Saturday, September 29, 2007

Don't Cry For Them

Damn those happy-go-lucky Argentines. They need taking down a peg or two.
"Aren't they wonderful, the team spirit, the way they've dragged themselves into the elite in spite of the hindrances of world rugby's powers-that-be?"

Pah. Not in the mood. Feck them. Let's take them apart.

Never mind the complete, utter illogicality of Ireland getting four tries and winning by more than seven tomorrow. Never mind the fact that any neutral looking on would surely root for the Pumas, whose courage in prising the win on the opening night from France and professionalism in securing all available points since makes them the team of the tournament so far.

Screw the fact that the sort of effort it would require of Ireland to beat Argentina while racking up the requisite stats would appear to require a performance completely outwith even the most bizarre graph of form imaginable.

To hell with the notion that two of the areas in which Ireland have struggled so far - recycling quick possession and breaking down crowded blitz defences - would appear to be Argentina's strongest suits.

Cry "poppycock!" at those who point at the purpose, cameraderie and leadership that the Pumas enjoy, in comparison with the seemingly lost souls in the Ireland squad.

A couple of World Cup wins in soccer aside, Argentina is no more comfortable with success than we are. The country's history is sad and violent; they dance the dark and passionate tango, not the get-yer-ya-yas-out samba.

So let's hope tomorrow will be a bad day for Argentina. A national catastrophe. Ireland v Argentina in the 2007 Rugby World Cup needs to go down with the economic crisis of the late 1990s, the death of Eva Peron, Maradona's drug bust, Rattin's sending off against the English and the birth of Chris de Burgh as black events in the Argentine annals.

(Good taste precludes the inclusion of the sinking of the Belgrano in that list. But perhaps The Irish Sun could have the headline "Gotcha" on standby?)

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Ooooh-klahoma Where the Football Coaches Are Insane!

In the clip below, Mike Gundy, coach of Oklahoma State college football team unleashes the most spectacularly virulent attack on a newspaper columnist I've ever seen. Frankly, it makes Billy Morgan sticking an Irish Examiner journo's dictaphone down his pants look like an act of Christ-like generosity.

Gundy's rant was aimed at Jenni Karlson, writer of this piece in The Oklahoman newspaper, which criticised the poor form of Oklahoma State quarter-back Bobby Reid.

It is of particular interest to GAA managers, given Gundy's belief that Reid's 'amateur' status (college footballers are unpaid, but their hardship is offset by scholarships worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition fees, accomodation etc.) should protect him from criticism. This is an oft-whinged managerial line in Gaelic games, as in "dem fellas sayin' dem things about dese fellas who have to go to work on Monday morning, 'tis a disgrace."

But that's not all, Gundy's contention that anyone who is a child of a, er, parent should be absolved from critical analysis could, were it to catch on, rather narrow the options for those in the punditry game.

And the classic "where are we at as a society today"? Spoken like a true, grumpy old dad!

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Top Tournament Turnarounds

Old Mother Almanac often recounts the bitter day the doctors wrapped a newborn TSA in swaddling clothes and gave her the dreaded news..."Madam, I'm afraid the child has the optimism."

No sir, not for these parts the gloom and gnashing of teeth that passes for discourse among Irish sports fans these days. Hence, these midweek days have seen the staff at the TSA Institute for Cock-Eyed Optimism busily at work formulating a plan for Ireland's erstwhile rugby heroes to avoid the very real prospect of a stoning upon arrival at Dublin Airport.

Nope, stop the presses, oh Irish Times, on those Fintan O'Toole pieces suggesting that the arc of Ireland's prosperity was symbolically bookended by Italia '90 and France '07. We've identified five occasions when tournament turmoil was turned into open-top ovation.

England - 1986 World Cup
The pedantic among you will point out that England did not win the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, and were, in fact, eliminated at the quarter-final stage, that Rubicon which Sven was so chastised for being unable to cross.

But after the first two group games in Mexico, a quarter-final seemed as likely for England as Margaret Thatcher having a pint of bitter in a working men's club in Oldham. A 1-0 defeat at the hands of Portugal was followed by a mind-numbing 0-0 draw against Morocco. In addition, England lost both their midfield lynchpins, Bryan Robson to a shoulder injury, Ray Wilkins to a red card.

But, lo and behold, a rejigged England - with Peter Beardsley, Peter Reid, Steve Hodge and Trevor Steven drafted in (fancy that, using your squad!) - walloped Poland 3-0 in the final group match, courtesy of a Gary Lineker hat-trick.

Paraguay were dispatched by the same score in the second round, before Bobby Robson's side achieved the greatest victory of all in English eyes: a moral one at the hands of a dirty, cheating Argie genius.

Kerry - 2006 All-Ireland
It's easy to forget, as Jack O'Connor occupies his place in the Kerry football pantheon after managing the county to two All-Irelands, how close his regime was to ignominious collapse last summer.

Losing to Cork in the Munster final replay was bad enough, but the team captain, O'Connor's Dromid clubman, Declan O'Sullivan, had been booed off the field. Rumours abounded that the camp were at each other's throats, that the O'Sés were at loggerheads with the management.

All of it nonsense, it transpired. O'Connor hit on the brainwave of putting Kieran Donaghy in at full-forward, and his explosion onto the national conciousness in the quarter-final win over Armagh helped Kerry coast to an All-Ireland that looked likely in July.

Italy - 1982 World Cup
It was the tournament which begat the maxim about Italian teams starting slowly. They drew their three opening group games, 0-0 with Poland, 1-1 with Peru and 1-1 with Cameroon. Manager Enzo Bearzot was heavily criticised for starting striker Paolo Rossi, who had just completed a 2-year ban for involvement in a betting scandal.

The Italians sneaked through to the second round on goal difference over Cameroon, where they faced Argentina and Brazil in the tournament's experimental second group stage. The Argentines were defeated 2-1, thanks in no small part to defender Claudio Gentile's brutal subjugation of Diego Maradona.

Then came the unforgettable 3-2 victory over Brazil, in which Rossi repayed Bearzot's faith with a hat-trick. Rossi got another two in the 2-0 defeat of Poland in the semi-final, and scored the first in the final, a 3-1 win over West Germany.

England - 2003 Rugby World Cup
Ok, bit of a tenuous one this, given that England won all their matches on the way to winning the tournament.

But the sweet chariot looked wobbled a little early on. Samoa were unconvincingly disposed of 35-22. Then came the quarter-final, and a Welsh side who'd just frightened the All Blacks. Jonny Wilkinson endured a jittery first half, with Wales leading 10-3 after 43 minutes.

But Mike Catt's introduction at half-time steadied the future world champions, the veteran putting a metaphorical arm round Wilkinson's shoulder. A try from Will Greenwood and 23 points from the young fly-half took England clear, and onwards to Sydney.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Another Miracle Match Please

Well, you know, it wasn't such a bad weekend for Irish rugby after all. All four provinces winning their opening Magners League fixtures and all? That's good isn't it? Feel better?


The Irish Rugby World Cup campaign has gotten so bad that people are beginning to compare it to England's effort at the football World Cup last year. The talk of a 'golden generation', the misplaced optimism of the public mood, the overbooked endorsement diaries, a 'Goldenballs' figure who isn't quite as good as he thinks he is, a coach rewarded with a juicy new contract prior to proving himself worthy of it; all followed by dismal, disjointed performances.

All we need is Eddie to embark on an affair with the tealady at the IRFU and a slew of player autobiographies to complete the analogy.

But here we are now. In need of a miracle. Did someone say 'miracle'? As in 'miracle match'? Well why didn't you say so?! Don't we have just the men to do it right here!

Cast your mind back to a cold and wet January Saturday in 2003, when Gloucester arrived at Thomond Park needing to avoid both defeat by 27 points or more and the concession of four tries to eliminate Munster from the Heineken Cup. Remember what happened?

Wind forward a few years, 2006 this time, Sale Sharks had to be beaten by four tries lest Munster's Heineken Cup quest fail again. Remember what happened?

Ah, if only those happy-go-lucky Argies could be brought to Thomond, and if it only it was January, and if only our rugby players had a few hard months of toil under their belts.

And if only it was somewhere far away from this oppressive, claustrophobic World Cup, with the haunted looks on the faces of the players and their coach as they try to figure out answers to questions we can't even get our heads around to ask.

It's been mentioned in several reports how the Argentines have given the impression of greatly enjoying their World Cup experience. Trevor Brennan, in his national anthem polemic in last Friday's Irish Times, described how he rang one of his Argentine colleagues at Toulouse, who was at that moment on the team bus back from training last week. "What's that in the background?", asked the Barnhall Bruiser. "Singing," responded his Puma friend.

Singing. Can't imagine our boys giving it The Fields on the TGV. Not that Eddie should start handing out lyric sheets instead of conducting DVD analysis. Nothing, of course, makes a player happier than good results, but the sense of embattlement, unease and a general lack of wellbeing has pervaded for weeks now.

Which is why, on Sunday, necessity and - good God man! - the milk of human kindness dictate that O'Sullivan should send his team out with the most minimal instruction. "Go and enjoy yourselves lads." It's about time. And it might just work.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Roman Calls The Tune

Taken from us in the dead of night, was Jose. Just like that. The health hadn't been the best of late, but it was still a shock when it came.

Hard to imagine life without him, isn't it? A principal character in the Premier League soap opera has been killed off. I can see the compilation of his best moments now, from the extraordinary cameo appearance in Porto's victory over Manchester United in the 2004 Champions League last 16 to last week's 'egg metaphor' press conference. Maybe soundtracked by I Know Him So Well, Elaine Page and Barbara Dickson's classic 1985 version, of course.

Plenty other central characters could be following Mourinho into the footballing equivalent of Holby City. Mourinho's greatest achievement at Chelsea, aside from the tangibles of two Premiership titles, one FA Cup and a Carling Cup, was the team spirit and loyalty he engendered at Stamford Bridge: he created a heart in a club where such a thing shouldn't have existed.

Aside from John Terry and Frank Lampard - the former recently announced himself, Lampard and Mourinho to be the three-pronged fork of righteous justice that would lead Chelsea to global domination - Didier Drogba, Ricardo Carvalho, Paulo Ferreira, Michael Essien and Claude Makalele are all reportedly not best pleased at the way Mourinho's constructive dismissal was carried out.

It certainly appears to be a watershed for the club. Whether the Wormtongue presence of Avram Grant represents a long-term alternative as manager, the Israeli faces an enormous challenge in marshalling Mourinho's loyal footsoldiers under his command.

The duration of his stewardship, of course, will be precisely as long as Roman Abramovich's patience lasts. The Sacked Managers Union that represent most of the football punditry industry will line up squarely in support of Mourinho at this point. The outrageousness of a chairman and club owner dictating how a manager should do his job will be stated and underlined at length.

But the idea that any sort of normal moral compass applies in the world of Abramovich and Chelsea is utterly redundant. In the world that the Russian oligarch has created around Stamford Bridge, there is no right or wrong way. There is only Roman's way. It is a mini-moral universe in which Abramovich's word is the Truth.

And anyone who enters that world, lives by that word.

So if Abramovich felt that he - the creator and intelligent designer of this world - was unsatisfied that his hundreds of millions had failed to produce what he desired, the elusive winning-with-style conundrum, then Jose's fate was sealed. In short, Roman saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. But not great.

The ultimate irony in Mourinho's departure is that the man who portrayed himself as the quasi-supernatural 'Special One', was undone in a perfect enactment of the Christian theology that even the greatest man is subservient to the superior being.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Shakh-ing Night For Celtic

2-0, and as Shakhtar Donetsk manager Mircea Lucescu said, it could have been six. Everyone knows the statistic: fourteen Champions League away trips, no wins, just the one draw.

Looked at like that it reads like a formality, these pastings Celtic routinely endure on their travels. Like it's just part of a script, an intricate footballing protocol that features rousing home performance on one page, depressing away capitulations on the other.

Belief in the inevitability of it is backed up by the respective chequebook stubs of Celtic and Shakhtar. Celtic's summer business was constituted by the £8.1 million spend on midfielders Scott Brown and Massimo Donati, and the strikers Scott McDonald and Chris Killen. Shakhtar spent £35 million, largely on strikers Cristiano Lucarelli and Nery Castillo. Go figure.

But there is nothing inevitable in sport, as several of the Celtic players from last night would tell you from their experience seven days previously in Stade de France. Alex McLeish's Scottish side defeated France thanks to a courageous defensive performance, one borne of a collective understanding of what would be required to get a result against France.

Gordon Strachan's Celtic last night, on the other hand, were set up in a manner that seemed to ignore their previous struggles away from home and presume that they should take on the lucratively assembled Shakhtar side toe-to-toe. Ten minutes in with a 4-4-2 formation that left their rearguard flooded, and another awayday nightmare was in progress. Paul Hartley's redeployment to the same holding job he performed against France for his country came too late to do anything other than limit the damage.

There is also nothing inevitable about the sort of individual error that gifted Donetsk their opener. Stephen McManus, the defensive rock on which Scotland's resistance was built last week, gaffed the ball to the feet of Donetsk's creative lynchpin Fernandinho, and the game was up right there.

So whether it was destiny or decision, it was yet another harsh 'lesson' for Celtic. Still, if the standard Champions League curriculum is followed, AC Milan will be swept aside in a night of high emotion at Parkhead in two weeks time.

It's inevitable, isn't it?

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Eddie The Assassin

So Eddie has acted. Are the changes merely rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, or will they shore up the giant hole in Ireland's Rugby World Cup campaign?

If you were looking for a sacrificial lamb amongst the Irish team from the first two games, sticking a pin randomly in the teamsheet would probably have served your purpose just fine. But Peter Stringer pays the price for being the perpetrator of the most glaring, identifiable error, rather than the bulk of his teammates for their part in the astonishing malaise that has gripped the Irish team.

Eoin Reddan's elevation to the starting XV has met with much approval for the player's calibre (being the scrum-half on the current Heineken Cup champions is pedigree enough), but also no little dismay that the Wasps player has had virtually no prior test match experience. Reddan's selection raises serious alarm bells about Eddie O'Sullivan's preparations, and the suspicion arises that the coach is now implementing panic measures.

Only a short few days since he was considered the third best number nine in the squad, Reddan is now being called upon to instigate the forward momentum and pack management that has been virtually non-existent in the opening games. It's a bold move by Eddie; in poker parlance, the coach is 'all in'.

Andrew Trimble and Jerry Flannery are more straightforward changes, both bringing more explosiveness around the field than the men they replace, the under-par Denis Hickie and the injured Rory Best.

But it's the banishment of Geordan Murphy from the 22, replaced by the unheralded Gavin Duffy, that has caused the greatest consternation. Murphy, O'Sullivan claims, is paying the price for errors against the French in games seven and nineteen months ago. It hasn't required mind-reading skills to figure that O'Sullivan does not trust Murphy, his preference for Girvan Dempsey long being used as evidence for the 'Steady Eddie' characterisation of the coach.

But you could forgive O'Sullivan having Murphy on the bench with Dempsey at 15, the thinking being that, were a game-breaking, or -saving intervention required, at least Murphy's unpredictable talents could be drafted in. Now, if we require a dash of magic, we can replace the dependable Dempsey with the, er, also dependable Duffy. Hmmm.

Still, there it is; the bloodletting has occured. The changes will have energised the stiffs outside the regular 22 at least, with three of their tackle-bag carrying number having been asked to saddle up.

Whether Eddie's bold moves do the same for the rest of the underperforming squad remains to be seen.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

The Way of Things

Not the greatest week for Irish sport, was it? The accelerating pointlessness of our international soccer team, the bewildering collapse of the rugby team, and another lopsided, anti-climactic All-Ireland football final.

All we need now is for Padraig Harrington to test positive for cocaine (those post-Open celebrations at Stackstown Golf Club having gotten out of hand) and Aidan O'Brien to be caught in a compromising position with George Washington for the full set.

But while the All-Ireland wasn't the riveting spectacle we always hope for it to be, after a week of mediocrity there was the consolation of savouring the quality of a Kerry side that now begin to look their legendary predecessors directly in the eye.

The day after last year's All-Ireland final I wrote about having reservations about this Kerry team, following their hammering of Mayo. They needed, I felt, a championship-winning campaign that involved a titanic, defining victory over a similarly serious side, probably Tyrone, to ascend to that nebulous state of 'greatness'.

This year feels different. They had tough games; the three victories which preceded yesterday's were by small margins: two pints over Cork in the Munster final, one over Monaghan in the All-Ireland quarter-final and were two better than Dublin in the semi.

But there no longer seems the need for them to have conquered one of the other great teams of the era at their best. The fact that they appear to have outlived Tyrone as Gaelic football's masters might be part of it. But the simple, unequivocal total of Sam Maguires totted up is the main reason. Eventually, you have to stop speculating about the true worth of a team, stop trying to put their success into the context of the time and simply allow the weight of trophy numbers to win the argument.

Along with Kilkenny's hurling championship victory, Kerry's third All-Ireland in four years seems to have engendered a belated appreciation for the merits of the GAA's dynastic powers. After the vogue for the bench-pressing, wife-ignoring, self-flagellating preparation methods as espoused by the Ulster giants early in the decade, there's a definite re-evaluation of the merits of Kilkenny and Kerry's seemingly unforced cultures of success.

Without suggesting for a moment that the twin pillars of the GAA's intercounty temple don't scourge themselves in the gym and in laps of the winter fields, there's a naturalistic quality about their success that doesn't seem to be the result of the concerted efforts of a group of special, determined men, but rather is the involuntary expression of their people's sporting identity.

Both counties have had to ride out sustained periods where their pre-eminence was challenged over the last 15 to 20 years. Sooner or later other counties will come again, and take joy in knocking Kerry and Kilkenny off their perches. But eventually they'll return to where they belong, stronger and better than ever, restoring that feeling of permanence again. That's just the way it is.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Kerry On Winning

Moving on, then, to the major field sports at which we can't suffer international embarassment...

Funny old All-Ireland, this one. Barely more hype and hullabaloo than a decent provincial final. In fact, many have described the feeling ahead of Kerry v Cork as not much more than that of a Munster final, with the location, date and reward being a minor footnote.

As well as the distractions in France and in central Europe, it's the flipside of all the good things the qualifier system has brought us. All the novel pairings, all the hitherto neglected counties having their 15 minutes of fame, the extra fixtures - it's all done wonders for Championship GAA. But when you get a final like this one, it feels like getting an invite to the afters of a wedding: you're more than welcome to come along later, but, you know, it's going to be quite a private ceremony.

Funny, though, I recall much more anticipation for the Tyrone v Armagh final in 2003. Perhaps that was the novelty of the fixture, or the interest in what, at the time, seemed like a frightening new epoch of Ulster dominance. (Remember when RTE sent Tommie Gorman to make a documentary called The Men Behind Maguire shortly after Tyrone won that year. It seemed like Gorman was playing Leni Riefenstahl to Mickey Goebbels and Adolf Kernan at the time).

Leaving aside the likely disappointing viewing figures for Up For The Match tomorrow night, this is still an intriguing final between two very fine sides. I hesitate to tagline it as a battle between the forwards of Kerry and the backs of Cork; both have oodles of quality in the opposing halves, particulary Cork with the return of sharpshooting James Masters.

But why complicate things? Cork will succeed if they dominate the Kerry forward machine. Graham Canty is the type of defender you'd go to war with, and if anyone can subdue Kieran Donaghy, it is he. But the loss of Anthony Lynch hurts. The Gooch loves All-Ireland finals. He just does.

In the Munster final, which Kerry won by two points, Cork enjoyed a spell of dominance when they wrested control of midfield. The Rebels are strong here with Nicholas Murphy and Derek Kavanagh, and Michael Cussen will presumably be brought out again to buttress that area for Cork. They pretty much strangled Meath here in the semi, and Sunday demands a huge game from Darragh O Sé to hold the fort here.

But Kerry are not Meath. They seem to putting together one of those wonderfully timed Sam Maguire runs that they are able to do by second nature. Doing enough against Cork in Munster, Monaghan in the quarter-final, releasing the throttle a little more to pull away from Dublin.

With a bench bursting with impact players, Sam should make that familiar trip again this year.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

I Can Picture It Now...

One of keys to success, so they who know about these things claim, is to visualise it. That way, when it comes to the moment of truth, when your mettle is tested, it will feel like you have already done it before.

Being open of heart and generous of nature (just ask my servants) I have always longed for Steve Staunton to be a success as Ireland manager. Not just because, having the word "Eireannach" on my passport, it's expected; nor because of the long and dutiful service the lanky southpaw gave his country as a player.

Mainly, it was just so the poor wretch would not have to endure any longer the full, double-barrelled barrage of this nation's Industry of Ridicule, be they the amateur bar-room satirists of the general public and the (ahem) internet blogging community, or the professional firing squad of the media.
Such has been the torrent of denigration that Stan has endured (not all of it due to his 'interesting' team selections and 'minimalist' press conferences), it would not require Our Lady of Lourdes to wish for some mercy for the chap.

But back to the visualisation thing. In rooting for the guy, during those short interludes when his reign has been characterised by relative calm, I have often tried to picture success for the Louthman in the Ireland job. I have tried to visulaise Stan the Conquering Hero, striding onto the Croke Park turf - in Churchillian style, if you will - to take the acclaim after defeating Germany next month.

Or Stan the Master Tactician, who earns a respectful nod from Karel Bruckner, having just outwitted the grey Gandalf of European football in tonight's contest in Prague.

"A well deserved victory, Stephen, playing Richard Dunne up front - I had no idea. Alex Ferguson, Ottmar Hitzfeld, Capello and I are going for a Staropramen after the game, interested?"

"Ah no thanks Karel, I'd like to be with my boys."

Or Stan On The Late Late, spinning yarns to Pat about Mick Byrne's antics, recounting funny tales of the trip to the finals in Austria and Switzerland, holding the audience rapt, until Bono and Larry Mullen come in to present him with, I don't know, a saxaphone or something (I'm speculating on Stan having a rich cultural life, unbeknownst to his persecutors in the outside world).

But....I'm struggling. All I can see is Stan the Sacked, Stan the Bitter, Stan Blaming the Media, Stan the Newspaper Column Aimed At Taking Potshots At His Successor. I can see all them dancing in my brain like the results of a particularly bad acid trip. Stan the Success? He seems to have gone the way of Michael O'Leary the Humble, or Beckham the Publicity Shy.

I just hope Stan's better at this visualisation lark than I am.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Little More Action Please

One by one they filed in, each with the same bowed head, hand-wringing, but taking it like a man. Eddie, Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy; Marcus Horan turned up on RTE Radio 1, Shane Horgan took the notion of collective responsibility seriously on Newstalk. No doubt Paul O'Connell and David Wallace will minutely document the pain of it all in their Sunday newspaper columns.

The flipside of the ubiquity of this Irish rugby team - how did they fit any training in around all those advertising shoots? - is the necessity for accountability. And, fair play, they haven't gone to ground, you know. Horgan and Horan talked about yesterday's video analysis session, presented, one presumes, by Wes Craven. Guys fronted up, in the parlance of the sport; hands were raised in admission of culpability.

Which is all well and good. It's certainly better to hear than the line of being top of the group with a bonus point to boot. That one was floated by some, and sank carrying all crew of the S.S. Optimism to their graves.

While we're glad of their honesty, we don't need the articulacy of our rugby players to spell out the grim nature of Sunday's performance. Watching the game again on the Setanta repeat yesterday, commentator Mark Robson was reduced to reciting, like a Rabbi chanting the script of the Torah, the list of Namibia's previous results, stunned by the incongruity of what was in front of him.

"They lost in qualifying to Tunisia and Kenya...Georgia and Romania beat them in the Nations Cup....they only defeated Uganda by a point in June...Australia of course put 142 points on the scoreboard four years ago....they lost 32-20 to the South African Students, then South Africa beat them 105-13...."

Nowhere in that lot was there the remotest context for what happened on Sunday night, against a team for whom winning the competition was considered within the realm of reason.

The poverty of the Irish display was such that it cannot be simply ascribed to the seemingly random misfortune of individual errors. This wasn't a bad day at the office. This was more like turning up for work to find the office had been demolished by a bomb.

Very obviously, this team have not been properly prepared for the start of the World Cup. The idea that the Irish team that ran out of puff against Namibia could, had the draw placed them there instead, have matched France or Argentina in their opening game is laughable.

But there's the rub. Ireland's World Cup did not really start last Sunday. Sure, the points difference escape tunnel has now been blocked off. But, if the preparation of an international rugby side is as scientific as I think it is, one imagines that Stade de France a week on Friday is intended to be nearer the top of the graph the Stade Chaban Delmas two days ago.

It's a straw, and I'm clutching at it.

Not that there weren't abysmal things about Sunday that were nothing to do with conditioning and ring-rustiness. The gameplan, that familiar O'Sullivanism, for example. Why did we attempt to play this match as if we had just stepped off the pitch in Rome last March? Why not simply kick for territory and keep the Namibians pinned back, allowing ourselves to feel our way into some sort of fluency, rather than simply assuming it with through looking for midfield gaps that hadn't yet appeared?

The breakdown was disastrous, Ireland recycling ball with the urgency of a hen laying an egg (apologies to all hens if the egg laying process is, in fact, carried out in an urgent manner. I always imagine it to be a serene and sedate process. If not, you should complain more. Like female humans).

But on the other hand, Namibia killed so much ball illegally that referee Joel Jutge's failure to issue a yellow card was the greatest act of charity towards an African nation since Bob Geldof and the black babies.

They're smart men, our rugby boys; they speak well and they're no fools. They know more than you or I about what went wrong on Sunday, and have done enough in recent years to warrant a bit of faith.

But there's only so much talking you can do.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Must Do Better

Little Eddie O'Sullivan sat nervously outside the headmaster's office. His eyes were still puffy from tears; tears of embarassment, tears because he wasn't used to being in trouble.

Beside him, though, was Stevie Staunton. He knew all about the headmaster's office. He was no stranger to the sting of the birch, Stevie. In fact, he'd made the long walk up the corridor a few too many times lately; the head was talking expulsion, or so it was whispered in the staff room.

Little Eddie looked up at Stevie. "What you looking at, squirt?" drawled Stevie. "Ahhh, nuttin," Eddie stuttered, looking away. He swung his legs (which didn't quite reach the floor), faking nonchalance.

With a creak which chilled the soul of even the hairiest sixth-year, the door of the headmaster's office opened. He looked at the two boys in turn. Stevie he treated to a disdainful growl; Eddie a mournful shaking of the head.

He beckoned them both inside. "I expected this of him," he said to Eddie when they were all seated, jerking a thumb in Stevie's direction. "But you, Eddie? We had such hopes for you." He leaned forward, lowering his voice. "The reputation of the school! It's taken a few blows lately, what with this.....character!" The thumb jerked again.

"I am here y'know, in fairness," Stevie protested. "I'll come to you in a minute," the head snapped.

"I'm sorry sir, it was shocking. Horrible stuff. I just didn't get my ducks in a row. But we move on."

"Well I'll be the judge of that, I think," the head said with eyebrow raised. "I haven't seen so many unforced errors in our great uniform since....". His eyes drifted towards Stevie. "Well, indeed. The lack of composure, the poor decision-making, the shoddy line outs....really, very disappointing I must say."

"I've a lot of work to do this week, sir, but make no mistake, no stone will be unturned in putting things right." Eddie fixed the head with a determined look. He was a good lad, the head knew that. In all probability this was a one-off; the end-of-term report card would be time enough to judge young O'Sullivan.

"I fear that you may have been the subject of a.....negative influence, Mr. O'Sullivan," the head eventually pronounced, his eyes shifting to the slouched presence in the other chair, who was considering the produce of his nasal passage with the interest of an philatelist examining an original Penny Black.

"I'm not sure what you mean, sir," little Eddie chirped.

"I think you know very well what I mean. The lack of cohesion, the failure to capitalise on a good start, the absence of leadership. Oh this is vintage Staunton all right!" The head by now had turned his attention to Stevie, who ceased the study of his snot upon the mention of his name.

"I get blamed for everything in this place!" Stevie exclaimed, his face reddening.

"Yes it rather seems that you do, Staunton!" the head responded in kind. "Oh don't give me your backchat; I don't want hear about the positives, how your results have improved. They couldn't have gotten any worse! No, the janitor saw you Staunton, on Saturday night, up to your old tricks. Picking the wrong team with total disrespect for everyone else at this great institution, the abject substitutions, the failure hold on to possession; you've let yourself down, but most of all you've let this school down."

The head glanced at little Eddie: "O'Sullivan, get back to class!"

"Yes sir, thanks sir," said Eddie, scuttling away like a frightened mouse.

"I don't care if you expel me," Stevie sneered.

"Oh don't worry, when I'm finished with you, you'll be dreaming of expulsion!" the head roared.

He then reached into his drawer, where he kept his instrument of discipline.

"Dreaming!" he cackled, as Stevie shifted uneasily in his chair.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Formez Vos Bataillons!

It's the World in Union, sang Kiri Te Kanawa, deploying the play on words still beloved of Rugby World Cup organisers to this day.

Except it's not, of course. It's mainly the former British Empire, various pug-nosed French peasants, some Argentinian polo players and motley frightening Pacific Union.

Still, though, it's not a bad old collection of half-men, half-buses that will occupy our front centre of the sporting stage for the next God knows many weeks. The quadrennial installation of the All Blacks as favourites has been duly completed, and the quest of the men from those damp islands on the derriere of the globe to add the seal of the William Webb Ellis Trophy to their generally held position as the best team in the world will be compelling.

But the RWC (if you don't mind us referring to it as that henceforth), despite having a short history, is nonetheless in thrall to that past. All wizened experts, seeking to justify their wizenedness, point to the stumbles of highly fancied All Black teams in past tournaments: to the suspicious dose of Jo'burg belly that did for them in 1995 and the wily French and Australian outfits that outfoxed them in '99 and '03.

They can't handle the pressure, say the sceptics, who are invariably supping from a can of Fosters and driving a Ute at the time. Australia, masters of the sledging arts, have been poking the All Black beast in the belly since the Tri-Nations game in Melbourne in June, which the Wallabies won 20-15. "Awww, same awwld Awll Blacks," they've been drawling since, "ye can get to 'em, eh?"

Wallaby nous could very well test Kiwi mettle in the semi-final (should New Zealand overcome their quarter-final opponents, more of whom anon..), in a repeat of the 2003 semi. Yes, the All Blacks are bigger, better, deeper, stronger ( did I mention bigger?) than ever, but.....

We'll deal with the holders with the short shrift their reign as world champions deserves. With the departure of Clive Woodward, the retirement of Martin Johnson, Matt Dawson and Neil Back, and the descent into infirmity of Jonny Wilkinson, English rugby went through its most dismal period in perhaps three decades since that evening in Sydney four years ago.

The appointment of Brian Ashton as coach and the desperate re-arranging of the deckchairs on this doomed vessel will do little to discourage the view that a tame defence of their title is likely. Their pool game against South Africa should be of interest to geologists, replicating - when the two packs meet - the movement of the earth's plates. The Springboks have class all over the field; they should meet an equally immovable object in France in the semi-final, but one a little lighter on its feet.

If there is a surprise to be caused, and it is not at all a surprise, it should be Italy to emerge over Scotland in Pool C, repeating their Six Nations victory. Scottish preparations have been marred by the decimation of their domestic game, and it's now or never for Italy.

Wales's regression since their Grand Slam of 2005 is a fascinating demonstration of how the game of rugby changes. Back in '05 'offloading' was the word - everyone was doing it, it was the cool new craze!

But if you happened to catch Wales's recent warm-up match against France, you would have witnessed how the coaching intelligentsia responded to that tactic: defence, my boy, defence. Bigger, tighter, blitzier than ever and, according to those who know these things, likely to be the central theme of this tournament, unfortunately.

Now then, who have I forgotten? Ah yes. Samoa. No, okay; how are we going to do? We'll lose to France, beat Argentina and lose to the All Blacks. It is written by the prophets.

Had Ireland won the Grand Slam this year, the leap of faith to the semi-finals (i.e., topping the group and avoiding the All Blacks in the quarter-finals) would have been imaginable. Look at England in 2003. They didn't sit around in meetings telling each other they could win the World Cup. They had been the best team in the world for the previous two years. They knew they could win the World Cup.

The RWC is too gruelling, too taxing and too inhospitable a place to play yourself into title-winning form. You can't go there and find yourself. You rather need to have located yourself well in advance.

Ireland won't win this World Cup because they will sustain injuries to irreplaceable players, they will struggle in the scrummage against any of the other rated nations, they tend toward inconsistency too much, and because, fundamentally, they know they are just short of what is needed.

And Ireland will not top their group, avoid the All Blacks etc., etc., because they will be facing the future world champions in their third game. Excuse the crudity of the term in advance, but we have been 'ridden' by the draw. This France side are, as we already know, the real deal; they have extraordinary depth, and ferocious power. They are not the 'flair' side of old, only deploying the Rougeries and Dominicis when games are well won now; but my, they are strong.

All that, plus the "Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos bataillons!" bit in La Marseillaise resounding from the patriotic-when-they-want-to-be-as-long-as-there-are-no-bullets-involved French public in Stade de France, means they could be unstoppable.

There's an Achilles heel though. I'd rather like to have my half-back pairing sorted out on the eve of the tournament, thank you very much. Fragile Freddie Michalak might wobble at the right time for Ireland.

And then you never know.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Sheff The Greatest Brings Down Curtain on '07

You can see the kind of clear thinking and ruthless logic that has made Brian Cody the most successful manager in the modern GAA in his comments about Henry Shefflin the other day. Not only is Shefflin the best player of the current era, according to Cody, but he must be the greatest ever, simply because it is not possible for any player to have been better.

"I haven't seen better. There have been terrific players, I mean you go back to D.J. and there are so many players but there couldn't have been a better hurler than Henry Shefflin. There couldn't have been because it couldn't be possible," said Cody.

It's a logical construct worthy of the greatest classical thinkers, that one. It kills debate before it can even start. Which is also pretty much what Kilkenny did to Limerick in the opening minutes of Sunday's All-Ireland final, ending what had been a thrilling and heart-stopping hurling summer with the cold steel of the assassin's blade.

Limerick were the story of the summer of course: that county's morose and grim recent history being shaken off with the vigour of a Richie Bennis bear hug. The three-match series which resulted in ultimate victory over Tipperary was a perfect advertisement for the power of positive thinking.
Despite being ten points down deep into the second match, clearly Limerick were never actually beaten, which, when you look at that deficit again, is an extraordinary compliment to the belief they must have had even then, and which took them further than anyone could have imagined this year.

Everything went right for them in the semi-final against Waterford, sure, but again, what utter boldness of mentality they showed in coming through that game.

Waterford trooped disconsolately from Croke Park that day, with the back cover of the history book closing in on this team. That, of course, might be an over-dramatic, simplistic reading of their current station, but the sense that this year was their time was so strong, causing as it did that feeling that the nation was willing them to finally breakthrough.

One suspects that the two games against Cork drew just a little too much gunpowder from their arsenal, and there was a notable flatness to the team that couldn't quite rise to Limerick's ferocious challenge.

Still, the absence of a Kilkenny-Cork final this year at least eliminates that sense of drabness that had begun to hang around the sport in recent seasons. Now the questions are manifold: three-in-a-row for the Cats? Did Waterford miss their chance? Can Limerick scale the heights again? Will the Rebels rise up in 2008? And what of the 'lunatic' fringe in the West?

He always seems to get the last word, that Loughnane fella.


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Monday, September 03, 2007

Music To Watch Games By

It was a well-earned holiday week for TSA, but not a great sport-watching one. The main attractions for this correspondent - Celtic's Champions League qualifier against Spartak Moscow and the All-Ireland hurling final - were seriously compromised.

The former kicked off shortly before a return flight from Edinburgh to Dublin. The first half was fine, watched on BBC Scotland in TSA's sisters' house; no problems. The only mild inconvencience was the presence of TSA's 2-year-old nephew in the vicinity.

Due to the little fella adopting the same attitude to learning the English language as Long John Silver's parrot, the usual profanities that would accompany a match of this magnitude were forbidden. The only oath that crept out was an imprecation to the son of God on the occasion of a misplaced pass, which the child duly picked up like so many pieces of eight. Haha, Professor Dawkins! Another generation imprisoned by the irrationality of religion!

The second half, however, was less satisfactory. Wetherspoon's in Edinburgh airport isn't listed as one of Scotland's top pubs in any guide books I've read, but it isn't the worst of the genre. However, showing a crucial Champions League qualifier with the sound muted and the musical stylings of Avril Lavigne accompanying the action won't recommend this hostelry for future sporting occasions.

"Why'd you have to go and make things so complicated," the sulky Canadian once sang, and I couldn't disagree as boarding for the flight to Dublin was called in synchronisation with the commencement of extra-time.

I stomped my feet and stormed to my metaphorical bedroom, like Queen of Teen Spleen would have wished. Extra-time and penalties had to be consumed in bite-size portions: three terse text messages from my sister, like telegrams delivered to war-time widows (Mrs. Smith Stop Husband Dead Stop Line of Duty Stop King and country etc....).

They read:

1. V of H missed pen.

2. Penalties.

2. Yes! Yes! Yes!

In fairness, as coverage goes it was better than most of the match reports I read in the aftermath.

Pity she wasn't in Ireland to tell me about the All-Ireland hurling final yesterday. An executive decision by the organisers of the Electric Picnic meant that it wasn't being shown at the boutique music festival (boutique in the sense of being smaller, an adjective which didn't stretch to the piles of poo in the toilets by Sunday afternoon).

Never mind; one of the more resourceful food vans - which had a nifty, booming soundsystem previously used to showcase suitably EP-type hipster tunes - switched to RTE Radio 1 for the duration, so that the fittingly melodic tones of Micheal O Muircheartaigh chimed through the Stradbally air.

The sound formed was a sort of, er....sorry about this Micheal, but I believe the current parlance is "mash-up"....blending the bard of Dún Síon with unlikely bedfellows in the Beastie Boys, playing the nearby Electric Arena. As the opening riff of Sabotage cranked up, Kilkenny's charge to another title was nearing completion.

And to think that the Kilkenny panel sang the bloody Rose of Mooncoin in the dressing room after the match.

Jesus lads, as my 2-year-old nephew might say.

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