McIlroy Doesn’t need to Justify himself

He’s tough. That’s what I like about Rory McIlroy. And I’m not just talking about the mental fortitude and resilience required to compete on the international stage. The County Down man is brave enough to speak his mind in a world increasingly characterised by vacuous and meaningless soundbites. It takes a lot of courage to speak out, to reveal your inner thoughts to the world, regardless of the potential consequences. It’s a tough enough thing for any of us to do. Think how challenging it must be to speak honestly when you’ve a raft of sponsors, fans, and business partners to please or placate. This is the brutal world Ireland’s most famous sportsman has to navigate. To say it’s rather tricky is to utter the greatest understatement of all time. And yet McIlroy consistently manages it. Honesty truly is a priceless commodity in this superficial world.

For someone so young, the 27-year old golfer’s career has been notable for regular moments of mild controversy and unwarranted intrusion. Although McIlroy is a consummate media performer who’s unquestionably a credit to his country, there remains that welcome tendency to speak his mind. Here is someone refreshingly unafraid to tell it like it is. We may not always like what McIlroy says, but there’s no doubt his opinions are borne of sincerity, that he speaks from the heart. Take the latest episode. As most of you will know, the Holywood golfer has withdrawn from the forthcoming Rio Olympics due to concerns over the Zika virus. Sadly, but wholly predictably, McIlroy’s decision has prompted a tidal wave of ire and indignation from a host of individuals, many of whom don’t know the first thing about golf or its priorities. Poor Rory has been accused of everything, from letting his country down to abandoning the responsibility to promote and develop the sport that’s made him a global superstar. I’m not a massive golf fan, but from the outside much of the reaction seems unjust and unreasonable, often bordering on the hysterical. Typical of the man, McIlroy hasn’t shied away, although his comments last week about the perceived importance of Olympic golf has perhaps added fuel to the fire.

My own reaction to McIlroy’s decision has changed since the initial announcement was made. When I first heard it, I must admit I was a little incredulous at McIlroy’s rationale. While I respected his entitlement to decide which competitions he participates in, I was a little sceptical about the reasons. The Zika virus? Surely the risks are minuscule and pale in comparison with the prestige of representing your country at an Olympic Games. Millions of young athletes dream of going to the Olympics. It’s an honour and a deep privilege to be afforded the opportunity. And yet here was someone turning that down. What was McIlroy thinking? However, the more I thought about it, the more I understood where Rory was coming from.

The health risks posed by the Zika virus are real, and have been well documented recently. McIlroy has made no secret of his desire to start a family with fiancee Erica Stoll. Regardless of the untested severity of the risks, why should he jeopardise or compromise any of that? That’s all very well I hear his critics yell, while alleging that the withdrawal has nothing to do with health, but everything to do with the lack of prestige offered by the Olympic golf competition. McIlroy has taken  a lot from his sport, so the argument goes, there therefore must be a duty, an obligation to give back? This misses the point, though. McIlroy has made his feelings about Olympic golf abundantly clear. Although stressing that it was an honour to be selected, the Irish number one has repeatedly affirmed that Olympic golf is not at the top of his priorities.

When explaining his decision recently, McIlroy recounted a conversation he had with Irish Olympian, Sonia O’Sullivan. Here the golfer explained that while O’Sullivan had an Olympics once every four years, he has an Olympics four times each year. His allusion to the importance of the Majors hardly needs explained. The point made is intrinsic to this discussion, though. In an individual sport like track-and-field athletics, the Olympic Games are the absolute pinnacle, the very summit of aspiration and achievement. That’s just not the case in golf. The Majors are every golfer’s essential priority and always will be.

To risk your health or that of your family’s-no matter how slim the worries-for a competition that isn’t fundamental to you doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Clearly many of McIlroy’s fellow golfers feel the same way. McIlroy’s rival Jordan Speith and compatriots Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell (to name but a few), are the latest to make similar calculations to Ireland’s poster boy. Moreover, while we have to take their explanations at face value, the reasons for the Olympic exodus are actually quite irrelevant. It’s a moot point. The reality is, no elite sportsman needs to justify their participation or otherwise at any event. These guys play to win trophies. That’s their only priority and focus. Amateurs play for enjoyment, professionals play to win. They don’t have to explain themselves to anyone. And it’s naive in the extreme to think otherwise.

For any individual, health is a non-negotiable priority. It’s a perverse world where that needs to be explained. Those shouting loudest on this issue need to ask the following question: would they risk exposure to Zika unnecessarily? Rory McIlroy doesn’t owe anything. Not to golf. Not to Ireland. Not to the Olympics. Despite that, no-one has done more for Irish golf and modern Irish sport than the pride of Holywood. Anyone who watched the recent Irish Open will know that. McIlroy is as generous as he is talented, and has earned the right to decide where he performs and why. Anyone considering doing anything other than cheering golf’s brightest star at Royal Troon this afternoon is advised to keep that in mind.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

Should Schmidt Stay Or Go?

It’s fair to say that the Irish rugby public has had a less than straightforward relationship with head coach, Joe Schmidt. When Schmidt first assumed the mantle of Ireland boss, it seemed he could do no wrong. The Kiwi cut an almost messianic figure, winning praise and admiration from virtually everyone in Irish rugby circles. Sure, like anyone in the public eye, Schmidt had his detractors, but the prevailing consensus was that Ireland had bagged one of the smartest and most capable coaches on the international rugby circuit. Schmidt was the man. And Ireland’s subsequent results vindicated this assessment. Schmidt led the men in green to an unprecedented two Six Nations victories in succession, masterminding a remarkable run that culminated in Ireland’s superb destruction of Scotland in the 2015 Six Nations decider. Schmidt’s totemic status was assured, as sports fans the length and breadth of the country became enamoured with the erudite but unassuming New Zealander. And the affection was reciprocated. Ireland’s coach seemed genuinely taken with his adopted home, as confirmed by his proud naturalisation as an Irish citizen last year.

So far, so good. But then something changed. That something was the 2015 Rugby World Cup.  The relationship altered after that. It became complicated. While I’ve no reason to believe that Schmidt’s opinion of Ireland changed, there’s no doubt that the post-World Cup period has seen an altering in the perception of the coach by fans. Of course supporters were naturally devastated when Ireland crashed out the tournament at the hands of a classy, ascendant Argentina side. But the questioning of Schmidt’s methods went beyond mere disappointment with the outcome of the doomed quarter-final. The entire modus operandi of the  Schmidt regime was openly challenged. All of a sudden, all and sundry were disputing Ireland’s style of play. Apparently, we were boring, predictable, one dimensional. Those were some of the kinder verdicts! That’s not to say concerns over style hadn’t been expressed prior to the tournament. Before RWC 2015  kicked off, many pundits had pleaded for a more expansive and entertaining game plan. With the side winning, however, such disenchantment was easily dismissed. Why change a winning formula? That Argentina performance was a game changer in every sense, though. Post-Cardiff, it was open season on the amiable and intelligent Schmidt.

And you know what? It’s all rather unfair and unjustified. More than that, it’s a little un-Irish. I’ve always had a strong belief that us Irish support and cherish our stars and icons in a manner not always seen elsewhere. Maybe we sometimes go a bit too far in our idolatry, but that’s another story. Historically, we haven’t subscribed to the extreme iconoclasm that our English neighbours-especially their tabloid newspapers-seem to revel in. Building people up just to mercilessly knock them down? As a nation, it wasn’t something we ever did. It wasn’t our style. And yet here we were apparently doing just that to someone who’s actually done a bloody terrific job for us!

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been as critical as anyone about Ireland’s oft conservative style of play. There’s been plenty of times in the past eighteen months where I’ve been willing the boys to throw off the shackles and give it the proverbial lash. But I’ve always appreciated Schmidt. My admiration for him hasn’t dimmed. As a rugby fan, I understand the value he adds as a tactician and strategist. Some of the more vitriolic and polemical criticisms are hard to fathom, therefore. Maybe it’s a symptom of modern society. We live in an internet age, in an era where bland soundbites and easy answers replace rigorous analysis and assessment. An age where Twitter threads and chat rooms silence the real experts. And such unfiltered noise can drown out the evidence of our own eyes.

The thing is we’ll miss him when he goes. Schmidt is on record as saying he’ll make his mind up about his future this summer. Ireland’s coach is contracted until next spring, but thereafter he’s a free agent. While an official announcement might not come until later, it’s suspected that Schmidt’ll reveal his intentions to his employers before the end of the summer. Having waited until the finale of the recent tour to South Africa-itself a tremendous success-Schmidt’s attention now turns to his future. It’s making his mind up time. No-one knows for sure, but the early indications suggest Schmidt might go. The Irish boss has already been linked with the Highlanders and Chiefs in his native New Zealand recently.

If Schmidt has an ambition to coach the All Blacks, a return to the land of the long white cloud is an essential piece of the jigsaw. However, professional aspirations aren’t the only consideration. As Schmidt movingly revealed last month, his family is his absolute priority and the health of his son Luke will be foremost in his mind. Will Schmidt stay or go? I don’t know.  Like the majority of Irish fans, I’d love him to stay and finish the job with this talented and ambitious group of young Irish players. If he goes, though, I wholeheartedly wish him all the best for the future. He’s a great coach who’s undoubtedly done a wonderful job for Irish rugby. I believe the overwhelming majority of Irish rugby people feel the same. I don’t believe that his pernicious critics represent the true fans. For all his detractors, though, it’s worth bearing in mind one of the great truisms of life. You only realise what you have when it’s gone.

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Image Courtesy of Wikipedia:  @OvalDigest.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

Horrors for Hodgson

Three Lions on a Shirt,

Jules Rimet Still Gleaming,

Thirty Years of Hurt,

Never Stopped Me Dreaming.”

Thirty years of hurt? I’m guessing a majority of English football fans would give their right arms for it only to be thirty years at this moment. You must have been living on the moon if you don’t know the biggest sports story of the week. I don’t suppose any of you missed it, but for those that did, England crashed out of the Euros in the last 16 to the minnows of Iceland. Tiny Iceland. One of the incredible statistics being bandied about is that apparently the Scandinavian island has a population equivalent to Leicester. The 2011 census estimated Leicester’s population as approximately 330, 000. In terms of population, this allegedly makes the midlands town the eighth biggest city in England. You could say the result was like Premier League Champions Leicester City beating England’s national team. But it’s not. The majority of Leicester’s players don’t hail from the city, and the club’s owners are free to sign players from all over the world. To use a better analogy, then, this was like a Belfast team defeating England’s superstars, with the side being comprised only of Belfast born players. Although rather glib, such statistics help put Iceland’s achievement in some kind of context. I’ve been to Iceland. It’s a beautiful country full of wonderful, natural sights, but they wouldn’t be known as one of international football’s superpowers.

I remember when Terry Venables was England manager. English press and supporters absolutely loved him. Venables was regarded as a tactical genius, a coaching guru who could inspire any team to consistent levels of achievement. He used to talk about the “Christmas Tree” formation. Or maybe it was the “Diamond” formation? I don’t know. To be honest, I kinda switch off when football people make the game out to be overly technical or complicated. Football is one of the simplest games imaginable. I just don’t get it when fellas make it sound like rocket science or existentialist philosophy. Nevertheless, whatever Venables had, it worked. The former Spurs manager successfully got his charges to the semi-finals of Euro ’96, the first major tournament held in Blighty since Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet trophy. 1966 and all that. English football was carried along on a wave of popular euphoria until the inevitable moment when Gareth Southgate missed the penalty to send the rival Germans into the final in England’s stead.  Oh well. At least, he got a Pizza Hut advert out of it. My point is this. Even the oracle that was Venables couldn’t get the perpetual under achievers over the line. What chance does anyone else have? I saw a documentary about Euro ’96 recently which revealed that Venables is now running a hotel in Spain. I imagine he’s not coming back any time soon.

From the outside, it seems that one of the biggest problems facing English football is a lack of self-awareness. Post-1966, the English have always had a superiority complex when it comes to football. And indeed most other major sports too! They think they should always be contenders. The prevailing attitude even creeps into sports like tennis where the English have no reason (based on history or climate) to consider themselves one of the game’s superpowers. Therefore, there’s usually a massive disconnection between expectation and achievement. It’s almost inherent, built into the English psyche. Before I get inundated with responses from beleaguered English friends, I’m not talking about the average English punter here. I understand that expectation among English football fans, for example, has been consistently low for many years. Year after year of penalty shoot-out elimination and knockout heartache does that to you. I’m talking about the media. The English press just can’t help themselves. Despite protestations to the contrary, they will always champion their boys as potential winners. It’s the same old story. For sure, they’ll mercilessly slate Hodgson’s boys for the latest underachievement, but as soon as his successor musters a couple of wins, they’ll talk England up as football giants again. It’s inevitable.

It’s a curious phenomenon. And it’s a syndrome we see at close hand from this side of the Irish Sea. Despite having our own televisual and media outlets, us Irish spend a disproportionate amount of time watching English t.v. and reading English papers. Therefore, we’re in an excellent position to assess the English propensity to talk up their sports stars. Sure, all countries do it, but the English are masters at hyping their sports men and women. One of the reasons we’re fascinated by such hyperbole in Ireland is that it’s so different from our own experience and reaction. In Ireland, we’re instinctively modest about our sporting prospects. Even on the rare occasions our sportsmen actually deliver, we scarcely believe it. It doesn’t seem real. We’re programmed to accept mediocrity and disappointment as par for the course. Any success we achieve, therefore, is welcomed as an unexpected delight. And once the euphoria dissipates, we eagerly resume our natural role as underdogs and challengers.

From the outside, certainly, it seems the English media view their sports teams and individuals differently. Maybe it’s a relic of empire, but the English appear to have an ingrained propensity to expect success. And such expectation doesn’t always correlate with the ability of the individuals and teams concerned. The consequence? The English public is almost guaranteed to experience disappointment. When the only yardstick of success is actually winning the competition, you’re setting your teams up for constant failure. The only way to break this perpetual cycle is to lower expectations.The English football manager’s job is a poisoned chalice. Regardless of remuneration, who’d want an impossible job? I could be wrong, but I don’t think there’ll be a queue of top managers wanting to succeed the unfortunate Roy Hodgson.

As a post-script to my last blog, I notice that Boris Johnson has withdrawn from the race to be prime minister following the latest bout of infighting  within the Tory party. I know there are more global issues at work, but given the belief that one of the primary drivers of the Brexit campaign was giving Boris a shot at his lifelong dream, doesn’t the Leave victory seem a little hollow now he’s backed down? The Boris-supporting leavers have campaigned for something that’s proved ultimately futile, a quest for professional aggrandisement that hasn’t even worked. For this-amongst other reasons-, we’re in a period of grave uncertainty? It’s a funny old world!

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Image Courtesy of Wikipedia: [[File:Genève Indoors 2014 – 20140114 – Roy Hodgson.jpg|Genève Indoors 2014 – 20140114 – Roy Hodgson]]

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

Sublime Ireland Sink Boks

I’m finding it hard to make sense of it. You know the way events sometimes just don’t make sense no matter how hard you try and rationalise them? Well, I had that sensation in abundance yesterday. For those who missed it, Ireland defeated South Africa (Saturday 11 June 2016) at their Newlands stronghold. The win was significant enough in itself. Prior to Saturday’s game, the Irish had never tasted victory on South African soil. In truth, they hadn’t even come close. Therefore, their win was historic and unprecedented in equal measure. However, as anyone who witnessed the Irish performance will tell you, Saturday’s effort was so much more.

Typical of this enigmatic Irish side, they made history the hard way. The visitors found themselves down to 14-men after just 20 minutes thanks to the controversial sending off of their naturalised back row, CJ Stander, who was red carded for a clumsy challenge on his former compatriot and team-mate, Patrick Lambie. A Test match in South Africa is an unforgiving environment for any rugby team. The conditions are notoriously brutal, confrontational, and hostile. Therefore, for a young Irish side to think their way to victory in such challenging circumstances is nothing short of incredible.

I’ve been watching rugby for nearly thirty years, and can’t remember anything remotely like Saturday’s career defining performance. Indeed, I’m old enough to remember the bad old days when underpowered Irish sides were sent to South Africa to compete against enormous  Springbok sides comprised of utter behemoths. In those days, the men in green faced mission impossible, they were ritual lambs to the slaughter. In writing this piece, I think back to 1998 when an Irish team led by Paddy Johns faced shocking levels of aggression and attrition on the Highveld. The Battle of Pretoria and all that. Look it up on You Tube if you haven’t seen it. It was shocking stuff. Notorious. Madness everywhere. Nevertheless, Johns’s men didn’t take a backward step, meeting fire with fire on one of rugby’s darkest days. Thankfully, the game has come a long way in the ensuing years. Such overt and unfiltered violence simply isn’t tolerated in the uber-sanitised modern, professional game. Here’s the point, though. In those days, it was inconceivable, unrealistic even, to think that Ireland would ever defeat the Springboks on their home patch. That they did it in the midst of such adversity is remarkable in the extreme.

Of course many of Ireland’s woes were self-inflicted. What of the sending off? While Stander’s challenge was undeniably reckless and ugly (it doesn’t get any better with repeat viewing), CJ assuredly had no intention of hurting his former team-mate, and it’s hard to resist the impression that Ireland’s flanker was committed to a challenge he was unable to avoid in the heat of the moment. The post match consensus held that a yellow card was a more fitting sanction, and I don’t disagree with that analysis. Despite Ireland’s deeply ingrained propensity to make life difficult for themselves, this was a performance to be admired and treasured as a monumental effort. While Ireland’s tactics undoubtedly worked a treat, this was a win achieved with old fashioned grit and determination. The Irish refused to submit, just wouldn’t be beaten; even when reduced to 13-men following Robbie Henshaw’s first half sin-binning. This victory was all about belief and conviction; the young side showing unwavering heart and composure to withstand the South African onslaught.

Witness the way three Irish defenders bundled JP Pietersen into touch at the death to deny the South Africans a win they scarcely deserved. This display  was all about collective will and determination, the Irish simply wouldn’t be denied. In a side shorn of experience and leadership, good performances abounded everywhere. To a man, Ireland’s players emphatically rose to the occasion. Iain Henderson, Jordi Murphy, Jamie Heaslip, and Jared Payne all contributed outstanding performances. So too Paddy Jackson. The Ulster youngster has waited a long time for his opportunity and he grabbed it with both hands, with a performance full of composure and thoughtfulness. This was Jackson’s moment. And what about captain fantastic? Rory Best was magnificent. I lost count of the times the Irish skipper saved the day. Best was everywhere in a game where his leadership and character shone brightest. If anyone still doubts the class of the Ulster hooker, I suggest they look again at the video.

Incredibly, an historic series win is now within the ambit of Joe Schmidt’s men. After Saturday, belief and optimism must be surging through the veins of the entire squad. A word of caution, though. I can’t recall a worse South African performance. The Springboks were dire on Saturday, and this proud  rugby nation will unquestionably be smarting like never before. I fully expect a terrifying backlash next week. However, if Ireland can somehow withstand the mammoth onslaught, anything is possible. The bar has been set, and Schmidt’s men will be determined to make further history. It’s going to be a fascinating couple of weeks. It seems fitting to leave the final word to Man of the Match, Devin Toner. It’s been a difficult few weeks for the giant second row following the passing of his father. Toner has developed into a mature and vital member of Schmidt’s squad; his humble, modest demeanour reflecting the core values of this Irish team. On collecting his thoroughly deserved MOTM award, the big man simply said: “I just wanted to say, that’s for dad.” It was a poignant and evocative end to one of Ireland’s greatest days.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey