Hope to Heartache and Back. A Review of Ireland’s Sporting Year

Sport transcended itself in 2011 for this small island country. It became more than a form of entertainment, it became hope, transubstantiated in Katie Taylor’s boxing glove, Richard Dunne’s boots, and Sean O’Brien’s hands as we watched him steamroll yet another unfortunate opponent.

Did Northampton throw it away? Leinster sure didn’t.
     Barrack Obama came to Ireland at the end of May, and he told us something most of us needed to hear. “Is féidir linn”, or for non gaelgoirs, “Yes We Can”. Of course, Leinster already knew that. It must have been their mantra when, three days before the American President touched down on Irish soil, they found themselves 16 points down to Northampton in the Heineken Cup final in Cardiff. In the second half, inspired by Jonathon Sexton, the Blues scored 27 unanswered points to win their second Heineken Cup final, and join the pantheon of Heineken Cup legends including Munster.
     The men in red did not have a great start to the year, crashing out of the Heineken Cup at the pool stages for the first time in 13 years. But the mantra inscribed on the collar of Munster jerseys is not there on a whim. “To the brave and the faithful, nothing is impossible”. Written off before the new Heineken Cup even got under way, they sit top of their pool heading into the new year, with four wins and no defeats to their name. They’ve left it late in some games, but when Ronan O’Gara is on the pitch, that’s not even an issue.
He will be missed
     The national team’s year went from the most inauspicious of starts – with a disappointing Six Nations and some abysmal World Cup warm-up games – to the elation of beating Australia and the subsequent bubble being burst by Wales in the quarter-finals. Ireland may never have a better chance of reaching a Rugby World Cup final, but their journey to the last eight was enough to give the Irish people at home and abroad a lift. There’s a new generation of Irish diaspora growing across the world since the country went belly up, and it seems that the majority of them were in New Zealand to cheer on O’Driscoll et al. Handmade signs like “Ma, send over me dole money!” brightened up the early hours of autumn Irish mornings as much as the Irish team themselves did. This year also saw the retirement of John Hayes.  There’s not much that hasn’t been said about the man, except maybe that he’s diminutive in stature and lacks modesty. In all seriousness however, the Cappamore man will be remembered in high regard by rugby fans across the country for his often unsung work in the red and green of Munster and Ireland respectively

Richard Dunne, our very own “Iron Curtain”.
      The Irish football team weren’t to be outdone by the rugby team this year. As the Irish nation came down from the collective high we experienced watching their rugby counterparts, Trappatoni’s men decided they couldn’t allow us to feel low for too long. Queue qualifiying for a major tournament for the first time in 10 years, and for the European Championships for the first time in 24. In Moscow in September, Richard Dunne evoked the spirit of Paul McGrath as he single-handedly kept the Russians at bay for 90 minutes. When we drew Estonia in the play-offs, we dared to dream. Yet it wasn’t until the 4-0 win in the away leg did fans begin to plan their trip to next years tournament in Poland. When the draw for the group stages took place in December, we got Spain, Croatia and Italy. What hope we had faded, and the consensus is that Ireland are just happy to be in the tournament. Good. Coming in under the radar and upsetting a few of the big boys is how Ireland’s football teams have always operated.
     These were the stories which gained the most column inches in the back pages of newspapers this year, but the sporting odyssey was not confined to rugby and football. In hurling, a Kilkenny drubbing of Tipperary in September’s All Ireland final was enough to shut the mouths of all the nay-sayers who said the Black and Amber were finished. Didn’t they realise that Cats have nine lives? In Gaelic football, there was a small matter of Dublin winning their first senior All-Ireland since 1995. A lot was said after the game against Kerry, but it was the choice of match-winner Stephen Cluxton to say nothing at all that generated much of the debate.
     And finally, we come to the individual sportspeople who did much to lift the gloom in Ireland this year. In a year where Tiger Woods made his golfing comeback, Rory McIlroy was the real story. His melt-down at the Masters in Augusta led to many writing him off. When he blew the competition out of the water in the US open two months later, his detractor’s pens ran out of ink.
     One woman stands alone as this country’s most consistent performer at the highest level of sport. Katie Taylor this year won two European gold medals to add to her impressive tally. She now has enough gold in reserve to bail out the Irish banks. However, the biggest contribution Taylor could make to this country is to bring home Olympic gold next summer. If her performances this year are anything to go by, that won’t be a problem.
     It’s been a busy year in Irish sport. Forget the bad moments, savour the good. When you wake up tomorrow it starts all over again. 2011 was a good year, but 2012 has potential to be great. Happy New Year!
First published on Studenty.me on 31st December 2011.
Images: Brian O’Driscoll (telegraph.co.uk)
                 Richard Dunne (whoateallthepies.tv)
                 John Hayes (joe.ie) 

Crouching Tiger… The Engaging Story of Matt Hampson

Matt Hampson

You survey the wreckage that is your living room on Christmas morning. The gaudiness of the wrapping paper belies the dullness of the gifts. A DVD? Seen it. Clothes? Don’t like them. Christmas morning is hell.
     For those of you who feel this way, a bit of perspective please. Now this is not a piece dedicated to making you feel guilty about over-indulging on turkey this Christmas period while children starve in the third-world. We’ve all heard Do They Know It’s Christmas?
     This, rather, is a heads up on just how lucky you are, to be able to unwrap your presents yourself. Feel free to over-indulge all you want this Christmas, but if you for a second feel like self-indulging, think of one man.
Matt Hampson was an u-21 England Rugby international when a scrummaging accident in training led to his being paralyzed from the neck down. Long story short, he now cannot breathe independently, is destined to life in a wheelchair, and is a beacon of hope to all who have suffered similar spinal injuries.
A must read

     For the long version of the story, read Engage, the book written by Paul Kimmage. There is no detail spared in this, the williamhill.com Irish Sports Book of the year. In the afterword, Kimmage admits to pushing Hampson in interviews for the book further than a 21 year old quadriplegic ever should be pushed. It shows. The reader is taken into the darkest recesses of the young man’s mind. The endless nights of insomnia while in hospital, nothing to see save the rectangle of ceiling above his bed, nothing to hear bar the gentle whoosh of his ventilator. Hampson never stopped counting those whooshes.
     It’s not just a story of one man’s struggle. Through transcripts of the inquiry into Hampson’s injury we see the toll that it took on his family and his just blossoming relationship. The book is dedicated to the memory of Stuart Mangan, a young man from Cork who suffered a similar injury playing rugby. Hampson found in him an inspirational ally on his road to accepting his own fate. The positive outlook the Fermoy man showed before his untimely death at the age of 26 served to enhance Hampson’s strength of character.
     Other characters in Matt’s journey serve to show the importance of hope and belief to the preservation of the human spirit. The reader is introduced to Matt Grimes and Paul Taiano. Without delving into the details of the book to much, suffice to say both embody the Adidas adage that “Impossible is Nothing”.
Ronan O’Gara and Roy Keane’s single-mindedness. Paul Kimmage’s candour. Paul McGrath’s tragic flaws. In the pantheon of great sporting biographies, the sad aspect of Engage is that its subject never got a sporting chance.
     Matt Hampson’s story is a breath of fresh air which will blast away the cobwebs of self-indulgence in anyone this Christmas. There’s plenty of references to bowels, but no bullshit. Matt’s story doesn’t end on the 395th page of Engage,he continues to be an inspiration to able-bodied and disabled alike.
     Full after Christmas dinner today – in the hope of staving off a food-induced coma – I decided to read the first few pages of Engage on merit of the good things I had heard about it since its publication. Two litres of tea, three helpings of chocolate pudding and several hours later, I’m done. I wouldn’t recommend making tea while reading a book that is literally unputdownable. The minor scalds were worth it. Read this book.
images: newstalk.ie (both)

 (First Published 25th December 2011 on Studenty.me)

Dear Santa…

Hmmm… Lionel O’Messi?

Dear Santa,
I’ve been so well behaved all year. I even watched Ireland play football without complaining one little bit. So for Christmas this year I’d like something extra special. Before you have your elves wrap Georgia Salpa, I’ve got a few other things in mind. You can skip my house this year, because these are gifts you can’t put under the Christmas tree.
I’ll start small. I’d like Declan Kidney to take some risks with his squad for the Six Nations. Some of Ireland’s best young talent deserve a chance to show what they can do. Santa, I’ve seen you in the crowd at Munster matches, so I know you know your stuff. If you can work your magic and get Peter O’Mahony in the Ireland squad next year then Ireland might have a solution to their problem at number 7.
Now, I don’t know how well up you are on FIFA rules and regulations, but I think the general gist is that anything is possible if you know the right people. If you could have a word in Mr Blatter’s ear and see to it that Lionel Messi is registered as an Irish player for the European Championships, I’d really appreciate it. Failing that, could you just ask Trappatoni to give James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman a chance to show their worth?
Now for the big one. I’d like another one of those Tipperary versus Kilkenny games on the first Sunday of September. You may remember, it used to be called the All Ireland Hurling Final once upon a time. Now write this down Santa, because it’s very important… I want next year’s game to be a repeat of 2010’s final. No-one wants to see a repeat of this year’s result. Well, no-one outside Kilkenny.
Actually Santa, please do stop at my house. If you could get me a seat on a Ryanair flight to Poland next year that would be great. I know your magic can only stretch so far though, so if you could even give me a lift on your sleigh next June I’d take it. If you’re not busy of course.
Regards to Mrs Claus.

Don’t Go Booking Return Flights From Poland Just Yet….

How nice of UEFA. Every team gets a cheery “good luck” in their native language, except for Ireland. UEFA General Secretary Infantini forgets at first, and then when he remembers, all he’s learnt is “Fáilte”. We don’t get good luck, we get “Welcome”. Be happy to be here, intrepid Irish footballers, luck won’t get you much further. Back to the Gaeltacht with you Mr Infantini.

Go n-eiri… Go n-eiri… Ah feck it (Pic:telegraph.com)

Spain, Italy, Ireland and Croatia in Group C. Not quite the Group of Debt, and perhaps most importantly, not quite the Group of Death either. That dubious honour goes to Group B, where Netherlands, Germany, Portugal and Denmark square off.
So what of Ireland’s chances? Once you’ve picked yourself  off the floor, think rationally for a second. Croatia are first up, on June 10th in Poznan. There is undoubted quality in this Croatian side – 8th in the latest Fifa Rankings – with the Spurs triumvarate of Modric, Kranjcar, and Corluka prominent. Up front Slaven Bilic can take his pick of the former Arsenal striker Eduardo, Bayern Munich’s Ivica Olic and Hamburger’s Mladen Petric. The Boys in Green met Croatia recently in a scoreless friendly in the Aviva, and the Balkan side will hold no terror for Trappatoni’s men. 
Modric. Midfield Maestro (myfootballfacts.com)
The current Spanish team is like a good boxer. They hold all the belts. Reigning World and European champions, they could field their second team and still have a decent chance in next summer’s competition. If, true to form, Trappatoni chooses Andrews and Whelan as his central midfield partnership next year, then they will be up against the superlative Barcelona pair of Iniesta and Xavi. There is no point in saying that this will be anything less than a horrendous mismatch of styles, but neither is there any denying that the Irish pair wil not be found wanting for effort around the middle of the park.At the back, Richard Dunne would want to don the same number 5 jersey he wore in Moscow as he will face the might of David Villa and the enigma that is Fernando Torres. The hope for Ireland is that this game is book-ended by two positive results against the Croats and Italians.
Time For The Rosary Beads (conversationcircles.sg)
In the last 3 meetings between Ireland and Italy, there have been two competitive draws (both in the last World Cup Qualifying Campaign) and a win for an understrength Irish team in a friendly in Italian soil. Italy are largely dependent on veteran Alessandro Pirlo to dictate the way they play, and there is little to fear up front either. Guiseppi Rossi is perhaps the most potent of their strike force, and the Villarreal man is out with a long term injury. He might make it onto the plane to Poland, but whether or not he will be match sharp is another thing entirely. The last time Ireland played Italy in a major championship, Paul McGrath immortalised himself in Irish football folklore, and Ray Houghton scored a goal that gets replayed on YouTube more times than a Lady Gaga video. Eamonn Dunphy thinks that 4 points may be enough for a team to emerge as runners up in Group C, and if Ireland were to manage even a draw with Croatia, then the Italy game has the potential to be winner takes all. 
Rossi…Fit In Time? (nutmegradio.com)
From the point of view of the fans, once the shock of being drawn with Spain has subsided, there are more positives than negatives to be taken from tonights’ draw. For one, Ireland play two games in Poznan, and the Spanish in Gdansk. Of the 8 host cities, these two Polish cities are the closest together. Logistically this is dreamland for the travelling Green Army. If the Celtic Tiger left one lasting legacy apart from a crap economy, it is a strong link with people from Eastern Europe, and Poland in particular. Irish fans have been welcomed almost anywhere they have travelled with the team, and hopefully can rely on incredible hospitality from their Polish hosts next summer.
Poznan Stadium. Picture It Green (mcfc.co.uk)
Finally, no matter what your feelings are on the draw, the main thing is that Ireland were in it. We are half a year from this country’s first appearance in a European Championship for 24 years. Come what may, the fact that Keane, Dunne et al will get a chance to pit their talents against the three incredible teams is worth celebrating.
 Savour the build up, stock up on flags and facepaint, watch as the English media build up their team for another fall. From the 10th to the 18th of June next year, the economy will be off the front pages of our newspapers. Cue empty streets, crowded pubs, and a nation falling in love with football all over again. Cue a quarter final against England which we win on penalties. Heroes will arise, songs will be penned, and replica jerseys donned for days on end. The good times are just around the corner.