Respect Earned The Hard Way!

‘Passionate.’ That’s the adjective once commonly used to describe the Irish rugby team. The term was particularly prevalent among the rugby giants of the southern hemisphere. Prior to any big game against opponents from south of the equator, rival players would queue up to tell us how respectful they were of the fighting Irish and how they were  wary of the ‘passion’ Ireland always brought to the party. These extremely patronising descriptions made the cream of Irish sport sound more like horny Love Island contestants than elite sportsmen.

The curious thing about the ‘passion’ label is that was applied long after Ireland became genuine and legitimate contenders on the international stage. In the old amateur and semi-professional days such condescension was perhaps forgivable, but even as the golden generation of Irish rugby was strutting its stuff on the Test stage, opponents could still be heard routinely rabbiting on about Ireland and their famed passion.

I used to wonder about this bizarre tendency. It was excusable when Irish results were unremittingly poor, but why did such attitudes prevail when the men in green were regularly winning in the Test arena? The answer was delivered in the context of Ireland’s unremarkable record against the All Blacks-just one win recorded in countless attempts; last November in Chicago. Before a New Zealand Test a few years ago, I read an interview with a former All Black international explaining the apparent lack of recognition afforded to Ireland’s finest. ‘In order to gain our respect,’ he explained, ‘you have to beat us.’

Well, the vernacular surrounding Irish international rugby has changed markedly from the well worn and tiresome platitudes of the past. Opponents from near and far are falling over themselves to fawn over Joe Schmidt’s record breaking outfit. Recent results tell a magnificent and unprecedented story. Three Six Nations Championships, a Grand Slam, a first win over the Springboks on South African soil and the aforementioned maiden win over the world champion All Blacks is a truly formidable record. And now, remarkably, Ireland’s first ever southern hemisphere series win (against a revitalised Australia) contested over three Tests has just been achieved.

And to think there were idiots calling for Schmidt’s head not so long ago. The absurdity! Ireland’s favourite Kiwi has built a relentless and formidable squad, one capable of consistently overcoming anyone in world rugby. Number two in the world and on merit. And this side is taking Irish rugby to uncharted territory; places the golden generation could only dream of.

At the turn of the century, we marvelled at the infusion of youngsters like Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara who entered Test rugby without the fear and inferiority complex that blighted their predecessors. But the current crop is the product of an even more impressive harvest. Today’s youngsters literally expect to win every game they play. Take James Ryan. Ireland’s new dynamo of a second row has only lost one match as a professional rugby player. Consider that for a moment!

But this is what we’re dealing with. Schmidt and his squad of modest and humble superstars are taking Irish rugby to new, exciting places. The overriding concern of the Irish coach post the 2015 World Cup was to build new depth and resourcefulness into the Irish squad. And while some positions remain relatively callow, there’s no doubt Irish rugby is in as strong a position as it’s ever been. Winning plaudits from all corners of the globe and primed for an assault on rugby’s premier competition. The trophies, of course, tell their own tale, but if you need substantive proof of the esteem Ireland’s players are currently held, just listen to the respectful way opponents are now talking about them. Respect that’s been earned the hard way!

PS The football World Cup has kicked off in far away Russia and the tournament has thus far been characterised by a series of upsets and unexpected results. Despite the unpredictable start, few are expecting too many surprises come the business end of the competition. It’ll be the usual suspects in with a chance of ultimate glory. Or will it? They always seem to fall short and are perpetually addicted to underachievement, but England are due to perform in a major tournament one of these days. Maybe, just maybe, 2018 will be the year?

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

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No Longer Once in a Blue Moon

They didn’t do it with the style and panache we expected, but Leinster duly prevailed as anticipated on 12 May to win an incredible fourth Champions Cup. The muted celebrations after the game told a tale of relief and quiet satisfaction more than exaltation. Indeed, anyone who didn’t know the outcome would swear that Leinster had lost such was Johnny Sexton’s sullen demeanour. One wonders if the perfectionist Irish fly-half actually enjoys days like this or is he too caught up berating himself over perceived errors and looking ahead to the next challenge to savour the moment?

But Leinster did indeed win and what a magnificent achievement it is. Some of us are old enough to remember Munster’s travails in the early years of this competition (or its predecessor to be more precise), when buckets of blood, sweat and tears were expended in the search for the elusive holy grail. All those great performances and victories only to come up short. So near and yet so far! Leinster on a quadruple? Damn it, Munster fought so hard to win one!

Some are even old enough to remember the glorious time when a team of semi-professionals from Ulster blazed a trail for the Irish provinces in the European Cup in the year the English clubs boycotted the competition. Believe me, it was no average achievement as European giants like Toulouse and Stade Francais floundered in Belfast’s cathedral of pain.

In those days, it seemed absurd, inconceivable that an Irish province would ever win four European Cups. The achievement is put into clear context by the numerous obstacles that were put in place to prevent this very eventuality from occurring. The old Heineken Cup was a truly wonderful rugby tournament, adored by fans all over the world. But the English and French club owners didn’t share the supporters’ affection. Some perceived a Celtic bias.

The Anglo-French clubs, financed by tv sugar daddies and billionaire benefactors, were rattled by the illogical success of the Irish provinces. Despite pouring a fortune into the game, the European Cup was a competition they couldn’t buy easily. Unable to beat the Irish as regularly as they wanted, the Anglo-French owners were left with only one option in their myopic minds: to destroy European rugby’s pride and joy.

Maybe they were jealous of the provinces’ success. Maybe they resented that the old ERC was based in Dublin. Whatever the motivation, the moguls were set on dismantling the Heineken Cup. And when the English Premiership clubs unilaterally sold their European tv rights to BT Sport, the writing was on the wall for the European Cup as we knew it. Determined to get a bigger share of the tv and monetary spoils, the English/French clubs and their sympathisers eventually brought the curtain down on the ERC and facilitated the establishment of the EPCR in its place.

Initially, the ploy worked well. The new competition was dominated by our Anglo-French cousins, the first three tournaments being won by Toulon and Saracens; clubs that are the very embodiment of the new European order. Meanwhile, the Irish provinces struggled to get out of the pool stages and it seemed the days of Irish glory in the European Cup had been permanently consigned to the past.

But then something curious happened. The Irish provinces stormed back into contention, culminating in the superb fourth tournament win by the best team in the continent. You see, as it turns out, there are some things that money can’t buy. Irish rugby’s strength is that it controls its players. Once the IRFU made the bold and visionary decision to centrally contract its star names and ward off the avaricious advances of club owners, it set a template for rugby governance that’s the envy of the world. The rewards are there for all to see: two Grand Slams and six Champions Cups tells its own tale.

In all of this, Leinster lead the way and the province is building a legacy that has the potential to last years. The Blues are currently reaping the benefits of a veritable conveyor belt of talent. Brilliant and fearless youngsters like Jordan Larmour, James Ryan and Dan Leavy are the product of an unrivalled schools system that’s producing not just quality but massive strength in depth. The rest of Europe can only look on with envy at the wondrous production line that is the Leinster Academy.

Massive credit goes to Leo Cullen, a coach who was openly questioned in his first season in charge, but has become the first person to win Europe’s premier competition as player and coach. What a story! Cullen’s double act with the ever modest and self-effacing Stuart Lancaster has delivered the goods time and again. Such vindication for the former England coach after his World Cup nightmare. Few would begrudge his ebullience at the final whistle. How sweet his redemption must taste.

But the real plaudits are reserved for the Irish system. It’s been a testing season for Irish rugby for reasons we all know but the Irish have finally rediscovered the winning formula. It’s an incredible achievement given how the odds are stacked against them. Something tells me that we won’t need to wait for a Blue Moon for the next Irish European Cup triumph.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

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A Legacy of Peace!

It may have escaped your attention but today (10 April 2018) is the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). With the institutions the Agreement spawned currently mothballed now and for the foreseeable future, any sense of celebration or euphoria has been sensibly put on hold. No doubt, the powers-that-be hoped that this landmark would be an affirmation of stability and progress, a proclamation of enduring hope, but recent political events in Northern Ireland have underlined what a precarious and fragile business peacemaking undoubtedly is. Still, the unavoidable reality of the present political mess shouldn’t detract from the epochal achievement that is the GFA.

I remember the referendum and campaign like they were yesterday. Having not long secured the ability to vote, the whole event was rather novel and it was impossible not to be caught up in the sheer sense of occasion, the notion that something truly historic and unprecedented was happening. Mine wasn’t a generation that was especially political (unlike today when youngsters start online petitions about everything from protesting against wars to the price of their favourite tea) but not participating in the referendum wasn’t an option here. Most people I knew had serious misgivings about the GFA and its fundamental flaws but there was an impetus behind the campaign that reflected an overwhelming desire for change. We were determined to end the madness of the previous years. It was a vote for a better future. A vote for peace.

It was a euphoric time. And 20 years on, it’s easy to feel deflated and despondent in comparison. Our politicians have failed time and again to deliver on the palpable promise of those heady days. In the midst of petty bickering and disputes over relatively inconsequential issues, it’s hard not to feel disillusioned about the state of local politics. And yet it’s equally easy to forget how massive a triumph the GFA actually represents.

To understand the Agreement’s achievement, you have to put the negotiations in the unremittingly grim context of the time. The ’90s was a dire period for Northern Ireland. Shankill, Greysteel and countless other atrocities haunt everyone who lived through those bleak years. Yet, in spite of the inevitable bitterness and hatred that such events inspired, old enemies sat down, talked, listened and, against all odds, negotiated a political compromise that offered something for everyone. It was no mean feat.

The wholesale disillusion and cynicism that infects any discussion about the GFA is derived from unrealistic expectations regarding what the Agreement could deliver. In the halcyon days post the Agreement’s signing, many deluded themselves that the centuries old Irish problem had been solved, that we were all going to let bygones be bygones and live happily ever after. Such a preposterously idealistic vision was always going to get brought back to earth by the much more nuanced reality. There’s a propensity to look in the Agreement for answers it wasn’t able to deliver and, indeed, never intended to provide.

You see, the Agreement was never meant to be a perpetual and immutable solution to all  Ireland’s ills. In fact, it wasn’t really a settlement as such. Not a permanent one anyway. The GFA was a carefully calibrated and constructed compromise that gave something to everyone who bought into it. Although equality was of course one of the GFA’s central tenets, the Agreement didn’t seek to make everyone the same. One of the great fallacies of the last 20 years is the notion that the GFA meant we could forget our divided history and embrace a common and identical future.  Nationalists weren’t being encouraged to become unionists or vice versa.

Rather, the Agreement provided a framework where both the main traditions in Ireland could pursue their mutually exclusive and divergent agendas, but in a context of power-sharing and peace; in a climate of mutual tolerance and respect. It was about providing space for traditions and communities to respect one another and find ways to work together on areas of mutual interest. True reconciliation was indeed an integral aspiration but in 1998 such considerations were necessarily long term. Much more important 20 years ago was the fostering of  practical and meaningful cooperation; allowing the constitutional issue to resolve itself in the fullness of time.

And it’s those core concepts of mutual tolerance and respect, of parity of esteem; that have suffered so horrendously in the intervening years. As we survey the present wreckage and inertia that characterises modern northern politics, respect is indeed wholly conspicuous by its absence. How on earth can we work on trust and partnership, let alone reconciliation, if there isn’t even basic courtesy and respect? Given the calamitous mess we’re in, therefore, how do we define the bitterly disputed legacy of the GFA? And if there is a legacy, have we really squandered it?

For all our difficulties in Northern Ireland, we’ve come far. We must  remember that. It’s something we tend to overlook in this part of the world. It’s a Northern Irish thing. We blithely ignore our progress and fixate obsessively on our seemingly intractable problems. The glass is always half empty. But on the 20th anniversary of one of the key moments in modern Irish history, it seems more apt to focus on the positive side of the ledger.

In 1998 it seemed implausible, inconceivable even, that Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness could ever be in government together, let alone have a mutual affection and partnership. There was too much history, baggage and animosity. Sinn Féin and the DUP working together? Sure, don’t pigs fly too? And yet it happened. As did so much else besides. You only have to look around Belfast city centre to see how a haunted town has been transformed into a bustling, busy and, yes, increasingly cosmopolitan place. Would any of those breakthroughs have happened without the GFA? Don’t believe it.

So, how should the Agreement be assessed, twenty years on from its codification? Despite its legion of problems, the story of the GFA remains a narrative of success. Of course, there are flaws but its constitutional and political architecture endures in spite of those issues. The most common gripe has always been that the Agreement institutionalised sectarianism; that the GFA created as many problems as it actually solved. There are no shortage of believers in the idea that Northern Ireland’s vast political problems have been exacerbated by the GFA and the awkward idea of ‘constructive ambiguity’ utilised by successive governments to smooth its rocky implementation.

While the idea has plenty of merit, it’s hard to dispute the notion that the Agreement delivered emphatically on its main purpose. If peace was the elusive prize, surely we can withstand a few forks in what was always going to be a difficult road to travel. It’s said that the price of liberty and peace is eternal vigilance and this truism was evidenced within months of the GFA when the Omagh bomb shattered the optimism of Good Friday. However, as we reflect on 20 years of the GFA and the new political dispensation it created, awful events like that have largely been consigned to the past.

Northern Ireland is transformed from where it was 20 years ago. Our peace might be imperfect and Brexit has certainly added another layer of complication to an already  vexed political process, but it’s wrong to discount and squander the gains of the last two decades. Flawed as it undeniably is, the Irish peace process has delivered the goods in so many lasting ways. In terms of legacy, a whole generation has grown up since 1998 that knows nothing of the Troubles. The dark days of the past are something those young people read about in history books. The GFA’s legacy is a legacy of peace. And that’s not too shabby.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

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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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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By Warwick Gastinger (Rugby World Cup DSCN4917) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/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

 

Crunch Time for Ireland

In the world of rugby writing, there are certain rules and conventions. Most of these are unwritten; some are relatively modern in conception, but all hold true nonetheless. Sort of unspoken rules of engagement, if you like. Riddled with cliche. For example, in modern rugby vernacular, a coaching and management team is universally known as a “brains trust.” I don’t know why. It just is. Sounds good, you see. Fancy. Sophisticated. Similarly, a good old-fashioned clearance kick must now be termed an “exit strategy.” Modern rugby terminology demands it. A Six Nations match involving France, moreover, is invariably referred to as “Le Crunch”. See what I did there? In Anglo-French games, the use of this term is compulsory. Mandatory in previews and sports commentaries. For Ireland-France games, however, use is is optional. Still, you can bet your bottom Euro (I so wanted to say Franc there), that a legion of headline writers will use the hackneyed phrase before the week is out.

Ireland are playing France on Saturday, you see. With both sides having tasted defeat in the championship, the encounter has all the ingredients of a “must win.” While home advantage might prove decisive for Joe Schmidt’s men, you can never rest easy against the elusive, unpredictable French. France. How to make sense of France? Mercurial. Another word synonymous with French rugby and beloved of sportswriters. It’s bound to get several mentions this week, too! Everyone loves French flair, after all. Except France haven’t been so much with the flair in recent years. French sides of recent vintage have abandoned the traditional French modus operandi in favour of a decidedly more structured and formulaic approach. With rather mixed success, it has to be said. Guy Noves’s men haven’t been genuine contenders for quite a while and their fall from grace is a sad sight for those of us raised on the genius of Philippe Sella, Serge Blanco and the rest. France of 2017 have a mammoth pack at their disposal, but not a huge amount else in terms of attacking fluency.

The imminent return of Johnny Sexton after a frustrating spell on the sidelines will bolster an Irish side that’s lacked his direction and guidance in recent games. Paddy Jackson has done a more than creditable job in his absence, but the Leinster man is the best player in the world in his position; the best fly-half we’ve ever had-sorry ROG! Andrew Trimble may also return to the Irish ranks to further strengthen Schmidt’s hand and the Ulster man’s robustness will add extra defensive ballast against the ultra-physical French. If the game is as close as many are expecting, having such experienced and accomplished campaigners on board can only improve Ireland’s chances. It’ll be interesting to see also if Schmidt mixes up his pack for the merciless attrition that’s undoubtedly coming Ireland’s way.

For all the talk of the grand finale against Eddie Jones’s England on 18 March, the men in green have two extremely challenging encounters to negotiate first. Even if France are emphatically dismissed this weekend, a chastened and dangerous Wales lie in wait in two weeks time. To say that these two matches will go some way to defining Ireland’s 2017 Six Nations campaign would be an understatement of epic proportions. The Scottish performance was undoubtedly a massive blot on Ireland’s copybook, but Schmidt’s men are an infinitely better side than that underwhelming display suggested. It’s also wrong to read too much into the facile win over an extremely limited Italy side, but there was enough in Ireland’s performance in Rome to confirm that their Scottish blip was indeed an aberration. Sterner tests await. The first of these arrives on Saturday. There is no room for error. Lose and Ireland’s championship is effectively over. Win well; followed up with a victory in Cardiff, and the dream decider beckons. It’s time to deliver. Allez Les Verts!! 

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

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