Time for Ireland to shine!

It’s that time of year again. In these tough times we’re living in, it’s hard not to succumb to cynicism and negativity. After all, you only have to watch the television news or read a newspaper, to be bombarded with a relentless stream of woe and bad news. Yes, doom and gloom are everywhere, and there seems to be no escape from the consuming madness. Recent political decisions have only served to compound feelings of despondency and despair. And yet, in the midst of seemingly interminable darkness, the light of spring always brings a welcome infusion of happiness to our slightly beleaguered souls.

For rugby fans, this can only mean one thing: the Six Nations Championship. It’s fair to say that the much derided tournament has delivered much hope to an Irish nation that’s suffered its fair share of gloom in recent years. The Six Nations has been good to us. What wonderful memories we’ve been given by this great tournament. BOD’s hat-trick in Paris, ROG’s famous drop goal to seal the long awaited Slam and so much else besides (for those wondering what on earth I’m on about, Irish rugby fans have a strange tendency to speak in acronyms and abbreviations. And yes, I understand how irritating this must seem!).

Regardless of what else is happening in the world, the Six Nations always provides a welcome antidote to the harshness and monotony of everyday life. The competition itself is a mass of contradictions: a commercial powerhouse but one that is deeply rooted in history, tradition and Corinthian values that belong to a bygone age. In that sense, the grand old tournament is something of a sporting anachronism. A thoroughly professional competition that retains the quaintness and old-fashioned appeal of an amateur era long since consigned to the history books. Needless to say, the fans love it. What’s more remarkable, however, is that the Six Nations retains its enduring appeal despite a lack of spectacle and consistent entertainment value.

I appreciate there are those who may disagree on this point, but ask yourself the question: how often in the last ten years have you been blown away by a Six Nations match and the rugby on display? How often have you thought: “The occasion’s great and it’s nice to have a few pints in the spring sunshine; however the match we’ve just watched was pretty crap?” Of course, there have been exceptions and the business end of the tournament is never less than captivating, but the rugby itself has rarely sizzled in recent seasons. Instead, we’ve often been subjected to bore-fests, with defences dominating and teams adopting  win-at-all-costs mantras. Given the traditional format of the tournament, the absence of entertainment has hardly been surprising. Up to now, the Six Nations has predominantly been about survival and winning by any means possible.

That’s why the belated introduction of bonus points has been so universally welcomed. The initiative not only standardises the Six Nations with every other major rugby tournament on the planet, but opens up the possibility of a competition where attacking rugby is at a premium; with teams focusing on scoring tries and accumulating scores rather than shutting down opponents. One can only hope. Change was long overdue and it’s now up to the teams to show the same level of innovation on the pitch that administrators have shown in the boardrooms.

In terms of national interest, Ireland look well placed to mount a serious challenge for silverware. While the holy grail of the Grand Slam seems as elusive as ever, there’s absolutely no reason why Joe Schmidt’s men can’t regain a trophy they’ve won twice in the last three years. If a tricky opening fixture against the ascendant Scots can be negotiated safely, Ireland have the form and talent to go all the way. As ever, momentum is the key to Six Nations success. Of course so much depends on fortune and factors beyond Schmidt’s obsessive control. Injuries are part of the fabric of the modern game, but there are some men that Ireland dare not lose in the weeks ahead. Schmidt will pray that Johnny Sexon, Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw get through the tournament relatively unscathed.

In some positions, though, Ireland have an embarrassment of wealth. Consider the abundance of talent the back row, for example, where the form of Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander could keep SOB on the bench (I’m at it again!). With the year that’s in it, Lions selection adds another layer of spice to an already fascinating competition in prospect. While Wales and France can never be discounted, Ireland’s main adversaries for the title seem to be Eddie Jones’s England. In extolling Ireland’s championship credentials, we mustn’t forget that Jones’s men have gone over a calendar year without tasting defeat.

Already, that final game on 18th March has the look of a championship decider. England, in Dublin, the day after St Patrick’s Day. It doesn’t get much better than that! How exciting would it be if both sides were going for a Slam to boot? Remember 2003?! Stay tuned. There’s certain to be twists, turns, upsets, and incidents galore. It’s what makes this tournament the colossus that it is. I guess it’s prediction time. Who’ll win the title, then? It’s a tough one this year. Do I go with heart or head? Who am I kidding. Heart wins every time. Ireland!!

P.S. Although I didn’t stay up to watch it, I was sorry to hear that Carl Frampton lost his title last night. I know Carl will be devastated to relinquish his unbeaten record, but all great champions come back from defeat even stronger. What a perfect opportunity to show, once and for all, that he belongs in the pantheon of greats. We haven’t heard the last of Carl Frampton!

Image courtesy of Wikipedia: By Hoops341 (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAviva_Stadium_from_North_Stand.jpg

 

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