Thursday 19 April 2018

Anything can happen in 2010

1 There really is nothing like a World Cup. Complain all you want about the unnecessarily elongated structure and the amount of relatively meaningless games in the early stages but it remains the greatest sporting tournament in the world outside the Olympics.

Spain, with the European Championship under their belt and an awesome array of midfield and attacking talent -- Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Xabi Alonso, Silva, Villa and Torres -- on board, will be worthy favourites. Of the other front-runners, Brazil and Germany look less convincing than usual while, sorry about this my fellow countrymen, England and France seem the likeliest dark horses.

If you fancy an outsider who might cause an upset or two and go surprisingly deep into the competition, Nigeria or the USA could be worth a few bob.

2 Barcelona set a new standard of footballing excellence last season when they passed and moved their way to a Champions League title.

Their old rivals Real Madrid responded with a galactico hunt which was spectacular even by their own standards. The two sides are fighting it out at the head of the Primera Liga at the moment but could anything be better than a Champions League final between the pair of them and Lionel Messi going head to head to head against his only two rivals as best player in the world, Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo?

3 It looks like we're in for another of those seasons when the Premier League is in doubt right up to the final fortnight.

This time round it's because no-one is playing particularly well. Chelsea have repeated the pattern of last season, looking initially invincible under a new manager before lapsing into lassitude; Manchester United have suffered so many losses in defence you half expect to see Kevin Moran coming out of retirement to play at centre-back; Arsenal remain the eternal work in progress.

It would be a brave man who'd bet against United's knack of edging these close contests. The wild card may be Manchester City, not all that far behind and with a set of players good enough to challenge the big three if only they can find the belief.

4 Perhaps the two finest chasers since Arkle will play their Cheltenham Gold Cup rubber match this year.

An 11-length triumph in the Hennessy Gold Cup reminded us that there haven't been many better National Hunt horses in our lifetime than Denman. A 36-length triumph in the King George VI chase reminded us that there may not have been any better National Hunt horse than Kauto Star. If the prospect of another clash between the two doesn't excite you, call the doctor and make sure you didn't die over the New Year.

5 We haven't a prayer in the Gold Cup, but it still looks like being another tremendous Cheltenham for the Irish.

Philip Fenton's Dunguib already looks a banker in the Supreme Novices Hurdle while it will be something of a shock if Sizing Europe doesn't come through for Henry de Bromhead in the Arkle Trophy. Eddie O'Grady has every chance of a memorable double with Alaivan in the Triumph Hurdle and Tranquil Sea in the Ryanair Chase and Willie Mullins could do likewise with Quel Esprit in the Ballymore Novices Hurdle and, another banker, Quevega, in the Mares Hurdle. Noel Meade's Go Native won't be far away at the end of the Champion Hurdle either. Expect lots of shots of happy Irishmen throwing their hats into the air come March.

Recession? What race is he running in?

6 The European Athletics Championships in Barcelona, running from July 26 to August 1, provide a chance for Irish athletics to show how healthy a state it's in at the moment.

Reaching world finals and semi-finals may be a huge achievement but what really impresses the average sports fan is the sight of people on the podium. And with Derval O'Rourke ranked first in Europe at the 100m hurdles, David Gillick ranked second at 400m, Paul Hession ranked fourth at 400m, Martin Fagan ranked fourth at 10,000m and Thomas Chamney ranked fifth at 800m, not to mention World silver medallist Olive Loughnane in action in the 20km walk, there's every chance this could happen. A golden opportunity for Irish athletics to win friends and influence the next generation.

7 I've thought long and hard about this before coming to the conclusion that it would be good to see Kilkenny hurlers winning a fifth All-Ireland title.

These days there is something terribly poignant about the memory of the great Kerry football team falling just short of five in a row. Kilkenny, as the greatest team of all time, deserve to stand alone in the record books. And GAA fans deserve the rare pleasure of seeing something which has never happened before and will never happen again.

After that, it would be nice to see Kilkenny going the rest of the decade without an All-Ireland so we have something more like the democratic nineties than the monopolistic noughties.

8 It would, however, be good to see someone rather than Kerry or Tyrone win the Sam Maguire.

If one of them wins this year, it will equal the all-time record for dominance by two teams: the 1974-1981 run when Kerry and Dublin divided eight titles between them. And that just isn't a very interesting record. Cork seem to be edging closer every year though it may need a less cautious attitude if they are to actually win the thing; if there is anything in Galway, and I believe there's quite a lot, Joe Kernan will get it out of them. And I wouldn't write off the Dubs yet though I know writing these words places me in danger of a visit by men in white coats who are neither umpires, AI men nor lab technicians.

9 This time last year you were reading a lot of articles about how Rory McIlroy would be the next big thing in world golf.

But only the most optimistic of pundits could have expected that McIlroy would make the breakthrough into world-class so quickly. At the start of 2009, he was No 39 in the world, now he's No 9. With Tiger Woods out of the reckoning for the foreseeable future, there's every chance McIlroy could snap up a Major this year, perhaps the US PGA Championship where he finished third last time out.

There's also the small matter of a Ryder Cup in Wales in October. Europe, with eight of the 13 top golfers in the world, have never been so strong. As our American cousins say, bring it on.

10 There were plenty of people looking forward to watching the Irish rugby team this time ten years ago. Unfortunately, they tended to have names like Jean Pierre, Ieaun, Angus, Derek and Luigi.

These days the rugby team is the undoubted jewel in the Irish sporting crown and, without being greedy, there's every possibility of a second Grand Slam. It will probably all come down to how we deal with France in Paris. However that turns out, it will be intriguing to watch the continuing development of Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney, Stephen Ferris, Tomás O'Leary and Keith Earls as we bid to move more players into the genuine world-class bracket before the 2011 World Cup. The Sexton versus O'Gara question should be the big Irish sporting debate of the year.

11 Now I am being greedy. At the moment Leinster and Munster look like the best two teams in the Heineken Cup.

And though I know this depends on the luck of the draw, and that Toulouse, Biarritz or Clermont Auvergne could put a spanner in the works, there is a good chance they might meet in the final. In which case we would be looking at perhaps the greatest sporting fixture of all time between two Irish teams. I'd have a slight fancy for Munster if this were to happen, if only because they, for once, would be the team with something to prove and would find defeat as unthinkable as Leinster found it last year.

But Irish sport in general would be the winner were these two behemoths to meet in the decider.

12 If you've never been to the national coursing meeting in Clonmel, go this year. Great sport, great atmosphere, great people, a genuine uniquely Irish experience which still draws huge crowds despite the pretence by most of the media that it doesn't exist.

There's an extra reason to go this year, to show your disdain for the assault by John Gormley and his cohorts on country sports. The Green Party's decision to slash the wages of teachers and nurses and put the boot into people on social welfare makes you suspect they'd have no problem with hunting if it was unemployed building workers and struggling tradesmen the hounds pursued through the fields.

13 Could St Nicholas Abbey be the new Sea The Stars? Perhaps not, it might be asking too much for a wonder horse to appear two years in a row. Aidan O'Brien's colt did, however, look like something special as a two-year-old and is already just 7/1 to win next year's 2,000 Guineas and Derby double.

The French filly Special Duty is clear favourite to win the 1,000 Guineas and also looked a bit out of the ordinary when winning the Cheveley Park stakes in the second fastest time ever. Another French filly, Rosanara, looks a decent bet for the Oaks but both Gallic fancies will have to beware of challengers from Ballydoyle with Lillie Langtry in the 1,000 Guineas and You'll Be Mine in the Oaks well capable of adding to the young master's Classic haul.

As always, the plot will begin to thicken significantly over the next few weeks.

14 It's exciting enough that Portumna are trying to become the first team to win three consecutive All-Ireland club hurling titles, but even better is the fact that in the final they will be faced with one of the two other outstanding clubs of recent times.

Both the Ballyhale Shamrocks-Newtownshandrum semi-final and the clash of the winners with Portumna have potential classic written all over them.

15 I could mention Bolt or Federer or Pacquaio or Schumacher or the Superbowl, but for most of us one of the sporting highlights of the year will be something local, something personal, something outside the fast lane that doesn't really register on the radar of the wider world.

A divisional junior football title for your local club perhaps, a first cup for your son's schoolboy soccer team, a Community Games medal for your daughter. Or maybe it will be something even more personal, your first Dublin City Marathon, a return to rugby action with the fourths or fifths, the shaving of a couple of shots off your golf handicap.

Whatever it is, I wish you luck. Right here right now, just three days into a new year, anything can happen in 2010. Go for it. And thanks for reading in 2009. It's much appreciated.

Sunday Independent

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