This Nonsense

TSA is off for a few days R & R, but would be absconding our duties not to mention the events of Saturday coming at Croke Park. I'm afraid we're one of those people for whom the occasion has been deflated a little by the defeat against France. Beating England in the Six Nations is getting a little old now, especially without the greater motivation of a grand slam.

I'm also afraid we are a little too much of a modern-Tiger-cub-urban-sophisticate to get up for the prospect of 'beating d'English at Croker'. Sure, there will be disappointment if we lose, but only in pure rugby terms: we are a better team at the moment.

I'm all for tasty sporting rivalry with our former rulers, and enjoy that little bit of edge that remains from 800 years of oppression and all that, but those for whom Jonny Wilkinson and Jason Robinson represent the grandsons of the Black and Tans are living in a derangement that is utterly unfair to the sporting traditions between the two countries that have developed since our independence. The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

Anyway, any rugby person will tell you that the English rugby side were the first international sporting team to come to these shores after the outbreak of the troubles, when even some of our kindred Celtic neighbours would not.

As for God Save the Queen: the only sensibilties it should offend are those of music-lovers.

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Champions League It's a Knockout - Part Two

This evening's contenders represent the juicier octet of this round's last sixteen, and, given the events of the last few days and weeks, Barcelona v Liverpool is of particular interest.

As recently as Sunday morning, it appeared that Liverpool had chanced upon an inconceivably good moment to take on the European champions; certainly the tie appeared more winnable than win the draw was made in November. The row involving Samuel Eto'o, Franck Rijkaard and Ronaldinho was divisive and probably went to the heart of the club, with Barca president Juan Laporta and vice-president Sandro Rosell (an Eto'o partisan) reportedly at odds also.

Despite the fact that they once again lead the Primera Liga, Barca have toiled this season in comparison with last, the injury enforced absence of Eto'o and Lionel Messi hampering their famed devastating attacking play. Eto'o's return from injury should have cheered them, instead the Cameroonian's jealousy toward Ronaldinho's special status leaves Barca looking shaken.

Not as shaken, however, as John Arne Riise must have been if the allegations concerning Craig Bellamy's prowess with a fairway wood are true. There has been much retraction and obfuscation since the revelations from Liverpool's training camp came out, but the picture presented is hardly one of ideal preparations for the test in the Camp Nou tonight.

Jose Mourinho's Chelsea are one of those teams (like AC Milan, perhaps) for whom the Champions League is all this season, completing as it would the Portuguese's record of winning league and Champions League in two different countries. They can expect a torrid test against an improving Porto, only now recovering from the post-Jose hangover. If the league looks like slipping away, Chelsea will focus even more strongly on Europe.

Inter Milan are the opposite. For them, the challenge of winning the league title outright - they received it by default following last season's match fixing scandal - is the central goal of this season. They look as if they are on their way to doing that, and a Valencia side coming off a win on Sunday night over Barcelona could take advantage of any lack of focus in this tie. Valencia still boast real quality in the much-coveted likes of David Villa, Joaquin and David Albelda, and 'El Raton' - Roberto Ayala - at the back, they could be last four material if any of the bigger guns take their eyes off the ball.

Lyon - the early front runners and much-fancied to finally make a Champions League breakthrough - have has a rough winter. They've struggled a little of late in the league (albeit they are still on course for yet another Ligue 1 title) and swapped John Carew for Milan Baros up front during the January window, hardly the transfer business of future European champions. Roma will provide just the test to reveal if Lyon have really progressed from the serial flatterers-to-deceive, Francesco Totti is having a good season for them as they toddle along in Inter's wake at home. Both of these sides look like they might have a quarter or a semi-final in them at a stretch, but probably little more.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Champions League Knockout Under Starters Orders - Part One

It could be you (if you're a European footballing superpower)! The Champions League heaves itself back into our attentions this evening, taking on the might of Desperate Housewives for televisual dominance, and this year it's a lottery. The likely winner of the 2006/07 tournament appears completely open, to the extent that UEFA may hire Dale Winton to present the trophy.

There are two main reasons for the lack of obvious winners ths year.

Firstly, most of the thoroughbreds are limping around the parade ring somewhat. Secondly, recent seasons have shown us (Porto and Monaco being finalists in 2003/04, Liverpool winning in 2004/05 and Villareal's incredible run to the semifinals last season) that there is value to be found in the outsiders.

An example of each of these contrasting steeds takes the field at Parkhead tonight, as discussed yesterday. However in this case the 100/1 shot (Celtic) is probably too far off the pace, and, despite having course and distance, the thoroughbred (AC Milan) is carrying too much weight.

(The horse metaphor will now be mercifully put down).

Similarly with the fixture which sees Manchester United take on one of their conquerors in last season's ignominious campaign, Lille.

The tiny French club didn't make it out of their group last year, but in going one better this year achieved arguably the performance of the round. That is, aside from the fact that they emerged from the Group of Dross, edging out serial group stage fodder Anderlecht and AEK Athens to follow Milan through.

You'd think United would be considered a raging hot favourite, given them being top of the greatest league in the world and all. But at some point (not in this round, where they will dispatch Lille like they were a gallic Watford) they will have to play a good team, a pesky irritation indeed, especially for the team that have won only once in four games against those closest to them in the league. Suspicions about their mettle remain.

PSV Eindhoven are wily campaigners, regulars in the latter stages and only failing to reach the final in 2005 on away goals against Milan. Arsenal should have their measure though, as they have done in previous group stage encounters.

The Gunners could be ones to watch again this year. Cesc Fabregas, the man who choreographed their run to the final last time is a year older and Gilberto Silva emerged as a real leader in Thierry Henry's absence earlier in the season. And will those couple of weeks off in November and December mean we'll see a fresh and ferocious Henry come spring?

And finally today (resurrecting the horse metaphor) there's Red Rum (Real Madrid) and Arkle (Bayern Munich). But are they destined for the winners enclosure or the glue factory?

A glance at their respective domestic league tables and behind the scenes of both behemoths shows them toiling badly. Both clubs are fourth, Bayern a massive 12 points behind Schalke and 5 precarious points from their customary Champions League berth. They have also just sacked their manager (Felix Magath).

In a far from vintage year in the Primera Liga Real Madrid are only four points behind leaders Barcelona, despite managing to lose seven games. They have been forced to deny rumours that manager Fabio Capello had offered his resignation following a string of dire results, and ignominy of ignominies, been forced to recall bloated lounge entertainer David Beckham to the team.

Given that Capello was supposed to put the 'real' into Real, and steel them from show ponies into classic winners, it looks rather like that their horse has bolted.

Wednesday night's eight nags and stallions tomorrow. And no more of the horse metaphor.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Get On Telly You Attention-Seeking Desperado

TSA got an email from Joss Crowley of Wildfire Films who are making a documentary about the kerfuffle in Saipan (now nearly five years ago, sheesh!). They are looking for people with outlandish stories of those couple of weeks when the Irish nation was rent in twain for the lack of a few skips of footballs. And I quote:

Tricolour hearse driven from Dundalk to FAI HQ at Merrion Square; Cork city protest marches; Builders downing tools in Galway ... I am currently researching a television doc on how ordinary people went to extreme lengths to vent their anger and frustration at Roy Keane's sending home/omission from Ireland's 2002 World Cup.

We need to hear stories of extraordinary public displays of emotion, protests, demos, boycotts, petitions - as a result of the Keane/McCarthy feud and fallout of May 2002 from all over the country. If you remember any protests/demos etc or were involved in them, please get in touch! If the story is strong enough, it could end up on television!

Contact Joss at if you made an eejit of yourself in 2002 and want to get on telly talking about it.

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Celts Get Back to Work

Since the Champions League group stages ended on 6 December, Celtic have been enjoying a winter break. But the players haven't been on any golfing trips to Dubai, or getting away for a few days with the wife and kids. Indeed, during this sabbatical, the furthest they got from wintery Glasgow was even less balmy Inverness.

Oh and they had some league games to play out as well, a couple of cup ties too. But considering that Celtic went 10 points clear at the top of the SPL on 29th October, the business of serious domestic football at Parkhead ceased quite some time ago.

Tomorrow night, however, the holiday is over. AC Milan arrive at Parkhead and the ground will reawaken from hibernation with a jolt that a richter scale could measure.

The importance of football matches is usually classified using that simplest of adjectives: bigness. As in, this game is bigger than that one; this is the biggest game in our history; it's a big game for us at Rochdale on Saturday. For Celtic, undoubtedly, tomorrow night is Big.

With the myopic historians of the UEFA Champions League deciding that the last 16 in Europe's premier competition did not exist before 1992, Celtic's progression to this stage is considered a first for the club (despite regular appearances in the latter stages of the old European Cup in the 1960s and 70s).

The fact that Celtic have all but copper-fastened another league title at home adds to the importance of the Champions League in their attentions, given that Gordon Strachan's team have been able to keep one eye on Milan since the draw was made.

However, rather than spend their canter to the league title rehearsing for the Big Night, Strachan has been ostensibly taking each domestic game on its own merits, picking teams to win three points rather than to bed-in for Milan.

In defence Celtic are likely to have to select 19-year-old Irishman Darren O'Dea alongside Stephen McManus, with the more experienced likes of Gary Caldwell and Bobo Balde injured.

However, since Balde was stretchered off against Dundee United on Boxing Day, Strachan has only chosen tomorrow night's likely centre-half pairing on two occasions - the 1-1 draw at Motherwell on 30 December and the 4-1 victory over Livingston in the Scottish Cup. Even those two selections were brought about by necessity, the former being prior to Stephen Pressley's recruitment as cover, the latter after the deposed Hearts skipper had sustained an injury.

Not that Strachan hasn't been thinking about Milan though. Indeed the Celtic boss almost thought he had cracked how to conquer the Italians. "I thought 'great, fantastic' but the problem was we needed 13 Celtic players on the pitch to do it. And Uefa are making us play with 11," he admitted last week.

The Italians' reputation and standing automatically commands respect. But Celtic could have picked worse times to test their mettle against the Serie A giants. Leaving aside the 8 point deduction for their role in last year's match fixing scandal, this has not been a vintage year for the Rossoneri.

Adding those points to their current total would leave them in fourth with 41 points, 22 behind leaders Inter and far from the almost permanent residence in the top two that they enjoyed in recent seasons. The loss of Andrij Shevchenko has left them rather toothless up front and their total of 32 goals in 23 games (four of which came in yesterday's win over Siena) is the main reason for their unspectacular station, points deduction apart.

What better way to resolve toothlessness than by recruiting Ronaldo, he of the Bugs Bunny choppers (but oh, were it only carrots that the rotund Brazilian chomped those famous incisors on!). However, like the less vaunted Pressley and Paul Hartley, Celtic's transfer window recruits, Ronaldo is ineligible for the Champions League.

Judging by the concentrated caution which characterised Celtic's victory over Manchester United, and the patient, narrow game favoured by AC, the tie could be decided by two of the best dead ball practitioners in the business: Celtic's Shunsuke Nakamura and AC's Andrea Pirlo. Both have perfected the taking of free-kicks to the point where goals are delivered almost on demand from any distance within 30 yards of goal.

Nakamura's winner against United started Celtic's winter of ease, given that it insured second stage qualification and that he team barely turned up in Copenhagen for the final group stage match.

If he can pick up from where he left off tomorrow night, Celtic's winter break will have done them the power of good.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Well, I mean the work is reward enough in itself, but yes, it is terribly nice to be nominated

Yeaahhhhhhhhhhhhhssssssss! Back. Of. The. Net!! Kiss my face!!

Sorry. Ahem. TSA has made the shortlist in the category of Best Sports and Recreation Blog at the 2007 Irish Blog Awards.

Thanks a million to all who voted for TSA, you are the real winners here. Ok, you're not, but thanks anyway.

Now, where's my cummerbund?


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Friday, February 16, 2007

Last Day of Voting for Irish Blog Awards

Today is the final day of voting for the Irish Blog Awards. If you haven't already voted for your favourite loyal and humbly devoted sports blog, you can do so by voting here.

Apparently anyone voting has a chance of winning something called Microsoft Vista, which I believe is some sort of contraption to make the wheels in your computer run smoother.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Hell Hath No Fury

Yesterday the normally stagnant waters in which the minnows of the Gaelic football swim were rendered all choppy by the 'transfer' of Thomas Walsh, star midfielder with Leinster strugglers Carlow, to near neighbours Wicklow. That the latter county's manager is Mick O'Dwyer, the legendary former Kerry boss, but also a serial snaffler of players from other counties in his subsequent jobs, has led to all sorts of conspiracy talk within Carlow.

Whether Walsh was 'enticed' by the sweet-talking man from the Kingdom or not (O'Dwyer strenously denies any such allegations), the howls of antagonism from Carlow would tend to suggest that the offending player may do well to avoid the streets of his native Fenagh, the club from whom he transferred to Bray Emmets.

Transfers within the GAA remain something of a taboo subject. Strictly speaking a player can move when his living circumstances permit it, but the idea of changing club or county for personal betterment contravenes the pervading spirit of the greater good of home parish, then county.

Although the reasons for Walsh's move are not yet clear - he stated only a few days before submitting his transfer request that he would not be going anywhere - and though he apparently now lives in Wicklow, one can only assume the opportunity to profit from the O'Dwyer dividend in Wicklow had some influence on his decision.

For soccer fans, for whom the transfer system is as intrinsic a part of their game as boots and balls, the whole idea of loyalty is tantamount to an anachronism. That knowledge, however, doesn't save some moving players from the full force of a jilted fanbase.

A few weeks ago Shaun Maloney left Celtic for Aston Villa on the final day of the January transfer window, having been involved in protracted contract discussions with the Hoops for around a year. The outpouring of hostility toward the player - ostensibly making a professional decision based on a superior financial package - amongst the Celtic support was vociferous, to the point where many have withdrawn previously-held good wishes for the success of Martin O'Neill's new venture as Villa manager.

The player's perceived betrayal replicated a similar move on the part of Liam Miller to Manchester United, the downward trajectory of whose subsequent career provided a source of schadenfreude to many a Celtic supporter.

It seems that any self-respecting support must adopt bunny-boiling tendencies when faced with being spurned by a former hero. Spurs had Sol Campbell, Barcelona had Luis Figo. Of course it didn't help that the players involved moved to sworn rivals in both those cases.

The lexicon of love applies so conveniently here because depth of affection toward football player is often dangerously parallel to directed toward a relationship partner. Fans might talk about the betrayal with reference to the amount of time and money spent making a player successful, much in the way a rejected lover might talk of the emotional commitment laid waste by the sight of a short skirt or the flutter of forbidden eyelashes.

Everton supporters had the look of frumpy divorcées when Wayne Rooney jumped into the glamourous arms of Manchester United. When they first got their hands on him he was just a scruffy lad, they turned him into.....well, you get the point. Most pointedly, there was a sense of bafflement, only they seeing why their man had left the dowdy matron for the sultry debutante.

The Wicklow football team mightn't resemble a sultry debutante much, but try telling that to Thomas Walsh's jilted former county. Next time he returns to Carlow, he might even find his sports car's headlights smashed in and all his suits cut into pieces.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

StanWorld News: 46 With a Bullet - Ireland Soar in Rankings

Following last week's thrilling last-gasp victory over classy San Marino, the Republic of Ireland shot up three places to 46th in the FIFA world rankings, released today.

The latest figures represent further vindication of Stephen Staunton's management of the team popularly known as Stan's Army, with the former Liverpool and Aston Villa full-back credited with rejuvenating the fortunes of the Irish international side in the wake of the disappointing conclusion to Brian Kerr's reign.

Staunton's team are riding high in third in their Euro 2008 qualification group, perfectly poised behind Germany and the Czech Republic. Those two heavyweights have been given good reason to peek nervously over their shoulders at the closing Irish, whose unbeaten run of three games has fuelled their rankings rocket.

The new FIFA rankings are one in the eye for Northern Ireland, who were victims of the boys in green's upward march, being leapfrogged by their cock-a-hoop southern neighbours back into 49th themselves. As recent conquerors of England and Spain, it is a measure of the progress of the Staunton revolution that the North have been brought to heel by Stan and his merry men.

The FIFA rankings are accepted as the only true reflection of the merits of international footballing nations. They use complicated mathematical logarithms to ascertain the positions of every footballing nation on earth. Looking at San Marino, for example, the devastating nature of their defeat to never-say-die Ireland last week saw them plummet from 195th place to 196th.

For anyone who takes the FIFA rankings seriously the message is clear: Ireland are on the up!

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Thierry Henry and the Art of Petulance

Now there are very few footballers who've given us more pleasure than the man known round norf Laahndan way as Terry 'Enry. A paragon of style, an exemplar of fluid grace, a capo de tutti capi of cool. An utterly modern footballer, in that he could not have existed, in British football at least, in any previous generation, yet he epitomises an intelligence and class apart from most of his current fellow professionals.

But, my God, he's turning into Naomi Campbell, isn't he?

It could be to do with an advancing self-importance, brought about by years of the type of gushing praise contained in the first paragraph above. Or it could be the insiduous manifestation of suppressed frustration at his own decision to stay at Arsenal last summer and spurn the chance to become a Catalactico at Barcelona (in this scenario he would be much like the daughter in a Tom Murphy play, forced to stay at home to look after an ailing but indestructible mother, lamenting the withering of the flower of her youth).

Whatever, it seems these days that Thierry Henry attracts attention as often for petted-lip displays of petulance as for demonstrations of his sublime talents.

It started back at that Champions League final against Barcelona, when his post-match interview sounded more like the words of a trash-talking professional wrestling star than an erstwhile proponent of insouciant class.

Then there was the sulky huffiness to which he responded to his pre-Christmas 'rest', enforced on him by his manager (and redoubtable matriarch in the aforementioned Tom Murphy metaphor) Arsene Wenger. Reportedly, last December, Henry flounced out of training in response to Wenger's diagnosis of his fitness, specifically to being told that he would not play in the north London derby on December 2nd.

When the two publicly made up, it appeared that Henry had accepted that Wenger knew what was good for him. "I must stop for at least a month for the pain to go away, but I did not squabble with Arsene," he said, before adding "yes, I did get angry about it because I cannot help out my team on the pitch. It's something I find hard to accept."

Then last Sunday Henry was criticised for goading Wigan goalkeeper Chris Kirkland following Arsenal's 81st minute equaliser, having been incensed by Kirkland's perceived time-wasting earlier in the match.

So is Mr.Va-Va-Voom turning into a Grumpy Old Man?

Of course with the artist comes the artistic temperament. After the alleged row with Wenger in December a French Sunday newspaper quoted an unnamed French international as saying that Henry was "an enormous bighead who cannot take criticism". Unlike Naomi Campbell, however, who belives erroneously that being an overpaid clothes-hanger earns the right to spectacular strops, Henry's talent buys patience.

It bought him months of agonizing over his future in that deeply uncertain period until his ultimate decision to stay at Arsenal. Arsene Wenger is a well-known pragmatic, reknowned for bringing the appliance of science into an English game more used to the lager and fry-up method of match preparation. He refuses to give contracts of longer than a year to players over 30, exhibiting an Orwellian ruthlessness to the geriatric community borne of an immunity to sentiment.

Yet he clearly gave Henry as long as was necessary to come to his decision, and was open-hearted throughout about his wish for the striker to stay. Not for Wenger any negotiating table brinkmanship, or Benitez-style lack of affection. Whether the spirit or atmosphere inside the club was damaged at this time or not, for Henry, anything was possible.

