Back To The Future

Following the fortunes of Irish rugby has been one of the main preoccupations of my adult life. It’s a pastime that’s given me my fair share of pleasure and pain. Of course it was great to celebrate the successes: the Grand Slam, Six Nations titles, Triple Crowns, provincial glory in the Heineken Cup. But as any true Irish fan will tell you, we’ve also had plenty of disappointment and heartache. Of course we’re supposed to treat those twin impostors just the same, but sport doesn’t work like that. It’s a realm where the heart rules the head.

And there’s been a lot of gloom surrounding Irish rugby in the past eighteen months. Following Ireland’s underwhelming exit from the World Cup at the quarter-final stage, the state of Irish rugby seemed to take a permanent turn for the worse in the ensuing months when the Irish provinces struggled to get out of their Champions Cup groups. All of a sudden, the previously exalted Irish national model was being criticised and condemned by all and sundry. Irish rugby was being stifled by conservatism and inertia, or so the allegation went. Such was the all pervasive wealth of the French clubs, moreover, it was claimed that the Irish could no longer compete on anything approaching equal terms.

Well, fast forward a year and the outlook is rather different. Not only have we seen a resurgent and confident national side thanks to the wondrous, historic victory over the All Blacks, Irish clubs have not only survived but prospered in Europe this season. The turnaround has been quite remarkable indeed. And the crowds are starting to return following years of apathy and disillusionment with the fading success. Nowhere is this transformation more evident than  Munster’s famous Thomond Park fortress. In recent times, the empty Thomond terraces spoke not only of the worst economic recession in living memory, but a more general malaise within Irish rugby. A generation of young rugby followers reared on success and who’d absolutely no memory of the bad old days struggled to adapt to changing realities. The boom had been great, but who needed the bust?

It’s for this reason and so many others, that the recent resurgence is to be welcomed. At last, Irish rugby followers have got smiles on their faces again and supporters are looking forward to the business end of the season with a degree of optimism not seen since the halcyon days of 2009 to 2012. The upturn in fortunes gives lie to the fallacy that the Irish system doesn’t work. Although imperfect and certainly riddled with flaws, the Irish system of central contracts affords a degree of protection and support that players can’t expect to experience elsewhere.

And our envied school and academy system consistently produces a conveyor belt of talent that the rich French clubs can only dream of enjoying. Just think: how good could we be if the supply lines were at last extended beyond the narrow, traditional rugby constituency? If you doubt the extent of talent within the Irish system, take a moment to ponder Joe Schmidt’s options in each position and you’ll realise the abundance that’s available. The last eighteen months have undoubtedly been a relatively tough time for the Irish game. Much soul searching has been done. And yet who were the first two teams to qualify from this season’s Champions’ Cup pools? Leinster and Munster. The demise of Irish rugby has been greatly exaggerated.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

Schmidt’s Boys Make History

We all wondered how the streak would end. Nothing lasts forever. All good things come to their natural conclusion at some point in time. No-one expected it to be yesterday, though. The Irish rugby team’s trip to Chicago to take on the mighty All Blacks was understandably billed as mission impossible. Yes, the trip was important in terms of marketing and global rugby politics; a sort of evangelist mission to take the oval ball game to one of the sport’s final frontiers. And of course a trip to see the sights of Chicago in the beautiful autumnal sunshine is never something to be sniffed at. But no-one expected Schmidt’s boys to win. Nobody. Not even the most ardent Ireland supporter.

You have to consider the context to understand this lack of optimism. New Zealand are the current world champions and have just completed the Rugby Championship unbeaten, amassing ludicrously large scores in the process. When the All Blacks defeated Australia a couple of weeks ago, the New Zealanders set a new world record of 18 consecutive Test wins. Such was their aura of invincibility, many pundits hailed these All Blacks as the greatest team ever to play the game. The very best.

Irish excuses were ready made and well prepared in advance. The travel, injuries, lack of game time for key men, truncated preparation, limited time together, jet lag…..I could go on. It was even mooted that Schmidt regarded the Chicago expedition as no more than a hit out, a shot to nothing and was targeting the forthcoming game in Dublin as Ireland’s more realistic chance of victory. With the Irish written off in all quarters, therefore, a New Zealand victory was seen as a virtual fait accompli. Ireland tore the pre-ordained script into a thousand pieces; the world champions falling unwittingly into Joe Schmidt’s unexpected ambush.

In writing a blog, I try very hard to avoid the treacherous world of sports writing cliches. It’s easy to fall into the trap. You know the sort of thing: “The boys done good, the crowd were the 16th man, Chicago was painted green last night etc….” All that meaningless nonsense. I don’t believe in unnecessary hype or exaggeration, either. If a story is strong enough or has enough resonance, it tells itself. No amplification is needed. When everyone else is getting carried away, I always strive to be realistic and measured.

I haven’t watched the game again yet, but my initial impression is that I can’t remember a better Irish performance. That’s why I’m unusually reticent to play this one down. Ireland not only beat a great New Zealand team, they dominated them for large portions of the game. And even when the All Blacks stormed back into it in the second half-as was inevitable-the men in green still had the mental fortitude and resilience to close it out. If this was one of the best Irish performances ever, it was because it simply had to be. Nothing else would be sufficient against one of the standout rugby teams of any era.

Ireland were wonderful. Schmidt’s bespoke game plan was implemented to perfection. Contrary to presumptions, the Irish kept the ball in hand and switched the point of attack with immaculate precision. In coordinating the effort, half-backs’ Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray were outstanding. Their endeavour was matched by Ireland’s magnificent forwards, who bossed the Kiwis in most areas throughout the game.

