Adopted Rebel Howlett firmly
behind Cork
crusade

HALF a world away from New Zealand, he still can’t cheer for a team in green and gold. All Black legend Doug Howlett had many a Bledisloe Cup clash with the Wallabies: he knows a rivalry when he sees one.

Hence the New Zealander’s enjoyment of Cork’s Munster semi-final win over Kerry. Based in Cork while he plays for Munster, Howlett quickly appreciated the hold GAA exerted in his new home.

“The first thing that struck me when I came out of Cork Airport when I arrived was the big statue of Christy Ring — that emphasised for me just how big the GAA sports are here.

“Cork being my local town while I’m with Munster, I decided to follow the local teams in hurling and football. And with the Munster squad everybody’s got their own team, so it’s obviously more fun when you’ve got your own team and your own opinions. And I’m aligned with Cork.”

His commitment means just one thing for his teammates: ammunition.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of banter about everyone’s GAA team. Denis Leamy is a big Tipperary fan while you’ve got plenty of guys from Limerick cheering on their sides.

“As a sportsman you appreciate what these guys bring to their sports — the footballers’ kicking skills and fitness levels, obviously. I just enjoy being part of the crowd.”

Given the number of high-pressure games Howlett has played over the years at all levels, being just another spectator must be a welcome change.

“Exactly. That’s what I really enjoy — somebody else is putting on the show, not Munster, and it’s the other side of sport. I can sit back and enjoy the occasion and relax with a cup of tea — and have an opinion on the game.

“I got to the Kerry game down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh — I’d heard of the history between the teams, and the lads with Munster said it was definitely a game worth going to, and I really enjoyed it. I met a few of the Kerry lads as well, and they’re a good bunch. But I can’t support two teams.

“I’d seen the drawn game, and that really added to it, that there was so much at stake. The replay was a great game, as they all are at this stage coming into the semi-finals.”

As has been pointed out many times in the past by others, Howlett was struck by how suitable many GAA players would be for rugby.

“Of course — coming from a country which has rugby as its major sport, and where athletes are pushed into rugby, I can see that here it’s much more diverse, and you have three or four different sports athletes can choose from.

“Looking at GAA athletes, they’re well suited to rugby, it’d be interesting to see them with a rugby ball and how they’d do.”

The star winger has his favourites on the Cork side, but rules out taking up hurling any time soon.

“I like Graham Canty a lot, he’s a real workhorse that leads from the front and doesn’t slow down for the entire game, he’s one player I enjoy watching.

“If I were playing Gaelic football myself … I don’t know, I think I’d be able to get on the ball, but then it’d be a question of what to do with it after that! I’d see myself up front, or maybe midfield — though I mightn’t have the height for midfield.

“Hurling? I don’t think so — hurleys are often brought out at Munster training and I’m well put in my place by the likes of Denis (Leamy) and Tomás O’Leary.”

Howlett hasn’t lost focus when it comes to the day job, given it’s getting to a stage in the year when thoughts are turning to rugby — at all levels.

“We’re back with Munster and ready to go, a lot of the pre-season work is done, and we’ll be ready for the new season.

“There’s a pretty good start to the season today actually in Highfield, with the Meteor Munster Sevens tournament. That’ll be a good day out for rugby fans.”

And tomorrow? Is the Kiwi Cork fan going Upper Hogan or Lower Cusack?

“I don’t have a ticket for tomorrow actually,” he says. “I’m a bit cheeky, I’m hoping to wait for the final.”

Waiting for the final? Sure you’re not a Kerry supporter?

Nightmare leads to dream final

IT’S ON. Tipperary and Kilkenny will meet in the All-Ireland final, and for all sorts of reasons hard-wired into the DNA of both counties, both counties will be glad.

The Cats would rather beat Tipp than any other county to win four-in-a-row. And Tipperary, more than anybody else, would want to be the county to put a stop to their smoothly-purring gallop, if we can cross species for metaphorical purposes.

Cut us some slack. After yesterday’s mismatch we’re looking for consolation anywhere we can get it. Tipperary beat Limerick back to the Stone Age yesterday in a game that didn’t make it to the 20th minute as a contest.

The final score was 6-19 to 2-7, or at least we think it was. The scoreboard operator ran out of light bulbs with 10 minutes to go as we entered a realm of fantastical numbers familiar only to Stephen Hawking. Or maybe Liam Carroll.

It’s our own fault. For the last couple of weeks we were talking Limerick up like Canadian investors looking over an Allied Irish Bank prospectus, and we’re not the first to discover that the value of investments can fall as well as rise.

There had been a lot of confident asserting that, based on their history, Limerick heads wouldn’t drop if Tipperary jumped out an early lead, but yesterday’s collapse was on a par with Dublin a couple of weeks ago, another side to find themselves smothered as they defended Hill 16.

Clearly somebody tore up a fairy fort at the Railway End when the pitch was relaid after the U2 concert, and that somebody needs to put it back.

Limerick paid tribute to Waterford’s largely successful template against Kilkenny early on yesterday, pulling players back the field, with David Breen out in the middle, Seamus Hickey picking up Seamus Callanan, and Brian Geary loose between the two defensive lines.

However, they took their homage a step too far when Stephen Lucey replicated Aidan Kearney’s first-half error last week. Lucey misjudged a routine delivery right down the middle and the ball ran through to Eoin Kelly behind him. Alone. Twenty metres from goal.

What do you mean what happened next?

On fourteen minutes Lar Corbett left green jerseys twisting in his vapour trail and placed Noel McGrath for a forehand smash to the net; two minutes later Mark Foley dallied for a heartbeat too long on the 21-metre line and had his pocket picked in front of goal by Pat Kerwick, who finished with extreme prejudice.

At the end of the first quarter, then, Limerick were three goals behind and the game was dead as Dillinger.

The score was 3-8 to 0-4 at half-time and Tipp added a further 3-11 to their total after the break.

“We missed a few chances and we were on the back foot after 20 minutes,” said Limerick boss Justin McCarthy afterwards. “By half-time, realistically, as a contest the game was over. At half-time we thought we could come back as good as we could, but it was a big hill to climb at that stage.”

Tipperary manager Liam Sheedy was delighted with the win, but he wasn’t gloating in the immediate aftermath.

“Anyone watching sport would know that that wasn’t Limerick today. I feel for Justin and the lads. It’s happened to me as a manager a few times — nothing happens for you and it doesn’t work out, and Limerick had one of those days.

“There’s big guys in that dressing-room, there’s character in that dressing-room and have no doubt they’ll be back. That just wasn’t their form.”

True enough. But to throw some business jargon into the mix, for Tipperary going forward, the poverty of Limerick’s challenge yesterday means that questions remain for Sheedy and his management team.

For instance, we all expected Tipperary to fade a little in the second half, as they’ve done in previous games this year, and when Limerick burgled a couple of goals the Premier’s mini-hiatus seemed to have arrived right on cue.

At least it did until Lar Corbett buried another two goals within seven minutes. Does that mean the second-half slacking-off problem is solved?

Tipperary’s half-forward line has been criticised for disappearing in recent games, with Seamus Callanan in particular being fingered for vanishing into a phone booth and re-emerging in his civvies rather than a cape and tights. Yet he was also available for the Corbett pass Noel McGrath finished to the net in the first half, and he slipped into splendid isolation on a couple of other occasions as well, scoring fine points in the second half.

At the other end of the field Sheedy’s deployment of Padraic Maher on the edge of the square worked well, but when your team wins a game by 25 points, how much pressure has your full-back been under?

Expect something different on September 6th when Kilkenny take the field.

“They are the team,” said Sheedy. “And rightfully so. They’ve earned that over the last four years. It’s no fluke they’re going for four-in-a-row.”

And it’s no fluke that Kilkenny’s appetite for work has burnt itself across the retinas of the pretenders. Lar Corbett testified to that after the game.

“I don’t think that work-rate would win an All-Ireland on September 6th,” said Corbett, whose personal contribution was a spectacularly lazy 3-1 from play. “We know what Kilkenny are doing to teams year in, year out. We’re under no illusions.

“We see Kilkenny do it year in, year out – the man in the best position gets the ball. That’s it. Today the man in the best position got the ball and if you start from that you’ve a chance of winning any game.”

Eudie Coughlan had a succinct comparison of the up-and-coming Kilkenny side he and his Cork team-mates beat in 1931. They were coming in, he said, and we were going out.

Kilkenny were not the blood and iron regiment of 2008 against Waterford in this year’s semi-final, and as the year goes on the men in blue and gold look more and more like an irresistible tide. But are Tipp really coming in this year? Are Kilkenny really going out? Questions to savour.

Anything to put yesterday out of the mind: those familiar with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane will remember the scene in which Kane’s girlfriend makes her opera-singing debut; the camera tracks upwards from the stage to a pair of stagehands far above, listening to her murder the aria from Salaambo. One stagehand simply looks at his comrade and then holds his nose.

There was a lot of that going around yesterday.

Myths
dispelled but legend only grows

WHERE did your
preconceptions about Waterford-
Kilkenny start and end last weekend?

A few myths went by the wayside on Sunday in Croke Park. We decided we’d have a look at them.

Hurling is gone all tactical now, it’ll never be as good again: anyone who thinks that tactics never played a part in hurling should check the
oxygen content on their planet’s
atmosphere. Puck-out plans, creating space and playing the percentages
under the dropping ball have always been part of hurling.

What’s noticeable now is that teams are playing to patterns, with space
being closed down deliberately in
defences.

If you don’t like them apples, wait around — you’ll see a coach come up with a way to overcome those
patterns. That’s sport.

You can only beat Kilkenny by playing an extra defender: The
dividend in playing an extra player at the back against the Cats is in keeping the scoreline down, not in winning the game.

Credit is due to Waterford boss Davy Fitzgerald for not playing that particular game last weekend, as it would surely have resulted in an extra marker for John Mullane, for instance, and choked the Déise attack.

Davy’s team set up in a withdrawn formation instead, with the players up front retreating 20 metres backwards for Kilkenny puck-outs and forcing PJ Ryan into a couple of short puck-outs, just as the Cats did to Cork in the 2006 final.

That made sure Waterford had
bodies in the forward line when they broke upfield and had passing options which helped them to score.

Third myth: Tommy Walsh is one dirty player:

Walsh picked up a first-minute yellow card last Sunday, as did his marker, Eoin McGrath.

The sanction is always a heavier burden for a defender, however, as it means one mistimed tackle or loose challenge can be catastrophic.

Walsh, who has come under
scrutiny this season, contributed
handsomely to Kilkenny’s win,
including the killer ball for Henry Shefflin’s goal.

Given the plethora of cameras and commentary surrounding inter-county games these days, it’s hard to see how any ‘dirty’ player would survive the keen eye of the media in the first place, but that’s something for another day.

Waterford are an aging team and getting older: one of last weekend’s teams had two starters from the 1999 season, but it wasn’t Waterford.

Henry Shefflin and Michael
Kavanagh of Kilkenny have had a decade at inter-county level, while Tony Browne was the only starter for
Waterford who played that year.

Granted, Browne’s career goes five years further back than that, and if Ken McGrath hadn’t been injured, may have started instead, but surely that hangs up the whole last-year-for-the-Déise talk, a riff that’s been played for much of the last decade.

The four in a row is a formality for Kilkenny now: Not so fast. Kilkenny’s graph hasn’t been as smooth as it was last year, when their form rose inexorably through the
semi-final against Cork to a crescendo against Waterford in the final.

They have suffered from the loss of Noel Hickey in particular at the back, and if it wasn’t for a certain H.
Shefflin up front they might have even lost last Sunday.

None of which, of course, is proof against the chances of an irresistible performance in the All-Ireland final. It’s just that those chances look
slightly more remote than they did this day last week.

Henry Shefflin is untouchable: on the quarter-hour last Sunday, the Kilkenny talisman went for goal from a 21-metre free when his side were two points up. It was saved.

The disastrous implications of the missed free were dissipated somewhat when Shefflin pointed a free two
minutes later.

We’re exaggerating slightly there, of course.

What we can’t exaggerate is the aura that now surrounds the big Ballyhale man; the surprise in the fact that his choice of target didn’t work out last Sunday is proof of that.

Some myths eventually become fact.

Contact:
michael.moynihan@examiner.ie
twitter: MikeMoynihanEx

Cats pass gut-check, Mayo don’t

WRIST ACTION: Waterford’s Shane Walsh gets to grips with Kilkenny’s JJ Delaney in the All-Ireland SHC semi-final at Croke Park. Picture: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE THUMBS UP: Kilkenny manager Brian Cody on a job well done. Picture: David Maher/SPORTSFILE NET RESULT: Meath’s Cian Ward celebrates scoring a penalty against Mayo. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

MORTAL after all? Waterford put last year’s All-Ireland final behind them yesterday and put it up to Kilkenny in the All-Ireland hurling semi-final, and though the Cats had five to spare at the finish, the game was alive to the very end, contrary to general expectations.

All of Noreside must be waking up this morning swaddled in relief that Henry Shefflin, though born in Waterford, is a Ballyhale man to the core. Doubts about Shefflin’s place in the pantheon dissipated years ago, like the smoke at a pontiff’s election, but rarely was he needed as badly as he was in Croke Park yesterday. And rarely has a player delivered as he did.

Shefflin ended the day with 1-14, and led his team-mates through one of their toughest challenges in recent years. He converted frees, he won possession, and he scored a vital first-half goal. His manager, Brian Cody, agreed that he’d made a huge contribution.

“Not for the first time, obviously. He’s been outstanding for us on a couple of occasions when he didn’t score from play but he got a few scores.

“His workrate… everything about Henry is top class. He brings everything to the game, everything to training, everything to his life. He’s just an outstanding fella and an outstanding player. He was excellent today.”

That excellence was sorely needed. As expected, one of the sides went for the jugular early yesterday and scored a goal on four minutes to settle themselves. We just weren’t expecting it to be Waterford, when Shane Walsh produced another fine ground stroke following Kevin Moran’s mazy run.

Waterford were much better than they were last September, withdrawing downfield and inviting Kilkenny into a crowded killing zone in front of their goal. At one point Cats keeper PJ Ryan was reduced to short puck-outs to his full-back line, a development so unusual that a couple of his targets forgot to gather the ball.

Add in the fact that Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh hoovered up any ball that came into the Waterford half and carried it back upfield with that inimitable loping stride, and Waterford were doing a good deal better than okay.

Until a long ball dropped into Henry Shefflin, that is.

The man in the green helmet found another green helmet, Eddie Brennan, and Kilkenny had a goal. When the Waterford defence suffered a systems failure dealing with a long Tommy Walsh delivery ten minutes later, Shefflin found himself one-on-one with Clinton Hennessy. Goal number two.

Kilkenny were six up at the break, but there was no disintegration from Waterford. Two minutes into the second half Shane Walsh booted a goal and Eoin Kelly added a point. They had momentum, as manager Davy Fitzgerald said afterwards, but they couldn’t kick on.

“When we got them back to two points . . . the one thing we were trying to do was avoid leaving gaps at the back. We were trying to keep it as tight as we could and pull everything back the field.

“They only managed to open us up with 15 or 20 minutes to go – they managed to pull us out and brought on a few fresh bodies who got on the ball and did some damage. And you can see it happening from the sideline and you’re wondering how are you going to get the message out to them to get back into formation?”

The danger of leaving gaps at the back was illustrated by Shefflin’s seven-point haul from the 20 minutes after Waterford’s second goal, but even then the Déise refused to wilt.

A Kelly 65 dropped to the net between too many cooks on the Kilkenny line, and they still needed PJ Ryan to redeem himself late on with a reflex save from an Eoin Kelly snap shot. Breathless. Relentless. But still, when the smoke cleared, a Kilkenny win.

Davy Fitzgerald pointed out that teams are getting closer to Kilkenny on the scoreboard, and he may have offered the winners of the Limerick/ Tipperary semi-final a template to take into the All-Ireland final: to do what Kilkenny have been doing themselves for a few years, as the Clare man put it after the game.

However, the winners of Tipp-Limerick will have to reckon with Kilkenny’s appetite. Brian Cody wasn’t accommodating any suggestions yesterday that his side’s taste for glory had dulled.

“I make no bones about hunger – I never suggest that hunger will be up for grabs. It won’t be up for grabs. That’s intact. That’s there. The players who go out on the pitch and the players they represent on the sideline – there’s too much involved in that to ever give anything less than your best.”

They will also have to deal with Henry Shefflin. The big man has been King Henry in Kilkenny for some time, but on yesterday’s evidence he may need to be elevated to another stratum of royalty altogether.

FOR THE winners of Tipp-Limerick, read Meath in football. They put Mayo out of the championship in yesterday’s All-Ireland SFC quarter-final at headquarters, and now face the football equivalent of Kilkenny in a couple of weeks’ time.

They should savour this victory first, though. Compared to the free-scoring tournament-game scorelines of the previous weekend, this All-Ireland SFC quarter-final was more what you expect of a championship game, with players’ resolve being tested in a game of incremental gains.

Mayo looked to have a foot in the semi-final when Aidan O’Shea touched home a Trevor Mortimer cross to put Mayo four up with twenty minutes left, but then the game really swung.

Cian Ward goaled from a penalty to cut it to one and Meath levelled it through David Bray, but there was plenty of discussion in the stands of the sideline ball which led to the penalty. The linesman appeared to have his flag up for a throw-in when Joe Sheridan made an executive decision and booted the ball into the Mayo red zone.

Meath’s competitive fire seared Mayo from there to the end. With a minute of regulation time left, substitute Jamie Queeney drove past a static Mayo defender committing an Under 12 mistake, waiting for a pass to arrive, and the Meathman won a ball he had no right to claim. When he curled over the point there were five between them.

It’s always tempting to over-analyse the little incidents and overdo conclusions about the overall game, but that was one instance that didn’t lie.

In the hurling game yesterday there was also plenty of evidence in the thousand miniature battles around the field – namely the fact that the Kilkenny number ten won most of them.

HALF a world away from New Zealand, he still can’t cheer for a team in green and gold. All Black legend Doug Howlett had many a Bledisloe Cup clash with the Wallabies: he knows a rivalry when he sees one.

Hence the New Zealander’s enjoyment of Cork’s Munster semi-final win over Kerry. Based in Cork while he plays for Munster, Howlett quickly appreciated the hold GAA exerted in his new home.

“The first thing that struck me when I came out of Cork Airport when I arrived was the big statue of Christy Ring — that emphasised for me just how big the GAA sports are here.

“Cork being my local town while I’m with Munster, I decided to follow the local teams in hurling and football. And with the Munster squad everybody’s got their own team, so it’s obviously more fun when you’ve got your own team and your own opinions. And I’m aligned with Cork.”

His commitment means just one thing for his teammates: ammunition.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of banter about everyone’s GAA team. Denis Leamy is a big Tipperary fan while you’ve got plenty of guys from Limerick cheering on their sides.

“As a sportsman you appreciate what these guys bring to their sports — the footballers’ kicking skills and fitness levels, obviously. I just enjoy being part of the crowd.”

Given the number of high-pressure games Howlett has played over the years at all levels, being just another spectator must be a welcome change.

“Exactly. That’s what I really enjoy — somebody else is putting on the show, not Munster, and it’s the other side of sport. I can sit back and enjoy the occasion and relax with a cup of tea — and have an opinion on the game.

“I got to the Kerry game down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh — I’d heard of the history between the teams, and the lads with Munster said it was definitely a game worth going to, and I really enjoyed it. I met a few of the Kerry lads as well, and they’re a good bunch. But I can’t support two teams.

“I’d seen the drawn game, and that really added to it, that there was so much at stake. The replay was a great game, as they all are at this stage coming into the semi-finals.”

As has been pointed out many times in the past by others, Howlett was struck by how suitable many GAA players would be for rugby.

“Of course — coming from a country which has rugby as its major sport, and where athletes are pushed into rugby, I can see that here it’s much more diverse, and you have three or four different sports athletes can choose from.

“Looking at GAA athletes, they’re well suited to rugby, it’d be interesting to see them with a rugby ball and how they’d do.”

The star winger has his favourites on the Cork side, but rules out taking up hurling any time soon.

“I like Graham Canty a lot, he’s a real workhorse that leads from the front and doesn’t slow down for the entire game, he’s one player I enjoy watching.

“If I were playing Gaelic football myself … I don’t know, I think I’d be able to get on the ball, but then it’d be a question of what to do with it after that! I’d see myself up front, or maybe midfield — though I mightn’t have the height for midfield.

“Hurling? I don’t think so — hurleys are often brought out at Munster training and I’m well put in my place by the likes of Denis (Leamy) and Tomás O’Leary.”

Howlett hasn’t lost focus when it comes to the day job, given it’s getting to a stage in the year when thoughts are turning to rugby — at all levels.

“We’re back with Munster and ready to go, a lot of the pre-season work is done, and we’ll be ready for the new season.

“There’s a pretty good start to the season today actually in Highfield, with the Meteor Munster Sevens tournament. That’ll be a good day out for rugby fans.”

And tomorrow? Is the Kiwi Cork fan going Upper Hogan or Lower Cusack?

“I don’t have a ticket for tomorrow actually,” he says. “I’m a bit cheeky, I’m hoping to wait for the final.”

Waiting for the final? Sure you’re not a Kerry supporter?

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: “I’m not always calm. You can ask some of the lads about that. I’ve let my emotions run away with me. But that’s not doing anyone any good.”
THE NEW IRELAND RUGBY COACH ISN’T A MAN TO SEEK THE LIMELIGHT; FOR HIM IT’S ALL ABOUT
THE PLAYERS.
MICHAEL MOYNIHAN SPOKE TO DECLAN KIDNEY ABOUT LIFE
AT THE TOP OF THE COACHING TREE

DECLAN KIDNEY isn’t long setting out his stall. Over a cup of tea in a Cork hotel, he stresses what’s important when it comes to coaching: “It’s all about the team and the players. They’re the ones doing all the work.”

Still, people are curious about the new Ireland coach. The man who made his name steering Munster to glory in Europe now holds the top job in Irish rugby, but that doesn’t mean he’s lost the run of
himself. He still prepares properly: take the games he attends as a spectator.

“Before the November series, myself and Les (Kiss) were at games, preparing notes as to what we might say if we were going
into dressing-rooms at half-time — so you’re still used to it. You don’t want to be experimenting.

“But at half-time there’s no point in trying to flood fellas with information. They’ve broken their melt in the first half, so how much information can they take in? It needs to be fairly precise, and sometimes it’s as simple as ‘keep at what you’re doing’.”

Kidney can isolate a couple of crucial events which were vital in terms of the experience he gained as a coach.

“The two games I remember are Munster against Castres, the year after we’d been to the final in Twickenham. We were something like 21-3 down at half-time. We’d made two mistakes and they’d scored two tries, and it was a matter of recognising that.

“On the law of averages the opposition would make two mistakes and we had to capitalise on that, and the ploy was to stay with it.

“To me that was a huge match. In the Twickenham season we got on a roll but the following season we could have
capitulated, and we didn’t.

“Then you had the Clermont game last season. They were flying, but we had turned the ball over so much in the first 20 minutes, and in the 10 minutes before half-time, when we did hang onto the ball, we made huge inroads.

“So our feeling was, ‘well, we can’t do anything about the first 20 minutes, but let’s hang onto the ball and see how much we can claw back’. And the players did that.”

Kidney’s bow at the end of last year’s Heineken Cup final wasn’t the dramatic farewell it appeared to be (“My family was in a certain section, I saw them, it was a bit of a family slag”), but there’s been plenty of emotion along the way. He had some practice when it came to leaving Munster behind.

“I’d a bit of experience of that. In 2002 myself and Niallo (Donovan) knew it was our last game, we were going to be
involved with Ireland. It sounds cold, but you have to remove yourself from that.

“The fact that it (the 2008 Heineken Cup final) was my last game . . . it was about an hour later in the dressing-room that that creeped in. I’d kept it away
before that.

“That might sound cold. I’d hate to say it’s a skill. It’s a necessity. You have to do it. It’s a facet of life – how do paramedics keep their cool at accidents, for instance? Because there’s a job to be done. In my case I’ve to keep an eye on the game, see if substitutions need to be made and talk at half-time.

“I’m not always calm. You can ask some of the lads about that. I’ve let my emotions run away with me. But that’s not doing anyone any good.”

What does players good is balance, a key word in the Kidney lexicon.

He expands on the advantages Irish players can exploit.

“You can give people too much information, so it’s a case of getting the balance right so they’re organised, but not so organised they’re thinking ‘what should I do next’ rather than playing what’s in front of them.

“As an Irish team we play best when we’re doing that. Genetically we’re not as big as some sides we play, though we work hard in the gym.

“But then a lot of our fellas come from a GAA background which gives them a vision other countries’ players don’t have, and I’d hate to take that away from them; you can coach that out of them.

“Niall Ronan’s try against Clermont, which was a hugely important score, that was a Gaelic try. He used all his
footballing instincts for it.

“A lot of Irish players have played
soccer, Gaelic football, hurling, and I want to encourage them to let those skills come out — as well as lads who have played nothing but rugby. If we’re not as big genetically then we must use other skills.

“You’ve to marry the old — our
madness, which did us alright for 100 years — and better organisation, without ruling out the madness. And also having the bit of crack. Irish teams are better when they’re having a bit of crack.”

The perfect example of mixing skills is Denis Leamy, who frequently takes kick-offs as though he were playing in Semple Stadium rather than Lansdowne Road.

“You’d encourage him to say his percentage of dropping the ball falls if he turns sideways as it could go backwards,” says Kidney. “Then again, the one or two he takes over his head, the momentum that gives the team . . . there was an
incident in that Clermont game when he just got the ball and ran, and that brought us into the game.

“The advantage of that is that it’s
spontaneous. Nowadays, with analysis, everything is pre-planned, so something like that can help. There’s an advantage in soccer in that you don’t announce your team until an hour before kick-off. If you had that in rugby you’d open the game up a bit.”

Announcing or picking your team is probably the biggest choice that a coach faces, of course. Kidney is clear-eyed on the calls he has to make.

“You make the best choices, what you feel is the best. If you feel you’ll get it right all the time you’re not dealing with reality. Nobody makes the right decision all the time.

“I was asked to do the job based on
decisions I’ve made before and I’ll continue to make the best decisions I can, in the hope that’ll ensure the players play to the best of their ability. That’s the coach’s role. If you can do that you’re successful.”

It must be frustrating, though, when a decision doesn’t come off and the critics don’t have all the information that the coach had when he made the decision.

“Any time you have a job that you like — that it’s a privilege to do — there’ll still be another side to the job. That’s true of everybody’s job.

“A lot of it is okay, you’d think ‘on the basis of what they see that’s a fair opinion, but there’s more to it than that’. It’s when it’s over the top, somebody taking a view on the basis they know everything . . . but that’s life.”

“Criticism is part and parcel of it. The question is where does it cross respect.”

The games back in November attracted some criticism. He accepts the win over Argentina wasn’t entertaining but rejects the notion that encounter was the be-all and end-all of the autumn series.

“I thought they were all big games. Just being Irish, the anthem’s being played . . . I wouldn’t underestimate that. It’s a big thing. We were so disappointed with the previous week (against New Zealand), when we got to the Argentina game we wanted to do better, but some teams are very difficult to play against.

“You have to play a certain way to get a result, because if you go all flowery you can get beaten. I know that was an awful game as such, but to the real rugby person who knows what has to be done, it wasn’t so bad. The forwards fronted up to the
Argentina pack and the backs played it where the forwards needed it to be played.

“We won it with the score we won it by, and we were only semi-pleased. We won it knowing we could play better, so you’re
into ‘potential’. You judge potential by the scores on the board, and that’s what we’ll be judged on.

“There was a sense of relief but relief would mean we weren’t looking forward to it, going into it. We wanted to win because we knew it could have been important with the luck of the draw, but some of the older lads were also saying they wanted to win one of these games against a team ranked above us.”

SINCE then the players have scattered back to provinces and clubs. He’s looking forward to seeing them again, particularly as there’s a week to prepare before the first outing.

“They’ve played four Heineken Cup games to qualify. We’re lucky, they’ve all done well — Ulster have come on a ton, Connacht are doing well, and then you’ve Munster and Leinster — so they’ve played a lot of rugby.

“It’s different to soccer, it’s physical
contact, so we’ll add on to what we’ve done. But it’s helpful to meet up the week you don’t actually have a game, because it gives you time to stand back and look at what’s happening, to air views and so on.”

That doesn’t mean you’re divorced from the emotion, of course. The coach readily admits that the occasion had an impact in his first outing as boss.

“The one in Thomond Park, I had to tell myself to cop myself on. The one against Canada caught me — I was
looking around to see if there were any cameras on me, but I managed to get back in. … but you have to stay
composed.”

True to form, the coach brings the conversation back once more to his
players. “It’s a strange word,
professionalism, isn’t it? … We have some lads involved with teams in Ireland who aren’t paid, but they’re brilliant.

“The players’ thirst for knowledge, to improve, borders on the obsessive… The players are always looking for the edge — tactically, technically, every way.”

No better man to help them do just that.

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.