Sunday 25 March 2018

Wake me up when September ends... It's set to be a month for infallible armchair pundits as sports frenzy grips the nation

Dublin fans
Dublin fans

Graham Clifford

In Homes and hostelries across Ireland, the soft furnishings and high stools are being prepared for a month of sport that could lead the nation into something of a frenzy.

TV dens are being restored, cases of beer ordered and calendars circled on certain dates which 'must' be kept free. Doctors will be urging their patients with dodgy tickers not to get overexcited and burger vans will start pulling up outside pubs.

'Super September' will see the All-Ireland GAA finals in Croke Park, vital Euro 2016 qualifiers and of course the big one - the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

Our sports-mad nation will be spoilt for choice…. though spare a thought for those who have no interest in the trajectory of a slíotar or the backward motion of a rugby pass, those for whom 'Hawk-eye' means something very different.

They must endure September (and possibly October) as the rest of us turn into infallible armchair sports pundits.

And while the Irish Rugby World Cup games will take place on weekends, the temptation to watch every other mid-week contest might be just too much for some - leading to a spike in sick days being taken.

Should Joe Schmidt's Ireland take care of business against Canada on Sunday, September 19, Romania a week later and Italy on October 4, they would set up a massive contest against the French in Cardiff on October 11.

Victory there would see Ireland top Pool D and pave the way for a quarter-final with the Argentinians, who are expected to finish second in their pool behind the All-Blacks.

Win that tie and we're into the last four, facing possibly Australia or England in a semi-final. Not just a nation, but an entire island will be holding its collective breath.

Currently ranked second in the world, Ireland, fourth favourites to lift the Web Ellis trophy at 8/1, have been fortunate in the draw and if they deliver on the field we could be in for some sensational nights in early autumn.

Remember the euphoria of Italia 90 and USA 94?… and that was with a half-decent Irish soccer side which over-achieved. In our rugby flagbearers we have a side that can genuinely contest for… (I'm whispering this)... the World Cup itself.

And former Ireland hooker Shane Byrne, capped 41 times for his country, believes we have every reason to be confident going into the competition.

He told the Irish Independent: "In Ireland we start to worry when we're not the underdog, it doesn't sit well with us when we're expected to win, but when you look at this side, with probably the best manager in world rugby, taking place in our backyard, then why shouldn't we expect to do really well?"

Byrne continued: "And a lot is being made of winning the pool game against France. But if we don't and finish second we'd face New Zealand in the quarter-final, now if you have to meet the All-Blacks, that's the time to meet them as they will have sauntered through their group without any serious challenge. On our day we can beat anybody in the world, so I think Joe and the boys will be fearless."

Closer to home, all eyes turn to Croke Park tomorrow for the meeting of the perennial under-achievers Mayo, and Leinster kingpins Dublin, in the All-Ireland football semi-final. A capacity crowd will roar their hearts out as their counties aim to book a final place with Kerry on Sunday, September 20.

Can this finally be Mayo's year, 64 years on from their last All-Ireland win in 1951? Were they finally able to bring Sam west of the Shannon, the entire county of Mayo would shut down for at least a month. Aidan O'Shea could expect to have a tab running in every public house in the county for the rest of his life.

Kerry legend Tomás O'Sé is leaning towards a Kerry v Dublin final though and he believes this football season will end on a high.

"Everyone has been talking about blanket defences and systems this year and there have been so many lopsided games that we need a big finish and no matter what happens tomorrow we'll get it," said the five-time All-Ireland winner.

He added: "The three counties left in the championship have an ethos of playing attacking football, so whether it's Mayo or Dublin who progress, this year's final could be one of the best for some time.

"You know I can't wait for that third Sunday in September, it never gets stale, it's special and while I love my rugby and other sports, nothing beats the GAA on big days like these."

Next weekend, the Tribesmen will aim to cause something of a shock in the All-Ireland hurling final against the aristocrats of Kilkenny. Galway's last title came back in 1988 and many pundits feel they have a real chance of getting their hands on the Liam McCarthy Cup this year. Could the West be on for an unlikely double?

And fear not soccer die-hards. Between the Premiership, Champions League and Europa league, there's plenty to look forward to for you. Hell, you might even take in the real thing and pop along to an sse Airtrictity League game as the finale of an exciting Premier division season reaches its climax.

Then all eyes will turn to the contest with those aficionados of football, Gibraltar! Martin O'Neill's Ireland will face the minnows next Friday in a game where the boys in green are expected to top up their points difference, goal difference and sun tans.

This Euro 2016 qualifying campaign has had more bumps along the way than a press conference with Roy Keane and victory against Gibraltar and then Georgia at the Aviva on the following Sunday (September 7) will be a must before the Germans come a calling on October 8.

Despite the hugely disappointing 1-1 draw with Scotland at home in June, a defiant Martin O'Neill believes we can still reach the Euros, he said: "We are still in this competition. Scotland have some difficult games coming up, so there is plenty to play for.

This result (1-1) makes it more difficult for us as it maintains the status quo in the group - but we are still in contention."

Only the most optimistic Irish fan could believe him.

But, by God, if we get a sniff of qualification, the country will gladly go bananas again.

A sports-mad nation, never a truer word!

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News