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

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.

* michael.moynihan@examiner.ie

don’t think we’re operating anywhere near our optimum’

THE right foot is encased in a white running shoe just this side of groovy, and obscured by a table leg.

One week ago, however, it was watched by all of Ireland. Ronan O’Gara’s late, late drop-goal ended six decades of disappointment to secure Ireland’s second-ever Grand Slam but now, however, he’s talking about last autumn, and his call for Irish players to buy into the jersey.

It was typical O’Gara: outspoken, rigorous, challenging, but always thinking of the team.

“Everyone can see that this team’s been different in this Six Nations compared to previous years,” he says. “We’ve been looking to ourselves to do that.

“But the reason you’d say these things isn’t for controversy. I’d say these things because time is ticking for me — when I hang up my boots I want to have medals, and it’s only in the last few years that we’ve started to gather medals. That’s the critical difference.

“I don’t say things for the sake of getting opinions out there. I only comment when I feel there’s a valuable input to be made. I didn’t say those things to the media, either — I said it to the players, we had a few weeks to think about things, and then there was a meeting over Christmas and barriers were broken down.

“There was an honesty policy in the squad, and once that’s there you could see fellas in green play for each other similar to the way fellas in red play for each other. I haven’t been in an Irish camp where that’s been as prominent in a long while.”

Not surprisingly, he points to a fellow Corkman’s influence over the squad as critical. O’Gara acknowledges what Declan Kidney has brought to the table for Ireland.

“He’s brought in a new management team, a new squad — a lot of new players — and made everyone feel part of it. And at times that was even frustrating, because you might have 40 fellas at training and from a selfish point of view all I’d be really concerned with would be the first fifteen, or the match-day 22. It’s difficult enough to run that but Deccie was on about the squad and we got a great squad ethos going.

“He and his staff brought that, and that’s what separates him from other coaches, his ability to run a tight, friendly ship.

“He’s always been grounded, but I think he’s had a gradual progression, which probably helps — he’s had disappointments as well and he’s learned from them. And now he’s reaping the rewards.”

Rewards. There have been many suggestions that rugby in general and players in particular will benefit from the Grand Slam. Has the enormity of the win sunk in yet?

“Not at all. I don’t think there’s a realisation. I remember that it hit me for the first European Cup, but for this it took probably until Tuesday, and it seems to be getting sweeter every day.

“A few of us, probably led by Brian, Paul and myself, needed to win a Grand Slam to have credibility on a European or world stage. That would be something factual, rather than an opinion, about players; as much as people have opinions about players, what certain players have achieved is not up for debate, and this is something for the positive locker.

“It’s something that can’t be taken away. A nice feeling.”

The Ireland dressing-room after the win last Saturday wasn’t manic, he says, but suffused with an inner happiness. It was a mood in keeping with how the season had unfolded.

“There was no panic during the campaign, which was weird. There have been plenty of games in which myself and Paulie would have snapped at each other, but last Saturday with five minutes left he called the pattern of play, and it was a drop-goal pattern. No drama.

“That shows composure under pressure, because strictly speaking there should have been a bit of panic.”

OF the previous games, the most frustrating for O’Gara was the England clash, where he landed just two kicks out of six.

“That was the only one that was close, and that was down to me not kicking points. We were 10 points minimum a better team than them, and I never felt we were going to lose, but they got a last-minute try that put a different spin on the scoreboard.

“Afterwards I was disappointed and frustrated — and a little lost compared to other times in the past, when I knew what was going wrong.

“I’d say that week I’d taken over 100 kicks at goal and probably missed three. I was shocked — not from a cocky point of view — but if I’d known what to correct I’d have done it there and then.

“Maybe I was too relaxed against England. It’s a fascinating thing – I try to talk to a few people about it, and what I’d link goal-kicking to is golf. Line-kicking or kicking from the hand isn’t really like goal-kicking, and golfers have told me that during the season there are times when they’re not too sure when their drives are going, while other times it’s easy.

“It’s the same with goal-kicking — some days it’s easy, while other days you think you feel you’re doing the exact same thing but … as my dad says to me, though, you’re not a machine. The body feels different some days, and you just have to trust it.”

HE had to be trusted last Saturday. O’Gara has often been targeted by other teams, but Wales looked to send runners down his channel at every opportunity. Hardly a surprise, he says.

“No, it makes sense for them to go after me. Me, Brian (O’Driscoll), Gordon (D’Arcy) and Wally (David Wallace) are the line of four, so it doesn’t take a genius to work
out where to run. We do that,
too.

“Our coaches have a fair idea that we’ll know who to go after — (Stephen) Jones is a good defender but we went after him rather
than (Gavin) Henson or (Tom) Shanklin.”

Jones is a good kicker as well. As he lined up that potentially heart-breaking penalty from halfway with time all but up, his Irish counterpart felt exactly what Irish supporters everywhere felt.

“Sick. I don’t know if the occasion got to the ref, but we shouldn’t have won that game on penalty count alone, something
like 16-5, some of them bad decisions. The ref is such an important figure at this level, but that gives a team field position, territory — all important elements in a tight game.”

And what next?

“People are probably asking ‘where to for this team now’, but I can genuinely say this is a starting point – in terms of game planning, creativity, I don’t think we’re operating anywhere near our optimum.”

Outspoken. Rigorous. Challenging. Always thinking of the team.

Rugby success would be last word

L AST night some of you may have caught ‘Red Riding’ on Channel 4, a new drama based on the novels of David Peace.
‘Red Riding’ is a fictionalised
account of police corruption, the Yorkshire Ripper murders and general north-of-England grimness.
To be honest, after the last six months covering the Cork GAA
dispute, it felt like light relief.
Coincidentally, this column was talking to David Peace — clang, as the name drops on the floor — a couple of weeks ago about another new screen adaptation of one of his books ‘The Damned United’, which covers Brian Clough’s ill-fated 44 days in charge of Leeds United in 1974.
In the course of our phone conversation — he lives in Tokyo, which is a full nine hours ahead of us if you ever need to ring someone in Kabukicho — Peace casually mentioned that American writers — arty novelists and sports hacks alike — seem to have a far greater appetite than their Irish and British counterparts for relating sports events to wider social issues.
It’s a fair point. Peace mentioned well-known English writers like
Martin Amis, who wrote ‘London Fields’ about a darts player trying to break into the professional ranks, but one such book doesn’t come close to the likes of American giants like Don DeLillo and Philip Roth, who splice baseball and American football into their novels without making it look like an anthropologist’s first encounter with an interesting but backward tribe.
You can over-egg the
social relevance pudding, of course (pardon the metaphor). In Ken Burns’ ‘Baseball’ — the greatest sports documentary ever made — the writer George Will makes a telling contribution about writers reading too much significance into baseball, pointing to the profusion of authors and intellectuals living in New England in particular, who tend to weigh the Boston Red Sox down with all sorts of symbolic baggage.
“These writers were neurotic enough to begin with,” says Will, “But then it’s ‘why, baseball reminds me of life, death, the Federal Reserve, whatever.’”
Sometimes, of course, that wider socio-economic picture is something everybody is looking to detach themselves from altogether rather than a phenomenon people want to get more involved with.
At a recent press conference, Ireland rugby forward Jamie Heaslip acknowledged the fact that in an economic downturn that’s beginning to look like a black hole, people are taking a closer-than-usual interest in how the Irish rugby team is doing.
“People are focused on it to take their minds off things,” said Heaslip at the time. “It happened, looking at Ireland at the soccer World Cups; that took the focus off things at the time.
“If people want to do that, do it.”
Everyone in the country seems to be hanging onto the rugby team for a bit of good news at the moment, but we’re here to sound a sober note of warning, because if there’s one thing that international rugby success appears to herald for Ireland, it’s complete economic meltdown.
Far be it from us to pour cold water on everyone’s hopes and dreams, but our last Grand Slam came just in time to usher in the hungry fifties, when we were exporting 50,000 emigrants per year.
The next championship came in 1982, as the country plunged into a eye-watering recession so severe that Charlie Haughey told us we were living way beyond our means.
And right now we have late-capitalism teetering on the brink of extinction as an economic system just as Brian O’Driscoll rediscovers his try-scoring touch.
By contrast, when we couldn’t beat the Italians in the nineties the country was going like the clappers, with everyone’s house increasing in value by 322% per week.
Back in the early sixties, when we were winning about one game per year in the Five Nations, the rising tide was coming in that would lift everyone up out of squalor and into mohair-suited prosperity.
In that context, would defeat in Murrayfield be all that bad?
contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie

A CHAT with Jamie Heaslip is
rewarding for all sorts of reasons, not all of them directly related to the next game, or even the last one.

You learn swiftly who the best table tennis player in the Irish rugby squad is (“we had to peel Luke Fitzgerald off the table the day of the Italy game, he was on it for about two hours”) and that Mick O’Driscoll and Malcolm O’Kelly are not men to face if you don’t have faith in the three of a kind you’re holding.

There’s mock-exasperation with last Sunday’s full-back (“Rob was worried he’d have a bruise on his face for the night out”) and an honest appraisal of how it feels to be stuck in a Roman ruck: “Castro(giovanni) and Parisse coming at you, you’re thinking ‘oh Jaysus, here we go’”.

Even when talk switches to the minutiae of last Sunday’s win over Italy, he can’t help being honest. Take this evaluation of his near-try: “I was close, I thought I was going to get over but your man got under me. He did really well, in fairness, though I don’t think Rog was too happy with me for not offloading.”

Heaslip pays warm tribute to his
forward colleagues, even if his maths aren’t flawless: “I couldn’t say enough about the front five, especially John (Hayes) — he made my life so easy at the back (of the scrum), to attack, it was a joke. At 50 years old, to be still pulling those games out of the hat … you can’t say enough about the man.

“All those guys are getting through an unbelievable amount of work — rucks, tackles, stuff that’s not as glamorous, but it loosens the back row to do our thing, that frees the backs to do their thing — it’s a knock-on effect and the game always starts with how well the front five do.”

Two years ago Heaslip missed the historic win over England in Croke Park. He didn’t go to Jones Road that day but hopes he’ll need his boots on Saturday week.

“My first worry is Deccie picking me, because you don’t know what you’re going to get with Deccie! I missed out two years ago. I don’t tend to go to games if I’m not playing, apart from Leinster, but I watched it (on TV), and it was amazing. I’d like to be part of that this time round.”

And there’s always last year’s defeat in Twickenham to avenge.

“It wasn’t nice last year, it never is, losing — particularly to England. A lot of people have written them off, which is unfair. Wales took one chance which turned the game, and that was from turnover ball — anything can happen with a turnover but Wales punished them.

“England were still in it with 10 or 15 minutes to go, and I think we’ll have our work cut out for us. We’ll have our video sessions this week so I’ll be more learned when it comes to England then.”

New Ireland forwards coach Gert Smal also gets the thumbs up. “He’s intense, very, very detailed. He does unbelievable work on lineouts — as does Paulie (O’Connell) — and you can see that work in how we defend lineouts, that’s going pretty well.

“He does good continuity and rucking drills, and they’re paying off with the offloading and reasonably quick ruck ball. And scrums … he loves his scrums and his front five.

“Off the pitch the banter is good, though he doesn’t take too well to talk about the punch he knocked the Kiwi out with. He wants a bit of pushing from me (in scrums), so I try to give it to him.”

Heaslip admits They’ll need to have their homework done for England.

“Their backs are very attack-oriented, and with England you always have a pack that’s mobile, big and strong. That’s just the way they are — they have quality to pick from, and they’ll be tough no matter what.

“They were unlucky against Wales, and people gave out about how they won against Italy, but they took their chances when they came. (It) is going to be another war of attrition. They carry hard and hit hard, but the way to counteract that is to do the same thing back for the full 80.”

People are enjoying the team’s success at a time when there’s plenty of bad news, something Heaslip acknowledges.

“Deccie’s talked about it, people are focused on it to take their minds off things. It happened in the past, looking at Ireland at the soccer World Cups, that took the focus off things at the time. If people want to do that, do it.

“I don’t think it puts any added pressure on us. We’re still going to approach the game the same way, but I suppose it could be something to give people to smile about a little more.

“I don’t know if that works for Leinster, because you guys give it to us anyway, but with Ireland, if it brings a little joy to someone’s life then it’s not going to do any harm, any is it?”

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.

Bringing sex and spice to
the sliotar
and splice

JASMINE gasped as she saw the centre-
forward soar above his opponents on the 65-metre line. Her heart fluttered like a little bird’s might if it was being chased by an enormous dog as the faraway player landed with the sliotar, turned and struck it high and true over the crossbar.

“Who … who …”

She could barely speak, and when the centre-forward took off his helmet to reveal blue-black curls and penetrating blue eyes, she thought she was going to swoon, right there in the Old Stand in Semple Stadium just at the Kelly’s of Fantane sign —

Stop interrupting. You are coming
between this column and its new meal ticket, the as-yet-untapped potential of Irish sport as a backdrop to
commercial bonkbuster books.

We are deadly serious.

Our venture into the world of tall, dark and handsome heroes and even taller, darker and, er, more beautiful heroines comes hard on the heels of this week’s announcement that Mills and Boon are specifically focusing on rugby as a backdrop for a new series of their romantic novels.

“Our mission statement is to do for rugby what Jilly Cooper did for polo — to give it an air of sexiness and glitz and glamour,” series editor Jenny Hutton was quoted as saying during the week.

The company’s sales and marketing director, Clare Somerville, added: “You don’t have to like rugby to like the books.

“They have all the elements of a quintessential Mills & Boon romance: jet-set locations, hunky alpha-male heroes and hot sex, but in a rugby context.”

Information on the rules of rugby, along with tips on what to wear at matches, will also be included in the books.

In and of itself, this might solve a lot of sartorial disasters one sees on the terraces of sportsgrounds
everywhere, but that’s only a minor detail.

Not to be confused with the major detail: as Ingrid Bergman said in Casablanca: “Are those the German guns or my heart pounding?”

The wind picked out Tremenda’s delicate curls as it wound its way from one end of Turner’s Cross to the other, flapping flags, flattening grass, and bringing a flush to Baron Dynami’s cruel but irresistible jawline.

“Damn you,” he said to himself, unable to concentrate on the throw-in as one of Tremenda’s dimples winked at him, “How am I going to creel that Sligo Rovers
centre-forward when I must have that
imperious swan sitting level with the 18-yard-line at the old Shed End?”

The good people of Mills and Boon are, of course, taking on the master, or the mistress, in trying to emulate Jilly Cooper when it comes to mixing sport with an air of sexiness and
glamour.

Having visited many a post-match dressing room, this column can
confirm that the air of Head and Shoulders Damage Rescue or Lynx Shower Snake Peel are far more
common fragrances when it comes to elite and not-so-elite sport.

Fear not, however.

As everybody knows, packaging is everything, and Mills and Boon launch their series with The Prince’s Waitress Wife — in which one love scene takes place in the president’s suite at Twickenham — on February 1, just before the start of the Six
Nations.

A forthcoming book — The
Ruthless Billionaire’s Virgin — the heroine sings the national anthem, suffering a “wardrobe malfunction” from which she is saved by the chivalrous hero.

With titles like that, The Passion of the Third Midfielder, or Steamy Nights on the Drift Defence are
surely just around the corner (back). Or just around the corner if we could only be left back to our compositions. Now, back to our story!

Stonechest, the brawny yet oddly
sensitive and poetry-quoting prop, gulped back his whiskey to cool his raging nerves. Why, after facing down Il Gropa, the
Italian axe-murderer/full-back and
Carnivoreux, the child-eating number eight from Toulouse, was this slip of a girl causing him to lose his concentration?

He cast his mind back once more to the scene: the thunder and lightning at Tom Clifford Park, her unforgettable cheekbones, that blessedly brief gouging incident on the opposition 22 …

Hold everything. Back up the truck. There’s no such thing as a “slip of a girl” in this genre, but a “mere slip of a girl”; that’s better.

I think we’re onto something.

contact:
michael.moynihan@examiner.ie

Integrity of game takes a back seat

Trevor Brennan: former rugby star appointed to coaching role for Rules Series staff.

FIRST things first. A couple of weeks ago this column mentioned a lift received one time from Irish rugby international Ronan O’Gara in a rather splendid car, which we likened to one of 007’s little runabouts. Grey. Snazzy. You know the job.

Of course, nothing would do one of our readers but to point out that the ejection-seat option we referred to would probably kick in automatically for any journalist sitting in it.

Ho ho ho. You know I saved the number you texted from, right?

Rather embarrassingly, we have to begin this particular column with a similar tale. Last year during the
Rugby World Cup your correspondent ended up in Trevor Brennan’s company after France dismembered Namibia in Toulouse, when one of this newspaper’s rugby writers insisted on calling in for a chat to a nice marquee-type arrangement that Trevor had set up along the banks of the river.

Ah, the pleasant breeze, the cool drinks, the French chat.. All very
refreshing. And in fairness to Trevor, when the evening came to a close, he insisted on dropping us back to our
respective hotels. For some reason best known to the sports editor, our rugby writer stayed in the Royal Hotel Splendide Magnifico De Luxe, while your columnist lodged in Le Petit Carbuncle, or some such establishment.

The reason behind this less than thrilling revelation is the news of Trevor’s installation as a coach with Sean Boylan’s international rules squad, which is surely the QED when it comes to arguments against this misbegotten mess of a game.

Enjoying the man’s company and the decency of a lift home should remove any suggestion of personal bias or
dislike and allow your correspondent to point out that his appointment tells you something crucial about the
international rules game. A sport which is supposed to mix Gaelic
football and Australian Rules football needs a man from a different sport
altogether is needed to coach Irish players in order to play it?

Mickey Harte made that same point recently, and it’s hard to argue against the Tyrone manager on this one. You could point out that Mickey Ned O’Sullivan has given the Springboks advice on catching the ball, but that’s a false comparison.

Cross-code pollination occurs all the time when it comes to individual skills which are common across sports, but this is a different kettle of fish altogether. You could almost say it’s a whole other ball game, but hasn’t that been the problem from the start?
FACE it. The only reason you’ll flick on the Compromise(d) Rules is to see if there’s a scrap. And that would be fair enough if only everyone would only be honest and up front about their motivations.

But instead we get the usual farrago of excuses: the international
dimension, the pride involved, the
enthusiasm of the players. Our favourite excuse for the preservation of this nonsense is the crowd.

Since when did having a lot of
people around constitute a reason for anything? According to the history books bear-baiting and Christian
sacrifices did quite a brisk box-office in
medieval Europe and ancient Rome respectively, but nobody is looking to reinstate them on those crowd-pleasing grounds.

Then again, maybe the bears and the Christians weren’t vocal enough about their support for those japes. It’s
commonly asserted that the Irish
players are hugely supportive of this game, yet we can’t remember any of them raving about the thuggish assaults of the Aussies the last time out.

As for the international dimension, stop. Please, just stop: either Gaelic football is a game worth playing or it’s not, but don’t use a totally different sport played half a world away as some kind of endorsement of it. That smacks of the craven old hunting for validation that used to throw up the old “GAA players fitter than Premiership players” codology.

As I said to Trevor in Toulouse, you can leave me out just here.

contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie

Stopping Sunday sport won’t stem Mass exodus

DEARLY beloved, we are gathered here together to cast light again where once there was only darkness.

I’m glad to see so many young
people here in church today. I know that you would all prefer to be out on the playing fields of Ireland this morning — or, if truth be told, nursing your hangovers at home, ho ho ho.

(Echoing cough).

Seriously, however, how gratifying it is to know that even now, in these godless times, that a fine smack of the crozier can still bring the masses to heel.

Now let us raise our voices . . .

We give up. It’s hard to sustain a sermon ever since Alan Bennett’s turn in Beyond the Fringe almost 50 years ago, and the immortal Take A Pew sketch (“My brother Esau is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man,” etc etc).

Listening to Archbishop Dermot Clifford on the radio during the week, discussing the bishops’ appeal for an end to games and training sessions on Sunday morning in favour of returning to the days when those Sunday morning was for mass, it was interesting to hear him say the bishops were seeking to initiate a debate on the issue.

If initiating a debate is some kind of synonym for provoking a storm of laughter and disbelief they must be satisfied with how things have gone since, even if they’re a little disappointed there hasn’t been a call for a return to the days of Bishops John Charles McQuaid and Cornelius Lucey while they were at it.

The GAA and the IRFU responded quickly to the episcopal comments (the FAI didn’t, but then, given their penchant for waiting until the wee small hours of the morning before issuing statements, that’s hardly surprising).

The two sporting bodies which found the time to respond to the bishops’ statement pointed out that it was impractical not to use one of the two relatively free mornings in the week for games and training.

However, the bishops had acknowledged that in their original statement. They conceded that many youngsters have part-time jobs on Saturdays or Sundays which preclude them from going to Mass.

There you have the crux of the issue. It’s only a time management issue to the extent that it’s a different epoch.

If you can remember the hungry eighties, then you can recall a time when the notion of part-time jobs being so plentiful as to interfere with any aspect of Irish life was laughable. That change — and all the others along with it — in the last decade have left a lot of people scratching their heads about the country, the bishops no more than the rest of us.

But you can’t have it both ways. Calling for an end to games and training on Sunday mornings while simultaneously acknowledging that one of the reasons people aren’t going to mass is their part-time job is talking out of both sides of your mouth.

It’s okay for you to collect glasses in a pub or sweep the aisles of a supermarket, but don’t even think about running around a field for some fresh air on a Sunday morning? Admitting the country has changed on one hand while seeking to continue with the old order is neither consistent nor viable.

We note, incidentally, that the bishops also opened a new front in this war towards the end of the week when calling on the GAA to end alcohol sponsorship and set an example to other sports.

There’s an odd logic being applied here, that the largest amateur sporting organisation in the country should be the one depriving itself of sponsorship in the belief that the country’s professional sports would follow suit. That’s logic on a par with . . . suggesting that an end to Sunday games and training will lead to a sudden spike in mass attendance.

We’re not getting into name-calling, or suggesting that the bishops might have more pressing matters to attend to. Mass attendance is down all over, but whether people attend or not has little enough to deal with their kids’ session begins at 11 or 12 on a Sunday.

If they want to be there, they’ll be there. That’s how the doctrine of free works, as Bishop Lucey told us all those years ago.

Contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie

Column in Irish Examiner, 21 March 2008.

Eddie pays the ultimate professional price

SO LONG to Eddie. The smallest surprise of the week was the
departure of Eddie O’Sullivan from the Ireland rugby hotseat on Wednesday night. He’d put up a brave face after the England defeat, but he must have known the writing was on the wall.

Because O’Sullivan is a professional. In the Oedipal wonderland which makes up that section of George Hook’s biography which relates to Eddie, it’s interesting that Hook describes O’Sullivan as the first real professional he met in rugby — professional in his attitude to team preparation,
professional in his attitude to preparing himself to prepare his team, professional in his contract negotiation.

When the two men met in the 90s, that was something of a revelation, as Irish
rugby left Corinthianism behind, but since then everyone has caught up. The proof of that is in the reaction to Ireland’s decline over six months or so — not so much from the media, but from the ordinary people who were less than gruntled with the underpowered performances in France in September and then in the Six Nations.

The level of dissatisfaction with recent Irish performances is, in its own way, a backhanded compliment to both the growth in rugby’s popularity in the
country and O’Sullivan’s role in driving that growth by virtue of his success with the international side.

By setting the bar higher in any sport, there’s a danger of being judged against those higher standards and found wanting, of course: thus Eddie and his removal. But that evaluation has come after a deeper cultural shift in rugby than in other sports, a willingness to criticise that’s relatively new.

Back in the fine old amateur days we wouldn’t have been quite so bloodthirsty for Eddie’s blood, a state of affairs which George Hook inadvertently touched on last Saturday when he revived the old chestnut about the state of Irish rugby being critical but never serious.

No longer. When there’s money on the line — player contracts, a redeveloped Lansdowne Road coming on stream — then the situation quite clearly can be both critical and serious. In that context Eddie will have no complaints. He knows what professional sport means; by George Hook’s account he knew it before anyone else.

BUT he may be entitled to be a little aggrieved about one aspect of criticism he’s been shipping recently, particularly when he looks at the other team sharing Croke Park in recent months.

The Republic of Ireland soccer team has also been getting a bit of a kicking from both press and public, particularly at the fag-end of Steve Staunton’s short career.

The charge sheet turned in against them — lacking in spirit and direction, being troubled by teams they should have handled without difficulty — has a lot in common with the indictments handed out against Eddie O’Sullivan’s team.

However, while Staunton was gored by all and sundry, his players also came in for withering commentary, which eventually resulted in Robbie Keane popping up on The Late Late Show to say it wasn’t nice for the players to have to listen to criticism.

Compare the Irish rugby players. There’s been a marked reluctance to criticise their pallid displays in the World Cup and Six Nations, not when there’s more mileage in berating the coach. The argument was that the Ireland manager must be the problem, particularly given the players’ fine displays for Munster and Leinster.

Yet that same logic was used as a stick to beat players like Robbie Keane: outstanding with Spurs, standing with his arms out for Ireland. The fact Keane’s club form was so good was ammunition for complaint, not body armour against criticism. It was very different for his rugby-playing cousins.

Still, that doesn’t make a difference to O’Sullivan now. It’ll be interesting to see where he goes next, and it’ll be interesting to see who replaces him.

Given the names being thrown around, it’ll also be interesting to see if anyone in 62 Lansdowne Road has Denis O’Brien’s phone number.

Contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie