Sunday 20 October 2019

Irish rugby on top of the world after year of triumph

But soccer couldn't keep pace in epic 12 months of sport, culture and entertainment, writes Nicola Anderson

Stockdale scores at the Aviva. Picture: Sportsfile
Stockdale scores at the Aviva. Picture: Sportsfile
Damage at the Ploughing Championship. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Mullinalaghta players David McGivney and Simon Cadam. Photo: Sportsfile
Megan O’Malley and Evelyn O’Keeffe for Votáil 100. Picture: Tony Gavin
Pope Francis. Picture: Gerry Mooney
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

The agony and the ecstasy - it's a tame way of putting it when it comes to describing what sports fans went through in 2018.

Plenty happened in the world of sport, culture and entertainment. From the highs of rugby with Ireland's epic win over the All Blacks to the ongoing malaise in Irish soccer circles, it was a roller-coaster of a year from start to finish.

Eddie O'Sullivan described the win in November as the day Irish rugby "came of age".

"We've flirted with the top five, top three before but now we are arguably the best team in the world," he said.

This never-to-be-forgotten year saw the Irish rugby team start off as they intended to finish - on a high, clinching their third-ever Grand Slam with a clean-sweep in the 2018 Six Nations Championship.

Victory over England at Twickenham on St Patrick's Day was the cherry on the cake - not to mention the added sweetener of becoming the first team to beat England in 19 matches.

New faces like Jacob Stockdale and James Ryan blended seamlessly with experienced campaigners such as Conor Murray and Rob Kearney.

Kicking off the series, Ireland snatched victory from France in the opening game - with the help of Johnny Sexton's superb drop goal at the very end. "It was one of those moments - I'm just happy I got another chance as we have worked so hard over the last few weeks and all our goals would have crumbled today if we had lost," Sexton said.

There was categorically no crumbling of goals from that point forth, as Ireland went on to beat Italy, Wales and Scotland before the tense showdown against England.

Ireland swept England aside in the first half, with newcomer Stockdale breaking new records in the process - as he became the first player to score seven tries in a single Six Nations campaign.

Come November, all our stars aligned to see the ultimate dream come true against New Zealand. The first half was a struggle but after Stockdale managed a miracle try early in the second half, everything started to come together and Ireland well deserved their 16-9 win.

The Irish women's hockey team received a heroes' welcome when they returned home after their unprecedented silver-medal finish at the Hockey World Cup in London in early August.

Graham Shaw's side lost to favourites the Netherlands in the final, but still managed to achieve their highest-ever finish at an international tournament. The nation held its breath during the semi-final in which they beat Spain after a penalty shoot-out that went to sudden death.

Events in Croke Park were every bit as epic - but only in hurling. Dublin saw off Tyrone in a strange, lopsided football final that had been well foretold and in 2019 will be chomping at the bit for the prize of five-in-a-row - a feat never even managed by Kerry.

The greatest team of the modern era were streets ahead of every other side in the championship - which didn't detract from their achievement but certainly took the excitement out of it all. The final scoreline was 2-17 to 1-14, with Dublin romping to predictable victory.

It was hurling that delivered a satisfying, nail-biting finish as reigning champions Galway - the Tribesmen - faced Limerick - the Treatymen - who had not seen sight of the Liam MacCarthy cup in 45 years.

In a novelty August All-Ireland hurling final, Limerick were straight out of the traps and Galway barely showed up, leading to a lacklustre game right up until the eight minutes of added time. And then, all of a sudden, the Tribesmen finally woke up and shook themselves.

They almost managed to claw a victory - but Limerick brought Liam home to the banks of the Shannon, with a final scoreline of 3-16 to 2-18.

The ladies' football final saw Dublin play Cork for the fourth time in five years - and it smashed all records for attendance, with more than 50,000 filling the stands of Croke Park.

It was a historic day for Dublin as they completed back-to-back All-Irelands for the first time in their history and defeated their old foes Cork in a championship game after losing out to the Rebels in previous All-Ireland finals.

There was consolation for Cork when it came to the camogie final, as they saw off Kilkenny in a tense one-point victory, claiming their fourth victory in the past five years, the final scoreline 0-14 to 0-13 points.

But that wasn't the end of the year's celebrations when it came to Gaelic games.

There is something special about an underdog's win - and Longford's Mullinalaghta had just that when they saw off giant Dublin club Kilmacud Crokes, whose membership is 10 times Mullinalaghta's entire population.

The giant-slayers even ended up on the 'Late Late Show' after their epic feat.

In soccer, it was an altogether gloomier affair, after disastrous games and claims of disharmony in the ranks.

In September, it was claimed that Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane had heated confrontations with both Jon Walters and Harry Arter before Ireland's friendly against France back in May, after voice messages were made public. Keane was defended by manager Martin O'Neill.

The boys in green finished bottom of their group in the first Uefa Nations League, and were relegated to the Uefa Nations League C. Finally, on November 21, the O'Neill-Keane partnership came to an end, with few tears over their departure. It ushered in the return of Mick McCarthy as Ireland manager. Just don't mention Saipan.

With so much sport going on, it was a wonder that we had time for anything else in 2018.

In March, Pope Francis announced that he would be visiting Ireland in August, in a move that sparked joy amongst the faithful and consternation amongst those who wondered if the iconic 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II could ever be replicated in a modern era, with heightened awareness of clerical abuse.

The answer was that it could not.

The World Meeting of Families event at Croke Park was warm and hopeful and fully subscribed.

However, the key event - the mass at the Phoenix Park - was vastly underwhelming in terms of attendance. Only in September did the OPW finally release the dismal official figures, which showed that of the 500,000 expected to turn out, fewer than 152,000 showed up.

The fulcrum of this Mass was a papal confession. "We ask forgiveness for the times that as a Church we did not show survivors of whatever kind of abuse compassion and the seeking of justice and truth through concrete actions," the Pope said, adding: "We ask for forgiveness."

Cervical cancer victim Emma Mhic Mhathúna brought up one of the offertory gifts, accompanied by her children Natasha, Seamus, Mario, Oisín and Donnacha. Two months later, Emma would pass away.

In September, there was consternation when Storm Ali saw the disruption of one of the key cultural events of the year. Day two of the Ploughing Championships saw punters drive considerable distances, only to be turned away at the gate. Many stands had been completely devastated by the high winds.

This year also saw celebrations to mark Vótáil 100 - a centenary since women got the vote. Though there were more women now in both houses of the Oireachtas, 35 in the Dáil and 19 in the Seanad, they were still under-represented, said Vótáil 100 chair Senator Ivana Bacik. They represented 22pc of all TDs and 32pc of all senators.

A portrait of Constance Markievicz, which used to hang in Áras an Uachtaráin, was presented to the House of Commons to mark the event. Speaking at the 'Politics Needs Women' conference in December, Minister Charlie Flanagan said every effort must be made to encourage more women to contest elections.

In literature, Belfast-born writer Anna Burns won the Man Booker Prize for her novel 'Milkman', becoming the first Irish writer to win the prestigious gong since Anne Enright for 'The Gathering' in 2007.

The International Dublin Literary Award earlier in the year went to Mayo's Mike McCormack for his courageous novel, 'Solar Bones'.

Irish Independent

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