A triumph for the little guy
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Mount Leinster Rangers' glorious victory in the Leinster Senior Club Championship final against Oulart-The Ballagh this day last week is the perfect coda to what may just be hurling's greatest ever year. And perhaps the reason it's struck such a chord is because it seems to speak to something essential in the soul of the GAA.
Unlikely triumphs carry a charge in all sports of course but they have a special meaning in the GAA. Because there is something unlikely at the very heart of the Association, something which travels beyond the petty boundaries of logic.
It makes no sense that amateur players put professional-sized efforts into their careers, it makes no sense that county finals between rural parishes will draw crowds well in excess of the combined population of said parishes, it makes no sense that teams from places where fields are plentiful and houses few and far between regularly tan the hide of teams from cities and big towns, it makes no sense that the enormous hive of activity which enlivens the country all year round is kept going almost entirely by voluntary effort.
It makes no sense unless you know the GAA. And that's why underdog stories mean that bit more in the GAA. The Association may look like a powerful empire but it is built round the ability to punch above its weight.
So there is something about the success of Mount Leinster Rangers which perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the GAA. Yet, paradoxically, it comes at a time when there seems to be a growing view that the Association's underdogs are an embarrassment rather than an adornment. Witness the calls for a two-tier system in the football championship, based on the grounds that some counties have a long losing record.
Yet look at the record of Carlow club hurling in the Leinster Senior Club Championship before this year. No final appearance, two semi-final appearances, only one win in 28 meetings with clubs from Kilkenny, Wexford, Offaly, Dublin and Laois. If we were to go by the prevailing wisdom, Mount Leinster Rangers had no business being on the same field against Oulart or against their semi-final opponents Ballyboden St Enda's. Neither had any other Carlow team. Surely the wise thing to do would be to protect them from further defeats.
But the GAA, and indeed sport in general, doesn't work like that. Because what's seldom is wonderful. Confine the smaller and weaker counties to secondary competitions and you'll never have days like last Sunday in Nowlan Park. And the GAA needs days like that, days like the Clare footballers had in 1992, their Leitrim counterparts had in 1994, St Gall's had in 2010 and Loughgiel Shamrocks had last year.
The great queen of the Blues Bessie Smith once sang that "once ain't for always". But for the GAA's lesser lights, once can be enough to be going on with, it can get you through the hard times and help you dream of the better ones to come. And those better times will come. Eventually. It's part of what makes the GAA special and if we deny the underdogs their dream we lose something vital. Sport has more to do with magic than with logic.
Mount Leinster Rangers also delivered a salutary slap in the face to the self-appointed elite hurling counties who are forever complaining that the league format may force them to play against teams they consider beneath them. Witness the convolutions Croke Park went through as a proposal was made to change a perfectly serviceable league structure, apparently to save Cork the indignity of having to play against the likes of Antrim (yuck) and Laois (shudder) in Division 1B. Fortunately, the proposal failed.
Yet Cork are not alone in their snobbery. At some time or other almost every county threatened with relegation has complained that the very spirit of hurling will be affronted should they be forced to play against the likes of Antrim (God help us), Laois (You must be joking me) and, indeed, Carlow.
It's very odd that these complaints are generally treated as legitimate. Because surely such encounters should be looked on as a good thing, opportunities to improve the standard of hurling in the weaker counties by providing their strongest players with top-quality opposition and giving their fans a chance to see some of the biggest stars in the game. It's not as though the elite teams cut a swathe through the lesser lights in Division 1B this year. Carlow finished bottom but their average margin of defeat was just over six points and they ran Limerick to three points and Offaly to two. Antrim lost to the same opposition by the same margins.
Mount Leinster Rangers are the ultimate argument against the notion that teams from the weaker hurling counties have no business on the same field as teams from the stronger ones. Not least because two years ago they weren't even allowed in the same competition because the Carlow champions were confined to the intermediate grade.
They are an exceptional team but they did not tower like a colossus over their less glamorous opposition. In the 2012 All-Ireland intermediate club final, they had just two points to spare over Middletown Na Fianna, who didn't even reach the Armagh county final this year. Earlier in this year's Leinster senior club championship, they squeaked past Castletown Geoghegan by two points. And, even in Carlow, though they've won three in a row, they are not completely dominant. Ballinkillen ran them to six points in this year's county semi-final while Naomh Eoin brought them to a replay in the 2011 decider. All those clubs will have learned from the Rangers' progress. The lesson is that, in the words of Jim Larkin, the great only appear great because we are on our knees, let us rise.
Wasn't it some act of condescension to exclude Carlow clubs from the senior club championship all the same? Look at this year's Leinster under 21 hurling championship. Prior to this there had been oodles of talk about how Dublin had got things right at underage level and that this, allied with the massive playing numbers in the capital, had created a behemoth which would trample everyone else into the dust. Yet Carlow beat Dublin. Back in 2006 their minors reached the Leinster final. And so what if Mount Leinster Rangers are the first Carlow club to win a Leinster senior club final. It's 1996 since a Wexford team did it, and 1980 since a Dublin team managed it. Right now, Carlow and Dublin have one apiece.
The Carlows of this world are told they should stand aside from top-class competition because their defeat is inevitable. But nothing in sport is utterly inevitable. I remember reading a piece earlier this year on how Antrim's appearance in the All-Ireland under 21 hurling semi-final was pointless because they were inevitably going to be hammered by Wexford. They beat Wexford. And even if they were hammered by Clare in the final, they had earned their place.
Antrim is no mean county either. There wasn't enough fuss made over Loughgiel Shamrocks' victory in the 2012 All-Ireland club final. Here was a team from a county which has, against its will, been relegated to the status of second-class citizen at inter-county level, winning an All-Ireland title. A Tipperary club hasn't won it since 1987, a Clare team hasn't won it since 2000 and a Limerick or Waterford club has never won it.
The response of supporters this year to the return of a truly competitive championship showed what we'd been missing during the years of Kilkenny dominance. The next thing hurling needs is a new county to come out of the chasing pack, join the elite and stay there, the way Offaly did. It could be Antrim, it could be Laois, it could be Carlow. The GAA hierarchy should quit the pie in the sky nonsense about spreading hurling to Shanghai and Beijing and instead pull out all the stops to help counties who are too often treated like unwelcome beggars at the feast, hoping a few scraps might fall from the top table.
Mount Leinster Rangers have made it a good bit harder for those counties to be ignored. And when the 2014 season gets under way, in small clubs all over the country where resources or emigration or tradition make success seem unlikely, they'll be saying to each other, "You never know. Look at those lads down in Carlow. Let's give it a right good rattle". And some club somewhere will surprise everyone, even themselves, because of the example set by the men from Borris.
So thanks lads. You've shortened the winter for all of us.
Johnston declares after epic innings
Ireland begin a five-day match against Afghanistan in the final of the Inter-Continental Cup in Dubai on Tuesday. This is the biggest competition for countries without Test status, the best of the rest if you like, and Ireland will be looking for a fourth win in five competitions, having lost the last decider to the Afghans.
It's an important match but it will also be one with considerable emotional resonance as it will see the final appearance of Trent Johnston, the 39-year-old Australian all-rounder who will be indelibly associated with the great leap forward taken by Irish cricket over the past decade.
For the casual viewer, Trent Johnston was the face of their initial encounter with Irish cricket. Because on that famous St Patrick's Day in 2007 when news got around that the national team were about to cause a major upset against Pakistan in a World Cup few people even knew they were playing in, the image which stuck with the uninitiated who rushed to their TV sets was of Trent Johnston striking the winning runs.
Johnston's prominence initially gave rise to the misapprehension on the part of cricket neophytes that the team was largely made up of foreigners. Since then, the 2011 World Cup victory against England and regular qualifications for the big tournaments have accustomed us to the idea of the Irish team as a highly accomplished side crewed largely by native talent building on a proud and hitherto undervalued tradition.
Yet the contribution made by Johnston has been invaluable and while he is going into the good sporting night there's nothing gentle about his departure. Last week in Abu Dhabi he produced one of his finest performances, winning man of the match in the final of the Twenty20 World Cup qualifiers after hitting 62 off 32 balls and following up with 3-34 as Ireland defeated Afghanistan.
That victory means Ireland have now qualified for the Twenty20 World Cup in 2014 and the World Cup proper in 2015. Their qualification for major tournaments has become so regular that it's easy to regard it as routine. Yet they're getting there ahead of countries with a strong cricketing tradition such as Namibia, Kenya and Bermuda, and a United Arab Emirates side which has spent big on imported talent from Pakistan. As recently as 2001, we were finishing a distant seventh in the World Cup qualifying competition, behind the likes of Holland, Scotland, Canada and the USA.
The story since then has been one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the history of Irish sport. And also perhaps one of the most underrated. Yet such has been the progress since the day in 2005 when a win over Canada at Clontarf with just four balls to spare saw Ireland clinch a first ever World Cup finals appearance that Cricket Ireland's ambition to achieve full Test Status by 2020 deserves to be be taken seriously.
And if the promised land is reached, nobody will have done more to set the wheels in motion than the man from Wollongong.
Only in sport...only in America
One of the best documentaries in the outstanding series ESPN have been producing since 2009 was Roll Tide/War Eagle which dealt with the college football rivalry between Alabama and Auburn. Anyone who watched was left in no doubt that this was about as intense as rivalries get.
Think of your own club's deadliest rivalry, multiply it by 100 and you'll get something close to the bad feeling involved. Alabama are the more powerful, they lead 42-35 in the head to head, and have also won 23 South Eastern Conference titles to their neighbour's seven. And, as it's the state university, Alabama followers tend to look down a bit on Auburn which began as an agricultural college.
When Auburn won the national title for just the second time in 2010, an Alabama fan named Harvey Updyke poisoned the trees where Auburn fans traditionally gathered to celebrate victories. Harvey, a middle-aged gent who'd probably have been excluded from the Deliverance shooting party for lack of sophistication, appeared in the documentary and lovingly detailed how he'd applied the pesticide. Released from prison a couple of weeks back, he said, "I wish now that I had not killed those trees so I could do it again."
Alabama have won two national titles in a row. Last season's 42-14 stomping of Notre Dame was the second biggest win in title decider history. This year they were undefeated, and looked nailed on to become the first team ever to win three national titles in a row. Last Saturday they faced Auburn who'd been going pretty well themselves but . . . Over to you Harvey, "If Allburn is the fourth best college football team, then I'm an albino pimp."
Auburn held on to Alabama all through the game. With one second left, and the score at 28-all, Alabama kicker Adam Griffith had a 57-yard field goal to win it. And then . . . I'll let Auburn commentator Rod Bramblett tell you.
"It does not have the legs and Chris Davis fields it at the back of the end zone. He'll run it out to the 10, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 45. There goes Davis, oh my God, Davis is gonna run it all the way back. Auburn's gonna win the football game. He ran the missed field goal back. He ran it back 109 yards. They're not gonna keep 'em off the field tonight. Holy cow."
Alabama won't be playing in the national title game. Auburn might be. Harvey Updyke was unavailable for comment.
Only sport can do this.