Has luck of the Irish run out?

How to handle setback and disappointment. A very pertinent question after a sobering week for Irish sport. First of all, we had the acute of heartache of the football, as Martin O’Neill’s men suffered a near capitulation against a superb Denmark side. A couple of days earlier, their northern counterparts saw their own World Cup hopes go for a Burton against the Swiss. As if that wasn’t bad enough, there was confirmation that Ireland’s bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup has been unsuccessful, with the Irish coming three out of, er, three. Pretty disappointing.

With the rolling 24-hours news cycle we have nowadays, there’s been plenty of analysis and discussion of each of these events. Thus, I don’t feel the need to bore you with any further dissection of the defeats. What interests me more is the reaction to these setbacks. Vituperation and indignation everywhere. I think it tells us something about the modern Irish psyche. And the reflection isn’t necessarily positive.

Compared to the more phlegmatic and philosophical responses of days gone by, modern reaction to Irish setbacks borders on the hysterical. We’re either the best in the world or the worst. We’ve lost all sense of perspective. There’s little balance, no objectivity or logic anymore. In the midst of painful defeat, our players and administrators are castigated as hopeless, making the immediate and seamless transition from heroes to villains. In the battle for collective self-awareness, we’re in danger of losing the plot. You only have to read the column inches and listen to the phone-ins to tap into the anger and umbrage stemming from last week’s defeats. The reaction of fans to the Denmark loss, in particular, is extremely interesting.

Much of the public ire has been directed at Ireland boss, Martin O’Neill. Of course there’s nothing new about a manager incurring the wrath of fans following a heavy and bruising defeat. That’s football. Given the scale of Ireland’s reversal, surely it’s quite understandable that O’Neill should feel the heat? Maybe. But consider for a moment the rationale behind condemning a manager as consistently successful and overachieving as the former Celtic boss. In the overwhelming sense of grievance and injustice, it’s instantly forgotten that a less than vintage Ireland team wouldn’t have got anywhere near a World Cup play-off without the managerial talents of Martin O’Neill!

If anything, the reaction to the Rugby World Cup decision has been even more irrational. Granted, a lot of work has been put into a bid that was meant to finally deliver a World Cup on home soil. This was presumed to be our moment to shine; possibly Ireland’s only chance to stage a genuinely prestigious international sports event. Dignitaries as luminous as Dick Spring, Leo Varadkar and Brian O’Driscoll were drafted into an Irish dream team to woo our fellow rugby brethren to the cause. Therefore, the  confirmation on 15 November  that France had got the nod to host rugby’s showpiece event in 2023 was a profoundly bitter pill to swallow for the Irish delegation.  In the last few weeks, us Irish haven’t exactly covered ourselves in glory, though.

When World Rugby announced that its team of consultants were recommending South Africa for RWC 2023 a couple of weeks ago, the Irish rugby public became apoplectic with rage. Punters, fans and administrators alike were incredulous that Ireland’s bid wasn’t being championed, as if we deemed its rubber-stamping a fait accompli.

The IRFU wrote an uncharacteristically strongly worded letter to World Rugby on the back of South Africa’s recommendation, pointing out alleged defects in both South Africa’s bid and the consultancy process in general. World Rugby was (not so subtly) reminded that delegates weren’t compelled to go with the independent recommendation and that all three prospective hosts were capable of staging the tournament.

Perhaps there was an element of sour grapes in the Irish response. While I don’t doubt the sincerity of the IRFU’s concerns, I wonder if they would have been so vocal on the defects of the process if they’d secured the recommendation rather than South Africa? As it was, neither South Africa or Ireland were victorious in the end but one wonders if the tone of Ireland’s objections did the Irish bid many favours in the final analysis. After all, in the cosy, diplomatic world of rugby administration, blazers aren’t used to being lectured and publicly criticised over perceived flaws in their processes.

In the aftermath of the rugby and football disappointments, our response betrays much that’s wrong with modern Irish attitudes. We tend to overestimate ourselves and often fail to give due respect to our opponents. For example, it was naive in the extreme to think that our structural and resource deficiencies would be ignored in the World Cup assessment.

After all, several of our stadiums needed significant upgrades prior to 2023 and one of the grounds (Casement Park) has yet to be built. In contrast, if the World Cup were to be held tomorrow, both France and South Africa could easily accommodate an event of such magnitude. Indeed, both nations have recent experience of hosting major sports tournaments. Of course Ireland has plenty of time to modernise its infrastructure but it’s understandable the ready made nature of our opponents’ facilities became one of the deciding factors in World Rugby’s decision.

There’s something fundamentally unattractive about some of our recent attitudes to setback. Us Irish are at our best when we’re modest, self-effacing and humble. A tenacious and likeable underdog that’s universally admired for those characteristics. As the ultimate exponents of fun and craic. Arrogance and overconfidence don’t sit anywhere near as well in our national mindset. And yet these are the undesirable traits we’re increasingly exhibiting.

Maybe it’s small nation syndrome. You only have to observe the bouts of reflection and recrimination that follow every Olympic Games to see modern Ireland’s inflated opinion of itself. It’s almost as if we somehow expect success. Why? We’re a small country. And we obviously don’t have the resources of the USA or China! It seems we’ve developed a bit of a chip on our shoulders, a warped and unjustified sense of entitlement.

It’s fine when we’re winning, of course, but negative attitudes have become conspicuously prevalent alongside the pain of defeat. We saw it in the response to Rugby World Cup rejection and in the ongoing excoriation of Martin O’Neill. We’ve lost the run of ourselves and we need to row back. It’s time to restore some semblance of balance and perspective.

One of the best things about being Irish is, after all, our smallness. And I mean that it in the best possible way. We’re minnows. A tiny country whose people have shaped the world and done outstanding things on the global stage. A country that’s produced Liam Neeson, George Best, John Hume and U2. A people who consistently succeed in the midst of severe adversity and tragedy; winning despite our small stature. That’s precisely why our victories mean so much. And why handling defeat should be easy for us. After the ludicrous hysteria of recent days, we’d do well to remember that.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

 

 

 

 

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Not Just Zebo Out In The Cold

Much has been made of Simon Zebo’s impending departure to play his rugby in France, for a yet unconfirmed destination-possibly Racing 92. As soon as it was revealed that the Irish winger/fullback had spurned the offer of a new Munster contract, speculation was rife with regard to what his exit would mean for Zebo’s international prospects. As it was, we didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Just days later, Irish coach Joe Schmidt announced an extended squad for the upcoming autumn internationals and in the lengthy list of names there was one noticeable absentee-Simon Zebo.

With Rob Kearney’s best days behind him and Jared Payne struggling to achieve an injury free run, it was widely assumed that Zebo was an absolute shoo- in for the Irish fullback berth this autumn. And yet with backfield options scarce, the Munster man has found himself surplus to requirements. Zebo’s omission has certainly shocked plenty of Irish rugby folk, with teammates and fans alike taken aback at the Munster fullback’s unexpected and sudden exclusion.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised, though. In recent years, the IRFU’S policy regarding selection has been abundantly clear. If you move abroad, you’re out! As harsh as it seems, that’s been the immutable rule. With the notable exception of Johnny Sexton (too brilliant to omit), any move outside Ireland has led to the player being sent to Coventry-mostly in a metaphorical sense, you understand, but it also applies literally in the case of Marty Moore! Sexton aside, all high profile movers have been shunned and excluded from Irish selection. It didn’t matter who you were: Ian Madigan, Donnacha Ryan, JJ Hanrahan. If you left the Irish set-up, you paid the ultimate price in terms of test selection.

What makes Zebo’s case fairly unique, though, is the shunning is happening while the player is still here. Remember, he’s not going until next season. In that sense, we can detect a hardening of the Irish management’s position. The policy couldn’t be any clearer: not only will a player not be picked if he moves abroad, it now seems he won’t be selected if it’s clear he’s unavailable for any part of the World Cup cycle. Given the dearth of current options at fullback, the easy option was to pick Zebo. He was the obvious, straightforward choice. In declining to do so, Schmidt has underlined his commitment to the homegrown policy in a devastatingly uncompromising fashion.

Make no mistake about it, Irish rugby is in a bitter fight to hold onto its biggest names. In an ultra-competitive transfer market, it’s simply not possible for the IRFU to compete with the English and French clubs, with their mega-rich benefactors. And as it’s impossible to outbid their Anglo-French rivals, the IRFU has to utilise whatever leverage it has at its disposal. One advantage is the unrivalled way players are looked after within the Irish system. Instead of being flogged to pieces in the Premiership and Top 14, the Irish provinces wrap their star men in cotton wool, sensibly limiting the amount of rugby played.

The other main argument the union uses to encourage players to stay is, of course, selection. Which brings us back to Zebo. This rugby era is unique in that we’re seeing players in their prime abandoning their national systems for the unprecedented riches presently available in the club game. It’s been happening to the All Blacks for years, where even the pull of the hallowed silver fern has been unable to prevent players leaving for Europe with their best years still ahead of them. Think of Charles Piutau at Ulster as a case in point. It was only a matter of time, therefore, before such commercial realities caught up with Ireland.

And the Irish system is particularly susceptible to losing players like Zebo. A fluent French speaker who has often spoken of a desire to broaden his horizons, it’s no real surprise that the Munster man’s head has been turned. Let’s not forget that modern rugby careers are becoming increasingly short. The sport has never been more arduous and players are only ever an injury away from retirement.

And rugby isn’t like football in the sense that superstar players retire without having to work again. Rare indeed is a professional rugby player whose playing career sets him up for life. In this context, it’s quite understandable, then, that players want to enrich themselves and their families in the short time available to them. Simon Zebo is one of the lucky few who has the perspicacity to understand the need to make hay while the sun shines.

For all that, we know what the trade off is. For Irish internationals, their test careers suffer because of pragmatic if understandable choices. Unlike their predecessors of yesteryear such as Keith Wood and Geordan Murphy, the IRFU’s selection policy is no longer allowing players to have their cake and eat it. Players must decide and the choice is stark: remain in the Irish system or risk never playing for your country again.

And although Zebo is the most high profile casualty of this contentious policy, the ramifications extend way beyond any one player. Schmidt may explain Zebo’s omission in his usual loquacious style, but there’s no mistaking the severity of the message. The line is clear and unambiguous. One that’s sent a shudder through every Irish international who values his test career but may have been pondering a possible move abroad. And that’s how it has to be if the IRFU’s policy is to have any meaning. But hey, no-one ever said life was fair.  In the merciless battle to hold onto its main men, Irish rugby just got real tough.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

File:Simon Zebo 2015 RWC.jpg

By Warwick Gastinger (Rugby World Cup DSCN4917) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Far From As You Were

I bought the new Liam Gallagher album As You Were on I-Tunes recently. I’m a little behind the times that way. Believe it or not, I still download music. I guess I’ve always been a little old-fashioned in that respect. When CDs first came into vogue, I still had more than my fair share of cassette tapes. Then when CDs made way for the digital downloading miracle, my music collection was still littered with compact discs. I liked owning something physical, you see, plus CDS were always handy to play in the car. And now the whole world and his wife are streaming their music, I’m still downloading. Perpetually one step behind! Anyway, I digress. Liam’s new album?

Well, I never thought I’d say this, but it’s actually bloody good! The songs are wonderfully melodic and catchy; an obvious progression by the former Oasis front man from his previous incarnation as singer of Beady Eye. There’s an unapologetic, welcome rockiness about the record and it’s also a bit more diverse than I expected. And while the musical style is nothing we haven’t heard many times before from the Gallagher brothers, this album delivers in emphatic fashion, producing plenty of loud, anthemic moments.

As You Were  reflects a new maturity from the Oasis singer. Unfairly or not, Liam was seen in the past as the lighter of the Gallaghers. While older brother Noel was perceived as serious, introspective and deep, Liam tended to be viewed more glibly; shallow and frivolous in comparison. A tremendous front man certainly, but lacking the musical gifts of his songwriting brother. Well, even a cursory listen of As You Were forces us to rethink those preconceptions. Of course collaborators/writers were used, but Liam co-writes throughout the record. It’s a telling and productive contribution.

Wall of Glass, for example, is marvellous, if a little derivative. For What It’s Worth, meanwhile, is perhaps the album’s most talked about track. It’s a great tune and one I’ve found myself singing religiously in recent weeks. While the person (s) the song was written for is a matter of conjecture, the sincerity behind the lyrics is obvious.

Some critics have predictably highlighted the similarity with some Beatles’ songs (and indeed Oasis) but, honestly, what did they expect? This is a Liam Gallagher record! He was always going to pay homage. For anyone put off by such thoughts, don’t worry. Liam’s musical influences give a comforting familiarity to the album, but there’s enough freshness and originality to keep it interesting.

When all’s said and done, it’s hard not to see this record as a triumph. Regardless of how it performs from a commercial perspective, Liam has shown enough quality to make us all stand up and take notice. Which begs an obvious question, what does big brother Noel think of it all? In the years since Oasis split in 2009, Liam’s brother has largely kept his counsel and been considerably less vocal than his younger sibling.

But you can bet your bottom dollar that it hasn’t escaped his attention that Liam has produced a fine record, one worthy of his own exalted standards. For those hopeful souls who think recent events might at last presage an Oasis reunion, you only have to listen to interviews with both men to understand the obvious tension and antagonism that still exists. More relevant, though, is Liam’s emergence as a substantive artist in his own right. Who’d have thought it? In reassessing the Gallaghers’ respective strengths, there’s a chance we’ve been lauding the wrong brother all along.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

By Will Fresch [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

New Dawn As Tourists Flock

I had the pleasure of visiting Portrush recently. I’ve incredibly fond memories of the seaside town. My first holidays as a child were spent there and I’ve nothing but pleasant recollections of the place. Sun, sand, sea and amusements galore. That was the background to my childhood summers. Those were the days. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be! As well as childhood holidays, I’ve other, more recent memories of the resort. My wife and I spent our first weekend away together in Portrush seven years ago and last week we returned for a weekend away with our baby daughter. Wonderful memories.

We went off season and the weather was characteristically uncharitable, but we had a terrific weekend, enjoying the sights and sounds of the north coast. What I didn’t expect was how many others would make the same trip. The place was positively teeming with tourists. They were there in their droves: Americans, English, Antipodeans. You name it. Over the course of the weekend, we saw lots of golfers, bikers and holidaymakers who’d chosen to spend an early September weekend in Northern Ireland.

We even stumbled across that newest breed of holidaymaker: the Game of Thrones tourist! There were bus loads of them, from all corners of the globe. I must admit that I live in blissful ignorance of the ubiquitous Game of Thrones phenomenon. In fact, when I first saw people waxing lyrical about Jon Snow on social media, I thought they were referring to the popular Channel 4 newsreader! True story.

Nonetheless, it was great to see so many tourists making the journey. It was great to see them there, in tremendous spirits despite the often inclement weather. How times have changed. Like most of us, I remember the days when tourists in Northern Ireland were as rare as hen’s teeth. And in a strange way, we kind of liked those days. All our unheralded gems were ours alone and we didn’t have to share them with the rest of the world.

Of course visitors knew about the Giant’s Causeway and the Glens of Antrim but precious little else. Maybe that’s because in days gone by, there wasn’t much else! When I was growing up, Belfast, for example, did little to inform tourists of its links to the most famous ship ever to sail. However, these days we can encourage visitors with a world- leading Titanic visitor attraction and a luxury hotel.

Of course these changes are worthy of celebration. The benefits gleaned by the local economy are obvious and it’s imperative we make the most of the bounty. Tourists can go anywhere in the world but, increasingly, they’re coming here. We must ensure we give them something worth coming to. And, more importantly, we must give them a reason to return.

