All Hail The Underdog!

The underdog (once an endangered species in sport) is making a welcome and sensational comeback. Witness Leicester’s City’s remarkable triumph as Premier League winners as cast-iron proof that supposedly impossible dreams sometimes come true. All season long, we all wondered when Claudio Ranieri’s trailblazing side would come off the rails, but to the Italian’s eternal credit he managed to get unfashionable, ordinary Leicester over the finishing line. Leicester’s title win is an incredible feat, a victory borne from tenacious endurance and an indefatigable spirit. In an era of grim hyperbole, Ranieri’s achievement is the real deal, a truly remarkable feat that will be cherished for decades to come.

The Foxes’ victory would be worthy  of celebration in any era, but coming as it does in the context of billionaire sugar daddies and astronomical TV deals, Leicester’s title is nothing short of miraculous. It must also be immensely satisfying for the genial Ranieri on a personal level. The former Chelsea boss was once vilified and castigated as a well-meaning eccentric, a talented manager whose undoubted potential was curtailed by erratic team selections. How times have changed! Such unfair characterisation has been permanently cast aside, as Ranieri’s charges romped home with composed, ruthless determination. What makes Leicester’s achievement  so incredible is that it has been crafted with comparatively meagre resources. The champions of 2016 simply haven’t got the financial or political clout to justify a title challenge in the modern game, let alone a win. To  outflank their more illustrious rivals in such emphatic fashion ranks as one of the greatest sporting  achievements in recent times. From Tinker man to managerial genius. It has been quite a journey.

It hasn’t generated as many column inches, but another fantastic and wondrous underdog story is happening on this side of the Irish Sea. Pat Lam’s Connacht haven’t won anything tangible (not yet anyway) but their Pro12 achievement stands alongside that of Leicester’s footballers in terms of historical significance. The western province has led the way throughout the regular Pro12 standings, playing a style of rugby that is enterprising and innovative. Creativity practically oozes from the Galway men these days, and a regularly jam packed Sportsground is testament to their attractiveness for supporters. What makes Connacht’s feat genuinely remarkable as it it has come out of what can only be described as sporting oblivion. Traditionally labelled the “Cinderella province”,  it is easy to forget that just over a decade  ago, Connacht were threatened with professional extinction. The IRFU considered disbanding Ireland’s fourth professional franchise, only to have a last minute change of heart, partly inspired by a popular outcry against the decision. Connacht’s revival, therefore, must be viewed in this context of uncertainty. One hopes the men in green finish the job, but regardless of their final league position, Lam has done phenomenal work at the Sportsground.

There is something about unexpected success that sparks the soul of sports fans. Such victories are as elusive as they are laudable, but I don’t believe that is the reason we eulogise underdog wins to such an extent. Winning against the odds (in any walk of life) inspires the romantic and idealistic within all of us. But such wins also scream possibility and hope. We all constrain ourselves with self-imposed limitations, but truly great things can be accomplished if sufficient belief is marshalled. For if Leicester and Connacht can do it, anyone can. All hail the underdog. Events as rare as hens’ teeth deserve to be celebrated for the miracles they are. Jamie Vardy has every right to have a party.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey


Silver Lining for Foley

Munster have successfully secured Champions’ Cup qualification thanks to a resounding victory over the Scarlets (Saturday 7 May 2016). The Limerick men have endured a season as traumatic as any in living memory, but at last there is a glimmer of hope and optimism for the two-time European Champions. This weekend’s victory guarantees European rugby for the Thomond Park side next season, thereby providing some respite for their somewhat beleaguered head coach. Make no mistake about it. This victory was  essential. It was inconceivable that Munster would miss out on Europe, but Foley’s outfit has scraped in by the skin of its teeth thanks to a 31-15 victory over the Welsh region.

It has been a tough old grind for Foley of late following his de facto demotion arising from the appointment of Johan “Rassie” Erasmus as Director of Rugby for next season and beyond. While Erasmus’s appointment has been welcomed as the superb piece of business it undoubtedly is, the announcement has also raised questions about Foley’s role within the management team. As has been widely reported, Erasmus will assume the selection and recruitment reins from next season, and his introduction to the Munster set-up unquestionably alters the dynamic in relation to Foley’s interaction with his playing squad. Up to this point in his tenure, Foley has been very much the main man but the incoming Director of Rugby will inevitably have ideas of his own.

The former Munster skipper confirmed, prior to Erasmus’s appointment, that he will remain within the management team for another season at the very least. However, Foley’s role  has become harder to define following the appointment of the esteemed former Springbok back rower. One can only assume that precise job descriptions and rules of engagement will be ironed out over the next few weeks once Foley eventually meets his new boss.

The Shannon icon is massively respected in Irish rugby  circles. It has been a difficult and challenging season for the Munster coach, and one hopes that his future remit is defined to his satisfaction in the weeks ahead. Foley has served province and country with distinction and pride. He deserves to know where he stands, therefore. For now, Munster can breathe a collective sigh of relief now that European qualification has been secured and Champions Cup rugby guaranteed. No club has illuminated rugby’s premier club competition quite like the Thomond Park side and the competition would have been markedly poorer for their absence.

On a related note, Leinster, Connacht, and Ulster have all reached the Pro12  play-offs. Much has been made of a supposedly poor season for the provinces, and there is no doubt that this campaign has been far from vintage from an Irish perspective. While it remains to be seen if an Irish club can successfully land the Pro12 trophy, the league standings at the end of a demanding season prove that there’s no reason for fans to be unduly despondent. The demise of Irish rugby has been greatly exaggerated, and hope abounds that the future is bright. Relief and redemption for the Irish clubs at the climax of the Pro12, then. One suspects that Anthony Foley will feel that relief more than most.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey