Saturday 16 December 2017

Six steps to sporting heaven

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‘Whatever happens next Anthony Daly has performed one of the great feats of management in Irish sport’. Photo: David Maher
‘Whatever happens next Anthony Daly has performed one of the great feats of management in Irish sport’. Photo: David Maher

Eamonn Sweeney

It felt like one of the greatest sporting weekends there's ever been, a rollercoaster 30-odd hours which began at 11.06am on Saturday morning with Alex Corbisiero crossing the Australian line 73 seconds into the final Lions Test and ending with Paul Ryan hammering a last celebratory free high into the Canal End at 6.27pm on Sunday.

Bliss all of it, pure bliss.

1 Sydney

It all began with the Lions. A third Test in a 1-1 series hardly needs an injection of extra drama but that's exactly what it received when Warren Gatland's team-sheet became the most unpopular piece of writing since the Ayatollah Khomeini clapped eyes on The Satanic Verses. By dropping Brian O'Driscoll the Lions manager had made a rod for his own back. The unfair thing was that this rod was applied before the third Test was even played. Gatland found himself being denounced in the Irish and, to a lesser extent, English media for adopting a negative approach, betraying some nebulous Lions ethos and losing a series which hadn't yet been completed.

Yet it took just over a minute for us to discover that the third Test was not going to be the same as its two error-strewn and somewhat tentative predecessors. Seán O'Brien and Alun Wyn Jones's drives through the Australian ranks to set up Corbisiero for his try served notice that this time it was game on from the get-go.

Such was the Lions' dominance as they built a 19-3 lead by the 26th minute, the suspicion arose that we might be in for an anti-climax with the game and the series decided before half-time. But the Aussies, outgunned to a pitiful extent in the scrum yet quixotically and nerve-wrackingly inventive behind it, got right back into the game when James O'Connor, stepping like a man trying to avoid a plague of wasps in a phone booth, got over for a try on the stroke of the break.

When the gap closed to three points in the sixth minute of the second half, Gatland may have sensed vultures circling overhead. Cometh the hour, cometh the men. Jonathan Davies cut past Christian Leali'ifano and found Leigh Halfpenny joining the line. Halfpenny, as always, did everything right and popped up the ball to . . . who's this? Irishman Jonny Sexton steaming in for the most crucial try of the tour after a week when too many Irishmen had wished the Lions ill.

The tries from North and Jamie Roberts were wonderful post-scripts to the finest Lions Test performance in 20 years.

The heart, as well as the brain, of the team was Welsh. Halfpenny had one of the great Lions tours, George North, Adam and Alun Wyn Jones were not far behind him, Jonathan Davies proved to be a world-class centre. Yet there were stirring Irish contributions, Sexton played all but 15 minutes of the Test series and steered the ship well, Seán O'Brien made wreck in the third Test and Conor Murray's crucial intervention, brimming with confidence and adventure, when coming on for Mike Phillips when things got rocky was something to be proud of.

2 Nowlan Park

The enormity of the prospect was what gave you the shivers. After all the greatest team in history has achieved, their era might end with a humiliation in their own backyard by their deadliest rivals. You couldn't see Kilkenny countenancing that. Yet there was almost as much at stake for Tipperary. When they won the 2010 All-Ireland final, that seemed to be all she wrote for the Cats. But the Cats bounced back to frustrate the heirs apparent. Yet Tipp believe if they can just shift Kilkenny out of the way for good the future will be Tipperary-coloured. A rush and a push and the land would be theirs.

It was not the classic which had been predicted. There were times when you could see why this year the big two were meeting in the qualifiers rather than the final. Yet for sheer tension it was unequalled. In the second half Kilkenny took a grip at the back and in midfield that shifted the momentum unmistakably their way. Yet this time round they could not apply the coup de grace. Tipp hung in there and with five minutes left lurked just one point behind. It was Henry Time.

Seldom in the history of the game has someone seemed to warm up for as long as Henry Shefflin did on Saturday night. And never have someone's sideline stretches and swings received such rapt attention. On he came with that solitary point dividing the teams. Eoin Larkin made the lead two points again and then Shefflin got on the ball. You could almost see the rust dropping off him as he strode forward, as monumentally impressive yet oddly ungainly as the Iron Giant moving across the landscape. It was hard work.

But he beat one defender, then another and found Richie Power in space on the left sideline. Power's point was superb but you almost felt he had no alternative once Shefflin had made his intervention. The great thing about Shefflin's talent is that it's always contagious.

3 killarney

Sunday afternoon and the good stuff was coming at you from all angles. There were predictions that this year's Munster football final would be a dour affair with Kerry and Cork behaving like Donegal tribute bands. But that's not what these teams do. Shutting up shop is not in the Kerry nature.

And the Kingdom have seldom been as easy on the eye as they were in the first half last Sunday as Colm Cooper, James O'Donoghue and Declan O'Sullivan tormented Cork with the precision of bullfighters inserting knives into a poor heat-addled beast. Saddled with a selection and tactics by Conor Counihan which were eccentric even by his own wacky standards, the Rebels were lucky to be only nine points down with 20 minutes left.

Yet, derided though they may be, these Cork players draw from a huge reservoir of pride and courage and inspired by subs Alan O'Connor and Ciarán Sheehan and neophyte full-forward Brian Hurley, they soldiered through the sauna heat and almost manufactured a draw with Hurley's shot brilliantly saved by Brendan Kealy at the death. Kerry's grace and elegance and Cork's honesty made it a good day for football.

4 Wimbledon

Tim Henman seemed like a lovable refugee from a Richard Curtis movie. Andy Murray is different. Murray is more Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It. Tim wouldn't have come out with the bit of blinding which escaped Andy as everything went pear-shaped in his quarter-final against Fernando Verdasco. But he also wouldn't have scrapped back to win from two sets down.

In danger of going two sets to one down when trailing 4-1 in the third set of his semi-final against Jerzy Janowicz, Murray got out of that one too. This fitful form should have boded ill for his prospects against Novak Djokovic yet instead it seemed to engender the feeling that his name might be on the trophy. And so it proved as he swept aside the world number one in straight sets. Murray may still only be a young man but the 77-year wait since Fred Perry was the last home-grown Wimbledon men's singles winner gave his victory something of the flavour of Gordon Richards' long-awaited Derby win on Pinza or the Stanley Matthews final in 1953. Only the most hard-hearted Anglophobe could begrudge the British a victory somehow redolent of a different and more innocent era.

5 Bagneres-De-Bigorre

It doesn't get much tougher than this. Five tough climbs in the Pyrenees, three of them above 5,000 feet. And approaching the top of the last climb, Ireland's Daniel Martin goes for the ninth stage.

And he is Ireland's Daniel Martin. He might have been born in Birmingham but his mother is Stephen Roche's sister and Martin has been riding in Irish colours since his teens. Yet he's somehow slipped under the radar.

For example, his victory in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege cycle race earlier this year has to get the prize for most unfairly overlooked Irish sporting achievement. That race is one of the five Monuments, the one-day classics of cycling. Winning it is up there with winning a Major in golf yet Martin garnered very few headlines. We've fallen out of love with cycling since Seán Kelly and Martin's uncle Stephen ruled the roost.

But if there's anyone who can rekindle that passion, it's the 26-year-old who hit the top of that last climb accompanied by Austria's Jakob Fuglsang with the chasing pack 42 seconds behind. With ten miles left, it's down to 30 seconds, with six left down to 25. Then Martin and Fuglsang counter-attack and on the last bend the Irishman makes his move to become the first Irish stage winner since 1992.

6 Croke Park

It was the icing on the cake, a Dublin victory so magnificent it would have made last weekend very special all on its own.

It felt like a game from that epochal 1995-1998 period when anything seemed likely to happen in the hurling championship, the type of golden era you fear might never come again. Even the final score, 2-25 to 2-12, resembles the score of the 1996 Leinster final when Wexford gave perhaps the single most exhilarating attacking display of the time when defeating Offaly 2-23 to 2-15.

There's also the fact that Dublin followed their red-letter day against Kilkenny by putting Galway to the sword, as Wexford did after that aformentioned triumph and Clare did a year earlier after their first Munster title in 63 years. On all three occasions Galway were favourites to topple teams who were viewed as having already reached their peak for the year. And on all three occasions they were swept aside by the momentum of a team filled with new belief after reaching unforeseen heights. There is a Clare '95, Wexford '96 feel about this Dublin team.

Dublin are dealing with big sweeps of time now. A first win over Kilkenny in 71 years and a first Leinster title in 52 years have raised the prospect of a first All-Ireland in 75 years. That they have come this far is remarkable but the brio with which they play is even more so. We imagined, I think, that the Dublin team which finally made the provincial breakthrough would do so by dint of physical presence and tight marking in a closely-fought game. Instead this day last week they let rip, the tone of their performance set by the wonderful Paul Ryan.

He gave one of the greatest Leinster final displays in modern times. To four points from frees he added 2-3 from play. Both goals came from positions where a more cautious forward might have opted for a point. But his decision to take the gamble showed the abandon and confidence currently characterising Dublin.

Whatever happens next Anthony Daly has performed one of the great feats of management in Irish sport. It has been, let's not forget, a very rocky road at times. There's a defeat by Antrim in there and 12 months ago a championship so underwhelming that many county boards would have lost faith in the boss.

They have kept faith and Daly has done one of the most honourable things in sport. He has, bit by bit, year after year, helped decent players to improve. Dublin have no phenomenal natural talents in the Shefflin or Cooper mould. They don't have the ability of a Kilkenny or a Tipperary team which can get results when not playing well. Last year showed how vulnerable they are if their focus is even slightly off. But by dint of hard work and dedication, manager and players have come a long way together, far enough for them to give the complete performance last Sunday.

And so Ryan's goals and the swashbuckling play of David O'Callaghan and Michael Carton, John McCaffrey and Conal Keaney will stick with us. As will Leigh Halfpenny's sublime break to put George North in for the third Lions try, Colm Cooper's elegant stroke of the ball past Ken O'Halloran, Daniel Martin's attack in the Pyrenees, the passing shots which Andy Murray whipped past a bewildered Novak Djokovic and JJ Delaney's goal-saving block against Eoin Kelly.

They showed sport at its best and people at their best. In years to come we will remember last weekend. The memories will make us smile when we're on our own and enliven our conversations with our friends. That was some weekend, we'll say.

That's what it's all about.

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Irish Independent

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