So a little self-importance in the light of this veneration is unsurprising. And the use of the term 'spoilt' is unfair too: that would tend to suggest that there was something about the player that had been damaged. Sure, like many players who participated in the World Cup last year, he has been, at times, a little flat this season.

Yet, as his recent goal against Blackburn (a typically sweeping counter-attack, a combination with Cesc Fabregas and a magnificent looping shot into the top corner from the edge of the box) suggests, the artist remains in control of his genius.

Perhaps the little spat with Wenger in December was his manager's way of reasserting authority after the concessions to Henry's ego of the previous season, before he had committed his future to the club.

Still, Wenger knows that where his star turn is concerned, a little petulance is a part of the package he is more than happy to tolerate.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Irish Blog Awards - Vote for TSA!!!

Voting is now open for the 2007 Irish Blog Awards, which will be held in the Alexander Hotel in Dublin on 3rd March.

TSA (ever so humble) is included in the long-list of nominees in the Best Sport and Recreation Blog category.

So if you want to make your contribution to the democratic process CLICK HERE!!!.....simply enter your name and email, scroll down to the Best Sport and Recreation Blog category and select Tom's Sporting Almanac, then scroll down to submit at the bottom of the page.

You can also vote for any of the other categories that take your fancy. But I wouldn't bother if I was you.


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Grand Slam Slips Away On An Epic Day

Amid the portentious fanfare and endless talk of history that greeted the first ever rugby international at Croke Park, it became clear by Saturday evening that the Ireland v France had another lesser, but unquestionable significance: that of a decider for this year's Six Nations championship, and possibly, the Grand Slam.

It was fitting then, with so much at stake, that it was, as Eddie O'Sullivan put it, "the bounce of a ball" that decided the game in the end.

The particular bounce O'Sullivan had in mind was the one which took the French restart (after Ronan O'Gara's seemingly victory-fastening penalty) back into Gallic hands and eventually over the line in Vincent Clerc's piercing dart.

Saturday's fixtures had shown the deficiencies of the other combatants to a degree that ratcheted up the Croke Park intense-ometer several unnecessary notches. Italy matched England up front and only lost due to greater indiscipline. Both sides were uninspired in possession, and the boot of Jonny Wilkinson will not contribute enough points to compensate for their lack of backline firepower.

Scotland and Wales played a harem-scarem 80 minutes which, if engaging, was not in the same the same caste of quality as yesterday's match. Scotland played like Scotland should, rucking ferociously and recycling more enthusiastically than a Tory politician looking for green kudos. Much like England, however, they lack the line-breaking devilment in the backs to capitalise on good work up front.

So, yesterday the bounce of a ball decided the Six Nations.

Did it? Or did Ireland just run out of luck? The team that robbed poor old Italy at Lansdowne last year through Tommy Bowe's try that never touched the ground; that squeezed past poor old England at Twickenham a few weeks later through an improbable late try; that got to burnish its reputation in the Autumn against depleted Australian and South African outfits; that did a Jedi mind trick on the referee in Cardiff last week ("I am going to foul incessantly in the ruck and get away with it". "Yes, you are".) - was the ball due to bounce the other way for once?

Ireland have, of course, made their own luck. They've been good enough to take advantage of fate's loose morals and it has often got them out of jail. Not yesterday, however. Going into the plush Croke Park dressing rooms at half time only two points down certainly seemed like an escape from death row. France had dominated and around the time Rafael Ibanez touched down for the first try in the Greatest Stadium on Earth And No Mistake, our paté-wolfing friends were playing with that bristling momentum that has destroyed us so often in the past.

But Ireland were almost good enough again to turn fortune their way. Good enough to heave the seemingly unstoppable flow of the match the other way. Good enough to concoct a move that showcased both their ability to bludgeon back the initative and also the capacity for improvisation at the crucial moment. O'Gara's dummy, Hickie's vision, Horgan's line, Wallace's hands and O'Gara's foresight to have seen it all before it happened - all manifestations of the brilliant rugby minds this Irish team possesses.

Having survived near-capitulation in the first half, the second period provided the game that the occasion deserved. It was ceaseless, enthralling and, by the time Ireland's spectacular maul won them that late penalty to go four points clear, it must have been deathly exhausting. France's restart bounced beyond Ireland's tired grasp, as did Clerc through John Hayes fingers.

It was a day for the epic, cacophonous and historic. It drew the Herculean from the game, the players' endeavours rising to the level of the decibels that the crowd generated. Ireland gave everything, but couldn't turn fortune their way again.

On such days, God is often in the details. Like the bounce of a ball.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

Follow Tip Top Tom in Infact, Ah Compo!

Those who regard TSA as a blithering, ill-informed idiot whose knowledge of sporting matters consists of regurgitated copy-and-pastes from Wikipedia...would be not far wrong, in all honesty.

Bizarrely, then, it seems that this feeble-minded blogger is topping the Great Infact, Ah Six Nations Tipping Competition, and by a handsome ten points in their convoluted scoring system at that!

Follow the progress of your intrepid tipster this week...

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The Very Rough Guide to the Croke Park Area

Travelling to the northside for the first time? Worried about the trip? Fear not - TSA brings you all you need to know about navigating one of the world's last great wildernesses. Follow our cut-out-and-keep guide to the Croke Park area and who knows, you might even even enjoy yourself!

Getting There and Away
Avoid using the specially laid on buses provided by some of the more avaricious southside pubs: these will only make you stand out and arouse unwanted attention from locals. Instead, take the number 10 bus. Though passing Kiely's and making its way through such fine avenues as Waterloo Road and Morehampton Road, this incredible route eventually winds up traversing the rubble-strewn inner-north-city. The closest thing in this country to the Orient Express.

Handy Hint! If taking the DART, do not walk from Connolly Station to Croke Park without an armed guide!

Getting Around
Once north, the more adventurous traveller might wish to access the ground from the more 'authentic' Summerhill/Ballybough quarter. Sample the local culture by 'putting a bet on' in one of the many 'bookies' in the area, or taste the delights of a single fish or batter burger in a typical 'chipper'. Take care not to carry valuables (shoes, trousers etc.)

Those with young families or travelling with the infirm might wish to reach the Clonliffe Road from Drumcondra, an area which was civilised several years ago, now even boasting a number of estate agents.

Handy hint! Listen out for a Munster accent: rugby fans from the south-west have a long history of missionary work in this area, and may be able to help with directions, or in a fight.

Dining: With the proliferation of the aforementioned 'chippers', those seeking some semblance of basic gourmet fare would be well served packing a lunch. However, this needn't be a source of embarassment. A traditional repast in these parts is the Ham Sandwich Eaten While Sitting on the Bonnet of the Car: a little imagination can transform it into Serrano on Ciabatta Taken While Locked in the SUV.

Handy hint! Eschew the omnipresent Centra roll for the hearty delights of Paul's Delicatessen on Dorset St., an outpost of fresh food amidst the tyranny of the snack-box.

Bars: Again, the intrepid explorer can steel his nerve and delve into the Dorset St. fleshpots like the Big Tree, the Findlater, McGrath's and, for only the most fearless, Quinn's. The latter is believed to be the site of the original Barbarian settlement here several thousand years ago. It remains a sacred place for northsiders: they believe that the spirit of Ant-Oh, the god said to have created the tracksuit, resides therein.

For the less adventurous, Fagan's in Drumcondra will provide some of the comforts of home. In a strange quirk of the political system, an Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, frequents this famous watering hole.

In actual fact, rather than popping in regularly as a token reinforcement of his man-of-the-people image, Bertie actually hangs out here all the time, rather like Norm from Cheers. In fact he often takes part in the pub's efforts to put one over on nearby Enda's Olde Tyme Tavern, leading to hilarious practical jokes and misunderstandings.

HANDY HINT! If visiting a northside pub's toilet facilities, you may be cornered by a foul-smelling inebriate, ranting incomprehensibly. To extricate yourself from this situation simply recite the following words, very loudly: The ould triangle went jingle-jangle, all along the banks of the Royal Canal. You will be allowed on your way with the heartiest approbation.

Things to do: Well, go to the rugby match, obviously. Unlike Lansdowne Road, picturesque and charmingly appointed, the local Croke Park stadium is something of a soulless montrosity. Boasting endless perfect sightlines, spacious and comfortable seating facilities and a terrace unlikely to collapse at any moment, the stadium will seem at first rather strange.

Locals are inordinately proud of the arena, however, so complement them profusely. Don't worry about seeming patronising: they secretly long for the Victorian poise of the West Stand at Lansdowne.

HANDY HINT! If you become the subject of physical aggression from a native, grab a nearby Frenchman and suggest that he is 'over here taking our jobs'. The ire towards you will soon be directed towards the Gallic usurper.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Match Report in Stephen Staunton's Head

San Marino.........................1
(Marani 85)

Republic of Ireland............2
(Kilbane 49, Ireland 90)

Stephen Staunton's Ireland snatched a glorious late win against crack continentals San Marino last night - and kept up the heat on Group D rivals Germany and the Czech Republic.

Showing the kind of character that made Staunton's name as a player, his team battled back from the body-blow of a late equaliser by the stylish Sammarinese, Stephen Ireland making it a night to remember for the travelling green army with a last-gasp winner.

The hard-fought three points hauls the Boys in Green up to third in the group, increasing the momentum for what looks to be a full-tilt bid for EURO 2008 qualification.

Ireland, sent out in an inventive 4-4-2 formation by shrewd tactician Staunton, set about their much-vaunted opponents with brio early on, Robbie Keane going close with two shots just past San Marino keeper Simoncini's right hand post.

Midfield general Lee Carsley, recalled to the squad in a masterstroke by Staunton before last October's match against the Czech Republic, controlled the central area, brushing aside the hosts' stars Muccioli and Bonini with a classy display. The Everton maestro came close to opening the deadlock with a well-struck drive after 20 minuntes.

The travelling hordes in green roared their men on, buoyed by the verve of their heroes' display. Damien Duff teased and tormented the home defence, setting up Keane on two occasions, while Steve Finnan probed with menace on the right.

Simoncini in goal was sparing the féted home team a hiding, leaping to deny Ian Harte's vicious free-kick and cutting out a Finnan cross to the back post as the first half drew to an end.
Cheered into the dressing rooms at the interval by the proud band of visiting supporters, Ireland - emboldened by one of boss Staunton's legendary half-time speeches - went for the jugular in the second half. The breakthrough soon came.

Finnan whipped in a vicious cross from the right, to which Stephen Ireland got a flick-on, before Kevin Kilbane arrived at the back post to apply a thumping forehead to finish. The crowd erupted in approval, and not just the away fans. Many of the home support were so taken with the character of the plucky visitors that they could only applaud such a well-crafted goal.

Ireland were not satisfied, however. On they marched, utterly dominant at this stage. Stephen Hunt, on for the mesmeric Kilbane, hit the post late on, but it seemed certain that the second was on the way.

However, the road to Austria and Switzerland is not without its dangerous diversions and Ireland were dealt a cruel blow in the 85th minute.

The dangerous home side sprang into attack and Marani managed to bamboozle Irish keeper Wayne Henderson and centre-half Paul McShane (sprung masterfully from the bench by Staunton at half-time) and knock in an undeserved equaliser.

The home fans and players alike celebrated wildly, but underneath their elation must have been relief, and a little embarassment at the prospect of snatching an undeserved point.

But they did not count on the acumen of the man on the Irish bench. Staunton had replaced young striker Shane Long with Anthony Stokes and it was the Sunderland man who poked the ball in to Stephen Ireland's path for the winner - and provoked jubilation in the stands.

The boos from the crowd were evidence of the home fans' displeasure with their team, but on another famous night in the annals of Irish soccer history, the Staunton revolution continues - and only a fool wouldn't know exactly where this team are heading.

San Marino: Aldo Simoncini, Carlo Valentini, Manuel Marani, Albani, Davide Simoncini, Muccioli, Bonini (Vannucci 76), Domeniconi (Bugli 88), Michele Marani, Selva, Gasperoni (Andreini 66).Subs Not Used: Federico Valentini, Ciacci, Nanni, Vitaioli.
Booked: Davide Simoncini, Selva.

Rep of Ireland: Henderson, Finnan, Dunne, O'Shea (McShane 45), Harte (Hunt 74), Duff, Carsley, Ireland, Kilbane, Long (Stokes 80), Keane.Subs Not Used: Colgan, Alan Quinn, Keogh, Gibson.

Att: 3,294

Ref: Peter Rasmussen (Denmark).

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Some Fun Ways To Pass An Evening in San Marino

Without wishing to underestimate the 'potential banana-skin' that San Marino represent, tonight's is one of those going-through-the-motions kind of games. All the correct procedure must be followed, attention given to detail, attitude set to 'right'. But three points will inevitably follow.

So with the promise of one of the less thrilling international evenings in store, you'll need distraction. Much like a spread of glossy magazines in a dentist's waiting room, these activities will help you pass the time.

TV commentators have one unbending professional principle: have UEFA press-pack, will waffle. Included in this evening's bumper compendium of cap totals, heights and weights and goalscoring records will also be, bless, the occupations of all the San Marino players. Apart from that one guy who plays for a Serie B team.

So this evening's commentator will shoehorn in various vocations like a moonlighting careers guidance teacher.
- "And Bonini chopped down Keane there - hardly surprising, as he's a butcher by trade."
- "Interesting to note that Vannucci normally earns his living as a chartered surveyor - as he surveys the field looking for the pass."
- "Like the fireman he is by day Palazzi extinguishes Ireland's hopes of a third."
Note and collate the different occupations as they are mentioned.
Wayne Henderson, Stephen Ireland and Shane Long are three of Ireland's next generation to make the first eleven for this evening, but with Stephen Hunt, Darren Gibson, Stephen Quinn, Anthony Stokes, Andy Keogh and Darren Randolph all vying for places on the bench, tonight should represent a good opportunity to separate the hope from the hype.

It seems that all the talk around the camp is of the new guys giving the soft and complacent oldies a kick up the underachieving posterior, with yesterday's training match between the newbies and the seniors apparently being exceptionally competitive. So tonight should provide a good opportunity to ascertain whether the next generation are Duff-like or just plain duff, like.

The thing about having nations like San Marino (the world's oldest republic, I hasten to add, for all those who doubt their right to compete with us, a mere 85-year old stripling of a nation) playing international football is that it allows you, just about, to imagine yourself playing at the highest level.

Imagine it. You're a manager of a ceramic goods store in downtown San Marino, worrying about the latest delivery from Armitage Shanks, when the phone rings. It's the Gaffer. You've been called up for the match against Ireland. Reckons you could do a job on Keane, or maybe sitting in front of the defence, keeping it tight.

Next thing you know you're running about the Serravalle Olimpico Stadium, red faced, cheeks puffing, going in hard early on to let these Stars of Premiership and Other Lesser Leagues know you're there. Midway through the second half, five goals down, you win a corner. For once it reaches the penalty box, landing at your feet at the back post. Goal, and you write your name into San Marino's long history books and the next UEFA press-pack.

Can you picture it? Give them a little cheer then: it could be you.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

TSA Report: Stadium of Light

So you organise a few tickets for some friends for the Dublin v Tyrone match. You figure the occasion of the turning on the Croke Park floodlights to be one worthy of a bit of a night, maybe a few pints to end the January season of temperate introspection.

Also, like quite a few of the almost 82,000 teeming into Dublin 3, several of your party are not regulars around these parts. Not that they're Pale-embedded-what's that, bogball?-Gaelbashers or anything. No, just members of that part of the population who have never shuffled hurriedly down Clonliffe Road on a summer Sunday; who were as likely to line out on a hurling or Gaelic football field as they were to head down to their local dojo for a spot of sumo.

In other words, the people who have been drawn in by the GAA's great glasnost of recent years. The people hitherto without a context for the organisation, except maybe a second-hand scepticism about cultural oppression and being in cahoots with Fianna Fáil and the Church and that lot, but who instead are curious now.

Invited in by the majestic buttresses of the new Croke Park. Drawn to investigate the commotion of an incendiary Championship afternoon. Charmed by the technicolour passions of the supporting factions. Hooked by the association's smart marketing and blue riband sponsors. These people might never have gone to Croke Park in any other generation. But they were coming to this game.

Or at least they said they were. But 7pm came and went on Saturday evening and you're standing on Dorset Street, in the cold as even the beeriest Dubs (the ones who'd started their supping with the Merseyside derby at 12.45 and seen the day through) have made their way into the ground, and you're waiting for some taxis to grind through the traffic with their cargo of interlopers. Grrrr.

Still, even glasnost had its teething problems.

Despite missing the Great Ceremony of the Flicking of the Switch and the Saw Doctors and the frickin' Dublin Gospel Choir and the bloody Artane Boys' Band and - goddamnit - the points that went to make the score Dublin 0-5 Tyrone 0-1, there was amply sufficient time on arrival to pause in wonder and awe (Awwwww!) and the sight of the place.

It was like seeing the fresh-faced girl from school on her debs night, transplendent in radiant evening wear.

The mind started to wander. Will this ever happen again? Or are most of these people day trippers like my tardy friends? Or seekers of a novelty Saturday evening diversion? Or moth/human mutant crossbreeds involuntarily attracted to bright lights?

But I mean, isn't it fantastic? This fantasmagorical stadium, fuller in its glory than it had ever been, the pitch framed like a stage in a glamourous wash of light.

But the only time that a crowd like this might gather again - once the novelty of oooh-sooo-bright! is gone - in this uniquely atmospheric setting would be for the Championship. Which happens in summer. When the evenings are long and lazy and full of promise but do not lend themselves to the use of floodlights.

Shame. Still, maybe down the line when inter-county GAA's exponential development has turned its Championship into a longer-spanning affair, we might see these nights regularly. For now the next time the arena will dazzle like this will be two weeks on Saturday, when England attempt to deflower the rugby-virginal Jones' Road venue.

There was a game to enjoy as well, Tyrone eventually showing their class against a Dublin team who have become specialists in letting winning positions slip. The quality of the match just about befitted the occasion. Dublin played confidently and with Championship intensity in the first half, while Tyrone were as limp and unimpressive as the first half streaker's chilled appendage.

The roles were reversed in the second period, the northerners overturning Darren Magee and Declan O'Mahony's midfield dominance and bringing on the influential Kieran Hughes to match-turning effect. Hughes dovetailed with Owen Mulligan and Sean Cavanagh to master the half-forward line and Dublin shrank in that familiar way.

So before the new tenants move in the householders got to throw a fabulous party for all their friends, and a few new ones. Like my dawdling pals, or the kids from 18 different nations who played a Cumann na mBunscoil game at half time, which quickly turned into the first soccer match played in Croke Park. I couldn't quite hear the múinteoir shout "pick it up, boy, pick it up", but I could picture it.

Thin end of the wedge, I'm telling ya.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Imperfect Ireland Survive Millenium Bug

'Phew!', I believe was the word that sums up any reaction to yesterday's messy win for Ireland over Wales.

Phew, that we don't look silly after all our confident talk about that thing which we will not mention here again, but which begins with the letters G and S and almost ended yesterday in the Millenium Stadium.

Phew, that next week's welcoming party for France, a selectively convened group of 82,000, will not be deflated by the disappointment of anti-climax.

And phew, because, hopefully that means we've got a dog of a performance out of our system.

It would be great if, over the next phew, sorry, few days, we got further cause for relief with positive news of Brian O'Driscoll's fitness, after the captain's worrying hamstring injury sustained yesterday. Even those of us whose knowledge of physiology and anatomy is restricted to knowing which limbs our trousers go on understand that "oooh, the hamstring's a bad one". A healthy O'Driscoll is a prerequisite to have any chance of winning of the unmentionable thing that begins with G and S.

