Say it with flowers and tax breaks
By Michael Moynihan

I AM introducing the Grand Slam backlash single-handedly. Right here, right now.

The motivation is not entirely sport-based, or even team-based, but aimed at one man.

Brian O’Driscoll. A good man to have alongside you if a 17-stone Welshman needs to be lifted out of the road, or if you’re in dire need of someone to plough through hefty Saxons for a close-quarters try, but really, the flowers for the engagement have rather undercut Brian’s image.

If you have been hiding under a stone this past week, allow us to explain that O’Driscoll compromised Irishmen everywhere by going to the extraordinary lengths of spelling out WILL YOU MARRY ME in flowers on the lawn of the house he shares with Amy Huberman, who is now the Ireland captain’s fiancée.

You can relax again: we are now taking off our bright-and-shiny Xposé frock and donning again the stained chinos and lightly-crusted PLAYA DEL INGLES t-shirt which make up the dress code on the sports desk.

However, the indignation still enshrouds us like a whiff of wintergreen. We bow to no-one in our admiration for O’Driscoll, who is not so much a riddle wrapped in an enigma as a savage competitor wrapped in a silkily-skilled package. Ordinary people do not plant Tom Shanklin on his rear end, nor do they get up from a (frankly illegal) dunt from Riki Flutey.

However, by raising the expectations of Irishwomen everywhere when it comes to affiancement, the great centre has done his fellow Irishmen no service.

And a couple of questions need to be asked: as O’Driscoll paused at the bottom of a ruck near the Welsh line in the second half of the Grand Slam decider in Cardiff, was he (a) weighing up whether to go high or low in an effort to get that vital touchdown or (b) wondering whether the red chrysanthemums were a bold enough statement with the purple-and-yellow freesias?

We need to be told.

SOMETHING else worth telling emerged from the GPA’s statement during the week. Submerged in the players’ statement was a reference to the GAA player grant scheme being an effort to establish parity of esteem between hurlers and gaelic footballers with professional sportsmen.

The obvious aim of the statement was to get politicians and public onside ahead of the upcoming budget, which promises to make John Bruton’s proposal to tax children’s shoes back in 1982 look like a golden age, and in that context the GPA have signalled a willingness to take a reduction in funding.

However, there are other financial initiatives which may also come under the beady eye of the Department of Finance. Much has been made — and rightly so — of the innovative tax break which allows professional Irish sportsmen claim back 40 per cent of the tax they paid on their playing salaries over the ten years before their retirement.

It has been identified as one of the trump cards, for instance, that the IRFU has been able to play in their efforts to keep most of their internationals playing for the Irish provinces, as the incentive only applies to Irish-based professionals.

That in turn has proven far better for the players physically than the Zurich Premiership treadmill, for the provinces’ success in the Magners League and Heineken Cup, and for the Irish team, given the result in Cardiff two weeks ago.

But if the GPA scheme is in the cross-hairs, who’s to say this scheme isn’t? In an era when the Taoiseach is openly conceding that people’s lifestyles are going to suffer in the next few years, every euro that the Exchequer might be able to retain in tax will come under scrutiny.

If incentives for Irish players to remain at home don’t exist any more, engagement flowers might still be on the agenda, but they may have to be bought in Gloucester or Toulouse rather than Glasthule or Togher.


A symbolic occasion in more ways than one

T HE first thing to point out about last
Saturday night, which saw the GAA
begin its official 125th anniversary celebrations following Dublin-Tyrone in the NFL opener, is that, that kind of anniversary celebration is, by its nature, a bit of a challenge.

What’s too much? What’s too little? There isn’t even a precious stone you could adopt
for the anniversary: gold and diamond are
appropriate for earlier milestones, but what manner of precious stone would fit 125 years?

Something quarried by friendly aliens from the centre of Halley’s Comet?

Writing in Saturday night’s match programme, Jarlath Burns, chairman of the 125th anniversary committee, outlined the challenges facing him and the committee by listing alphabetically the aspects of the GAA they felt they needed to cover: “All-Irelands, camogie, amateur status, the Championship, Congress, clubs, colleges, communities, counties, Croke Park, culture, Cusack, football, founding members, handball, hurling, Irish language, ladies football, legends, overseas, players, presidents, provinces, rounders, schools, Scor, Thurles, underage.”

Incidentally, if you need verification that Burns was the right man to chair the committee, what he wrote was that he listed the topics in alphabetical order “to avoid offence”.

Sounds like a man all too aware of the tendencies of his constituents.

After a cracking NFL game between the All-Ireland football champions and their
opponents from the capital, we had a light show with fireworks in Croke Park, and your opinion on the much-reported half-million
euro worth of fireworks and lights probably
depends on your perspective.

If you rocked up to Croke Park on Saturday night as an interested punter it probably looked like money well spent. If you watched on television as a harassed club treasurer you probably had a very different take on the entertainment.

That’s not to say that we’re endorsing a new puritanism as a worldwide financial meltdown forces us back to the technological equivalent of 884, never mind 1884.

If its money that belongs to the GAA, then the GAA can spend that money as it sees fit.

What occurred to this viewer was that the show could be viewed as an emphatic full stop, and future historians may decide that the
fireworks and lights serve as the watershed which marks the passing of the Celtic tiger.

It’s likely to be the last occasion for a long time at which you see hundreds of thousands of euro go up in smoke before your eyes
outside of an Anglo Irish Bank shareholders
meeting. The post-match show came across to this viewer like a cross between Led Zeppelin at the Oakland Coliseum and the fertility
rituals of the Tuatha De Dannann. The
Cranberries, Clannad and U2 provided the soundtrack, and in the middle came a snatch
of one of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s speeches. Why that had to be used is anyone’s guess.

Then again, host Hector Ó hEochagáin
proclaimed before the light show that Croke Park had outdrawn the Super Bowl, Lansdowne Road, Highbury and other sporting venues. Again, why that had to be stated is a mystery – in fairness, Lansdowne Road isn’t even open, last time we checked, Highbury is now an apartment block – but there seemed to be a determination to hammer home the point that the GAA was more than a sporting organisation at any and every opportunity.

In fact, reading the souvenir programme, with guest articles from the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Brendan Gleeson and Senator David Norris, sometimes you had to remind yourself that the GAA was a sporting organisation at all.

Back on the field, fireworks launched from the pitch perimeter left a residue of faint mist drifting around the darkened stadium, and you half-expected Oisín of the Fianna to step onto the field via the referee’s tunnel at the corner of the Cusack Stand to proclaim that things had changed a good deal since his departure for Tir na nÓg. His opinion of the new experimental rules would have been well worth hearing.
ALL things considered, the creation of
some kind of pseudo-Celtic occasion
recalling a Horslips album cover seemed to us gilding the lily more than somewhat, but each to his own. To some extent you’re never going to please everyone with an event like last Saturday’s.

The match programme described the game and show as a ‘GAA 125th anniversary spectacle’, and in fairness to the footballers of Dublin and Tyrone, they certainly provided a spectacle.

They also encapsulated some basic GAA principles. In Dublin versus Tyrone you had urban versus rural, hungry challengers versus established champions. The colours alone were the most basic opposites: blue versus red.

Proud GAA traditions held sway. The game began nearly 10 minutes late, for instance, and wound down to a time-honoured climax. For all the hydration, diet, tactical innovation and laptop analysis, one team was forced to defend a two-point lead with time running out, and the best their opponents could do with a late free was to bomb it in hopefully around the house, to no avail.

The very highest tradition, excellence, was also upheld. Tyrone’s Stephen O’Neill gave an exhibition that warmed up a freezing night. On 30 minutes he threaded a point over from near the end line at the Canal End that was as good as anything ever seen in Croke Park.

The real glory of the GAA is that you don’t have to wait 125 years to see that again. O’Neill is out in two weeks again to play
Kerry. That prospect, and others like it, is truly worth celebrating.