Northern Ireland’s new visitors are a sign of a society that’s normalising; that the outside world finally accepts there’s more to this place than the Troubles. As I’ve seen with my own eyes, the tourists are doing their bit. They’re responding to the glossy adverts. They’re coming. We must fulfil our side of the bargain by providing investment, infrastructure and world class facilities.

Ultimately, people vote with their feet. If they don’t like somewhere, they don’t return. This applies to tourist destinations as much as anything else. Weather aside, we live in a great country. Ireland is unquestionably one of the most beautiful places in the world. We’ve every reason to be proud of our home. And we should be grateful so many visitors want to see our sights for themselves. However, with increased interest comes a responsibility to deliver the goods.

The tourism and hospitality industry in Ireland has come in leaps and bounds in recent times but there’s still much to be done. In this ultra-competitive world, there’s no room for complacency. The south has led the way in showcasing our tremendous product to the rest of the world. And although we’re a bit further behind up north (for obvious reasons) we’re starting to catch up in terms of the massive potential that exists. I’m delighted to see so many tourists flocking to our weird and wonderful shores. Long may it continue. It’s vital we have the facilities and infrastructure to make the most of this precious gift.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

Does Stormont White Elephant Herald Post- Good Friday Agreement Era?

As I’m sure you know, I live in Northern Ireland. It’s a thoroughly unique and distinctive place. One of the most remarkable aspects of northern Irish life is that the region effectively has no government or administration at the moment. In fact, it currently has nothing that remotely resembles administrative efficacy. Since December last year, our government has been in a state of  semi-permanent hiatus, effectively suspended while the nominal partners in government (what a misnomer that is) embark on their latest round of bickering and accusation. Anyone who has the misfortune of following northern Irish politics with a degree of regularity will know that Stormont has become a by-word for stalemate and dysfunction; the power-sharing government and associated apparatus established by 1998’s Good Friday Agreement (GFA) have been fundamentally inoperable for some time.

So what, you might ask? Partnership governments and coalitions regularly fall apart all over the world as ideological differences and disputes prove discordant and intractable. Fair enough. What sets Northern Ireland apart is that our politicians can expect to be paid full, healthy salaries while they effectively sit on their hands and do nothing. And when I say nothing, that’s only a slight exaggeration. It’s a pretty good deal, isn’t it? And it’s us, the hard working taxpayers, who are subsidising the unjustifiable largesse and ostentation on the hill. I’ve a fair idea what would happen if I downed tools in my workplace and refused to do the job I was discharged to do. Different rules apply for Northern Ireland’s politicians, though. They’re able to make a virtue of continued inactivity, safe in the knowledge that their sizeable salaries will continue to be paid for the foreseeable future.

And, at the time of writing, there seems to be very little prospect of rapprochement  or accommodation. With two polarising elections in dangerously close proximity just ended, there seems little desire to get the exorbitant show back on the road. This ugly stalemate would be comical if the whole enterprise wasn’t so wasteful and lacking in everyday relevance. So, what happens if the circle isn’t squared? Direct Rule? More bloated and meaningless negotiations? Another bloody election? Each option carries inherent risk and danger.

What makes this impasse distinct from the countless others that have preceded it, is that it’s hard to see from where a potential breakthrough will come. Northern Ireland’s two largest parties-Sinn Féin and the DUP-appear further apart than ever and neither seem particularly vexed by the predicament they find themselves in. Indeed, some argue the parties stand to gain more by staying outside the Stormont executive while the messy melodrama that is Brexit plays out over the coming months and years.

Perhaps what we’re seeing is the emergence of a post-Good Friday Agreement era. The Agreement witnessed unprecedented euphoria and optimism throughout Ireland when talks were concluded nearly 20 years ago. Old enemies had sat down, talked (and listened) to each other and, against all the odds, hammered out a workable, if imperfect, compromise. Despite its obvious and fundamental flaws, the GFA was a valiant and venerable attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable and seemingly ushered in a new era of peace and mutual respect between the main traditions  in Ireland. The GFA’s primary attribute was that it offered something for everyone: the consent principle was enshrined for unionists, while nationalists were able to retain an aspiration for Irish unity within a new constitutional architecture that accentuated and augmented an all-Ireland dimension.

One of the primary criticisms of the GFA has always been that it institutionalised sectarianism; that instead of eradicating division it rather embraced political and religious difference and bestowed them with official blessing. Such critique is overly simplistic and ignores the laudable intentions behind the consociational ideals that underpin the GFA and its power-sharing structures.

After all, in a divided society that was emerging from a bitter and sinister sectarian conflict, it was inevitable that checks and balances were built into the new governmental architecture. One of the issues that’s hampered progress in the ensuing years  is that the GFA was predicated on perceived moderate parties (the Ulster Unionists and SDLP) leading the power-sharing administration and executive. And for the first few years of the executive’s existence, that’s exactly how it was.

However, these parties were soon completely and remorselessly usurped by their ambitious rivals in the DUP and Sinn Féin, who moved decisively to the centre and unashamedly stole their opponents’ clothes. With the UUP and SDLP at the helm, the GFA stood a fighting chance of being implemented and developed in the way its framers had originally intended. With  more polarised elements in control of the process, however, that original concept of shared government has proved much more elusive and challenging. No-one should be remotely surprised by this. A mandatory coalition comprised of sworn enemies pursuing  diametrically opposed agendas was always going to be a difficult edifice to maintain. It’s nothing short of a miracle, in fact, that the executive, under the DUP-Sinn Féin watch, lasted ten years before imploding amid acrimony and recrimination.

As precarious as Northern Ireland’s power-sharing structures undoubtedly are, we now have the destabilising influence of Brexit to add into this volatile mix. Presumably, the last thing unionist leaders and politicians wanted was the existential question of the Irish border brought to the fore in a meaningful way. And yet that’s what last June’s historic Brexit vote has done. Whatever else about the intentions of the negotiators behind the GFA, its structures certainly weren’t conceived to exist in an Ireland divided further by citizens within and without the European Union.

Indeed, one of the great selling points of the GFA was that it was to be guaranteed and stewarded by two sovereign governments, themselves inextricably linked and bound as partners within the EU. Instead, what Brexit is set to deliver is an Irish state firmly and comfortably within the EU sharing a lengthy and reinforced land border with a Northern Ireland that will be (despite the wishes of a majority of its citizens) outside the European Union; unable to avail of the protections and benefits afforded to member states. You don’t have to be Einstein to see the hornet’s nest that’s been opened up with regard to both Anglo-Irish relations and internal Irish politics.

While the exact effect of Brexit on Northern Irish politics remains to be seen (and indeed negotiated), the inert state of northern politics is altogether easier to discern. Inter-party relations are perilously close to rock bottom, cooperation has been rendered virtually obsolete, trust seems a foreign concept, compromise a dirty word, while mutual respect has been replaced by suspicion and ouright hostility. In all of this, the question arises: is Stormont worth putting back together? Do any of us actually benefit from the white elephant on the hill that’s taken inactivity and political vacuum to new levels?

They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same activity or pattern repeatedly and expecting different results. So, all aboard the gravy train for another futile journey to nowhere? Perhaps that’s where we’re inevitably headed. Or maybe the parties have accepted that alternative solutions finally have to be considered in a post- GFA and post-Brexit era. If the main antagonists have had their fill of Stormont and want to explore new horizons, that’s a perfectly valid position. What’s obnoxious to many of us is that they continue to get paid for their lacklustre and listless efforts. The suspicion lingers that the current dynamic would swiftly change if MLA’s salaries were stopped or curtailed. For the increasingly small number of people who still value the Stormont farce, this could be their only hope.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

By http://www.flickr.com/photos/robertpaulyoung/ [CC BY 2.0 –Image Courtesy of Wikipedia (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Here come the girls!

It doesn’t generate the hype, profile and (if truth be told) over-exposure of the men’s equivalent but the Women’s Rugby World Cup kicked off this week. The tournament is being hosted in Ireland this time. I must admit that until recently I was an avowed sceptic of the women’s version of the game. Despite being a committed rugby fan, it wasn’t something that tickled my interest in a major way. I had watched a little in the past but hadn’t quite been converted. Therefore, I noted the comments made by ex-Ireland international flanker David Corkery with interest this week. For those who missed it, Corkery, as reported in the Irish Independent, said:

“Personally, I find watching the women’s game complicated and arduous to watch. I think we all partly watch rugby because of the physical battles it produces. The big hits, the powerful runs, the struggle at the scrum and so on, however I simply do not like watching ladies knocking lumps out of each other.”

Until recently, somewhat shamefully, I agreed with some of what David said.  I believed that although there was absolutely nothing wrong with women’s rugby-if ladies wanted to play the game, good luck to them-it wasn’t something that I found particularly appealing. However, with the World Cup having kicked off, I find myself thinking quite differently. Why shouldn’t the female version of the game receive the same support and backing as its male counterpart? Why should the girls accept a status as secondary and subservient to men’s rugby? Okay, the female game doesn’t generate anywhere near as much publicity or money as the male version but does that mean that it should be considered worthless, without merit? Of course not!

I haven’t watched a huge amount of women’s rugby in recent times, but the last time I viewed a game, I was blown away by the vast improvement in the standard of the rugby on offer. The skill levels were quite superb and the players certainly weren’t lacking in physicality or technical application either. It was a world away from the first few games I’d taken in many years ago when the women’s game was still very much in its infancy. In fact, I was extremely impressed and unquestionably entertained by the spectacle on display. Absolutely nothing secondary or inferior about it.

His views have been branded controversial, but does Corkery have a point? My former misgivings about the female game had nothing whatsoever to do with the gender of the participants. I certainly wasn’t being sexist. Like the former Irish international, I merely believed that a contact sport of such obvious attrition lent itself more to the male version of the game. That the ladies, as good as they obviously were, were unable to replicate the physical intensity and aggression that’s routinely seen in a men’s rugby match.

Based on recent evidence, I’m more than happy to admit that I was wrong.  Women’s Rugby is on a definite upward curve in terms of skill and interest, as the substantial crowds have testified this week. The fans wouldn’t be coming in their droves if the standard wasn’t excellent. Women’s Rugby has indeed arrived and its emergence is a tremendous credit to everyone involved. The product may differ slightly from what punters are used to, but it undoubtedly has much to offer. Indeed, like tennis, it can be the variances that make us enjoy the sports even more. Vive La Difference! 

Despite the undoubted spectacle on offer, there’s another reason to support the Women’s Rugby World Cup. With Ireland’s bid for RWC 2023 still under consideration by World Rugby, a successful tournament can only work in the country’s favour. With everything still to play for, there’s a real incentive for Irish rugby to show the world what a wonderful job it can do. We all know about Irish hospitality, infrastructure, organisation and, of course, our wonderful fans. In Ireland, we don’t just believe, we know that we have the tools and resources to host a major international sporting event. But it’s not enough to say it. Much better to demonstrate our aptitude to as wide an audience as possible. If Ireland manage to secure the rights to host RWC 2023, the next couple of weeks could be crucial in the mission. Another reason to cheer loudly for our ladies. Here come the girls. Come on Ireland!!

On a completely unrelated note, events last week reminded me of some of the discussions I had while Donald Trump was running for the presidency. Whenever I expressed concern over a potential Trump victory and what that might mean for global relations, I recall a lot of people reassuring me: “Don’t worry, he’s very insular and isolationist by inclination.” Well, it doesn’t seem to be working out like that! Here’s hoping that cool heads prevail in this latest, unnecessary showdown. We elect our leaders to lead, to demonstrate calm, considered and reflective authority. To deescalate conflict and tension. They’re privileged to serve us. With that honour comes a massive responsibility. It’s about time they showed it!

