Ireland Miles Ahead!

The late, great Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile barrier in 1954. He was the first athlete to break the much coveted record. Previously it had been assumed a nigh on impossible task. But Bannister believed in his ability and had the ambition, conviction and perseverance to make his dream happen. Lesser mortals crumbled, but Bannister stuck to his task and achieved greatness in the end. Inspiring isn’t the word.

But a curious thing then happened. Within six weeks the new record was broken. And within a decade, five other athletes had managed this once miraculous feat. Because Bannister had proved it was possible, the psychological barrier was removed. Sub four minute miles were no longer viewed as unachievable.

In much the same way, Irish rugby’s own psychological block in relation to the All Blacks is now lifted. Of course there was always the talent and potential to overcome the world’s best, but prior to that unforgettable evening in Chicago in 2016, there was no history, no precedent and no experience to draw on. Post Chicago, I ventured that we wouldn’t have to wait another century to beat New Zealand. So it has proved.

It’s just incredible to think how far Irish rugby has come. Those of us old enough to remember the irredeemably grim days of the 1990s scarcely believe what is happening. Three Six Nations titles-including a second Slam-, a first win over South Africa away from the auld sod, a first series win in Australia over three Tests and not one but two, yes two, wins over the double world champions. Even the golden generation didn’t come close to this. And now the man who masterminded the whole enterprise is off. Oh no! At least the exit was well signposted. Joe had the courtesy to prepare us, bless him!

I’m fascinated by the idea of difference between public and private personas. We know the public persona of Joe Schmidt. Witty, self-deprecating, engaging, erudite and even charming, almost avuncular at times. But there’s clearly another Joe, one the public doesn’t see. There’s Joe Schmidt the coach. I’ve never met the man but the players’ testimony reveals a clear picture of an extremely driven man: tough, uncompromising, exacting and ruthless. A winner.

The Kiwi’s often brutal Monday morning video review sessions are, of course, the stuff of rugby legend. One reason the Kiwis have struggled against Schmidt is they’ve been outwitted by one of their own. Joe thinks exactly the same way they do; he’s a hard working perfectionist who patently detests losing.

One word comes up consistently in any discussion about Ireland’s coach: detail. Schmidt imparts a wealth of detail and knowledge and expects players to do their homework in return. This approach insists on the highest standards, reflecting an Irish set-up that’s set a new benchmark in professionalism and preparation. Irish success over the past six years hasn’t happened by accident.

Although we still have him for another year, time is fast running out on the Schmidt era, with Ireland’s best ever coach stepping down after next year’s World Cup to take a much deserved break and spend some time with his family. Ireland’s highly regarded defence coach Andy Farrell has got the unenviable task of following the guru and while everyone associated with Irish rugby wishes him well, it’s hard to see Schmidt’s unprecedented success being replicated.

The former Rugby League star is a charismatic and capable coach, one who’s obviously gained the Schmidt seal of approval. He has, however, never been the main man and earns his promotion in the unforgiving glare of the international arena. It’s a tough ask but the steely Englishman is undoubtedly up for the challenge.

And the incoming head coach has the fortune of inheriting the greatest environment in Test Rugby and Irish rugby history. Schmidt’s set up is the envy of the rugby world and he leaves a legacy that will enrich the sport in Ireland for years to come. Farrell is taking charge of a young, fearless team, one that is teeming with ambition and focused firmly on continuing its remarkable run of success. Ireland’s young guns are far from finished and that is supremely exciting. The likes of James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale have years left in them.

But for all Farrell’s prospective riches, he has one hell of an act to follow. Because Ireland’s favourite Kiwi has taken Irish rugby into uncharted territory. Our best ever World Cup performance surely awaits next year. New Zealand remain the standard bearers and are still the most talented side in world rugby. However, in terms of preparation and professional standards, Schmidt’s Ireland are miles ahead of the competition.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Image: @OvalDigest [Public domain or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

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God Save Queen!

