Last week, Real Madrid played Napoli in the Champions League.
The Spanish side won 4-2 to guarantee the top spot in their group with a game to spare. They had already been assured of qualification for the knockout stages before the match and, even with defeat, it’s almost certain that their Neapolitan opponents will also be in action after Christmas.
It’s somewhat fitting that the sides played a game that is unlikely to be of huge impotance in the bigger picture, given the historical significance that the clubs’ first European meeting had.
In 1987, they were the champions of their respective countries and were drawn together in the first round of what was still known as the European Cup, a two-legged knockout competition.
Watching the first leg in Madrid was AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi, horrified that the random nature of the draw would result in a big gun being eliminated at the first hurdle.
He began moves that would lead to the formation of the Champions League in 1992 and, ever since then, things have become more weighted towards the richer, more powerful clubs.
Consider then, in the current campaign, Manchester United have lost three of their five group matches and yet could still qualify for the last 16 if they were to win their game next week.
This piece isn’t about football, though – or, rather, it’s about the rugby rather than the association variety. The European Rugby Champions Cup for 2023-24 starts this weekend, and we have yet another new format to contend with.
This time around, there are four pools of six teams – two each from the URC, two from the English Premiership and two from the French Top 14. Teams will play four matches, one each against the teams with whom they do not share a league. That will bring us to mid-January, at which stage 24 clubs will become 16 as the top four in each pool advance to the knockout stages.
There is even a consolation prize for the fifth-placed sides as they have the safety net of dropping into the second-tier Challenge Cup.
The four Irish sides are coming in in relatively good shape, even allowing for Ulster’s home defeat to Edinburgh last weekend.
Leinster got the better of Connacht with a late try, and they will be gunning for an opening win on Sunday as they are away to the side that beat them in the last two finals, La Rochelle. However, Ronan O’Gara’s side have started slowly in the league this year and may find themselves under pressure.
Connacht must regroup quickly for a Friday night clash at home to Bordeaux Bègles, while Ulster travel to face Bath on Saturday. Munster, after a good win against Glasgow last week, will be favourites at home to Bayonne.
It’s likely that victories in your two home games will be sufficient to finish high enough to advance.
A higher finish will secure a home game in the last 16 and theoretically a less-difficult draw but, even so, these group matches are not going to be fraught with jeopardy.
It’s a far cry from when the 24 teams were arranged in six pools of four, with only the group winners and the two best runners-up getting to advance to the quarter-finals.
Perhaps there’s an element of rose-tinted glasses as that was the period when Munster were in their pomp, but it made for more intense clashes where every game and every score mattered.
There are benefits to keeping more sides involved for longer – advertising and attendances being the primary ones – but the quality of the product cannot be forgotten, and organisers must always be wary of the need to keep the competition sharp.
If everybody is great, nobody is great.
There’s little to say about the dual players involved with Cork camogie side Sarsfields and ladies’ football team Glanmire having to play on consecutive days last weekend in All-Ireland club semi-finals. Except that the coverage has almost got to the point that these instances have become so common that they don’t shock and surprise anyone anymore.
Instead, we’ll focus on a good news story – Waterford’s Ballymacarbry travelling to Armagh and beating Clann Éireann in their All-Ireland Ladies’ Club SFC semi-final.
Just to warn, this is not a misprint: Ballymacarbry have won the last 42 Waterford senior championships in a row and they are top of the All-Ireland roll of honour with ten victories.
However, it wasn’t until last year that they ended a 22-year wait for a provincial title, and this victory has earned them a first All-Ireland final spot since 1998.
In the decider in Croke Park on Saturday week, they will face Kilkerrin-Clonberne of Galway, who are seeking to win a third straight All-Ireland. The year is winding down, but the challenges are ratcheting up.
Anybody reading this who has written a book will surely sympathise with the feeling that there will be moments during the process where you doubt your ability to get it finished anywhere near the deadline.Then, when it is finished, there is then an existential doubt surrounding (a) the fear that nobody will be read it or (b) the fear that they will read it and think it’s rubbish. Ultimately, like the parent with their child on the first day of junior infants, you have to send your creation out into the world and hope it survives.
Game of my life
That is the stage that I am at with Cork Football: Game of My Life, recently published by Hero Books. It’s an oral history of Cork football, told through the words of 25 of the county’s top players from the mid-1960s to the present day.
The launch is Friday 8 December in Bandon Books Plus – thankfully, the Kerry owner Gerry Fitzgerald was willing to put tribal rivalries aside, with Michael Foley of The Sunday Times doing the honours.
To celebrate, Irish Country Living have a copy of the book to give away. To enter, scan the QR code and answer:
When Cork won the All-Ireland senior football final against Meath in 1990, who captained the team?
A. Larry Tompkins B. Danny Culloty C. Mick McCarthy.