The latest kid in final colourful tradition

SPARE a thought this morning for the domesticated fauna of the state of Minnesota. News broke this week of an incident involving a goat, some paint and an electric razor which was enough to bring tears to the eyes.

Not, maybe, in the way you think. Police were alerted four days ago when a woman pulled into a service station in Minnesota with a goat in her vehicle painted in purple and gold, the colours of the local NFL side, the Vikings.

Furthermore, the woman had shaved a number four on the goat’s side and announced to the garage attendant that she intended sacrificing the animal to put a hex on Brett Favre, who wears the number four jersey (no, we don’t understand either).

Cue the immediate involvement of the authorities, general outcry and coverage in the national media.

To which we can only say: have these people never heard of an All-Ireland final build-up, in which painted livestock are far from an optional extra but constitute a must-have accessory?

These are the necessary late-August ingredients for the Big Day: first, The Man With The Painted Animal.

Typically this gentleman lives a life close to nature on the border of the county. It may or may not be next to the county his own crowd are playing, though it helps the overall effect if it is, because there is usually an equivalent person in the next parish over.

Though cows are sometimes employed, sheep are the optimum painted animal owing to the blank canvas of their wool. True, the odd goat gets thrown into the mix, an expression we use advisedly, but sheep have that rare absorbent quality. And they show up well against the ditches.

Then you have The Man In A Race Against Time.

For decades now there has been an unwritten rule in the GAA that you cannot have an All-Ireland final unless one of the players is in a race to be fit for the decider. Be it ever so trivial, there is no ailment, scrape or scurvy that cannot be worked up into a Race Against Time: grim medical bulletins are issued officially, while unofficially, someone’s cousin overheard a panel member in the service station saying yer man was never better and is tearing iron.

However, the Race Against Time soon reaches the next level: the Desperate Race Against Time, in which the countdown to the day of the game may as well be conducted by NASA. Those promoting the he-couldn’t-lift-
his-own-gearbag-out-of-the-boot line are opposed by the he-lifted-the-other-fella-out-of-it-with-the-sore-shoulder camp, and a hitherto obscure body part becomes an obsession.

The current case is Kilkenny’s Noel Hickey, but famous cases in the past include Tyrone’s Peter Canavan and his ankle injury in 2003. This led naturally to a subsection in the genre, Will They Start Him, though Mickey Harte confounded experts in this field by starting him, taking him off and then putting him back on.

Another parallel track is The Man Who Is Cleared To Play.

This is a more recent development, arising out of sittings of the Central Criminal Sunday Game Court, but it has led to early-August worries for several players. This year it was John Miskella, while in recent seasons Noel O’Leary occupied the role.

Then, as the great day dawns, the great white whale of All-Ireland Studies: The Man With The Two Grand Ticket. It is a truth universally acknowledged that when an All-Ireland final is played, someone is reported as paying a vast sum for a ticket.

The suspect is always the same — someone back from the States, desperate to see the game and passionate about his country, yet curiously unwilling to be named. The two grand is intended here as an illustration of the relative value of the ticket — the payer is always depicted as having forked out a multiple of the average industrial wage.

For instance, the first example of this syndrome back in 1884 got his ticket for three acres of land in Skerries, a lifetime’s subscription to the Freeman’s Journal and a couple of housemaids from Spiddal.

You’ll find sober men to tell you: “As sure as I’m standing here he was in a minute ago and bought the ticket off me. But he had to go meet lads after Mass in the Pro-Cathedral.”

We will have more tell-tale signs of the All-Ireland next week, but we leave you with the news that Brett, the goat cited above in Minnesota, has since been adopted by a kindly Wisconsin couple.

Things worked out well for Brett. Barnyard animals in the Mullinahone/Poulacapple/Ballydesmond/Rathmore areas please copy.

Contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie

A new era dawns as GPA question nears end game

NEWS that the GAA and the Gaelic Players Association have agreed a formal process for dialogue in the next couple of weeks is hardly a shock, given recent faint noises in the background.

Distinguishing between hitherto ‘informal’ talks and the ‘formal’ discussions of the future may just be splitting hairs, or it may be a case of putting any Mayo footballers who rock up for the talks on notice that the dress code does not cover tributes to recently deceased music legends. You never know.

Given the long-standing frost between both sides, a sudden thaw was always unlikely, but as we pointed out here a few weeks ago, the end game has been in sight for some time, despite some sound and fury emanating from the player side. It was always likely when Pauric Duffy took over from Liam Mulvihill.

It can hardly be a coincidence the Ard-Stiúrthóir of the GAA who is likely to lead the organisation’s negotiations with the player body is himself a former player welfare manager for the Association.

“I have no problem in dealing with the GPA,” Pauric Duffy said when appointed to the player
welfare post in 2006, adding: “I know Dessie Farrell very well and I know that a primary goal from their foundation was the whole issue of player welfare.

“I hope that we will build up a player welfare service that is second to none.”

Duffy now has the chance to do that. The imprimatur of the elected figurehead, the GAA President, came when Christy Cooney was inaugurated; few people picked up on Cooney’s reference to player welfare, but by going on the record at his coronation the Cork native indicated the matter was likely to be addressed soon in his term in office. So it’s proved.

A sense of reality should be maintained at the same time.

The GPA has done well to throw out the figure of 5% of GAA revenue as their target. Not because they’ll get it, but because it puts the notion of a fixed revenue stream on the table. Once you get that concept in the mix, it generally remains only to fix an amount everybody can live with.

On a linked issue, those criticising the GPA for seeking cash per se are unrealistic; you can’t run any organisation on good wishes and warm smiles. Programmes and policies cost money if they’re to be implemented and any scheme devised to help player welfare isn’t going to operate at no cost.

By the same token, however, should the player organisation be looking for money from the GAA in the first place if its aim is to remain independent?

If the GAA supplies the funding for the newly-
recognised GPA, welcomed-back-to-the-bosom of the Association and ensconced in a nice suite of
offices in Jones Road, then it’s entitled to call the tune when it comes to spending that money.

Would the GPA be happy with that, either at membership or management level?

Elsewhere in these pages you can read about a possible boycott by participants in the Clare-Wexford hurling relegation game next weekend on the grounds of general meaninglessness; players from both sides are staying in touch with each other regarding their next step.

Whatever your view of that possibility, this kind of organised response would have been unthinkable before the GPA flexed its muscles. Now who could say they’re truly surprised by it?

If the GPA and the GAA emerge from these talks singing from the same hymn sheet, that kind of problem could be headed off at source in future, which would unquestionably be a good thing.

If the GPA and the GAA emerge singing from the same balance sheet, however, what price another player body emerging a few years down the line?

michael.moynihan@examiner.ie; Twitter: MikeMoynihanEx

Taking advice one vision at a time

KEN LOACH has a new movie out, Looking For Eric.

You’ve probably seen the trailer: Cantona appears in the movie as
himself, advising an unhappy postman — and Man United fan — on how to improve his life.

As was his wont when playing, Cantona makes enigmatic statements and philosophises about life whenever he materialises in his acolyte’s
bedroom (philosophising was his habit, not appearing in people’s
bedrooms).

Now, we have a lot of time for Ken Loach on account of his being
someone who makes films that don’t rely on a) huge robots exploding in a hail of ketchup and ball-bearings,
or b) teenagers “hilariously”
showing off their bodily functions on-screen.

We also respect Ken for including a game of hurling in his movie The Wind That Shakes The Barley,
possibly the last thing on earth you should watch before going to London to do a bit of shopping (you could end up shouting angrily at the people in Space NK when you only wanted the Sleepyhead Bath Oil; anyone hook a brother up?)

However, this seems a dangerous precedent. If people invoke the spirit of their sporting heroes, which then appear at crucial moments in their personal lives — then where will it all end?

It’s like asking what would Jesus do, but asking Paul O’Connell. Or Shay Given. Or Henry Shefflin.

Say you’re a rugby fan trying to patch things up after an unfortunate misunderstanding about forgetting an anniversary or some such.

What are you going to get when you invoke one of your sporting heroes?

First, the presence of an enormous, steaming second-row in your bedroom will do nothing for the
ambience of your boudoir, but leave that to one side. What about the words of wisdom?

“Never take a backward step . . . you’ve got to front up when you’re in the trenches . . . if you’re going to war you can’t look any further than the next day . . . it’s all about the performance — not the result . . . you’ve got the strength in depth, you’ve done well out on the
paddock in midweek, so you know you’re ready . . . don’t take anything for granted . . . you just have to want it that little bit more.

“And if it doesn’t work out why not come on down to Café en Seine with me and the guys?”

Fair enough. Not the best example. But if you love the beautiful game and conjure up some willowy winger to perk up your spirits?

“At the end of the day . . . got to be disappointed with yourself . . . got to be a penalty for me every time you forget one of those . . . full credit to yourself for the effort . . . when you get those chances to apologise, you’ve got to put those away, don’t you . . . know it all evens out over the season but you’ve got to go and do it out there . . . innit . . .

“And if it doesn’t work out, why not come on down to Chinawhite with me and the boys?”

Another false step. Let’s roll the dice one last time: how about an
intercounty hurler or footballer?

“No-one gave you a chance coming up here today . . written off by
everybody . . . showed the good side out . . . left early to bate the traffic and the sneaky guard on the motorway didn’t get you with the speed camera so you made it for a late breakfast before the match . . . hectic stuff altogether . . . lookit . . . when all is said and done league is league but championship is championship and you showed out there what it means out there for the so-called weaker counties.

“And if it doesn’t work out, why not come on down to Copperface Jacks with me and the lads?”

Be careful what you wish for.

The spirit may be willing, but on the evidence we’ve seen over the years, the advice you get could be pretty weak.

contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie

twitter: MikeMoynihanEx

In-tray full of challenges for new man Cooney

THE men in the wine-red club jumpers looked happy as they walked around the Rochestown Park Hotel in Cork on Saturday, and with good reason.

One of their fellow Youghal club men was being installed as GAA President, a proud day for Christy Cooney, his family, and his club. The blizzard of motions and debates, meetings and briefings, built to a climax on Saturday afternoon, when Cooney was finally inaugurated as Uachtaran. (We say inaugurated — ‘elevated’ seemed to be the term in general use at the GAA Congress last Friday and Saturday.)

The weekend, with its large media presence, live streaming on the RTÉ website, was an opportunity for the bureaucrats who run the GAA to emerge into the daylight, and a timely reminder of the painstaking work that goes on in unglamorous committee meetings not just in the GAA, but in all sports.

It’s probably fair to say that no little boy or girl goes to sleep dreaming of chairing a rules task force or introducing motions on the suspension appropriate to playing overage players, but selfless administrators are the life-blood of every organisation, sporting or not. Correction: selfless capable administrators. There are plenty of challenges facing the new man at the helm of the GAA, as evidenced, for instance, by the last major speech of his predecessor, outgoing President Nickey Brennan.

Brennan criticised the GPA for a failure to engage with the efforts of the GAA to grant it recognition.

While the player representative body will no doubt have its own response on that issue, the last thing Christy Cooney will want is to begin his tenure in a tit-for-tat public slanging match; still, the man at the big desk gets to face all sorts of headaches.

And there are other migraines facing the GAA. The defeat of the new yellow-card rules on Saturday led to much head-shaking and frowning from the top table, but that also points to a wider problem for them.

The likes of Nickey Brennan were right to detect in the narrow defeat an appetite for change when it comes to discipline in Gaelic football and hurling, but there was a clear disconnect, to use that non-grammatical but apt word, between what people saw as over-severe sanctions and what the GAA hierarchy saw as appropriate.

That appetite for change and for improvement in discipline is widespread within the GAA. People aren’t blind to the cynicism on offer from some of the leading counties on the field of play. The appetite for punishing players with expulsion for conditioned reflexes engendered by generations of coaches seems a little less avid.

What the new President might also focus on — in the light of the commitment in his inauguration speech on improving communication within the GAA — was avoiding situations like that in Limerick last week, where some clubs felt that the county board stance on those new rules was at variance with the decision taken at the county board meeting which dealt with the matter.

Nickey Brennan’s wider point was far more apt — he said that unless discipline and respect were improved at all levels of the game then the rules could be changed at will, but there would be no improvement.

That’s another large envelope in the Christy Cooney in-tray.

The new man listed several areas he’d be focusing on in his term, such as developing the GAA in urban areas, player welfare and focusing on volunteers, but there’s no doubt that the greatest challenge he and his organisation now face is the global recession.

The new President closed his speech with an appeal to all GAA members to row in together for the good of the organisation. He got a good reception from the delegates, the dignitaries, and the men in the wine-red club jumpers.

Board gets back to brass tacks

AS PARLIAMENTARY gatherings go, last night’s county board meeting in Páirc Uí Chaoimh probably lacked a little in terms of drama and theatre.

No surprise there: as Barack Obama is finding out, you may campaign in poetry, but you have to govern in prose.

And last night’s meeting had a grim opening. Gerald McCarthy’s resignation as manager earlier this week was the elephant in the convention room, tootling a distracting tune on its trunk as delegates took their seats, ostensibly to hammer out the dates and venues for local championship encounters.

The soundtrack soon overcame the dialogue, however. True, a Taoiseach was appointed — or rather, a complete, brand-new Cabinet: the entire Cork U21 management team was delegated, en bloc, to handle the senior hurlers for the National Hurling League games against Clare and Limerick, but there was also plenty of anger expressed by speakers about the tribulations suffered by Gerald McCarthy in recent months.

After the vote on the short-term manager, there was a flurry of proposals regarding the composition of the committee which would appoint the long-term manager. Those proposals included committees with former players and with current players; with Pauric Duffy aboard or with the county chairman as a member; with club coaches participating or with club chairmen getting involved.

And finally, a proposal from the Newtownshandrum club which involved Jim O’Sullivan of this parish helping to select one of those committees.

At last, at last, at last: an organisation with the common sense to listen to us. What odds would you have got on that organisation being the Cork County Board?
THE number and variety of those proposals was far too unwieldy for last night’s meeting to process, so it was decided to hold another meeting on Monday night to hear what the clubs have to say about the proposals . . . I know. It’s hard to keep track of everything. After a while every second word is either ‘meeting’ or ‘proposal’.

Last night wasn’t an occasion for Cromwellian thunder, and the speakers wouldn’t have been confused with the likes of Burke or Grattan. They didn’t need to be.

After all, there was an odd mixture on the agenda which had to be addressed — the mundane, in that the championship fixtures are a hardy annual on the order of business, and the momentous, in that . . . well, you’ve probably been well briefed on that over the last few months.

For those who have been tracking those mass meetings in the last week around Cork — many of them large enough to keep Daniel O’Connell happy — there may be a little surprise this morning that the rule book wasn’t filleted like a kipper in Páirc Uí Chaoimh last night.

They shouldn’t be. Expressive as those meetings were of a thirst within the county for change, they can’t effect that change unilaterally. The
legislature is where those changes are made, not the hustings.

If you’re sick of the political metaphors, consider those last few get-togethers as more in the nature of warm-up performances for the big premiere: before the glossy musicals ever get to Broadway they’re given a run out of town first. Accordingly, procedural developments were thin on the ground last evening, as was constitutional reform, though a special convention would be a more appropriate forum for the reinvention of administration in Cork anyway.

This morning the announcement of John Considine and his colleagues as managers of the senior hurling team will dominate headlines. Little wonder.

Last night’s meeting moved on to the pleas for postponements of various championship games, which will generate plenty of discussion at local level: as chairman Jerry O’Sullivan pointed out, for instance, weddings are not a genuine cause for postponements. The games go on regardless.

True enough. They also go on despite separations.

Contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie

Board gets back to brass tacks

AS PARLIAMENTARY gatherings go, last night’s county board meeting in Páirc Uí Chaoimh probably lacked a little in terms of drama and theatre.
No surprise there: as Barack Obama is finding out, you may campaign in poetry, but you have to govern in prose.
And last night’s meeting had a grim opening. Gerald McCarthy’s resignation as manager earlier this week was the elephant in the convention room, tootling a distracting tune on its trunk as delegates took their seats, ostensibly to hammer out the dates and venues for local championship encounters.
The soundtrack soon overcame the dialogue, however. True, a Taoiseach was appointed — or rather, a complete, brand-new Cabinet: the entire Cork U21 management team was delegated, en bloc, to handle the senior hurlers for the National Hurling League games against Clare and Limerick, but there was also plenty of anger expressed by speakers about the tribulations suffered by Gerald McCarthy in recent months.
After the vote on the short-term manager, there was a flurry of proposals regarding the composition of the committee which would appoint the long-term manager. Those proposals included committees with former players and with current players; with Pauric Duffy aboard or with the county chairman as a member; with club coaches participating or with club chairmen getting involved.
And finally, a proposal from the Newtownshandrum club which involved Jim O’Sullivan of this parish helping to select one of those committees.
At last, at last, at last: an organisation with the common sense to listen to us. What odds would you have got on that organisation being the Cork County Board?

THE number and variety of those proposals was far too unwieldy for last night’s meeting to process, so it was decided to hold another meeting on Monday night to hear what the clubs have to say about the proposals . . . I know. It’s hard to keep track of everything. After a while every second word is either ‘meeting’ or ‘proposal’.
Last night wasn’t an occasion for Cromwellian thunder, and the speakers wouldn’t have been confused with the likes of Burke or Grattan. They didn’t need to be.
After all, there was an odd mixture on the agenda which had to be addressed — the mundane, in that the championship fixtures are a hardy annual on the order of business, and the momentous, in that . . . well, you’ve probably been well briefed on that over the last few months.
For those who have been tracking those mass meetings in the last week around Cork — many of them large enough to keep Daniel O’Connell happy — there may be a little surprise this morning that the rule book wasn’t filleted like a kipper in Páirc Uí Chaoimh last night.
They shouldn’t be. Expressive as those meetings were of a thirst within the county for change,
they can’t effect that change unilaterally. The
legislature is where those changes are made, not the hustings.

If you’re sick of the political metaphors, consider those last few get-togethers as more in the nature of warm-up performances for the big premiere: before the glossy musicals ever get to Broadway they’re given a run out of town first. Accordingly, procedural developments were thin on the ground last evening, as was constitutional reform, though a special convention would be a more appropriate forum for the reinvention of administration in Cork anyway.
This morning the announcement of John Considine and his colleagues as managers of the senior hurling team will dominate headlines. Little wonder.
Last night’s meeting moved on to the pleas for postponements of various championship games, which will generate plenty of discussion at local level: as chairman Jerry O’Sullivan pointed out, for instance, weddings are not a genuine cause for postponements. The games go on regardless.
True enough. They also go on despite separations.

Contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie

Cork crisis, 26 February 2009

February 26, 2009

Under-fire board left clinging to letter of the law

ON TUESDAY night the Cork County Board met and dismissed last Sunday’s meeting of players and club
officials in Cork as having “no standing” in the rules of the GAA.
The board added that suggestions it was “hiding” behind the rules were wrong.
Consider the backdrop to that meeting: last Sunday the 2008 hurlers received huge backing from the club chairmen and officials they invited to the meeting in the Maryborough House Hotel, with vocal condemnations from the floor of that meeting of the board’s modus operandi.
Last Friday GAA President-elect Christy Cooney and director-general Pauric Duffy made their peace proposals public, which would have removed from the executive all functions from picking senior intercounty managers to fixture planning.
Cooney is a former chairman of Cork County Board and has an intimate knowledge of its operations. What does that say about his co-authorship of that emasculating document?
Last Saturday fortnight over 10,000 people took to the streets of Cork to protest in support of last year’s panel, though soon afterwards there were suggestions that some or many of those people were not fully paid-up members of the GAA, even if anecdotal evidence undermined that particular notion.
Finally, in October of last year the 2008 panel put the board on notice that they would not play for Gerald McCarthy if reappointed.
Taken together, that forms a practically perfect circle of opposition around the executive of the Cork County Board.
From the top it has been condemned as not fit for purpose by the GAA hierarchy; from below it faces rebellion from its own clubs and members.
Its elite hurlers will not play for the board, while its elite footballers may be only six weeks away from joining those hurlers on the sidelines (if they don’t qualify for the league play-offs).
The suggestion that the marchers were semi-detached fans or Saturday shoppers has also rebounded spectacularly; if those marchers weren’t GAA members it’s yet another constituency the executive has alienated — the ‘casual’ fan.
The GAA elite, the GAA grassroots, the GAA’s top box-office draw, the GAA support: is there any group the Cork County Board can’t alienate?

The executive pointed to rule 59 of the official guide of the GAA last Tuesday night to underline their authority in this matter.
Surely somebody can point out that when you have to say you’re the authority on something because you can show where that’s written in a rulebook, then the show is over.
If you need to remind people of your authority then there’s a good reason why they’ve forgotten about it.
One of the most telling contributions to last Sunday’s meeting came when motions were being discussed, and one club official warned that those
motions would have to be worded perfectly.
He was contradicted by another speaker, who stressed that that
kind of nitpicking was part of the trouble.
That’s one of the most unattractive aspects of the GAA. Not so much the glorying in the technicalities — pedants thrive in every walk of life — but the fostering of a culture of fear in which initiatives must be parsed not so much for their advantages or disadvantages on merit but for the fine print of their legalese and the hollow joy of finding a drafting error or a procedural mistake.
There are alternatives to that
culture. Last Tuesday night a board delegate likened the Maryborough meeting to an election rally for Barack Obama, and he may have a point, but not in terms of choreography.
Obama’s favourite book is ‘Team of Rivals’, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s account of how Abraham Lincoln drew electoral opponents into his cabinet, getting them to work together and triumph over adversity.
In a county other than Cork
disparate elements looking to achieve reform could be drawn
together.
But only in a county other than Cork.

Wrong place but the right club

I F it’s Tuesday, it must be Waterford.

This column rocked up to De La
Salle GAA club’s new premises earlier this week in the Gentle County, ready for a press night ahead of the senior team’s clash this Sunday with Cushendall in the All-Ireland club semi-final.

We bounced over one or two speed bumps along the way: De La Salle are in the process of moving their base of operations from their old playing grounds, in Cleaboy, across to the new venue above Gracedieu in the city, so the club had a presence in both places on Tuesday night. The lift up to Cleaboy delivered us bang on time, only to discover the press event was going on in Gracedieu. Must really start reading those e-mails.

For an uncomfortable minute or two an extremely uncomfortable walk looked on the cards, before a De La Salle intermediate player — thanks, Ronan — offered a lift over to the new clubhouse. Reporter rescued, and sweaty, steamy arrival averted: everybody wins in that situation, believe me. That kind of willingness to give a stranger a dig-out is part of what makes covering the All-Ireland club finals more attractive, a lot of the time, than the big show itself. You end up in places like De La Salle’s new clubhouse, where some of the doors are waiting to be fitted and there’s a whiff of sawdust in the air as they put the outward signs of a club on show.

The inner parts are already in place. When we went into one of the club’s new meeting rooms there were pictures of the 1999 Féile na nGael team already framed and hanging on the far wall, along with a terrific poster advertising the county senior football final replay of 1958 (in the Gaelic Field?).

The plain table was of a make and model common to all hurling and football clubs the length and breadth of the country — an interior designer might call it a GAA, Come What May look. The sandwiches were traditional — plain ham and egg mayonnaise — though kudos to the sweet-toothed club officer who produced an inexhaustible supply of Cadbury’s Mini Rolls (take it as read that the assembled journos tried their best to exhaust it).

The club officials in attendance were beaming with pride, unsurprisingly. No unit of the GAA lives exclusively on champagne and De La Salle have had their lean years just like everybody else. Waterford star John Mullane, who captains De La Salle, spoke feelingly about the 15- and sixteen-point defeats he had suffered with the club senior side in the local championship just a few short years ago. That same cycle applies to Corofin and Kilmacud, to Cushendall and Ballyhale. When the good times come along you try to enjoy them.

O NE OF the great cliches that goes on heavy rotation at this time of year is the one thrown out by GAA stars so famous they’re usually identifiable by their first name alone — that it’s even better when you win something with the club and the lads you grew up with. It’s true, of course, and the proof was on offer in De La Salle.

Kevin Moran was keen to point to the seven hurlers in the picture of the 1999 Féile team who graduated to the senior team and lined out in the county final against Abbeyside last year. Brian Phelan was frank about the players’ meeting which turned the club’s season around in late August. Mullane paid tribute to club heroes like Derek McGrath, who had broken down in training on the Tuesday night before the county final and missed out on the big day.

Most weeks of the year you’re accustomed to meeting these players outside a dressing-room with dozens of others brandishing microphones, cameras and tape recorders. It’s nice, one or two weeks in the year, to meet them on their home ground.

And speaking of home ground… much obliged to club PRO John Sheehan, who kindly gave me a lift back into town from the new clubhouse.

It meant that those Mini Rolls could be digested in comfort.

contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie

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.