Tuesday 6 December 2016

Where Altitude Bar meets Zara Phillips

HUGH FARRELLY’S A-Z OF 2011

HUGH FARRELLY

Published 02/01/2012 | 05:00

A is for the Altitude Bar in Queenstown which, as well as a wide selection of beers, spirits and shots to get customers in the mood, lays on plenty of entertainment when inhibitions are down.

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Toss a dwarf, motor-board a blonde, start a pile-on in the corner... the only sad thing is that, contrary to reports, the Irish media never made it there to join in the fun.

B is for Best, as in Rory. The hooker, who has generally gone about his business in a low-profile manner, was outstanding at the World Cup. Putting an age on Best is difficult, but the official stats say he has just turned 29 and he now looks like the ideal candidate to lead Ireland into the next tournament.

Held in huge regard by the Ravenhill powers-that-be -- which is unusual, given that he is not a South African.

C is for Connacht, the Charlie Brown of rugby, who keep running up trustingly to kick the ball only to have it snatched away. Aside from the number of matches that have been whipped away in the dying minutes, everything has gone against Eric Elwood's men, whose heads must be well and truly wrecked by this stage.

Their four best players announced they were leaving to play Heineken Cup, only for Connacht to gain entry for the first time. They now warm the Heineken Cup benches with other provinces or, in some cases, have to make do with the British & Irish Cup alternative.

After tremendous work to transform the Sportsground into a half-decent stadium (from its previous incarnation as the perfect venue for the final battle between good and evil), Connacht jammed more than 9,000 supporters into the ground for the visit of Toulouse.

And, when they really needed one of those howly, rainy Sportsground nights to serve as a leveller, the gods conspired to produce a clear, crisp and still evening while the French ran riot. Connacht... if it wasn't for bad luck they'd have no luck at all.

D is for Dunedin, where Ireland were stationed for their excellent World Cup win over Italy. It's a strange Scottish-like, student city and one that... well... it never felt quite right. It is hard to put your finger on it but something was definitely off -- a sort of 'Wicker Man' feel, as though some great mystery or dark secret was being concealed from strangers. For a start, where were all the people between the ages of 25 and 60? Are they whisked away, 'Logan's Run' style, once they hit a certain age?

Everyone you saw was either a whooping, mooning, scarf-wearing student or a shuffling, trolley-pushing ancient -- complete with piercing glares and maniacal laughter.

Put it this way, if Dunedin was a TV mini-series, you'd want David Lynch directing.

E is for England. Between the drinking, diving, tossing, ball-swapping, maid-molesting and leaking, England's World Cup plot read like a 1960s sex farce. It definitely wasn't Carry On Johnno as Martin Johnson and his coaching team (bar Graham Rowntree) became the fall-guys in the 'off with their heads' aftermath.

It is hard not to feel sorry for Johnson, who was hampered by inexperience and naivety in his first managerial role. The campaign has been put down as a 'disaster' but, for all the scandal, this England side went into the tournament as Six Nations champions, having destroyed Ireland in an August warm-up international, and were only narrowly beaten by France for a place in the semi-finals.

They exited at the same stage as Ireland, who were far more comprehensively beaten in their quarter-final, and yet lauded on their return. Riddle me that.

F is for Feeding the scrum and Forward passes. The art of striking is no more (not great for the old channel one ball) as scrum-halves fire the ball straight back into the second-row, while referees turn a blind eye in the interest of continuity and the scrum farce increases calls for a switch to a rugby league-style restart mechanism.

Likewise, the amount of tries that are let go, despite profiting directly from forward-passing, is increasing by the season.

Referees want to be associated with attractive, flowing tries as much as players so, unless a pass is Joe Montana-forward, you've a good chance of getting away with the marginal ones. Backward feeding and forward passing -- rugby's dirty little indulgences.

G is for Ginger beer, the best thing about New Zealand. The Kiwis are nuts for Enid Blyton's favourite brew. Available in alcoholic or non-alcoholics forms, this is fizzy freshness in a glass with a spicy kick to keep your toes tingling.

Trying to get it in Ireland is a different matter -- barmen look at you 'quare' when you ask for it, then begrudgingly dig out two Fisher Price bottles of Schweppes ginger ale mixers, fill a pint glass a third of the way up and charge you €9.

"Golly, Julian, that's a bit steep."

"It certainly is, Dick. Now, where's Timmy? And why is George arm-wrestling that woman with the crew cut and the beard?"

H is for the Haka -- the worst thing about New Zealand. Everywhere you go, you are assailed by this tongue-twirling, prancing bit of preening, self-indulgent pap.

Everywhere. And, if you dare to speak out against its preciousness and proliferation (as quite a few did during the World Cup), the locals act as if you have called Jesus a fraud or egg-bombed your mother.

I is for Ireland. Chronic during the warm-ups, clinical in the pool stages, collapsible in the quarters. Of all the major rugby nations, the Irish are the most fascinating psychologically -- primarily for their capacity to pull out massive performances when written off and for failing to play up to their ability when victory is expected.

The thumping of England in the Six Nations made you wonder where that display was earlier in the tournament, while the dismantling of the Wallabies made a mockery of their form in the run-in -- almost as though they had been deliberately lowering expectations.

Then, against a Welsh team full of players whom the provinces beat for fun in their league and cup competitions, the Irish flopped in Wellington when history beckoned.

Some players reckoned they had begun to believe their own hype, others put it down to a fantastic Welsh performance, but all were left with a sense of deep regret and frustration.

And for those of us who had always fancied slinking into a quarter-final against the over-arrogant but limited South Africans, when Ireland would have been in the backs-to-the-wall role that suits them best, there was just a massive sense of 'what if?'

J is for John Hayes, the Cappamore second-row who was too heavy to use in the line-out when lifting came in, so he was moved to prop and 'The Bull' was born. The tributes have been flooding in for a man who will always be remembered as one of the great servants of the Irish game.

K is for Kiwi love. Whatever issues one may have had with New Zealanders' triumphalism when it came to their own rugby team, no Irish person could quibble with the warmth of the welcome they received at the World Cup. Following the win over Australia in Auckland, Irish fans were getting randomly hugged and high-fived in the streets while thousands of Kiwis got all Leprechauned-up as Ireland became one of the best-supported sides in the tournament. True, once Wales did a number on Declan Kidney's side in the quarter-final, there was a morning-after, walk-of-shame feel to it all as New Zealanders looked the other way, embarrassed by earlier amorosity, but it was nice while it lasted.

L is for Liverpool FC and their role in Jonathan Sexton's "caaaalm down, caaaalm down" Heineken Cup final half-time team talk. Sexton referenced the Reds' comeback from 3-0 down in the 2005 Champions League final in a passionate dressing-room speech and it did the trick as Leinster overhauled Northampton's 16-point lead to fashion a glorious victory, with Sexton switching smoothly to Melchester metaphor as he did his Roy of the Rovers bit.

M is for Munster. The bandwagon appeared to be stalling as an era of 'liginds' drew to a close and the province failed to reach the Heineken Cup quarter-finals for the first time in years.

However, through a combination of a back-to-basics forward approach under Anthony Foley, the youthful integration policy of Tony McGahan and sheer bloody-mindedness, Munster finished the year that began with torment in Toulon in fine fettle.

People are saying they do not have a team that can win a Heineken Cup final but they will just focus on winning the next match in front of them -- and no one will fancy drawing Munster in the quarter-finals.

N is for NIE (Non-Irish Eligible) players, soon to become an endangered, or carefully indulged, species in Irish rugby thanks to the new IRFU restrictions.

The system will create its share of headaches, but the motivation is correct: with only 60 starting places available in the four provinces on any given weekend, it makes sense to focus primarily on players who can aid the national cause.

There have been mutterings about weakening the provinces, while some have applied a xenophobic, Alf Garnett-esque ("coming over here, taking our jobs?") sheen to the IRFU but, all in all, providing more game-time for Irish players is good for the national side and, for all the success of the provinces over the years, Ireland comes first.

O Oh me, Oh my, O'Gara. Playing better than ever, two years after it was suggested he would ease out of the picture, his post-Australia retirement speech raised eyebrows on the "enough about Ireland, let's talk about me" timing basis, but it was heat-of-the-moment stuff and O'Gara has since demonstrated his desire, in deed and word, to keep going.

You would not rule out the 2013 Lions tour.

P is for Passports of convenience. Nationality has become a grey area in professional rugby as players declare for whichever country will serve their career the best.

Ireland, who indulged the Plastic Paddy phenomenon extensively in the late 1990s, are not the worst offenders, but the World Cup was riddled with it.

The clue is often in the name -- Tuilagi and Hape are not monikers associated with the Cotswolds or Lake District in England, nor do McLean and Van Zyl stem from some charming Italian village in the Mezzagiorno.

But the worst offender was New Zealander Thomas 'The Tank Engine' Waldrom, who discovered he had an English grandmother and got a free holiday back home when he was called up by Johnson.

Players like Luke Narraway and Jordan Crane have spent their lives working and dreaming of representing their country only to have some opportunist, about as English as Gandhi's glasses, get a golden ticket because of his granny's forgotten birth cert.

Q is for the Questions facing Kidney heading into 2012. Despite the continuing, over-riding imperative to ensure victories in the Six Nations, a conservative squad selection will do no nothing to ease the World Cup regret. There are opportunities to make a bold statement for the future in the back-row, the third-choice half-back slots and in midfield while maintaining sufficient experience elsewhere, and they should be taken. After the disastrous 1999 World Cup, Ireland got bold in the following Six Nations when five new caps were awarded against Scotland and it was a decision that changed the face of Irish rugby.

R is for the Rabo... Pro... Direct... or whatever the Celtic League is now called. People actually study marketing in university, which is remarkable when you consider some of the spoofery that goes on. One can only imagine the meeting that preceded choosing the most unwieldy title in rugby.

"Okay people, we need to brainstorm, let's run it up the flagpole, throw it out there on the stoop and, remember people, we are looking for blue-sky thinking here..."

"How about the Rabo League?"

"No, too simple, too catchy, we want something outside the box, make people think about us and what we represent and mention the number of teams in the league."

"Hang on... I have it, The... Rabo... Direct ... hang on... the RaboDirectPro12?"

"That's it. Perfect. The full company name is in there, the number of teams, and Pro12 makes it sound hip and sexy. Good job. Okay, let's do lunch... Roly's?"

S is for South Saracens. The coach is Irish (Mark McCall), but the rest of 'em seem to hail from the high veldt. They even tried to play a Heineken Cup match in the Motherland until the preposterousness of the proposition finally sunk in.

S is also for Stefan Terblanche, the veteran Springbok who was getting ready to retire to a life of tending his allotment, the odd round of golf and watching videos of South Africa versus Ireland in 1998.

Then the phone rang. "Hey Stefan, you want to earn some easy money? Come to Ulster ... Ja man, I know you're nearly 40, but they will go for it, for sure. How do I know? You are South African."

T is for Tipperary. A county most readily associated with hurling, two different types of number plate and people who say "well?" instead of "hello". But rugby has really taken hold in the Premier County.

Rory Moroney was the forerunner in the 1980s, but since then Alan Quinlan, Denis Leamy, Trevor Hogan and Donnacha Ryan have all come through to force their way onto the national side.

And now there is Cashel RFC, who have been tearing it up in the All-Ireland League. Rugby players used to be (to borrow a Tipp phrase) as rare as rocking-horse sh**e -- not any more.

U is for Ugly refereeing. France were hard done by in the World Cup final and would have beaten New Zealand had they got a fair crack of the whip at the breakdown.

V is for Validation. Ever since the All Blacks stumbled over the line against France in the World Cup final, New Zealanders have been talking about getting the "monkey off their back" and how they can now relax and enjoy their rugby without the pressure.

This fails to recognise that everything that could possibly have been stacked in their favour was, led by the home advantage they secured through their 2005 horse-trading to get in ahead of Japan.

W is for Warburton's red card and Welsh wailing. The bleating about Alain Rolland "ruining the semi-final" after the Irishman sent off the Wales captain against France was pathetic, while the prejudice of the ITV panel (who had a devastated Martyn Williams in their midst) was disgraceful.

Rolland took a decision based on the letter of the law and in the interests of the game and Warburton, to be fair, said as much and admitted it was a terrible, dangerous tackle. Wales would still have made it to the final if someone had sacked up and gone for a drop-goal.

X is for having the rugby X-factor (it was either that or Xavier Rush) and there are a few young players coming through like Ian Madigan, Peter O'Mahony and Paul Marshall, who have it abundance, and one established player -- Luke Fitzgerald -- who rediscovered it again after a difficult year.

Y is for Young Munster. There was a time when you would enter Tom Clifford Park clutching rosary beads if you were playing and a good book if you were spectating. The game plan back then was kick ahead, any head, and they were very good at it -- intimidating opponents up front and only giving the ball back so their half-backs could welly it down the field.

No longer.

The 'Cookies' are playing some superb rugby these days under Mike Prendergast, not losing sight of the importance of imposing forward play but showing a willingness to ability to hurt teams out wide -- orcs and elves combining in a 'shred it and spread it' policy that could bring them their first AIL title since the storming of Lansdowne Road back in 1993.

Z is for Zara Phillips. She's in the British royal family, the press are obsessed with her and you just got married to her -- get your head out of that blonde's chest...

Irish Independent

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