So was that just a rusty team feeling their way into their work in the rather testing environment of a passion-drunk Cardiff, or a troubling demonstration of Ireland's limitations?

Certainly thoughts of future glories seemed miles away in the first half. Wales asked Ireland difficult questions and, like a slow-witted boy faced with a disciplinarian headmaster, Ireland stuttered and hesitated in reply. Stephen Jones kicked demonically, picking out Andrew Trimble's discomfort with the sweeping up part of the winger's duties as a key area of weakness.
Trimble cleared his lines in a manner that suggested he should have had L-plates on his boots, and the momentum was with Wales.

Of course the Ulsterman's kicking was a masterclass compared with how Ronan O'Gara was faring. Mishit, scuffed or ballooned, O'Gara's stock-in-trade betrayed him repeatedly. Clearances sat harmlessly in front of the Welsh back three, touches were missed and one penalty effort in particular was clobbered unpleasantly well left.

Dwayne Peel, Jones and James Hook were choreographing a bravura Welsh performance; Peel gave a stunning display of scrum-half play, and only the convention of giving the Man of the Match award to a player from the winning team denied him a deserved sponsors' nod.

With all the talk about Wales pummelling us in the scrum (puh-lease) it turned out to be the line-out that banjaxed Ireland yesterday. Eddie O'Sullivan mentioned how the noise in stadium made the calls difficult to hear, Ireland having rejigged their line-out repertoire after the autumn. Rory Best certainly appeared to be playing the deaf grandma to a patient Paul O'Connell, and the absence of clean ball helped scupper Ireland.

But just when the eBay Croker ticket touts were beginning to worry about the value of their investment, Ireland received a sprinkling of fortune. That is, apart from the fortune that had prevented them having a man sin-binned early on with Wales on top. Ronan O'Gara punted a clearance that had sufficient meat on it to have the home fans clearing their throats to jeer it all the way past the goal line.

However, upon its arrival just short of the try line, the ball skewed left, going into touch just inches from the line. Somehow - albeit Ireland would have several more moments of stress after that - that moment seemed to lift the worst of the day from the visitors, and, like clearing fog, they were able to navigate their way home from there.

The nasty cut suffered by Denis Hickie turned out to be a happy twist of fate too. It allowed Geordan Murphy's introduction as a blood sub, during which time he caught his own garryowen and contributed a pass which culminated in O'Driscoll's try. Murphy's spell on the field was, in proportion to his time on it, invaluable. Aw, can he not stay, we thought?!

All throughout, Gordon D'Arcy and Denis Leamy had never exhibited the lower than usual standards of some of their team-mates. Leamy, incidentally, pulled a few catches from above his head in a manner suitable to Croke Park on days of its traditional usage. D'Arcy's tackling had helped an Irish defence keep the Welsh largely well clear from the line, but it was his slippery run, drilling into the Welsh cover which led to O'Gara's clinching try.

What emerges from yesterday - a bad day at the office, all told - is the fact that, when certain of Ireland's players were off colour and parts of the team's game not functioning, there was a reservoir of class sufficient to, in the end, complete the win in an almost businesslike manner.

It is certainly a relief to know, that, even when Ireland are stinking up the place, a Murphy or a D'Arcy or a Leamy or an O'Driscoll is likely to arrive with a can of Airwick, especially with the seismic afternoons ahead over the next fortnight.

One again - phew!

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Six Nations Preview: The Rest of the Impertinents

ENGLAND (Saturday 24th February, Croke Park)

By the blood of Michael Hogan, begone from this sacred turf!

The. Big. One. England in Croker. The subject beloved of T.V. and radio discussion programmes desperate for 'divisive controversy'.

TV Vox Pop: "Do you think they should play God Save the Queen at Croke Park?"

Punter: "Don't care."

TV V.P.: "There you have it - this divisive issue continues to prove controversial..."

A few months ago it seemed that we were to have a nice handy afternoon of Saxon-whupping to placate the infamous 'backwoodsmen' who continue to grumble from GAA county board missives. Unfortunately Andy Robinson is gone, Brian Ashton is in, with Rob Andrew upstairs peering through his designer specs at the whole thing. In short, they've belatedly attempted to get their act together.

For all the good vibes coming out of Twickers, much like TSA's dress policy for most social occasions, it all looks a bit too thrown together at the last moment. So much hangs on the three-pronged risk-orgy in the backs. This weekend Jonny Wilkinson starts his first England game since clipping that World Cup winning drop-goal in Sydney in 2003, Jason Robinson starts his first for his country in two years and Andy Farrell, at 31, starts his first international, well, ever, in union at least.

For all Ashton's reknowned ability to coach backline flair, a settled and immaculately prepared Ireland will approach this latest English team with the confidence of a side fully expectant of a fourth victory over the old foe. God Save the Queen might get an airing, but Sweet Chariot certainly won't.

Jerusalem in Croker's green and pleasant land?
As Brian O'Driscoll pointed out last week, for all England's supposed wretchedness in recent years, they have never been given a proper doing, and even a cursory remembrance of last year reminds us how it needed Shane Horgan's telescopic arm to win the day for Ireland in Twickenham.

As Frank Hadden showed last season with Scotland, the creation of a postive working environment and the sense that there is some kind of plan afoot can change a team's fortunes quite quickly. All through England's trough, their forwards continued to win masses of ball, but were scuppered by diffidence behind them.

Coming just a few weeks after Munster were demolished up front by a Leicester pack, five of whom are in the 22 for this weekend's Calcutta Cup game, its safe to assume England will give us a tough day up front.

Last year we had too much guile and nous for them when we had the ball. However if Ashton's talents have had any effect, if Jonny Wilkinson can rediscover a fraction of his ruthless mastery at out-half and if the whole lot of them have even a small amount more confidence about them than we've seen in recent seasons, they might be sending her victorious at the end of the 80 minutes as well as at the start.

SCOTLAND (Saturday March 10th, Murrayfield)

Not so brave now, oh eaters of artery-clogging, deep-fried foodstuffs!
The days of our struggles against the Scots in Murrayfield may be relatively recent - we only ended an eighteen year winless run in Edinburgh in 2003 - but, psychologically, any sense of inferiority to Scotland in rugby feels as remote as, hah!, unemployment and Mike Murphy.

Since we last lost to them in 2001, the Scots have served up a routine victory for Ireland wherever we have played them, only offering mild resistance on our triple crown winning afternoon in 2004.

Scotland are traditionally at their strongest from 6 to 10, ravenous back-rowers and impudent scrum-halves being key to their game. As ever they possess class in these positions this year too. Trouble is, most of it is either injured or just returning from injury. Jason White, last year's player of the tournament, and Alistair Hogg are missing from the back row (although Hogg could be back for the Ireland game), Mike Blair at scrum-half is also out and Chris Cusiter has been bandaged up after a ligament injury to take the 9 jersey.

With an inexperienced tight five and a continuing inability to really spark in the backs - flaws which Ireland do not share - this year should be another business-like trip to Auld Reekie.

They've sent us hameward, tae think again!
Scotland were the big good news story of last season's championship. Frank Hadden proved to be the Walter Smith to Matt Williams' Berti Vogts, reinstilling enough pride and pleasure into performing for the national side to make a stark difference on the field.

That positivity permeated their play in the way that the embarassing error-count of previous seasons was reduced, and with Sean Lamont emerging as an exciting attacking presence on the wing, the Scots were almost able to fill Murrayfield again.

They are also starting to produce quality young players again, Rob Dewey in centre and Ali Kelloch at lock being two currently causing drams to be raised in appreciation north of Hadrian's Wall.

With Dan Parks and Chris Paterson at 10 and 12 they have an experienced creative think-tank and a metronomic kicking presence that could just be a potent fulcrum for the emerging talent around them.

ITALY (Saturday 17th March, Stadio Flaminio)

Get back to organised crime and driving too fast, you immaculately coiffured types!
And no better time and place to win the grand slam than Paddy's Day in the Eternal City, which is how long the wait seems like since Ireland last won one.

We all know the drill here. Italy will batter us about a bit up front, Bergamasco will rampage, Bortolami will rumble. At half time the score will be 6-6 and George Hook will howl in the studio about this being "the poorest performance from an Irish side in living memory."

Then D'Arcy or O'Driscoll will make a line break shortly into the second half, which will end up in Wallace going over after a couple of phases and that'll be that. Cue endless footage of the despoilment of the Trevi fountain.

Rome riddle as Ireland burn!
Or maybe, for once, our traditional first half buffeting by the Italian pack will result in them picking up a few scores, rather than the usual fruitless territorial dominance.

Maybe, after a glorious run to this stage Ireland will come over all, well, Irish and conjure inglorious failure at the moment of truth.

If this happens, as a nation, we should throw our hat it.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Six Nations Preview: Who Dares Stand In Our Way?

Prior to the formality of picking up the Six Nations trophy and the mythical garlands of the grand slam on Paddy's Day in Rome, the organisers of the tournament have laid on five preliminary matches for Ireland to fulfil before the party begins.

Here we look at the wretches who are lined up to be crushed under the heel of mighty Erin....

WALES (Sunday Feb 4th, Millenium Stadium Cardiff)

Bow down you coal-mining, sweet voiced dwarves!
The selection of Simon Easterby in the pack ahead of Neil Best was explained through reasons twofold: a) he plays in Wales and therefore doesn't mind the smell so much, and b) he's a fine tall fella who's good in lineouts (even though Best is only an inch more diminutive).

We can be pretty damn sure then that Eddie O'Sullivan plans to silence the Millenium Stadium mid-Land-of-my-Fathers through the boot of Ronan O'Gara into the corner, followed by the grinding of maul on the back of lineout supremacy. The avoidance of broken play - Wales' preferred modus operandi - until domination is won up front will be the theme of the day.

A capital plan it is too. By hopefully notching scores through the aforementioned forward rumbling and perhaps a few penalties borne of Welsh frustration, we will hope for the Welsh to get all panicky and start throwing the ball around off inadequate set-pieces; by the time our backs get the ball in their hands, they will be merely gilding the lily.

Aaargh, the male voice choir is weakening our powers with their rousing chorus!
Best laid plans and all that. With the wobbliness of Munster's scrum against Leicester a few weeks back, it's a little rich to assume forward dominance over anyone in this tournament.

Wales will attempt to attack this perceived weakness - they'd be mad not to - and, if Gethin Jenkins gets a heave on, watch Ryan Jones postively gulp down the Irish halves. And if Rory Best and his jumpers get it wrong in the line-out, we could be exposed to an open gunfight. With a balance of the guile and cleverness of Stephen Jones, James Hook and Dwayne Peel and the power of Gareth Thomas in the Welsh backs, we might be eating daffodils in jig time.

FRANCE (Sunday Feb 11th, Croke Park)

Back to your quasi-socialist economic basket-case state, Froggy!
As the team who initially punctured Ireland's 2005 Grand Slam ambitions, it understandable to greet France's arrival with furrowed brow and a modicum of caution.

However, the single factor which makes this an unlosable game for Ireland is not on the pitch, but rather around it: Croke Park. This match is such a hugely anticipated and culturally seismic occasion for the Irish that I fully expect France, like a Vichy border guard spying a swastika, to stand graciously aside.

I am basing this supposition on two things: Biarritz did likewise when confronted with the reality of the emotional weight behind Munster's Heineken Cup bid last year, writ large on the Cardiff big screen at a crucial juncture of the final. When those pictures of O'Connell St. in Limerick were broadcast, the Biarritz players could clearly be seen mouthing to each other: "ah, un grand passion" before shrugging in admiration and chucking the game.

Secondly, the French have made it clear that their attentions are focused totally on this autumn's World Cup, and no amount of Six Nations victories will compensate for the opprobrium they will face at home if they host the tournament in as ramshackle manner as they did their autumn internationals. Hence rotation, experimentation and another win for Ireland.

But then again, a year ago the Irish scrum was obliterated to the point of farce in the first half in Paris, leaving Ronan O'Gara trying to use the ball while practically on his backside.

What's to say that won't be the case again? Sure, Ireland responded on that occasion with Almost the Greatest Comeback Ever, but the French had moved onto the petit fours by that stage.

France have named Milloud, Ibanez and De Villiers in their front row for this weekend, the same three that played in Stade de France last year. Ireland name Horan and Best instead of Corrigan and Flannery from that game, which is just a slightly more than negligible improvement.

True, unsettled in the half-backs - the French give Pierre Mignoni and David Skrela the 9 and 10 shirts on Saturday in place of the more familiar twosome of Freddie Michalak (injured) and Dmitri Yachvili (benched) - there's no guarantee that the French will be able to punish us. Then again, behind those two are the experienced and dangerous likes of Yannick Jauzion, Cristophe Dominici and Clement Poitrenaud, who, like Kerry's footballers, will enjoy the open spaces of Croke Park.

Tomorrow: the hapless Jocks, perfidious Albion and the pizza-munchers. Or Scotland the Brave, England's Glory and Forza Italia. You choose.

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Losers - Addendum

There has been some suggestion that Jimmy White should have been included, given that he has been a six-time losing finalist in World Snooker Championships, and all.

Nonsense. We all know this could be Jimmy's year.

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