Wednesday 12 December 2018

After years of enthusiastic disapproval, I've started to see the good in international rules

Hold The Back Page

Joe Kernan. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Kernan. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

At this time of the year I usually launch an attack on the international rules series, mocking its ugliness, self-importance and downright pointlessness. Not this year. It took just four words to change my mind.

The words? Ireland captain Aidan O'Shea. They made me think about the year the Breaffy man has put in. Criticised in the most unfair terms, shifted from pillar to post on the Mayo team but producing a series of Herculean displays and at the end of it suffering the worst disappointment yet of a career which has abounded in such moments. No man better deserves a bit of consolation and it must mean a huge amount to Aidan O'Shea to captain his country.

Thinking of what the series might mean to O'Shea made me think of what it might mean to other people. To, for starters, the other players who'd otherwise never get a chance to represent their country or to play alongside guys they've been competing against for years. After a long, hard season, this trip is a bonus for players who deserve one.

The series will also mean a lot to the big Irish emigrant population in Australia who'll flock to the games and feel a bit closer to home while doing so. An international rules series in Australia always seems to mean much more than one in Ireland. It's nice to see Joe Kernan back at the controls too.

So why be sniffy about something which brings happiness to so many people? Especially when my problem with the series has more to do with some of the nonsense surrounding it than what actually happens on the pitch. You know the kind of nonsense I mean, us mocking the Aussies if we beat them by a lot and whinging that they're too rough if they beat us by a lot. Hubris about what a good result means about Gaelic footballers vis a vis professional sportsmen. Mad suggestions that what Gaelic football really needs is an Aussie rules type tackle. That kind of stuff would give you a pain in the Wollongong.

But on the pitch there have been moments which have stuck with me. I still vividly remember a morning in a packed pub in Rathmines, which I seem to recall traded as a 'disco bar' at night, to see the deciding third Test of 1986. The Aussies never seemed quite so villainous as they did that day, inflicting cruel punishment on Jack O'Shea who rose above it as only Jacko could. But it was three hardy young Corkmen, Niall Cahalane, Teddy McCarthy and John O'Driscoll, who epitomised Ireland's spirit that day and gave warning of the Rebel revival which would yield All-Ireland titles before too long.

There was a flowing performance by an Irish team under Brian McEniff, maybe the best in the history of the series, in the second Test in 2001 which seemed to me to show that Gaelic football is an infinitely more skilful, subtle and adaptable game than its Antipodean cousin. There was the fantastic duel between Graham Canty and Barry Hall in the 2003 second Test, one of the best individual battles I've seen in any variety of football. Canty had a fine career for Cork but he never looked as good as he did when playing international rules. He'd found the ideal game for himself, the only problem was he hardly ever got to play it.

There's been great stuff too from players like Mattie Forde, Ciaran McManus and Benny Coulter, making the most of rare forays in the limelight. The violent stuff gets highlighted to a tedious degree but it's the skilful play which actually constitutes the best argument for the continuation of the series.

It turns out I like international rules a bit more than I've let on in the past. Could it be like one of those rom-coms where after the hero and heroine have spent an hour and a half bickering, they suddenly lock lips and realise how they've really felt about each other all along? Nah. That's taking it a bit too far.

But good luck to Joe Kernan and his Irish team all the same. I must be getting soft. Maybe it's all this rain. That or old age.

The Last Word: O'Brien says as much as he wants to say

There was a rather fantastic moment last Saturday just after Aidan O'Brien equalled the world record for Group One victories in a season thanks to Hydrangea's win in the Champion Fillies and Mares Stakes at Ascot. The ITV interviewer who questioned O'Brien after the race received the trainer's usual paean to the fact that this was a team triumph and that Aidan himself didn't deserve all that much credit.

Frustrated, the man with the mike said that he knew O'Brien always said this but what did it mean to him PERSONALLY. 'Personally', O'Brien began and then basically gave the same answer all over again, 'I'm just a small link in a huge chain' etc. A couple more questions elicited the same kind of response.

In that exchange was written a whole history of English-Irish relations, the Englishman thinking the Irishman doesn't have the language to answer him, the Irishman thinking there's no point explaining to the Englishman because he won't understand anyway. One of the wonderful things, and there are many, about O'Brien is that he's always his own man. He should be a shoo-in for Sports Personality of the Year but probably won't win it. Aidan O'Brien, the highest achiever in Irish sport, is so great we take him for granted.

* * * * *

I was on a losing streak at Punchestown in April when Fayonagh turned my fortunes around in the Racing Post Flat Race. Jamie Codd got Gordon Elliott's mare out in front from the start and she strolled home by five and a half lengths. It was one of the least stressful victories of my modest punting career and one of the most welcome. "This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship," I wrote at the time.

Sadly this was not to be. On Wednesday morning poor Fayonagh broke a hind leg in training and had to be put down. We'll always have Punchestown I suppose. But I'll always wonder what might have been for a horse whose victory in the Champion Bumper, coming from an awful long way back, was one of the most impressive at last year's Cheltenham Festival.

* * * * *

Everton's loss to Arsenal last week was a classic example of The Performance Which Costs A Manager His Job. In the last 20 minutes the Toffees players couldn't have made it any clearer that they'd lost faith in Ronald Koeman. Even when they scored in injury-time to make it 4-2, you expected Arsenal to get another one. So it came to pass, as did Koeman's sacking.

These kind of performances seem ever more common, as do stories about managers 'losing the dressing room'. Frank De Boer saw his Crystal Palace players indulge in a virtual Work to Rule. Once he'd got the tar, they pulled out all the stops to defeat Chelsea. We can expect Everton's players to revive dramatically under a new manager as Leicester City's did last season after getting Claudio Ranieri the sack. The recent dismissal of Ranieri's replacement, Craig Shakespeare, suggests however that such revivals can be fleeting things.

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