Saturday 23 September 2017

Fighting Irish play to type in sport's historical drama

Tommy Conlon

A fumble, a knock-on, a bad pass; not releasing, not rolling away, a knock-on; a missed tackle, a lineout malfunction, another knock-on.

And another, and another. We know this movie; we've seen it a thousand times before. The fighting Irish, going down once more in a blaze of glory and a hail of regrets.

That defeat to France last Sunday was still curdling in the stomach when we sat down to watch The Story of Ireland television documentary on Tuesday night.

And by the time Fergal Keane was finished delivering another chapter on the ancient woes of Cathleen ní Houlihan, a morbid realisation was dawning. Maybe it's in our DNA, this propensity for fatal blunders, this dark attraction to the comforts of failure. Maybe there's something deeper going on here than just a poor first touch, or the ball being spilled, or the referee making the wrong call. What if we are doomed forever to make those vital mistakes that separate victory from defeat?

Because by making those mistakes last Sunday, maybe we were merely repeating a pattern that has been going on, not just for a hundred years of Irish sport, but a thousand years of Irish history.

Admittedly, the story of Ireland, on the pitch and off it, generally includes enemies with greater firepower and force of numbers. One would have thought, therefore, that at some point in the long lamentation someone would've stood up -- perhaps in the middle of a mawkish turf-fire ballad -- and declared that it was time to change how things were done around here. That it was time to stop crying into the whiskey, and high time we started getting organised.

And if he wanted a particularly pitiful example to make his case, he could've cited the local response when the Normans arrived circa 1170. "The Normans were superior in that they possessed cavalry and were capable of large-scale, coordinated military operations," a history professor told Keane. So, it wasn't looking good for the Micks anyway. But still, they might have mustered some sort of a plan. Instead: "The contemporary accounts tell us the Irish ran naked into battle against the English. They lacked armour. They were literally throwing stones at these Anglo-Norman knights." This one had 10-0 written all over it. "The invaders," Keane tells us, "hacked and cleaved their way through the Irish."

But if modern sport is war minus the shooting, you keep wondering when the penny is going to drop here. If our playing numbers are so tiny by international rates, then surely the top priority here should be to ensure that every talented youngster is trained in technique and skill to the highest standard. But the population problem is instead compounded by the coaching deficit. The result is a skills gap that is already there at schoolboy grade and that becomes a chasm by the time they reach senior international level.

Richard Sadlier recently revealed in these pages that the English soccer industry is distinctly underwhelmed by the young Irish players currently looking for work in the game there -- they are simply not trained well enough in the basic skills. Last October the GAA got a rude awakening when some of its best footballers were shown up by the skills of their counterparts in Australian rules. And Irish rugby, as was proven again on Sunday, has been cursed by inadequate technical ability for the best part of a hundred years.

To repeat the point: when our numbers are so tiny, isn't it incumbent on sport's guardians to ensure that every young talent is coached thoroughly, by coaches who have been rigorously educated to teach the necessary skills? There is nothing mysterious about the process: it is a matter of money, repetition and dedication.

The irony is that the modern-day manifestation of the fighting Irish, our amateur boxers, are leading the way when it comes to best practice in terms of coaching and training.

It's the template to which every other sport can aspire: producing Irish athletes with the traditional virtues of heart and spirit, allied to systematic coaching in the technical disciplines.

It will probably never happen. Maybe the fatalistic acceptance of mediocrity and failure runs too deep in the Irish psyche.

Some 400 years after the Normans, the native Gael had one last chance to banish the conqueror from the land. In 1601, the Spanish fleet landed in Kinsale. Red Hugh O'Donnell marched his army down from Donegal. Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, marched his army south too. Those soldiers, like the players on Sunday, didn't lack for courage or valour. These were, said Keane, "epic marches through the Irish winter." The English force was heavily outnumbered. But wouldn't you know, our lads knocked the ball on with the line at their mercy.

According to contemporary Spanish accounts, "there was a catalogue of tactical blunders." O'Donnell got lost and failed to make the rendezvous. O'Neill abandoned a hilltop position and moved his men to open ground. The English general took his cavalry to the top of the hill, from where they charged into O'Neill's men and scattered them.

"The Irish should have won the Battle of Kinsale," said an historian, "there's no question of it. But they don't, and the entire course of Irish history is altered as a result."

It's not today or yesterday that we started snatching defeats from the jaws of victory.

thecouch@independent.ie

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