Wednesday 18 October 2017

Opinion is mightier than the sword for today's critics

IF betting exchanges and instant communication had existed at the time of the 1956 Grand National, you can be certain that no sooner had Devon Loch come to grief less than 50 yards from the winning post the cries would have been ringing out around the land. Fix! Bent! Nothing surer than someone, somewhere was after making the killing of a lifetime.

Funny thing: far from inducing lifelong, unbearable embarrassment, Devon Loch's misfortune was the making of his jockey, Dick Francis. Without it a publisher would not have asked Francis to write his memoir and a lucrative career as a thriller writer would never have happened.

Francis was fortunate to have lived in the age he did. Imagine a jockey today, clad in the Royal colours, sweeping to victory in the National only to come a cropper a few metres from the line. Would you not fear for his chances of leaving the racecourse in one piece? Think of the abuse. Roger Loughran at Leopardstown in 2005 multiplied by infinity.

And among the invective dished out to Tony McCoy after falling off Denman at Newbury last weekend, you didn't have to go far to find those willing to suspect subterfuge on the part of the horse's connections. Never mind that, in McCoy, you had a jockey who makes winning less an art form than an obsession or that jumping off a horse would be an insane method of trying to deceive the betting public. THEY simply had to be at it, of course. And, sure, aren't THEY all?

McCoy dusted himself down and proceeded to land the feature race of the day, making a mockery of those who had (once again) written his riding obituary 30 minutes earlier and reminding us that there can be few sports where those who have never practised the art proclaim with such gusto on those who do -- often in the context of a lightened wallet.

This gap -- between the haves and the have nots -- has always been keenly felt in racing. A few years ago, the French rider Jacques Ricou, inflamed by fierce criticism in the British press, told of a dream he had where journalists and jockeys switched places: the Jacques Ricou Changing Places Steeplechase. Oh the fun they would have! McCoy himself once reacted to the opinion of a female racing correspondent with the withering put down: "How many winners has she ridden?"

It's not just racing. It was interesting to learn last week of the ending of the arrangement whereby reporters and fans accompanied the Ireland football team on trips. In the 'old days' a cosy camaraderie prevailed. Reporters mingled freely with players and partook in all activities outside the playing of games. Off the field, they were governed by an immutable law -- what went on tour stayed on tour. Italia 90, perhaps, signalled the end of that world.

Today's world is Ronan O'Gara taking the rather extraordinary step of writing a letter to the Irish Independent to express his displeasure at Kevin Myers who had claimed that Ireland had begun their game against France with a defeatist attitude and that a grievous error had been committed in persisting with the Munster No 10. O'Gara was scathing of Myers' credentials as a rugby writer.

Beyond the rights and wrongs of the exchange, it is the sensitivity evident in O'Gara's tone that is most striking. You wouldn't expect a player whose private life was the subject of unedifying rumours around the time of the 2007 World Cup to be unduly perturbed by criticism of his on-field performance, but what do we truly know? We assume hardened professionals to be inured from our often harsh assessments, sometimes written in a hurry. Evidently, they are not.

And whatever about Myers' rugby knowledge -- he is clearly a keen follower -- his analysis fails on more than one level. It seems obvious that, far from taking the field a beaten side, Ireland's efforts were undermined by what Harold Macmillan would call 'events': Cian Healy's yellow, Jerry Flannery's moment of madness. Who truly could have foreseen those events and their impact?

As for the general view that there is a defeatist culture in Irish life, this does not bear scrutiny when applied to sport. Consider the following: Ken Egan, the late Darren Sutherland, Paddy Barnes, Katie Taylor, Olive Loughnane, David Gillick, Derval O'Rourke, Pádraig Harrington, Rory McIlroy, Eoin Rheinisch, Joe Ward, Grainne Murphy, Ciara Mageean. Ireland punches well above its weight as a sporting nation: a boring cliche, as it happens, but true nonetheless.

And then there is McCoy and Ruby Walsh. Arguably the two best jump jockeys that have ever lived. Well, sometimes anyway. Sometimes, it seems, they are rubbish. In the world they inhabit, you see, cool-headed restraint just isn't sexy. Much better to wade in with both barrels. It provokes and it sells.

JOHN O'BRIEN

Sunday Independent

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