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Fighting Irish to provide fresh twist on momentous month

In Irish sport, the first weekend of September is usually associated with the renewal of a rivalry that is decades in the making, two teams roared on by a loyal and passionate support and a bunch of lads wearing helmets charging around the pitch and testing their opponents' courage to the limit. And next year isn't likely to be any different.

The All-Ireland hurling final might be taking place on the second Sunday in September in 2012, but those traditionalists looking for their fix could do worse than look across the capital on September 1 to see Navy travel from the United States to host Notre Dame as they take their annual battle to Lansdowne Road.

There might even be a Dub involved if 6'6", 120kg defensive-end Brad Carrico can take the form which got him onto the Notre Dame roster as a freshman and maintain it into his second year. Admittedly, Carrico is from Dublin, Ohio, but given that his 40-yard dash is timed at 4.8 seconds, he can bench press 140kg and squat 195kg, he might get a call from Pat Gilroy if the Dublin footballers are still in the championship when Notre Dame arrive.

Carrico's relationship with Dublin, Ireland, might be tenuous but there's no mistaking the links back to the old country that have seen the Catholic university from Indiana gain such a foothold in the American sporting psyche.

Many of the foundations were laid by Knute Rockne in the 1920s who, unlike other colleges that were selling their radio rights to the matches, decided to give away the Notre Dame radio rights.

"At that time, radio had a great consolidating power in the country, and almost anywhere you went in America, you could listen to Notre Dame," said Murray Sperber, who wrote 'Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football'.

This, in turn, meant that a generation of immigrant Catholics could easily keep up to date with a team and, despite not having attended the university, throw their support behind the cause. "Why was Notre Dame popular with ethnic families?" asks Sperber, "Because Notre Dame won. The winning is at the core of all of Notre Dame's popularity."

Of course, Hollywood can also play a part with several movies dedicated to the cause of 'The Fighting Irish', although one of their most famous matches, with their most famous player, had an ending which film-makers would struggle to come up with.

In the Cotton Bowl of 1979, future four-time Superbowl-winning quarterback Joe Montana fell ill during the game, needed to be placed on a drip during half-time and had five turnovers in what was turning into a disastrous game for a player who, in the previous season, had helped the university to a national title. Then, in a true Hollywood twist, he led his team back from 34-12 down to the University of Houston to win 35-34 with a final touchdown pass coming with eight seconds remaining.

As it was in the past in Ireland, football and religion form the bedrock of the college and the two come together in the mural on the wall of the Hesburgh Library, which shows Jesus Christ with both arms aloft and is known as 'Touchdown Jesus', which is visible from the upper rows of Notre Dame's 80,000-capacity stadium.

Unfortunately for them, the gods haven't been smiling much on Notre Dame since Montana, with their 11th and last national title coming in 1988. Yet, despite the lack of success relative to their early years, NBC still feel the college have enough draw that they are willing to pay $15m per season to broadcast their home games because, in college terms, they are arguably 'America's Team'.

In professional football, that moniker is attached to the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Yankees hold it in baseball, but while such exposure ensures a love 'em or loathe 'em divide, it also means that the team may be good or bad, but they are rarely irrelevant.

This season, Notre Dame finished with a moderate record of eight wins and four defeats, with one of those victories coming at the end of October in a 56-14 hammering of Navy. That victory saw Notre Dame gain a measure of revenge for the previous year's defeat to their rivals -- a second in four years and a remarkable achievement given that, prior to 2007, Navy hadn't beaten Notre Dame since 1963. Their next chance, and indeed the next game that both universities will play will be against each other in Dublin, in what will be a 'home' game for Navy.

Despite falling viewer ratings, this year's game was still watched by the best part of two million people across America, and the novelty factor alone should ensure a similar number again as well as the thousands expected to travel from America to see the game in person.

At a dinner on the night before this season's game, Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk spoke of the bonds that bind the two universities, particularly in the 1940s when Navy sent hundreds of students to Notre Dame who, remarkable as it seems now, were then struggling financially.

While both schools are justifiably proud of their football tradition, Gladchuck reserved his greatest praise for their academic ethos which sees them both ranked in the top 10 for graduates and also builds the word which he refers to over and over again: character.

Irish sport in September has never been short on either tradition or character but the American flavour, which both teams, supporters and bands will bring, will certainly give it an added twist.

•Packages for the Navy v Notre Dame game in Dublin are being sold in the US through official tour partners and the response so far has been excellent, with sales approaching 10,000. Further packages tailored to the European market will be available shortly and corporate hospitality bookings have been very positive at this stage. Tickets are expected to go on sale to the general public in March of next year for an event which will see over 1,000 Navy Midshipmen attend the game and take-part in the pre-match entertainment.

Irish Independent