I’ve always been a bit of a Queen fan. Therefore, I went to see the new biopic Bohemian Rhapsody with a fair degree of excitement and trepidation. Excitement because I was keen to see what they’d done with the movie after years in the pipeline, but trepidation because I hoped they’d made a movie worthy of the name. And, by the time I saw it, I’d read quite a few reviews. To say the reviews have been decidedly mixed is to be kind. However, it’s important not to pre-judge and I did my best to retain an open mind prior to viewing it.

For anyone who’s been put off by the lacklustre reception the movie’s received, I’ve some great news for you. The film is bloody marvellous! It emphatically exceeded my expectations and then some. First of all, Bohemian Rhapsody must be the product of the greatest piece of casting of all time. Gwilym Lee and Joseph Mazzelo are quite uncanny as Brian May and John Deacon respectively (honestly you have to see these performances to believe them!), even if Ian Beale’s son (actor Ben Hardy) isn’t quite right as Roger Taylor.

However, the most sensational performance of the film is delivered, quite appropriately, by the virtuoso Rami Malek. Malek’s performance is nothing sort of breathtaking, at once encapsulating Mercury’s rock god persona and peerless stage presence alongside his simultaneous vulnerability and frailty. It is a performance grounded in pathos. It would be so easy to go over the top with extravagance and flamboyance (and I’m sure that was the temptation) but Malek keeps his Mercury grounded and relatable at all times, while retaining that omnipresent sense of superstardom. It’s a delicate balancing act and one the American actor pulls off with aplomb.

Queen purists be warned, Bohemian Rhapsody plays fast and loose with some of the chronology, but I guess that’s a necessary evil to make the movie as pacey and coherent as it needs to be. The authenticity comes from the emotional trueness of the depiction of relationships within the band and in the faithful recreation of the live performances. Even if some facts are altered slightly and crucial episodes left out altogether, the genuineness of the narrative is always apparent and driven by the superb performances of the leads, especially Malek.

One of my concerns approaching this movie was my knowledge that May and Taylor are executive producers on the project, along with long time Queen manager Jim Beach. How can any individual be objective about his/her own life? Aren’t biopics and biographies always better served by independence in their production?

On the contrary, the presence of such impeccable first hand sources has only enhanced the authenticity and quality of this picture. And there are plenty of good documentaries out there for anyone who wants a less partisan perspective. First hand accounts from the protagonists involved in any project are always going to be a much different animal.

The alleged baddie of the piece (if there is one) is Mercury’s former manager/assistant Paul Prenter. Prenter comes across as a divisive figure and the instigator of considerable tension between Queen’s frontman and the rest of the band. Make of that what  you will. May and Taylor are on record as not being Prenter’s biggest fans, shall we say. Bohemian Rhapsody captures the dual source of Queen’s magic, the genius and innovation of their recording techniques (inspired as they were by their idols The Beatles) and the electric quality of their unrivalled stage performances. That unique chemistry and charisma shines through strongly.

Like any Hollywood movie, Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t without its cheap moments. One particular stinker comes when a heavily made up Mike Myers, when discussing the iconic single after which this biopic is eponymously named, explains to the band while debating its suitability as a single that you’ll never find kids head-banging to it. Grim stuff, I know! There are also some sequences of the band rehearsing in the studio that don’t quite work for me. Such is the nature of the beast. It’s inevitable that such a grand vision falls over in places.

Overall, though, Bohemian Rhapsody is a triumph of epic proportions. Whether a Queen fan or not, it would be hard not to enjoy this movie. Great songs, great performances and an inside perspective on a fascinating era of rock history. The film ends with a stunning recreation of Queen’s reviving Live Aid cameo set that evoked in me a nostalgic yearning for the grand old stadium.

But most of all, there’s Malek. It’s worth seeing this film for his mesmeric performance if nothing else. Prior to seeing Bohemian Rhapsody, I thought the personification of Mercury’s unique showmanship and talent was unrealistic. Many have imitated, but few have come close to capturing the brilliance of one of rock’s greatest ever performers. Malek has done the seemingly impossible, however, and massive credit is due for a career defining performance. But Bohemian Rhapsody is full of plentiful and unexpected delights. Heck, it’s worth going for the music alone!

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Brexit: Deal Or No Deal?

In observing recent negotiations concerning the UK’s ever hastily impending withdrawal from the European Union, I’m finding the vocabulary used extremely familiar. We’re at a seminal stage in the Brexit talks and even at this decidedly late juncture, it’s hard to discern what progress has been made, either real or apparent. With negotiations seemingly deadlocked and with little prospect of a definitive breakthrough, there’s not exactly an abundance of optimism in the air and the mood of the population at large has become increasingly dark. The overriding feelings surrounding the most historic event of this generation are not so much febrile as depressingly toxic. These are certainly unique times. For all that, I can’t shake off this feeling of familiarity with the language being used. Where have I heard it before? Oh, that’s right: Noel Edmonds!

Yes, deal or no deal. That’s the question on the lips of an entire continent and an anxious watching world. Just what has Michel Barnier got concealed in that envelope of his? Alas, nothing of substance as far as Theresa’s May’s bitterly divided administration is concerned. What makes the impasse all the more intolerable is you sense we’re nearly there; that a positive outcome is tantalisingly close. So near and yet so far.

What we’ve seen in recent weeks is the unedifying sight of both sides frantically dancing on the head of a pin to find a commonly accepted form of words that’ll suit everyone. Neither party will get everything it wants, of course, but hey that’s the nature of compromise. Despite the wholly predictable mutual rejection of the latest sets of proposals, the broad outline of a deal is there and has been for many months now. The issue is one of marketability; how well both sides can sell any deal to their complex constituencies.

And May’s position is devilishly complicated. As if leading a party publicly tearing itself apart and in the midst of a de facto civil war wasn’t arduous enough, Britain’s premier must contend with another notoriously disagreeable component. In fact, dealing with arch Brexiteers like Rees-Mogg, Johnson and Davis is a veritable walk in the park compared to the intransigents in the DUP, upon whom Mrs May relies for her government’s survival. On top of all that, the British PM has to combat the impressive and formidable Barnier. A rock and a hard place doesn’t even come close to describing May’s predicament!

Perhaps we should’t be too gloomy. Common sense and pragmatism dictates that a deal will the done. As does the exigencies of the Irish border. The financial markets are edgy, businesses the length and breadth of the continent are begging for certainty and politicians from all sides of the spectrum are scurrying around furiously looking for a way to extricate themselves from this unholy mess. A no deal scenario is inconceivable in that context. Or is it?

The trouble is the protagonists have entrenched themselves so deeply that it’s becoming ever more difficult to negotiate a safe and secure way out. Pride and stubbornness have become factors here. No-one wants to lose face. But the stakes are way too high for pointless grandstanding and brinkmanship. Good sense must prevail in the middle of all this madness.

If that means a few extra customs checks on goods coming across the Irish sea, then so be it. It seems a small price to pay to avert the biggest political, economic and constitutional crisis to afflict these islands in a generation. This is a time for courage. A time for bold and conscientious leadership. It’s quite ironic that the calamitous breakdown in British/EU relations was at least partially inspired by the global financial meltdown and bail outs; whose grim ten year anniversary has just been marked. Brexit: Deal or No Deal? I wonder what The Banker has to say about it all?

 

File:Flag of Europe.svg

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Image courtesy of Wikipedia: By User:Verdy p, User:-xfi-, User:Paddu, User:Nightstallion, User:Funakoshi, User:Jeltz, User:Dbenbenn, User:Zscout370 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

James Hume: An emerging talent with a steely purpose

Another chance below to hear the interview I conducted with emerging Ulster Rugby prospect James Hume for http://www.insideireland.ie  :

This piece took a bit of organising. Being a part-time sports journo (blagger some might say-that’s how they say blogger in Belfast, by the way!) can be a challenging preoccupation. I only had a short window to meet my interviewee during a busy pre-season for Ulster Rugby. It was worth it, though.

I arrived at the reception of Kingspan Stadium at half nine on a wet Friday morning in the pouring August rain and was directed with a smile to the players’ training room and meeting facilities. I raced around and found a drenched Henry Speight being put through his paces by a photographer. I wondered to myself if Henry had been warned about the notorious northern Irish weather before putting pen to paper and actually muttered something in that spirit to the affable Aussie winger. Henry, it turns out, is aware of the great summer we’ve been enjoying this year, but alas arrives in Belfast just as the local climate has reverted to type.

But no, Henry wasn’t my interviewee. I’d come to at Ulster’s unrivalled facilities to meet James Hume (you can listen to the full interview below-, an up and coming Irish rugby star who’s sailed through the underage representative ranks. I was immediately impressed with James’s assuredness. The youngster greeted me with a firm handshake and calmly settled into our interview like an old pro. If only I’d been as confident and mature when I was twenty!

In a short but thorough interview, we discussed James’s hopes and ambitions for the new season, his experience with the Irish under 20 set-up-including his recent appearance at the under -20 World Cup-, James’s rugby heroes and the warm way he’s been accepted into the professional fold by his colleagues and teammates.

We also touched on James’s extensive knowledge of incoming Ulster Skills coach, Daniel Soper. For those who don’t know, Soper coached James at Banbridge RFC and enjoyed an extremely successful spell together when Soper guided RBAI, Hume’s alma mater, to three Ulster Schools’ Cup victories in a row. Pretty impressive stuff, although that’s hard to say for a Campbell man! There’s sure to be further glory ahead as Hume continues availing of Soper’s expert tutelage at Ravenhill.

James also revealed his thoughts on the recently announced Celtic Cup competition-the replacement for the now defunct British and Irish Cup-and the potential opportunity it offers young players to gain competitive experience and game-time away from the intense cauldron that is the Pro 14.

The new competition has been conceived as a vehicle to give ‘A’ and Academy players from the Celtic nations and clubs a chance to gain valuable playing exposure before breaking into their first team set-ups. Elite development and the provision of a pathway to professional rugby are essential components of any rugby system and it’s heartening to see Irish provinces benefiting from this exciting development. David Nucifora, in particular, will be delighted.

Hopefully James Hume will be one of many exciting young Ulster prospects to make their breakthrough this season. Young players, after all, are the future of Irish rugby and the health of the game in Ireland rests in their hands. After spending an enjoyable half-an-hour with the talented and articulate Hume, I was left with the abiding impression that Ireland’s new generation is more than up for the task. Our chat ended and James joined Henry and the others for a scheduled walk through in the rain.  As I departed an inclement Kingspan, I was reassured that the weather may be overcast but the future is definitely bright.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Bruce Almighty

On 2 August I had the pure, unadulterated pleasure of seeing Iron Maiden play in Belfast. It’s the third time I’ve seen the heavy metal giants live and, as always, the show didn’t disappoint for even a moment. In fact, the rock veterans have taken their show to new, unprecedented levels and the band now has few peers for theatre, spectacle and live performance. Indeed, I can think of few rock contemporaries capable of coming close to matching Maiden as a live act.

In observing this greatness, I couldn’t help but contrast Maiden’s near flawless, uber-polished set with the first time I’d seen them: 1996 at Belfast’s now decommissioned Maysfield Leisure Centre. Don’t get me wrong. Maiden were fantastic that evening as well, but their more recent outing as part of the Legacy of the Beast World Tour was a simply tremendous gig: loud and raucous, but also wonderfully melodic and lyrical as well.

That Maysfield concert seems like a world away in contrast. The modestly sized venue wasn’t even full to capacity and that tour happened during Maiden front man Bruce Dickinson’s six year absence from the band. Dickinson’s replacement, Blaze Bayley, is a decent enough singer but he’s no Bruce.

Indeed, the recent gig illustrates perfectly the profound wisdom of Bruce rejoining the band in 1999, alongside Adrian Smith. Call it providence, chemistry or whatever you fancy, but Maiden are infinitely better with Bruce at the helm. The band’s spectacular and consistent ascendancy since Dickinson’s return to the fold is no mere coincidence. He is among the most eminent front men in the business, possessing one of the most recognisable and powerful voices in rock.

All the fan favourites were there: The Trooper, The Number of The Beast and Fear of The Dark. The set also included a few curve balls and some numbers that hadn’t seen the light of day in a while; notably Sign of The Cross and The Flight of Icarus. The stage and light shows are as spectacular as ever. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the overall show has ever been stronger. There’s no doubt anyone unfamiliar with Maiden’s canon could enjoy this show without needing much of  a reference point in terms of the music.

But what makes it all work so majestically is the band itself. Steve Harris still gallops around stage like a man possessed, keeping it all neatly together. Maiden’s three guitarists, moreover, are a joy to behold; working seamlessly in perfect sync and harmony. They literally never miss a beat and any group would be lucky to have them, especially the brilliant Smith. Bruce, as we know, does performance and showmanship every bit as well as poignancy; while the evergreen Nicko is perhaps the unsung hero of the piece. Individually these guys are undoubtedly supremely talented. Collectively they are simply mesmeric!

What’s even more impressive is that Maiden can still perform at this level despite having so many miles on the clock. Even the baby of the band-Bruce-has just turned sixty, after all (how wonderful to see him looking so well after his recovery from illness). When any band has been around this long, it’s inevitable, however, that questions are asked about how much longer they can continue. Sure, we’ve been asking that about the Stones for what seems a lifetime! Fans will hope that one of the best bands around has plenty left in the tank. There’s no doubt Maiden have much more to offer and some modern acts could learn a thing or two from the masters about giving fans what they want. How long can Maiden go on for? On the evidence of the Belfast show, they’ll be around for a while yet!

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

 

 

 

Play It Again Sam!

Sad news has emerged from the world of rugby with the dreadfully unfortunate confirmation that Wales and Lions’ legend Sam Warburton has been forced to retire from the game at the ridiculously young age of 29. Generous tributes have been liberally and predictably offered from all corners of the globe. It’s a reflection of the unanimous esteem in which the Cardiff, Wales and Lions’ stalwart is held by the game he’s graced with such class for the best part of the past decade.

Warburton is indeed a colossal loss to rugby. Since the announcement, there’s been fervent debate in Twitter land regarding whether the Cardiff Blues openside can legitimately be considered one of the genuine greats. And indeed there are strong points of view on both sides of what’s been an impassioned argument. People sometimes get bogged down in detail and complexity when attempting to make such subjective assessments, to such an extent they often can’t see the wood for the trees. Others foolishly fall back on statistics to prove their point. Lies, damned lies and…….

For me, it’s much more straightforward. My definition of sporting greatness is infinitely more simple, but as a test, I’m adamant that it works. In fact, it’s virtually infallible! My test of rugby greatness is this: the ability of a player to transform the fortunes of a side just by their mere presence. The capacity to not just improve a team but make it immeasurably better by your place within it. Consider all the modern day greats of the game: Martin Johnson, Jonny Wilkinson, Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Brian O’Driscoll, to name but a few. They all inspired teams to success and achievement through brilliance, influence and talent. Those players possessed individual skills that elevated  teams beyond collective limitations.

Sam Warburton was undoubtedly in that mould. Maybe not the flashest, but he always delivered when it really mattered. The Wales flanker improved teams significantly and decisively by his presence. Sam was obviously a tremendous technical rugby player, strong in the tackle and an imperious operator at the breakdown. That was Warburton’s bread and butter, of course. The former Wales captain was also a much more prolific ball carrier than he was ever given credit for. However, as all rugby fans know, it takes much more than technical proficiency to be a truly great Test back rower. Warburton also possessed the hardness and resilience necessary to operate at the coalface of his sport. ‘The Mongrel Dog’ as they call it in New Zealand.

Warburton also had that intangible, undefinable quality; the attribute that’s so devilishly elusive in life but we all know it when we see it. Leadership. Some forwards are born to be captains: Johnson, Fitzpatrick and McCaw spring immediately to mind. Warburton too. There’s no doubt about his place among that pantheon. Most great captains are wonderful rugby players, but alas not all great players are captaincy material. Sam Warburton was both. It’s a delicate balancing act. The best captains need to have enough intelligence to understand the tactical and technical nuances of the game, an instinct to make good decisions under the most acute pressure and have an ability to inspire the players around them through words and deeds. Diplomacy is vital too. Who better than the softly spoken Sam at getting into the ears of the most stubborn of referees?

In making a case for greatness, Warburton’s accomplishments with the Lions are surely enough to get him there if nothing else. Emulating that other great skipper of the modern era, Johnson, leading the tourists on two separate expeditions is a magnificent and monumental achievement in itself. But it’s Warburton’s record with the Lions that stands out like a shining beacon. A series win against the Aussies, followed by a superb draw against the world champions in their own back yard. Gee, that’s not a bad CV for a guy who’s been forced to retire the wrong side of 30! It’s an interesting debate, but I know which side I lean towards. A modern great of the game? Unquestionably! It’s the end of the road, playing wise, for one of the good guys but what a career he’s had. Play it again Sam. I’ve no doubt Warburton will excel in whatever he turns his hand to next

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

File:Sam Warburton cropped.jpg

By Blackcat [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Respect Earned The Hard Way!

‘Passionate.’ That’s the adjective once commonly used to describe the Irish rugby team. The term was particularly prevalent among the rugby giants of the southern hemisphere. Prior to any big game against opponents from south of the equator, rival players would queue up to tell us how respectful they were of the fighting Irish and how they were  wary of the ‘passion’ Ireland always brought to the party. These extremely patronising descriptions made the cream of Irish sport sound more like horny Love Island contestants than elite sportsmen.

The curious thing about the ‘passion’ label is that was applied long after Ireland became genuine and legitimate contenders on the international stage. In the old amateur and semi-professional days such condescension was perhaps forgivable, but even as the golden generation of Irish rugby was strutting its stuff on the Test stage, opponents could still be heard routinely rabbiting on about Ireland and their famed passion.

I used to wonder about this bizarre tendency. It was excusable when Irish results were unremittingly poor, but why did such attitudes prevail when the men in green were regularly winning in the Test arena? The answer was delivered in the context of Ireland’s unremarkable record against the All Blacks-just one win recorded in countless attempts; last November in Chicago. Before a New Zealand Test a few years ago, I read an interview with a former All Black international explaining the apparent lack of recognition afforded to Ireland’s finest. ‘In order to gain our respect,’ he explained, ‘you have to beat us.’

Well, the vernacular surrounding Irish international rugby has changed markedly from the well worn and tiresome platitudes of the past. Opponents from near and far are falling over themselves to fawn over Joe Schmidt’s record breaking outfit. Recent results tell a magnificent and unprecedented story. Three Six Nations Championships, a Grand Slam, a first win over the Springboks on South African soil and the aforementioned maiden win over the world champion All Blacks is a truly formidable record. And now, remarkably, Ireland’s first ever southern hemisphere series win (against a revitalised Australia) contested over three Tests has just been achieved.

And to think there were idiots calling for Schmidt’s head not so long ago. The absurdity! Ireland’s favourite Kiwi has built a relentless and formidable squad, one capable of consistently overcoming anyone in world rugby. Number two in the world and on merit. And this side is taking Irish rugby to uncharted territory; places the golden generation could only dream of.

At the turn of the century, we marvelled at the infusion of youngsters like Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara who entered Test rugby without the fear and inferiority complex that blighted their predecessors. But the current crop is the product of an even more impressive harvest. Today’s youngsters literally expect to win every game they play. Take James Ryan. Ireland’s new dynamo of a second row has only lost one match as a professional rugby player. Consider that for a moment!

But this is what we’re dealing with. Schmidt and his squad of modest and humble superstars are taking Irish rugby to new, exciting places. The overriding concern of the Irish coach post the 2015 World Cup was to build new depth and resourcefulness into the Irish squad. And while some positions remain relatively callow, there’s no doubt Irish rugby is in as strong a position as it’s ever been. Winning plaudits from all corners of the globe and primed for an assault on rugby’s premier competition. The trophies, of course, tell their own tale, but if you need substantive proof of the esteem Ireland’s players are currently held, just listen to the respectful way opponents are now talking about them. Respect that’s been earned the hard way!

PS The football World Cup has kicked off in far away Russia and the tournament has thus far been characterised by a series of upsets and unexpected results. Despite the unpredictable start, few are expecting too many surprises come the business end of the competition. It’ll be the usual suspects in with a chance of ultimate glory. Or will it? They always seem to fall short and are perpetually addicted to underachievement, but England are due to perform in a major tournament one of these days. Maybe, just maybe, 2018 will be the year?

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey