Sport Rugby

Sunday 21 July 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: There's a certain satisfaction in watching the showboater being hoist by his own petard

‘We’ve all had our Freddie Burns moments when, after aiming for the stars, we land in the gutter’. Photo: PA
‘We’ve all had our Freddie Burns moments when, after aiming for the stars, we land in the gutter’. Photo: PA
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Imagine being Freddie Burns this morning last week. You open your eyes, the room comes into focus, your brain clicks into gear and then suddenly, 'Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, what have I done? I'm never going to live this down, never.' To paraphrase Kris Kristofferson, he'd have woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold his pride that didn't hurt.

There the Bath full-back had been on Saturday afternoon scything through the Toulouse defence with five minutes left, about to score the match-winning try, blowing a kiss to the crowd, pointing to the club crest on his jersey, slowing down and jogging over the line in order to really savour the moment.

Then Maxime Medard crept up from behind and hooked his arm causing the ball to fall from Burns' hands and grant him sporting immortality. A very unwanted kind of immortality but immortality all the same. People will watch this one forever. What makes it a real classic is that the poor devil's brainstorm may end up denying Bath not just victory, but a place in the Heineken Cup knockout stages. To put the tin hat on it, he'd just missed a penalty from in front of the posts which could also have won the game.

Commentators keen to imbue the incident with contemporary significance claim it's an indictment of the way we live now. This is what the younger generation are like apparently, a bunch of preening ninnies obsessed with their social media and their selfies and their image. Wouldn't have happened in our day, I can tell you.

But the truth is that showboating has always been with us. In the late 1970s and early '80s for example, no major athletics meeting was complete without Steve Ovett grinning and holding a victorious finger aloft as he led down the final straight before tracing messages in the air when he crossed the finish line.

There's a certain satisfaction in watching the showboater being hoist by his own petard. It happened to Ovett in a 5,000m race at Crystal Palace in 1980 where, having already gone into the trademark victory routine, he failed to notice John Treacy finishing like a train to pip him on the line. It was embarrassing for Ovett but he did have the consolation that the race itself was not particularly important for someone who'd won an Olympic gold over 800m a couple of weeks earlier.

Dearbhla Rooney of the Sean McDermott club in Manorhamilton was winning bronze at featherweight in the World Youth Olympics. Pic: Sportsfile
Dearbhla Rooney of the Sean McDermott club in Manorhamilton was winning bronze at featherweight in the World Youth Olympics. Pic: Sportsfile

Lindsey Jacobellis had no such consolation. In 2006, she was 40 metres clear with just two jumps left in the Olympic final of the Snowboard Cross when she decided to celebrate with a flashy mid-air manoeuvre. "I was having fun and I wanted to share my enthusiasm with the crowd," she said later. Unfortunately, Jacobellis fell and Tanja Frieden of Switzerland passed her to take gold. Despite winning four world titles, Olympic gold has continued to elude the American who finished fourth in this year's games.

There's a certain irony in the fact that more sports fans will remember Jacobellis for her fall than for her achievements. Roger Loughran would sympathise. Every time the Meath jockey wins a decent race, well-meaning pundits assure us that Loughran has cast off the shadow of the infamous moment when he punched the air in triumph as he passed the finishing post on Central House in the Dial-a-Bet Chase at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting in 2005. Except it wasn't the finishing post and Loughran's celebration saw the odds-on favourite drop back to third. He's ridden over 200 winners since the mistake which took place during his first week as a pro, but say Roger Loughran's name to anyone and that moment of madness will immediately be mentioned.

It seems cruel, too, that Leon Lett of the Dallas Cowboys, two-time Pro Bowler, three-time Super Bowl winner and one of the best defensive players of the 1990s, is doomed to be remembered for a famous miscalculation in Super Bowl 1993. Lett had recovered a fumble by the Buffalo Bills and gone 60-plus yards towards the end zone, when he slowed down and held the ball theatrically out in front of him.

He admitted later that he was watching himself on the stadium's big screen and trying to emulate a touchdown move by his team-mate Michael Irvin. That gave Buffalo's Don Beebe the chance to get back and knock the ball out of his hand a yard from the line. It would, said Letts, have been his first touchdown, "since I was ten years old playing pee-wee football." He never did score a touchdown in the NFL though at least his mistake took place late in a game which the Cowboys won 52-17.

As the spiritual home of the extravagant celebration, American Football has probably seen more showboating cock-ups than any other sport. Current Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver DeSean Jackson is the king of premature jubilation, flinging the ball away in delight before actually crossing the line for the Philadelphia Eagles against the Dallas Cowboys in 2008 and trying to somersault into the end zone with no-one near him only to land at the one-yard line three years earlier in the high school All-American Bowl.

Even Jackson's greatest hits pale by comparison with the achievement of Canadian Football League player Chris Williams who, playing for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats against the Montreal Alouettes in 2012, ran a missed field goal back from deep in his own end zone. Having outpaced the cover, Williams started running backwards 15 metres from the end zone, began celebrating with a team-mate with five left to go and was caught on the one-yard line, denying him what would have been a 117-yard touchdown return.

Williams may have felt foolish but he was better off than St Louis Cardinals kicker Bill Gramatica, who leaped into the air to celebrate a 42-yard field goal against the New York Giants in 2001 and tore his ACL on landing.

There's a surprisingly long list of such injuries, Kendrys Morales of the LA Dodgers stomping on the home plate after a home run and breaking his leg, French golfer Thomas Levet breaking his shin when jumping into a lake after winning the French Open, Steve Morrow scoring the winning goal for Arsenal in the League Cup final and suffering a broken collar bone when Tony Adams dropped him while offering congratulations after the final whistle. Not to forget skier Lindsey Vonn having to undergo surgery after cutting into the tendon of her right thumb when opening a bottle of champagne following a world title win in 2009.

Celebration mishaps bring out the schadenfreude in the rest of us. (Admit it, you had a great laugh at the Burns clip.) I don't think begrudgery or a distaste for flashiness have anything to do with that. I think it's that seeing triumph turn instantaneously to disaster confirms our suspicion that there's a deep absurdity at the root of existence.

A sports star thwarted at the moment of triumph is a Don Quixote suddenly realising that he's battling windmills, the hero of Life of Brian seeing his would-be rescuers make a balls of getting him off the cross, Hardy realising that after all his efforts Laurel has gotten him into another fine mess. We know what this feels like. We've all had our Freddie Burns moments when, after aiming for the stars, we land in the gutter.

In a few years' time no-one will remember anything about that Bath-Toulouse game except the mistake at the end. It will become Freddie Burns' trademark. Some company may even sign him up for an ad campaign with the slogan, 'It's all a matter of timing' or the like. Instead of merely scoring a try, Freddie Burns gave us something that will be a joy forever.

Great performances live on. But so do great blunders. Many technically excellent opera singers of the 20th century have now been forgotten by all but the most dedicated cognoscenti. Florence Foster Jenkins, whose voice was compared to "cockroaches rustling at dawn in a rubbish bin," is a household name. Two years ago they made a major Hollywood movie about her and Meryl Streep was nominated for an Oscar in the title role. Nobody's going to do that for Joan Sutherland or Montserrat Caballe.

Given that the town of Bath was founded by the Romans, the local club's number 15 might find consolation in the words of the poet Horace. Exegi monumentum aere perennius. I have built a monument more lasting than bronze.

To err is human, to err spectacularly can be divine comedy.

Irish boxing continues to enjoy success on the international stage despite mounting problems

The reputation of Irish amateur boxing has suffered because of our tendency to focus intensely on certain sports when the Olympics roll around and ignore them the rest of the time.

Two years ago it was easy to construct a pretty simple moral tale. Billy Walsh was the saviour of boxing in this country, forced to foreign fields by malign and unimaginative administrators. The poor showing at the Olympics showed that boxing’s spell in the limelight had come and gone. Next story please.

Those in charge of Irish boxing and those who work at grassroots level, though, didn’t have the option of deciding they weren’t interested now that Katie Taylor, Michael Conlan and Paddy Barnes had turned pro. Like the similarly derided ‘dinosaurs’ of the GAA and ‘blazers’ of the FAI, they’re left to keep things going when public and media attention has moved on.

They’re doing a pretty good job. This has been the best year ever for Irish boxing at underage level and the latest tour de force came at the European Junior Championships in Russia where Ireland took 13 medals, more than anyone else except the host nation who won 19. After England, who won 12, the next best total was seven. Traditionally strong nations such as Germany, Italy and Azerabaijan were far behind us.

Gold medals went to bantamweight Ellie-Mai Gartland from Clonmel and featherweight Lauren Dempsey from the famous Ryston club in Newbridge, who beat home fighter Azalia Aminava in her final.

As has been the case in not just boxing but Irish sport in general, this year women were to the forefront. There were silvers for Castlerea’s Lisa O’Rourke and for Sinnain Glynn of Offaly’s Cloghan BC and bronzes for Breda Quilligan of Rathkeale, Raphoe’s Leah Gallen, Leanne Murphy of the Togher club in Cork city and Kori Goad from the Cashen Vale club in Ballybunion.

The lads weren’t too shabby either with a silver for Patrick Myers of Sligo City and bronzes for Barry O’Connor of the Sliabh Luachra club in Castleisland, Jon McConnell of Belfast’s Holy Trinity and Michael Donohue of St Michaels Athy. The 13 medals will be going to 10 different counties with all four provinces getting in on the act.

Meanwhile, Dearbhla Rooney of the Sean McDermott club in Manorhamilton was winning bronze at featherweight in the World Youth Olympics. Which makes it 14 medals from 11 counties. That’s a spread of excellence which the likes of hockey, rowing and equestrian sports could only dream of. The IABA may not have covered itself with glory during the Walsh saga but in terms of promoting its sport to a high standard the Association has few rivals.

That’s why scaremongering stories about the sport in this country following recent gangland-related incidents are not just irresponsible but foolish. Those incidents have, after all, little to do with the kids learning the sport all over the country, many of them from places which are scarcely hotbeds of organised crime.

The IABA has always been fond of proclaiming that ‘boxing is Ireland’s most successful Olympic sport.’ They’ve a right to be proud of that, which is why it’s a pity that the sport’s Olympic future is currently in jeopardy. This is not because of controversial decisions at the last games, but stems from IOC concerns that the sport’s world governing body, the AIBA, seems set to elect Gafur Rakhimov as president next month.

Rakhimov, who’s been interim president since January, has been named by the US Treasury Department as one of Uzbekistan’s leading criminals. He’s alleged to have links with the drug trade. The IOC has frozen all payments to the organisation and warned that Rakhimov’s reputation is “affecting not just the reputation of AIBA and boxing but of sport in general.” They’re also unimpressed by procedural jiggery-pokery which has prevented anyone from standing against Rakhimov, though vice-president Serik Konakbaev of Kazakhstan is trying to get on the ballot paper.

Should the sport be excluded from the 2020 games it will have a hard job getting back in. And that would be an awful pity for the Irish youngsters whose ambition is to box in the Olympics. Saying, ‘I don’t care, boxing deserves to go because there was a bad decision against Mick Conlan’, is a cheap and lazy response in the circumstances.

The sport of boxing has done a lot of good things in this country. Not least among these is the outlet it’s provided for the Travelling community. In the week that Peter Casey tried to spice up the Presidential campaign by injecting some racial hatred, it’s worth remembering the Travellers, from Joe Ward to John Joe Nevin to some of this year’s underage stars, who’ve represented Ireland brilliantly on the international stage.

It’s more than that plonker Casey will ever do.

The last word: Local heroes produce wonderful storylines

Few things in Irish sport are more heartening than seeing clubs reach new heights during county final season. Imagine how they must feel in Ennistymon where last Saturday’s win over Clare football giants Kilmurry-Ibrickane has put them into a first county senior decider.

On the same day Bennettsbridge reached a first Kilkenny senior hurling final since 1974 after beating Clara. The Bridge were a junior team as recently as 2014 before embarking on a remarkable run which brought them successive All-Ireland club junior and intermediate titles. And today in Wexford Park, Gorey club Naomh éanna will play their first county senior hurling decider, against St Martin’s.

But the story which has really caught my eye is that of Castlerahan. The Ballyjamesduff club have never won the Cavan senior football championship but they’ve reached the last three finals, losing one by a single point and another by two points after a replay. Think of the gumption required to bounce back from those disappointments.

Yet bounce back they have and today Castlerahan face Crosserlough in the final. Crosserlough haven’t won a title themselves since completing six in a row in 1972 but what neutral could begrudge Castlerahan a belated big day in Breffni?

* * * * *

The performances of our under 19 team in the European Championship qualifiers over the past couple of weeks have provided a ray of light at a dark time for Irish soccer. Managed by former Derry City and Finn Harps player Tom Mohan, Ireland won all three group games to reach the elite qualifying stage in March.

The most notable result was a 2-1 victory over Holland who won last year’s under 17 championship having beaten Ireland in a controversial quarter-final penalty shoot-out. Stars of that Irish team, Troy Parrott of Spurs and Adam Idah of Norwich City, have also figured prominently for the under 19s.

Others to watch out for are Southampton’s Will Ferry who hit the winner against Holland and team captain Lee O’Connor of Manchester United who subdued highly-rated Chelsea striker Daishawn Redan. O’Connor is a product of Waterford city club Villa and was one of three players nominated as United under 18 player of the year last season.

* * * * *

Karate is a sport which doesn’t often hit the headlines in Ireland but Blarney teenager Seán McCarthy-Crean may change that. From the Cloghroe club, McCarthy-Crean took bronze in the 68kg category at the World Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires.

In February the talented youngster won silver at the European Championships in Sochi. Boxer Dearbhla Rooney also took bronze in Argentina but the Irish performance of the games came from Tallaght swimmer Niamh Coyne.

The 17-year-old was sixth at halfway in the 100m breaststroke but stormed through to take silver with Ireland’s World Junior champion Mona McSharry finishing fourth, just two hundredths of a second off a medal.

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