New Zealand’s makeshift second row made them susceptible to Irish pressure and Schmidt conceded last night that Ireland’s greater experience in the engine room allowed “access” into the game. In truth, it did much more than that. Ireland’s set-piece ascendancy enabled them to achieve unprecedented levels of dominance in the first half. What’s more,the front row of McGrath, Best and Furlong put in mammoth shifts in both loose and tight play. They were awesome. And Jordi Murphy was the embodiment of athleticism and industry before injury cruelly curtailed his afternoon; the Irish openside being replaced by the equally effective Josh van der Flier. Furthermore, the performance was buttressed by a herculean defensive effort that defied belief.

And what about Rob Kearney? The Louth man has been criticised by all and sundry recently, with his place in the team openly questioned. Yesterday, the Irish fullback reminded us what a classy and intelligent player he is. But they were all great. They really were. Henshaw, Zebo, Trimble et al. Heck, I should just list the entire squad and be done with it! The glue that keeps it all together is Ireland’s indomitable captain, Rory Best. Strangely enough, the Ulster hooker still has his detractors after years of consistent excellence in an Irish shirt. I can only assume these critics suffer from some form of visual impairment. Best is a wonderful rugby player and a consummate leader to boot. No-one does more for this Irish team than the reliable Ulster man.

I’m pleased for Best on a personal level. It’s somehow fitting that he led the Irish to their first Test win over New Zealand. One of the privileges of covering local rugby is you get to meet the players. While all players are extremely polite, some are a little different to how you imagined them. You get the impression that some rugby players (either consciously or unconsciously) adopt a bit of a media persona. Not Best. What you see is what you get. A man of complete modesty and humility. He deserves this moment. Think of all the great players and captains who competed against the All Blacks, but came up short. Best’s achievement is indeed remarkable. The former Portadown College pupil has delivered the goods.

And let’s not forget the mastermind behind it all; the architect of Ireland’s finest win. Joe Schmidt has copped his fair share of criticism, but this win is a timely reminder of the Kiwi’s coaching talents. Who knows how long he’s been planning this carefully constructed ambush. If this is what Schmidt can do with restricted preparation, we should be very excited about the next few weeks. The World Cup quarter-final seems a long time ago now. Ireland’s opponents should be worried. The best coach in world rugby has got his mojo back and I doubt he’s in any mood to stop here.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

 

File:Rory Best 2015 RWC.jpg

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARory_Best_2015_RWC.jpg

By Warwick Gastinger (Rugby World Cup 2015 DSCN5033) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons”

For Axel, they stood up and fought!

As expected, it was a match brimming with emotion. It’s cliched to talk about blood, sweat and tears. But all three elements were abundantly obvious in Thomond Park yesterday. Of course the occasion was poignant and sombre. Paradoxically though, there was something incredibly joyous about yesterday afternoon, a celebration of life in all its bizarre complexity. I wasn’t at Thomond Park-I actually watched the game on my laptop through Sky Go-but I don’t think you had to be there to appreciate the beauty and poignancy of Munster’s epic win over a fancied Glasgow side, battered mercilessly by an unrelenting force of nature.

They came in their droves to honour Axel and pay tribute in the only way these fine rugby folk know. What they got was fantastic and memorable. Way better than any of us had imagined. There are special moments in life and wonderful moments in sport. What transpired in Limerick yesterday was one of those divine moments. The 26,500 lucky souls who witnessed it will surely remember it for the rest of their lives. One to tell the grandchildren about. How I wish I’d been there. Munster’s brilliant supporters said goodbye to a legend. One of their own. They also saw the re-emergence of their side as Champions Cup giants.

We wondered beforehand how they’d fare. How would the players cope with the magnitude and emotion of the occasion? Munster’s players only buried their coach on Friday and were expected somehow to play one of the biggest games of their season yesterday. How was that possible? I ventured during the week that a match was the best thing for them, but I wasn’t sure if I was right. From the kick off yesterday, I knew. We all knew. This was a different Munster, a profoundly different animal from anything we’d seen these last few seasons. From the first whistle, there was an intensity about the men in red that laid down the ultimate marker. Ferocious at the breakdown, monumentally aggressive in defence and their forwards hunting the ball with obsessive determination. “We’re not going to be beaten today. It doesn’t matter what you do, we’re not going to let you out of here with anything.” You can imagine the impassioned battle cries before the game. Defeat simply wasn’t an option.

It reminded me of 2007 and Ireland’s historic victory over England at Croke Park. Given the symbolism and cultural/historical significance of the occasion, Ireland’s players couldn’t countenance defeat at the hands of the old enemy. Losing would have been too much to bear. Guys like Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell have spoken passionately about the responsibility the players felt that day nine years go. It was one of those matches where they just had to deliver-failure wasn’t an option. And deliver they did. England were emphatically routed 43-13 in one of the finest performances of the Eddie O’Sullivan era. That was another emotive and unique occasion. The pre-match anthems were immaculately respected and heartily sung in equal measure. After an emotional build-up, the players and fans delivered together. As one, in complete unison. We were extremely proud to be Irish that day; it was one of the great rugby days. I’m sure the hordes of rugby pilgrims at Thomond Park were proud to be Munster men yesterday.

Typical of Ireland’s romantic province, they did it the hard way. Of course they did. This is Munster! We all remember the great wins against the odds, the “miracle match” against Gloucester in 2003 the most famous. Well, we had another miracle yesterday. Despite Munster’s magnificent start, the Thomond Park men were cast into the abyss after only 20 minutes, with Keith Earls sent off for a tip tackle on Glasgow hooker, Fraser Brown. Irrespective of whether you agree with the decision-I actually think the referee was spot on and fair play to Jerome Garces for refusing to be swayed by emotion-Earls’s red card seemed a calamity for Munster. And yet their performance never dipped. If anything, Earls’s misfortune inspired  his side to even greater heights. Remarkably, an effort that was already superlative, got even better.

Munster’s defensive effort was a joy to behold; it was simply marvellous. The Thomond men didn’t concede an inch to the Warriors all afternoon. What really impressed, though, was the shape and perseverance of the Munster attack. The hosts kept going and didn’t let the small matter of Glasgow’s numerical advantage impede their efforts. With a man down, teams often retreat into their shell in an attempt to maintain their lead and hold out. Not Munster. These guys don’t know the meaning of the word retreat.

Special mention must go to skipper, Peter O’Mahony. The Irish flanker was simply immense yesterday. It was noticeable how Munster’s performance only dipped slightly in the last 20 minutes when Glasgow got over for a brace of consolation tries. O’Mahony, still regaining match fitness after his horrendous injury, was called ashore on 61 minutes. The timing of Glasgow’s mini-revival wasn’t a coincidence! Sometimes you only appreciate the true worth of a player when they’re absent. I also thought hooker Niall Scannell had a superb game-a poor early overthrow notwithstanding. It’s unfair to single anyone out, though. They were all outstanding, to a man. Munster’s players gave every inch of their souls with this inspired performance.

It seems perverse to say it, but the tragic circumstances of last week have revived something in Munster. A latent passion that’s been missing for a while. As a city, Limerick suffered badly in the recession. This downturn has been reflected inevitably in Munster attendances. In recent seasons, crowds have been down and the decibel levels much reduced from the halcyon days. We all remember the rampaging red army touring Europe in their thousands. It was the European Cup’s first love affair: Munster and their wonderful fans. The empty Thomond terraces of recent times were an incongruous sight in comparison. Yesterday felt like the good old days. A capacity crowd, a cacophony of sound, flags and banners fluttering in the wind. A wonderful sight. It’s cruelly ironic, but Foley’s tragic, premature passing could act as a catalyst for a Munster revival. It seems wrong to think in such terms. It would be marvellous if yesterday’s heroics could be sustained, though.

Irish rugby needs Munster. The Champions Cup needs Munster. Sport needs Munster. Europe hasn’t been the same without the red army. While Lansdowne Road is the undisputed home of Irish rugby, its soul has always been in Limerick. This ultimate rugby town is the embodiment of the sport’s values. And Limerick people are rightly proud of the egalitarian way they promote rugby’s traditions. In Limerick, rugby is the game of the people and players have always enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with their fans in this great city.

It’s strange how tragedy often reveals character in a way the mundane and prosaic routines of everyday life cannot. Humanity, empathy and compassion often announce themselves resoundingly in a crisis. In tough times, we see the very best of mankind. The way in which the rugby community has rallied around the Foley family says much about the values of the sport. Professionalism may have eroded some of rugby’s ethos, but the essence of it remains intact. For that, we should all be extremely proud and grateful. We have seen its importance time and again in the past week. I’m not sure if it was planned or spontaneous but following yesterday’s game, the players formed a huddle and sang the Munster anthem, “Stand Up and Fight.” The huddle included Anthony’s sons, Dan and Tony. It was a lovely gesture. A rugby match can only be a small consolation in the midst of any human tragedy, but as a tribute to a great rugby man, yesterday’s game was undoubtedly something special. Another miracle match. It might sound a bit trite to say it, but I’m going to anyway. A true Munster giant was looking down filled with pride. Rest in peace, Anthony Foley. Munster legend and hero.

‘Stan’ up an’ fight until you hear de bell,
Stan’ toe to toe, trade blow fer blow,
Keep punchin’ till you make yer punches tell,
Show dat crowd watcher know!
Until you hear dat bell, dat final bell,
Stan’ up an’ fight like hell!’

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

Passing Of A Legend

I had it all planned out. I was going to write an article about Donald Trump and the US Presidential election today. With absolutely no disrespect intended to the controversial Republican candidate, events compel me to write about a real man instead. A man of modesty, integrity and humble achievement. I’m writing about Anthony “Axel” Foley instead.

Munster head coach Foley passed away last night in a Paris hotel ahead of Munster’s Champions Cup fixture against Racing 92. Sometimes news hits you that stops you in your tracks. The devastating, heartbreaking news that Foley had passed away was in that mould. The rugby community is in mourning at the premature passing of one of its own. In coming to terms with this awful news, we must remember that this is a personal tragedy. Anthony leaves behind his wife Olive and two young children. He was just 42 years old. With any sudden passing, there’s always a feeling of numbness and utter disbelief. Incomprehension. How can something so dreadful and unpredictable happen? While it’ll surely takes us all a very long time to make any  sense of this tragedy, it’s only fitting that we take time to remember Anthony Foley, the legend.

Who was Anthony Foley? Foley was an Irish rugby icon. The son of Munster legend Brendan Foley, the former Irish number eight captained his beloved province to its maiden Heineken Cup victory over Biarritz in 2006. The pictures from that win are so poignant today; Munster’s captain the vision of pride and happiness as he collected the trophy. After all the years of heartache and near misses, how apt that it was Foley who held the cherished trophy aloft in Cardiff. Like his good friend and teammate Keith Wood, Foley was a native of Killaloe in County Clare. A talented sportsman, the young Foley grew up playing several codes-as is often the way in Munster-but it was inevitable that rugby would capture his heart. Anthony was part of the great Shannon side that dominated Irish club rugby at the tail end of the 1990s. It was here that he first came to my attention, as part of one of the greatest back rows ever to emerge from the Irish club game: Quinlan, Foley and Halvey. They were an awesome combination, the bedrock of the Shannon side that won four AIL titles in a row.

One of the first club games I attended while studying in Dublin was St Mary’s v Shannon in Templeville Road. The Templeogue side had a good pack in those days. Trevor Brennan was in the thick of it on the blindside, a real hard man who was an extremely good back rower to boot. Big Steve Jameson was the captain, if memory serves me correctly. Another beast of a player. My abiding memory of that day was how little dominance the St Mary’s pack got. This was a superb St Mary’s team (Denis Hickie lined up on the wing), but nobody dominated that Shannon team in those days. They were just too good. This was the 1997/98 season-the Thomond Park men were at their peak then. And a young Anthony Foley was central to their dominance.

Foley gained his first international cap in 1995 in what was then the Five Nations. Test recognition strangely eluded him for a few seasons before he was recalled by Warren Gatland in 2000. He was a mainstay on Eddie O’Sullivan’s team for the next few seasons, accumulating 62 caps in the process. O’Sullivan always spoke very highly of Foley and clearly regarded the Shannon man as a very clever rugby player; one of his pivotal men. Foley wasn’t the most dynamic of number eights and didn’t carry as much ball as, say, his Leinster peer Victor Costello. You never saw him claiming that much ball in the lineout either. Yet for all that, there was no doubt that Foley was a tremendous rugby player. A man for the trenches. A bit like former England flanker Richard Hill, the Munster back rower did so much unseen work and revelled in the unheralded graft that his position demanded. He was invariably in the right place at the right time and could always be relied upon to make crucial, match winning tackles when needed.

Anthony Foley was the ultimate leader. A man of few words, Munster’s talisman led by example and set an uncompromising standard that his teammates were bound to follow. Anthony was old-school. Fashioned in the amateur and semi-professional environs of the AIL, he nonetheless seamlessly made the transition to professionalism through hard work and incredible mental toughness. Just like his Shannon club-mate Mick Galwey, Foley not only survived amateurism but was part of the core group that set the standards at Thomond Park at the start of the professional era. He was undoubtedly a really hard man, but Anthony was so much more than that. He was a totem, a winner, a captain, an inspiration. Someone who may not have been Munster’s most glamorous player, but was always the most valuable player.

I didn’t know Anthony Foley, but I had the pleasure of brushing shoulders with him a couple of times. I remember covering the 2015 Pro 12 final for Planet Rugby at Ravenhill. Foley’s Munster were well beaten by Glasgow that day, but Anthony didn’t flinch from facing the assembled hacks afterwards. Typical of the man, Foley answered the media’s questions with candour and humour. Despite his obvious disappointment, Foley fronted up in his forthright and accessible manner. True Munster honesty. It was the same when his Munster side defeated Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium last season. Admittedly, performances had been decidedly mixed since Foley assumed the head coach mantle in 2014, but it’s extremely unfair to lay all failings on a man who’s Munster through and through. For all that, Foley never shied away from his own mistakes and could be very honest in highlighting aspects that needed to be improved. Therefore, we must be fair and acknowledge Axel’s immense role in rebuilding a province going through a challenging and transitional time. Change is never easy and you have to admire those who have the balls to take on a job knowing it’s going to be tough. That’s the definition of character.

Much was made of Anthony’s de facto demotion following the appointment of Rassie Erasmus as Munster Director of Rugby. However, Munster’s decent start to the season indicates that the two men have been working well together and were in the process of forming a formidable coaching partnership. I heard a journalist discuss recently how relaxed Axel looked this season compared to last term, suggesting that Erasmus’s arrival had the desired effect of taking the pressure off Foley. One of the saddest elements of Anthony’s premature passing is the feeling that he was only getting started in his coaching career. In rugby terms, this man had so much more to offer. How devastating that we’ve lost him. This is a monumental loss for Irish rugby. I’ve always had a huge amount of respect for Anthony Foley. In fact, he was the subject of my first bog on these pages. Little did I know then, he would be gone less than six months later. How awful. How unbelievable. How tragic. Such is the fragility and fleetingness of life. Knowing life’s innate shortness doesn’t make it any easier to bear, however. Sometimes the transience of life is too cruel for words. Goodbye Anthony Foley. Rugby legend, Munster hero, family man. Gone way too soon.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

New Zealand All Blacks: Better Every Day

“Better Every Day.”

Three small words. As far as mantras go, it’s deceptively simple. And yet that concise phrase encapsulates so much.”Better Every Day” is the catchphrase of the New Zealand All Blacks. It’s not so much a phrase as a mission statement, a forceful affirmation of everything this great team is about. For make no mistake about it, the All Blacks are great in every sense of that hackneyed word. It’s hard to improve on excellence. When you’re already the best (and by some considerable distance), how do you become even better? How do you ward off the corrosive effects of complacency and overconfidence? How do you continue the strive for excellence when you’ve already achieved everything your sport has to offer? You do it by being better every day.

We know that the All Blacks are a phenomenon. And yet the current crop is exceeding every expectation in terms of performances and achievements. The men in black have won the last two World Cups and have just wrapped up the Rugby Championship (the southern hemisphere equivalent of the Six Nations) with a 57-15 rout of South Africa in Durban. New Zealand went through the tournament unbeaten-itself a fine achievement. Since winning the World Cup on home soil in 2011, the All Blacks have accrued a winning ratio of 93%. Indeed, since retaining their crown in last year’s World Cup, the world champions have yet to taste defeat-their unbeaten streak encompassing a full calendar year and counting. In fact, last weekend’s facile dismissal of South Africa equalled their own proud world record of 17 consecutive Test wins. Few will bet against them inking a new chapter into the record books in the upcoming weeks.

However, it’s not just the unimpeachable record that’s beguiling rugby fans. It’s the nature of the performances, too. These All Blacks are not simply beating good teams, they’re hammering them. And they’re destroying them with a brand of rugby that’s taking their sport to new levels. This team really has everything. They’re not just streets ahead of every opponent, but light years. From a different planet. It’s not that their weaknesses are imperceptible. Non-existent, more like!

In fact, it’s hard to identify any discernible weak points in the New Zealand side. If any failings exist, they keep them extremely well hidden. Good set-piece, dynamic forwards, creative backs, pace, power, experience, tactical nous, offloading, imperious kicking…….I could go on ad nauseam.  The All Blacks have it all. To be honest, I actually don’t think that this is the best All Blacks team I’ve seen, talent wise. However, despite that, Steve Hansen’s men have found a way to take consistency of excellence to new levels. They invariably find a way to win, even when not playing well-the definitive hallmark of any great side. Winning is not so much a habit as an imperative for these guys. As former England coach Stuart Lancaster once said, they are always finding a way to out-think opponents; to “problem solve” in the moment.

So how is such excellence sustained? How does a great team continue to get better? “Better Every Day” was first introduced by former All Black coach Graham Henry and the motto has been continued under the astute supervision of his successor, Steve Hansen. Henry conceived the phrase as a way of guarding against complacency and ensuring his side always performed to its optimum. While the All Blacks famously set the bar high, Henry wanted something that would enshrine and inculcate the expected standards within the squad. Something that would prevent them relying on past accolades and push on for more success. To not just set standards, but instil a philosophy where the entire organisation was constantly focused on getting better. That’s what the phrase means. “Forget about what you’ve achieved in the past, what have you done to improve yourself today?” “What are you doing to improve yourself tomorrow?”

Ostensibly the phrase is a bit glib when you first hear it, but its meaning is actually rather profound. Contrary to first impressions, the motto isn’t about perfection. It’s about the quest for excellence. Always striving to do better. Looking for constant improvement. Not being content simply to maintain standards, but wanting to enhance and augment them. Never settling for anything but the best. It’s also about learning. The concept is: achievement is a journey rather than a destination. And common goals are made manifestly easier when everyone commits to continuous improvement; learning everyday to make the team better. By committing to constant improvement, standards aren’t just adhered to but really amplified, in both an individual and a collective sense. Objectives are rigorously and methodically surpassed; achievements routinely ticked off through a relentless desire to reach the highest standards.

Therefore, “Better Every Day” isn’t just a highly effective team motto. It’s much more than that. It’s a value system. Those three short words encapsulate everything that it means to be an All Black. That it’s not enough simply to win. You have to keep winning, keep learning, keep striving to be better and do better. And like all great value systems, the phrase is universal; you can apply it to virtually anything. It’s the reason why the All Blacks are so good. The reason they win more often than they lose. The reason why they are never content with past achievements, but are always looking for more. It’s the reason why they never succumb to complacency. It’s the reason the All Blacks are so far ahead of the game and the rest of the world is forlornly playing catch-up. Any team or individual can have talent. But talent alone doesn’t equate to greatness. What all great sportsmen have in common is an irrepressible drive for excellence. An insatiable appetite for success that countenances almost any sacrifice in its fulfillment. A steadfast refusal to accept anything less than the best. To not just go the extra mile in the pursuit of greatness, but to travel the extra highway. “Better Every Day” as a way of life. Ireland play this great side twice this autumn. Some fans are predicting Joe Schmidt’s men will finally break their All Black duck. You have to admire such optimism! This prediction could come back to haunt me and I’ll be delighted if it does. Ireland have two chances of beating the current All Blacks: slim and none. And slim is leaving town fast!

Image courtesy of Wikipedia:

By Roman.b (Own work) [FAL], via Wikimedia Commons

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Zealand_national_rugby_union_team

 

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

 

Calm Down, It’s Only September!

While I was engrossed in the excitement of the All-Ireland football final, the news came through that Man United had slumped to their third consecutive loss. The soccer giants lost 3-1 to Watford at Vicarage Road today, a chastening defeat that prompted the usual hysteria and over-reaction among many fans and pundits. Disappointment at your team losing is perfectly understandable of course and distress at defeat is hardly a new phenomenon. A bizarre trend is emerging, though. We are living in a curious age where instant reaction is demanded in these moments and our responses are becoming ludicrously disproportionate, devoid of any semblance of balance or common sense.

The honeymoon is over. While fans were somewhat divided over the vexed appointment of Jose Mourinho, it’s fair to say the overwhelming majority were prepared to give the controversial Portuguese manager a chance. And it all started so promisingly. A decent preseason, one that heralded a smattering of marquee signatures, was followed by a good start to the league. Typical of the new manager, the performances were functional rather than overly spectacular, but the results were coming and there seemed to be intent to play attacking football. I saw the first home game against Southampton and I must say I was very impressed with the United performance. The hosts were organised and efficient, and new signing Paul Pogba looked every inch the superstar in midfield. Certainly his inflated price tag didn’t look excessive that evening.

Granted, things haven’t gone too well since. Last week’s deflating loss in the Manchester derby was followed up by Europa League disappointment in Rotterdam. Today’s reverse against Watford has therefore topped off a rather horrendous week from a United viewpoint. And I get the fact that these losses aren’t mere statistics. There’s a context to all of this. Admittedly, I haven’t seen all the matches, but I understand that the performances as much as the results have caused concern. The City performance, in particular, was a profound reality check. The final score hardly did justice to the extent of City’s pervasive dominance. I tuned out before the end, but the Premier League favourites were mesmerising in the Manchester derby. City were fantastic, exhibiting a blistering pace that was combined with pin-point accuracy. Make no mistake, this was as emphatic a 2-1 victory as you’ll ever see. If City had taken their chances in the first half, it could have been really embarrassing for Mourinho. United have seen it all before with a Pep Guardiola team, of course. That bloody carousel! Today’s defeat punctured the Mourinho bubble further. A 3-1 loss to Watford. A reverse of this nature was always going to spell the end of the honeymoon.

Disappointment I understand. But I don’t get the hysteria. A cursory look at some of the post-game reaction unearthed the usual internet hyperbole and overreaction. Football commentary has become so tabloid. Everything’s a crisis. I’ve seen several comments on Twitter today, that openly question Mourinho’s tenure. United’s boss is getting slated by elements on the internet and social media. Unfavourable comparisons are even being made with immediate predecessors Louis Van Gaal and the unfortunate David Moyes. Moyes, in particular, proved fatally vulnerable to similar levels of impatience when he was shown the door with indecent haste ten months into a six-year contract. Mourinho will certainly be given more time, but he must find such commentary extremely perplexing. Let’s not lose our heads here. We’re only five games into the league season. There’s plenty of football to be played.

I’m not Mourinho’s biggest fan, but his record tells you there’s absolutely no need to panic. The man’s a perpetual winner, who invariably gets the job done in the end. What we’re seeing here isn’t based on calm and rational analysis. It’s hysteria and an extreme form of hysteria at that. We live in a world that demands instant success. Everything has to be expeditious and immediate. These days, we don’t wait to make our judgements. We offer them instantaneously and without mercy. Patience is viewed almost as an old-fashioned concept. In the modern era, football supporters demand immediate success and expect their teams to win every game. Expectations are less realistic than ever. Fans baulk at the idea of giving a manager time to make his mark.

If a match is lost, then the manager is in trouble. Lose a couple of games and it’s magnified into a full-blown crisis. Crisis? The word has lost all meaning in the modern vernacular. Wars and famines are crises. Losing a few football matches constitutes a blip, a transient setback from which great managers like Mourinho inevitably recover. These modern trends have eroded our sanity and sense. We’ve lost the power of perspective. Social media hasn’t helped in this regard. The demand for instant judgement and rapid reaction is insatiable. It’s a relentless, self-serving monster. But we’re all in trouble when fans are getting perturbed by the loss of a couple of early season games. Sport is an emotive business and it’s easy to get caught up in the madness. Anyone getting too hot and bothered really need to take a step back, though. Calm down dears, it’s only September!

P.S. For those who missed it, Dublin and Mayo served up a cracker at Croke Park today. The game ended as a draw, but the result was in doubt until virtually the last kick of the contest. Whenever the Dubs threatened to pull away, Mayo came back and the Connacht men showed great heart to tie up a game that seemed lost. It’s hard to resist the thought that today was Mayo’s best chance for the Sam. They were, by common consent, the better team and would surely have won were it not for the costly concession of two own-goals. One hopes they have enough in the tank to go again. The replay promises to be unmissable viewing!

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

Image courtesy of Wikipedia: By Aleksandr Osipov (José Mourinho) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJos%C3%A9_Mourinho_in_Kyiv%2C_October_2015.jpg

File:José Mourinho in Kyiv, October 2015.jpg

The Lion King: Part 2

Where does the time go? I remember writing a piece four years’ ago about the appointment of Warren Gatland as British and Irish Lions head coach. In a very cliched way, I called it “Gatland: The Lion King.” Well, we’re all set for the sequel. This week’s reappointment of the Wales coach was as predictable as the rising of the sun. Gatland joins Ian McGeechan as the only coaches to lead the Lions on consecutive tours in what is undoubtedly the toughest assignment of them all: a tour to New Zealand. It’s not a coincidence that only one Lions squad has won a Test series in the land of the long white cloud (the 1971 side coached by Carwyn James was one of the greatest rugby teams of all-time). New Zealand is a fiendishly difficult touring destination-as seen in the Lions last visit there 12 years’ ago, when Clive Woodward’s tourists were whitewashed 3-0 by Graham Henry’s irrepressible All Blacks side. The Lions committee has deemed the irascible Kiwi as the right man to take on mission impossible-the withdrawals of Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt from the race meant that Gatland’s ratification was a mere formality. That there wasn’t a host of viable contenders shouldn’t detract from Gatland’s achievement, though. This appointment is as meritocratic as it gets. The New Zealander’s record is second to none: a Lions series victory, two Grand Slams, and a Heineken Cup speaks for itself.

Despite having amassed such unimpeachable credentials, the Wales coach remains a polarising figure in this part of the world. Much of the animosity was generated by the infamous dropping of Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll for the third Lions Test against Australia in 2013. The fact that the Lions handsomely won the encounter failed to vindicate Gatland’s controversial selection in the eyes of most Ireland fans. As I wrote at the time, while I understood Gatland’s rationale in jettisoning the Irish icon for the decisive Test, I felt nevertheless that the Wales coach missed a trick. Although changes were undoubtedly needed for the series finale, there wasn’t a compelling enough case for O’Driscoll to be omitted from the match-day squad. Gatland has complained repeatedly (as elaborated last week) that the hostility generated from dropping the Irishman tarnished the greatest achievement of his coaching career. I believe firmly that the Kiwi could have had his cake and eaten it. By making key changes, but keeping O’Driscoll in situ, the Lions supremo could have enjoyed his historic achievement without the unnecessary controversy that emanated from his contentious third Test selection.

That’s all ancient history now, but the episode tells us much about the Kiwi’s character:tough, uncompromising, ruthless and stubborn. That’s why Gatland’s a winner. Although Wales’s main man is universally respected, it’s hard to think of the former Waikato hooker in terms of affection. Yes, Gatland and his achievements are roundly admired, but liked? Probably not. Winners are rarely likeable characters in sport, though. Look at Sir Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho as cast-iron proof of that! Prodigious winners both, but they wouldn’t be obvious candidates for the diplomatic corps. I think Gatland falls into that category too. The Wales coach loves to win and he isn’t too bothered who gets offended or affronted along the way. When push came to shove, therefore, you can see why the Lions’ blazers opted for the incumbent to take on their latest crusade. For a mission as challenging as the New Zealand tour, you have to be led by the best man available. That man is Warren Gatland.

The scale of the Lions’ challenge is underlined by the lengthening achievements accrued by the world champions. The current All Blacks are majestic, a class apart. I rose early yesterday to watch them in the Rugby Championship. The best team in the world was playing Argentina and struggled initially to find its rhythm. The Pumas played extremely well for the first 50 minutes or so, competing ferociously at every breakdown and contact area. New Zealand, on the other hand, looked sluggish and lethargic for large portions of the match. The final score? 57-22 to New Zealand! The All Blacks pulled away in the second half, impressively routing the Argentinians with a barrage of late tries. It was the world champions’ 14th consecutive victory-incredibly, the All Blacks haven’t lost a home match since 2009! The win was instructive and tells us much about the relentless New Zealand juggernaut. This team knows how to win in virtually any circumstance. They invariably find a way, even when subjected to fierce pressure throughout the pitch. When they’re good, they’re sublime, but even when not playing well, the All Blacks usually get the job done. Just ask Ireland about November 2013. This is the size of the task facing the 2017 Lions, then. In order to make history, the tourists must outwit and outplay one of the greatest teams ever to play the game. Mission impossible indeed. There is a glimmer of hope, though, for the Lions have got their first big decision right by appointing the correct coach. Things are about to get very interesting. It’s time for the most eagerly awaited sequel in rugby: The Lion King, Part 2!

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

Pienaar’s Departure: Rhetoric and Myth

Ulster rugby fans are in a daze. Their state of discomfiture has been caused by the shock announcement that star scrum-half Ruan Pienaar is departing Belfast’s shores at the end of the current season-2016/17. The unexpected announcement came yesterday and follows seemingly intensive negotiations between the player, his employers in Ulster Rugby and the governing body charged with the administration of the sport in Ireland: the IRFU. In a brief statement yesterday, Ulster Rugby confirmed that their best player will leave at the end of the season and the wording left no doubt that this devastating decision was the IRFU’s call. The union’s rationale centres around their so-called “succession” policy, that is the IRFU’s insistence that only one non-Irish qualified player is permitted across the four provinces in each position. Given the dearth of indigenous scrum-halves following last season’s retirement of Eoin Reddan, Pienaar’s position at Ulster has become increasingly untenable, it seems. The news prompted predictable bile on the internet and social media from the fair-weather keyboard fans, who haven’t the first clue about Irish rugby structures or Ulster’s role within the national system. A lot of these guys are new to the sport and their knowledge of Irish rugby could be written on the back of a postage stamp, leaving plenty of room to spare.

The IRFU has been cast as the villain of the piece, the big bad wolves who have come to take our beloved Ruan away. Is this an accurate depiction of events? Is it fair, even? I don’t think so. Leaving emotion and sentiment aside for a moment, let’s look at the facts. Pienaar has been with Ulster for six years and counting. It’s extremely rare-unprecedented even-for a foreign player to survive so long within the Irish system. It just doesn’t happen. The only comparable figure in terms of longevity is Leinster’s Isa Nacewa and he’s currently enjoying his second stint at his province, having returned from retirement in New Zealand. In reality, Ulster have done extremely well out of their superstar scrum-half and have undoubtedly seen the best of him since his arrival in 2010. The South African international was an instrumental figure in Ulster’s march to the Heineken Cup final in 2012 and Pienaar was one of the key men in making the red hand province the perennial contenders they are today. That the province has come up short of silverware can hardly be laid at Pienaar’s door. Think where the Ravenhill men would have been without him these past few seasons. In truth, Ulster are fortunate to have had Pienaar for so long. Remember, he was nearly gone two years’ ago when French giants Toulon came calling. Only the adroit negotiation of David Humphreys kept Ulster’s star man at Ravenhill in one of his final acts as Operations Director.

Ireland’s scrum-half shortage isn’t a myth. Following Reddan’s retirement, international class nines in Ireland consist of Conor Murray and Kieran Marmion. That’s it. And Marmion is a comparative rookie in Test terms. One of the main arguments in favour of keeping Pienaar in situ at the Kingspan was his pivotal role in nurturing, developing and mentoring young Ulster scrum-halves. Bringing native talent on. Except it hasn’t really worked out like that. Ruan’s deputy is still veteran Paul Marshall, while the promising David Shanahan is untested at the highest level. Pienaar has been the integral figure in the development of Ulster’s half-back play. There’s no doubt that the Springbok superstar has taken his side’s back line to new levels. But if Pienaar’s continued presence, six years into an already extended stay, is  now impeding the development of indigenous Irish talent, then surely the time is right for a parting of the ways? This certainly seems to be David Nucifora’s train of thought. The Irish provinces exist to serve the national team, not the other way round. Some of our new fans might not like that fact, but that’s how it is. Like it or lump it.

While the fans’ disappointment is understandable, there’s been an unduly emotional and sentimental angle to this story that’s not helpful. Since yesterday, I’ve read several people complaining how it’s unfair that Pienaar is being uprooted from Ulster against his will. How exactly? Well, it’s claimed that Pienaar’s family is well settled in Belfast and apparently they have a strong association with a local church. While that’s terrific to see, it seems preposterously idealistic to expect the IRFU to take such factors into account while negotiating a professional contract. Ruan Pienaar is a professional rugby player and a very well remunerated one at that. He knows the drill. Professional rugby is an unsentimental business and it’s naive to think of such dealings in terms of fidelity. This is business. Emotion doesn’t come into it. At the end of the day, it’s a reciprocal relationship. Ruan Pienaar has been brilliant for Ulster Rugby and Ulster has been good to Pienaar, but all good things come to an end eventually.

That said, I’m sorry to see him go. Ruan is undoubtedly the greatest Ulster player I’ve seen, bar none. He is indisputably world class. When it comes to quality, I didn’t think David Humphreys would be surpassed, but Pienaar is a cut above the rest. The very personification of class. More than that, he’s a good bloke. Everyone in Irish rugby will wish him well and we’ll be delighted if he comes back in a coaching or off-field capacity some day. It’s sad indeed to see Ruan go, but even the greats must depart the scene some time. Irish rugby doesn’t owe anyone a living, however, and although the IRFU will be criticised over this, they’re right to put succession above short term expediency. At the end of the day, Irish interests will always come before any non-qualified player, no matter who they are. Thanks for everything, Ruan. You’ve been the man. Now the time’s come for your adopted province to prosper without your expert guidance.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

 

The Pride of Belfast

The plague of the writer is creative block. Sometimes inspiration comes at you effortlessly, but other times it’s as elusive as hen’s teeth. I must confess that I don’t put a huge amount of preparation into my blogs. Instead, I rely on instinct and intuition to guide me through. Every writer is different. Many rely on painstaking research and planning to ensure they consistently produce their best work. I don’t work like that. I never have. In fact, I find that if I put too much thought and planning into my writing, it constrains and restricts me. Excessive planning impedes my creative process.

I once attended a creative writing course and the lecturer insisted that good writing should be meticulously planned and prepared to be most effective. Structure was the key, she maintained. And yet I’ve never written that way. How odd! I must break every rule in the book. For example, while preparing a blog, I often do some limited reading on the subject matter, mainly checking that my understanding of the given topic is accurate. Thereafter, I typically write five or six words on a piece of paper. The blog then flows from that handful of concise ideas. I sit down at my keyboard and let the ideas flow, and see where that takes me. Much like I’m doing right now, in fact. Interestingly, the piece that materialises is often quite different to the one originally conceived! And it sometimes comes out better, probably because I haven’t put too much thought into it.  The end product is the result of a weird form of alchemy, or maybe it’s madness! I don’t often decide on my blog topic until quite late in the week. Sometimes the topic is obvious and a blog just invites itself to be written. My blogs about Muhammad Ali and Brexit were cases in point-the two most popular pieces, incidentally. Other times, inspiration is sorely absent. It just seems impossible to find anything worthwhile to write about. This week was such an occasion. I’d no inspiration, no focus, no impetus. Then Carl Frampton won the world featherweight title in New York. Bingo!

I didn’t stay up to watch it, but managed to sneak a replay on Sunday. In the eagerness of youth, I regularly sat up to watch big fights, but 4:00 a.m. is pushing it these days. I’m glad I caught the replay, though. It was a terrific fight. The contest ebbed and flowed, with the Belfast boxer racking up a handsome early lead. Then champion Leo Santa Cruz stormed back into the fight, with a display typified by monumental heart and skill in equal measure. The best moments happened when the fighters went toe-to-toe. It was brutal stuff. It was also supremely courageous. This bout wasn’t for the faint of heart. When the final bell tolled after 12 gruelling rounds, fatigue and exertion was etched on the faces of both men. The scars of war laid bare for all to see. I don’t watch boxing as much as I used to, but there’s no doubt this was a tremendous fight. As good as I’ve seen in my years watching the noble art. It seemed close, too close to call. I thought Frampton had done enough to sneak it, but couldn’t be confident. Santa Cruz had been busy, however Frampton’s shots were much more accurate and precise; his work possessed superior quality. The judges evidently agreed with my assessment, awarding the contest to Frampton on a split points decision. “And the new……” It was a brilliant moment, one the Belfast man thoroughly deserved. History was made in Brooklyn, with the boy from Tiger’s Bay becoming the first Irish fighter to win world titles at different weights since Steve Collins-Collins won at middle and super-middleweight for those keeping score.

Frampton’s achievement is quite superb. Saturday’s win is both historic and prestigious. What makes his victory all the more laudable, though, is that Carl is such a nice guy. The Belfast boxer is a fine role model, one who represents his city and country with distinction. And it’s all carried with sincere modesty and humility. He’s genuine. That’s not Frampton’s best virtue, though. For me, the best thing about the new featherweight champ is his inclusiveness. He unifies us. Much like his manager and mentor Barry McGuigan, Carl unites in a society that’s historically been divided. No section of the community can claim Carl as their own, though. This likeable sportsman brings us together in a way that even today is still depressingly rare. When Frampton fights, there’s no boring talk of flags or anthems, just a simple, humble message that the entire community rallies around. 30 years ago, Irish boxing united in support of “Our Barry”. Nationalists, Unionists, Loyalists, and Republicans came together in a time of great strife to roar on the Clones Cyclone in the King’s Hall. In 2016, similarly, all sections of society unite in support of “Our Carl”. Thanks to our post-Troubles society, the context is mercifully different these days, but the spirit of inclusiveness and togetherness is the same. Diverse people from a variety of backgrounds united in common cause. Screaming for Carl. Just like the legions of Irish-Americans roaring for Frampton on Saturday.  So next time you hear someone speak of our supposedly divided society, think of Carl Frampton. A shining example that it doesn’t have to be that way. On Saturday night, when asked to consider the magnitude of his achievement and his legacy, Frampton understandably struggled to put it into words. Over time he may have a more eloquent response, but in assessing his win, the new champion suggested the victory meant he  won’t have to buy a pint for twenty years. Given the scale of his success, though, one ventures the pride of Belfast won’t need to purchase a beer in his native city ever again.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey