A very special summer
TEN years ago this week, the country was immersed in the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games. It was the largest sporting event to be held in the world that year, the biggest sporting or cultural event ever to take place in Ireland and the first time the games were staged outside of the USA.
For two weeks in June we witnessed extraordinary determination, bravery and skill from over 7,000 athletes from almost 200 countries around the world. The nationwide Host Town Programme allowed our towns and cities welcome the athletes, coaches and families into our communities. Drogheda was paired with Costa Rica, Dundalk hosted Greece, Ardee had Guyana while Cooley and Carlingford welcomed Thailand.
The opening ceremony in Croke Park was a spectacular occasion and I was lucky enough to be among the 80,000 plus spectators in attendance. At the time I remember feeling a little bit blue and sorry for myself as at the same venue a week previously I was red carded against Dublin in the Leinster Championship in what was my last game for Louth.
However, my mood soon changed as this magnificent event began to unfold on the pitch and in the stands around me. Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali, two great icons of the twentieth century, performed the official opening with countries being introduced individually to the crowd and then taking their seats on the pitch. I've been fortunate to attend many sporting occasions in Ireland and in other parts of the world but I've never experience anything like the special uplifting feeling of that opening ceremony.
A little bit of magic floated around the stadium on that balmy mid summer's evening and the joy and happiness on the participant's faces has stayed with me since.
LOUTH face Antrim on Saturday afternoon at 3pm in the Gaelic Grounds with a place in Round 2 of the Qualifiers up for grabs. Unusually for Louth, we go into the game as overwhelming favourites to advance after Antrim's poor showing in Ulster, although it's only three years since Antrim gave us a footballing lesson under lights in a Division 3 match in Casement Park.
I was up in Belfast that night and we were made look a very poor second, going under by eight points on a scoreline of 2-14 to 2-6.
For various reasons Antrim are without many of those who lined out that night and we have improved considerably since then. The camp was a little upset by Andy McDonnell's decision to go Stateside and Aidan O'Rourke was rightly annoyed, but I fancy us to prevail with a little to spare.
After the debacle with tickets for Wexford last time out, there is likely to be a lot less in attendance for this one. But the strange decision to throw in at three in the afternoon will mean an even smaller crowd.
AS expected Donegal overcame Down in Ulster while London almost pulled off a shock against Leitrim in Connacht. The decision to replay in Hyde Park Roscommon rather than Ruislip seems unfair, but London were aware of this Connacht Council ruling beforehand. The Exiles get home advantage for the first round every year but all other matches are fixed for Connacht venues. A provincial final might still be theirs though.
Kilkenny, with Brian Cody back in the hotseat, almost came a cropper against Dublin in Portlaoise last weekend. The Cats needed an injury time equaliser from TJ Reid to bring them back to the same venue next weekend for a replay. Anthony Daly's side will be kicking themselves that they couldn't hold on for an historic victory.
Kilkenny will be favourites to go through but are we now witnessing the beginning of the end of their period of dominance? Nine titles in thirteen years is a phenomenal record and very difficult to sustain, but you write them off at your peril. However, it was strange listening to the Qualifier draw on Monday morning with Kilkenny possibly drawn to face Tipperary in the next round.
AFTER a fantastic opening win to the Lions Test series Paul O'Connell is now ruled out for the remainder of the tour with a broken arm sustained in Saturday's narrow win. It's a cruel blow for the big Munster second row after only recently returning from a long term back injury. He was back to his very best against the Australians and at 33 it was likely his last game in the Lions jersey.
Cooley's Robert Kearney, who announced himself on the world stage with the Lions four years ago in South Africa, has been hampered by a hamstring tear but recovered sufficiently well to get some game time last week. However, he is probably only challenging for a place on the bench such is the form and accuracy of Wales full back Leigh Halfpenny.
BEST wishes finally to the Louth Ladies side who play away to Wexford in the Leinster Junior Championship on Sunday. I took part in a training session with them last week in preparation for this weekend's game. They're a very committed and dedicated bunch and hopefully they can make it through to the decider against Offaly in two weeks' time.