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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Footnotes to a
season’s history

(DAVID Foster Wallace died last week; the American novelist was known for his enthusiasm for tennis, use of footnotes while writing and philosophical musings on infinity. We thought we’d pay tribute to one of those enthusiasms today. And it’s
neither tennis nor infinity.)

Kerry’s defeat at the hands of
Tyrone last Sunday has opened up the debate* about the team of the decade, if that’s a discussion you care to join.

It might be more interesting to talk** about the state of Gaelic football in the wake of last Sunday. It was end-to-end stuff in Croke Park, with some fine individual scores, but there was also plenty of wayward kicking and poor option-taking on show^^.

That said, it was a vast improvement in terms of entertainment¹ on a
couple of other games this season, with most people now anxious to have the hour and a half they devoted to Kildare-Fermanagh, for instance, returned to them forthwith². This isn’t meant, by the way, to be another
version of the hurling is better than football debate, either“. Just a statement of fact.

Although . . . at least the best of the country’s hurlers aren’t decamping to another continent to parade in front of representatives of another sport who are utterly uninterested in the welfare of Gaelic football.

But that’s another story. Tune in next week.†

FOOTNOTES:

*Debate might be a strong word. Call it a case of clinging to straws if you’re from Kerry, and a matter of preening your feathers if from Tyrone. As for the rest of the GAA world, does the term ‘team of the decade’ register on anyone’s radar as even the most tenuously worthwhile title?

And hold your nose if you do. There is a willingness to make this
into a ‘well, my team’s less cynical than yours’ kind of argument, in which certain players are brought forth as examples of clean living and candidates for sainthood which are at odds with their usual demeanour . . .

** . . . bringing us nicely to Mr Aidan O’Mahony. Not content with establishing self as the Tom Daley, if not actually the Greg Louganis, of the GAA, the sometimes less than perpendicular centre-back told crowds at the Kerry homecoming that Cork wouldn’t win the All-Ireland while he and Tom
O’Sullivan were on the Kerry team.

Son, when you’re in a hole, the first lesson is to stop digging . . .

Something that’s worth mentioning and of itself. The time has long gone when football teams went up and down the field; most senior intercounty sides now take their cue from Ray Wilkins and his memorable crab-like passing. Though the uninformed call this a patient build-up, this is precisely why they are, in fact, called the uninformed . . .

^^Truly one of the great expressions when it comes to sport. It’s as if each player had a sheet of paper in his hand as he bore down on goal (OPTIONS: A. Kick ball over bar. B. Kick ball wide. C. Drop ball. Tick as appropriate). And that the funereal silence of the exam hall pervaded. And there wasn’t half-a-ton of snorting
opponent hurtling after you, etc, etc.

¹Yes, we are all quite aware that if it’s entertainment you want you should go to the circus. Or buy the Season Five DVD box set of The Wire. But still.

²That was truly tragic, if you recall. Don’t feel too bad if you don’t, either, because the mind has a habit of blocking out trauma that horrific.

“ Funny, though, how those flying the flag for the big ball seem to view anyone with a partiality for hurling as somehow representing the views of hurling aficionados everywhere.
Kudos to the man who texted this column after the hurling final to say — with a near-audible sigh — that it was up to the football to rescue the GAA season.

Fair enough. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, no?

The best laugh about the Compromise-Rules-Greco-Roman-WWF game is the continually-touted line that the players want it.

Would you think so? Really? Given it involves a free trip to Australia, wouldn’t it be a little surprising if they didn’t?

†I’ll be here. Even if some of our footballers aren’t.

Contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie