Despite the fact that they tend to spend most of their time complaining, sports fans are eternal optimists – they wouldn’t stay interested if they didn’t believe that success lay around the next corner, or perhaps the next one after that.
After two defeats in the opening two Six Nations Championship games – the first time we’ve made such a poor start since the tournament was extended from five teams to six in 2000 – there are some Ireland rugby aficionados who feel that the only way forward is to rip things up and start again.
The best way for a player’s reputation to be enhanced is often through not playing. During the latter years of his tenure as a soccer analyst for RTÉ, Eamon Dunphy turned Andy Reid and Wes Hoolahan into Pelé and Diego Maradona and now it seems that a similar mystique surrounds rugby starlets Harry Byrne and Ryan Baird of Leinster and Munster’s Craig Casey, who if some are to be believed are the cure for all of Ireland’s ills.
The trio are only 21 and short on big-game experience, but the thing about unknown quantities is that they can be as good or as bad as people want them to be. With question-marks over the fitness of Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton at out-half and neither Billy Burns nor Ross Byrne making a watertight case to be the heir apparent, Byrne’s younger brother Harry has become the cause célèbre, through no fault of his own.
The easiest way to ascertain the pecking order is to look at Leinster, where Leo Cullen and his coaching staff see their players day in and day out. Sexton didn’t feature in either of the province’s two Heineken Champions Cup games before Christmas, with Ross Byrne selected at number 10 for the wins away to Montpellier and at home to Northampton Saints.
Harry Byrne was a replacement for his brother, coming on for the final 20 minutes or so. Leinster were 20-9 ahead at that stage and won on a 35-14 scoreline, with the younger Byrne kicking a penalty and a conversion and missing a further conversion attempt.
Has so much changed in the space of less than three months that he would go from third-choice out-half at Leinster to Ireland’s number 10? While games against Italy are always marked down as probable wins, they are still not going to be a walk in the park for a callow player with little in the test match memory-bank to call upon.
Proponents of Byrne have pointed to Sexton’s emergence, but he was 24 and had a Heineken Cup medal when he made his Ireland debut in 2009, while Ronan O’Gara was almost 23 when he was given his first start in 2000 – a season in which he helped Munster to their first European final.
It’s somewhat unfair on such a young player to be thrown into the spotlight, but that’s the modern nature of sport – you’re either brilliant or rubbish. You can be sure that, if Byrne had been chosen for Italy and failed to perform, those championing him would be just as quick to write him off.
In that regard, it was a sensible decision by Andy Farrell to leave Harry Byrne out of the 36-man squad for the Italy game. He may well become a star for Leinster and Ireland, but the best way to do that is to make a name for himself playing for the province first.
For Farrell – who has included Casey, Baird and Ulster’s Tom O’Toole as uncapped players – the mission in Rome on Saturday is simple: get a win, any win. After two defeats, confidence has taken a knock and the only way to turn things around is to get points on the board. From there, we will hopefully see some progress.
By and large, I’m a law-abiding citizen.
I have in my time picked up a few penalty points and there were occasions, few and far between, when I failed to vacate a licensed premises before closing time. In the main, though, I’m happy to stick to the rules – I have an absolute certainty that I will be caught if I don’t.
In this current lockdown – the third, for those keeping count – the threat of contracting Covid-19 is of course a major deterrent to any notions of venturing more than 5km from home for anything other than getting the messages.
We’re lucky to have amenities such as walkways, trails and a playground within that limit and it is good to see plenty of others out getting their exercise. There isn’t any policing of the situation per se, but everybody knows to act with common sense.
One just wishes that common sense was in more supply when big decisions were being made. Of all sports, golf is the one that comes with in-built social distancing – especially if your threeball has one player who can hit straight, another who slices and a third who hooks. There’s no need to be within 2m of each other and it’s exercise in the open air. Even last year, when restrictions were lifted, clubs employed further measures to limit any virus spread, such as installing apparatus on flags to allow them to be lifted with a putter, avoiding the need to touch them.
While there is some logic to not allowing contact and team sports right now outside of elite level, the ban on golf and other individual pursuits seems to be falling under a ‘one size fits all’ approach or, worse, a need to be seen to avoid any accusations of favouritism when, really, it would be perfectly rational to make such an exception.
Like the supporters mentioned in the main column, golfers always think that glory isn’t too far away. After 16 holes of hacking it around, the straight drive out the fairway on the 17th is like an injection of adrenaline – “Yes, this is the real me as a golfer!” you think, and it’s the shot that keeps you coming back the next week.