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Image courtesy of Wikipedia: By Pierre-Selim Huard (Self-photographed) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

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Stalemate in Auckland

It all felt a bit flat, didn’t it? The Lions and the All Blacks tied up an enthralling series yesterday in a tense and gripping final showdown. 15 points apiece meant the protagonists couldn’t be separated in both yesterday’s game and the overall series. The acute sense of anti-climax and dissatisfaction was seen in the body language of the players at the end. Nobody was sure how to react.

A draw is indeed the most unsatisfactory outcome in rugby. Even if your side loses, the contest has been a success and the other team can celebrate their win. However, when the contest has been rendered obsolete by frustrating stalemate, neither side can take anything from it. Quite simply, there’s nothing to celebrate. If the Lions had lost yesterday, we’d still have witnessed scenes of delirium, as victorious All Blacks celebrated a hard earned victory. Similarly, if the Lions had prevailed, the players and fans would be celebrating a truly historic win. What we saw instead was something much more hollow and empty.

Despite the palpable sense of disappointment, the 2017 Lions can look back on this series with immense pride. In the midst of regret over a series win that got away, it’s easy to forget just how universally written off  the Lions were before they started their odyssey six weeks’ ago. Prior to kick off, most pundits and commentators were predicting a 3-0 whitewash for the All Blacks. Even the most optimistic of Lions’ fans-myself included-argued that the best Gatland’s tourists could hope for was a 2-1 series defeat. A drawn series is actually a phenomenal achievement, therefore.

Head coach Warren Gatland has been completely vindicated in his selections and decisions. The unfortunate “Geography Six” episode aside, the Lions’ coach has been brilliant throughout this unforgiving tour. It takes a certain type of character and personality to succeed in something as complex and onerous as a Lions tour. There are few enterprises in life where virtually everything is set up for you to fail. A  Lions tour to New Zealand is one such arduous and relentless task. The first thing the tourists had to win, therefore, was the respect of their merciless hosts. They did that and then some. The Lions’ coach was depicted in the New Zealand press as a clown, but the Waikato man has proved yet again what a formidable and smart operator he is.

And how his players have blossomed. The likes of Liam Williams, Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly have delivered in exhilarating fashion on this tour. What’s more, in Maro Itoje, we’ve seen the emergence of a genuine superstar. Others will feel aggrieved and hurt at their lack of involvement, but that’s the nature of it. You see it on every tour. However, the perception, from the outside at any rate, is that this has been a happy, well managed tour. Gatland’s squad has got the balance right between paying respect to the locals, enjoying their surroundings and getting serious about the rugby when it really mattered. There were very few rumbles of discontent-a sure sign of a happy touring party.

But Gatland’s achievement is about much more than a drawn Test series. The under-fire Lions’ brand has been strengthened and renewed to an almost immeasurable extent. For this much cherished concept to remain relevant in the professional era, the team has to win Tests. The entire viability of the concept is questioned otherwise. Given the fact that everything is set up for the Lions to fail, consider this. Of their last seven tests, the tourists have won four, drawn one and lost two. That’s a remarkable record!

It must be remembered that this was an organisation in dire need of revival following Clive Woodward’s misadventure of 2005. The recovery in the ensuing 12 years has been nothing short of amazing. And the primary architect of the turnaround has been Warren Gatland, head coach for the last two tours and Ian McGeechan’s chief assistant in 2009. He should be extremely proud of his efforts. More than anything, the 2017 tour proves that the Lions are in great shape.

In recent times, the Lions have been subjected to selfish attacks from ignorant charlatans who care nothing for history, tradition and respect. Sadly, there are many vested interests who’d be more than happy to see the Lions retreat forever into the history books. While that can’t be allowed to happen, the attackers are picking a fight they can’t win. Anyone who’s watched over the last six weeks has seen a brand that is vibrant, modern and ultra successful. An organisation that cherishes its wonderful history but is wholly relevant in the elite world of modern professional sport. From strength to strength. Roll on South Africa. The British and Irish Lions are alive and well!

By Dyfsunctional at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey