I first took up residency – or should I say tenancy, for I serve at the pleasure of the editor – in these pages back in October of 2018. Who knows where the time goes, eh?
Back then, the main focus was the upcoming Ireland rugby international against New Zealand, whom they had never beaten on home soil. While the famous victory in Chicago in 2016 was a special moment, Ireland had lost to the All Blacks at the Aviva Stadium a fortnight later and so there was a sense that it was something of a one-off. Thankfully, that itch was scratched as Jacob Stockdale’s brilliant try inspired a 16-9 win in Dublin.
Unfortunately, Ireland couldn’t maintain such form a year out from the World Cup and the following autumn saw New Zealand brush them aside in the quarter-finals (before themselves being dumped out by England in the semis).
The main takeaway was that excellence couldn’t be something that was fleeting, that consistently performing at a certain level was required. Unfortunately for Andy Farrell as he replaced Joe Schmidt after the World Cup, the infringement of Covid-19 meant that two Six Nations campaigns were affected and mixed results brought the usual hand-wringing.
The most salient fact was that it was early in the World Cup cycle and, inside in the camp, everything was geared towards building for France 2023 rather than seeking immediate but short-term gains.
The victory over Japan showed that the form was good, but even so, there would have been the usual levels of concern about trying to step up and give a similar display against elite opposition. Thankfully, we got that last Saturday and the most satisfying things were the fact that Ireland had nine points – i.e. more than one score – to spare and that they responded to trailing at half-time. In the past, that might not have happened.
Noteworthy, for instance, was James Lowe’s tackle on Rieko Ioane with 10 minutes left. There has never been any doubting Lowe’s attacking talent but some hairy moments in this year’s Six Nations led to his defensive capabilities being questioned – in the usual way that those brought in as ‘project players’ tend to come in for more scrutiny. He showed on Saturday that side to his game has been improved and he’s far from the only one to have stepped up.
Even without captain Jonathan Sexton in the closing stages, there was never a sense that Joey Carbery wasn’t going to deal with the pressure at out-half, sticking the two late penalties to make the game safe.
Unfortunately for Sexton, knee and ankle injuries will keep him out of the Argentina match – giving an opportunity to Jack Carty – but it’s likely to be a loss that affects Leinster more than Ireland as the Heineken Champions Cup kicks into gear.
That setback was one of the few disappointments on an otherwise near-perfect day but it was indicative of the mindset within the squad and management that Sexton’s post-match comments were designed to guard against any resting on laurels.
“It’s not all that new, it’s just that it’s starting to click a little bit,” he said.
“We’re only at the start of our journey and we need to keep improving. We can’t peak now, like we have done previously, and then come up short. We need to keep building and I think that there’s plenty more in this team.”
Of course, there were the usual begrudging cries of, ‘It’s only a friendly!’ from those who hate-watched in the hope of defeat and will be ready to jump on the team if they don’t win the World Cup, but there’s little you can do with such trolls except ignore them. It’s funny how they never dismiss Test cricket matches as friendlies.
For Ireland, as Sexton said, the hard work starts now. After Argentina, the focus will turn to the Six Nations and then, next summer, a three-game series against the All Blacks in New Zealand. Certainly no room to take the foot off the gas.
Club season brings out the best in GAA
Aside from the games themselves, coverage of English football tends to feed off transfer rumours and tittle-tattle – the media over there knows that the average fan can’t resist a little graphic along the lines of ‘Here’s how Liverpool would look with Kylian Mbappé and Neymar in their team!’
Without such an angle, in GAA the fallback option is often an undue obsession with championship structures and the fixtures calendar. Hand in hand with those are the existential crises that all the chopping and changing brings.
When the national leagues switched to a calendar year format just over two decades ago, there were some dissenting voices, fearing that the absence of inter-county coverage in the autumn/early winter would allow competing sports like soccer and rugby a free run – as if (a) the club game didn’t warrant attention and (b) people would somehow forget that the GAA existed.
Those same voices were aghast at the prospect of the split season, which gives clarity to club players – about 98% of the GAA’s playing population – and allows media oxygen to be given to county championships across the country.
By and large, GAA people are just that and they will watch or listen to club action if it’s on the television or radio just as readily as they’ll consume an inter-county game. The back-stories behind clubs ending droughts are no less captivating and there is an unvarnished charm to it all.
In Leitrim, for instance, in October, Ballinamore Seán O’Heslins won a first county title in 31 years and commentary was provided on RTÉ Radio 1’s Sunday Sport, with TG4 broadcasting the action. In previous times, with the county team knocked out, the club season would be finishing up at a time when national attention was on the All-Ireland series. Naas had also been waiting since 1990 and they claimed glory in Kildare, despite being without a manager – senior players Eamonn Callaghan and Eoin Doyle stepping into the breach.
These are the stories of the ‘real’ GAA and, given the space to circulate, they are just as interesting. Certainly, there must a good tale behind why the two Ronan McNabbs for new Tyrone county champions Dromore St Dympna’s arte known as ‘Lizard’ and ‘Magpie’ – but we also don’t want to know the real reason. CL