Saturday 16 December 2017

Hold the Back Page - A triumph that will define an era

Heather O'Brien shows the kind of determination against New Zealand that has guaranteed a glorious future for Irish women's rugby
Heather O'Brien shows the kind of determination against New Zealand that has guaranteed a glorious future for Irish women's rugby

It's hard not to think of Tuesday's extraordinary victory by the Irish women's rugby team against New Zealand in the World Cup as the distaff equivalent of the Irish cricket team's defeat of Pakistan in their World Cup seven years ago.

Back then while most Irish fans knew, in a kind of abstract way, that there was a national cricket team, the idea that it would ever give rise to a major celebration would have seemed extremely fanciful. But then came St Patrick's Day in Kingston and ever since the side has operated on an entirely new plane in terms of public respect and attention.

Similarly, while the women's rugby team received plenty of deserved praise for last year's Grand Slam-winning campaign in the Six Nations, Tuesday's win seemed to be on another level altogether. The win over the Black Ferns, as the female All Blacks are known, had something of the epochal and legendary about it.

The ebb and flow of the contest helped, for starters. You had that tremendous start by Ireland where they showed no fear, utterly dominated the opening stages and came within inches of a try by No 8 Heather O'Brien. But, crucially in terms of showing us what Ireland were up against, this early dominance was followed by the sucker punch combo of a penalty and a try for the All Blacks which left Ireland 8-0 down after 25 minutes.

The speed and ruthlessness of the move which put Selica Winiata in for that try suggested we were in familiar Ireland-New Zealand territory: promise and honest effort on our side running aground against the superior quality of the opposition. And every time Winiata or winger Honey Hireme, whose nickname of Honey Bill Williams gives a good idea of what she can do, got the ball in hand we got a notion of their firepower.

Yet the indefatigable O'Brien got in for a crucial try before the break which was converted by Niamh Briggs to leave just a point in it. And when Ireland repelled some brutal pressure early in the second half, you began to suspect that something special might be cooking. It was. A Serge Blanco-esque counter-attack from fullback Briggs gave winger Alison Miller the chance to outpace the New Zealand cover.

A touchline conversion from Briggs put Ireland 14-11 ahead and when New Zealand equalised with a penalty it was the Dungarvan woman who responded with one of her own 10 minutes from time to give Ireland a 17-14 lead they never lost. There were a few nervy moments before the end but it was Ireland who ended the game on the attack. Stirring stuff by any standards.

If Briggs was the standout, Miller, O'Brien, centre Lynne Cantwell, hooker Gillian Bourke and wing-forward Claire Molloy weren't far behind. In fact, the keynote of the performance was the extraordinary diligence and work rate of everyone involved. Even if women's rugby hasn't registered on your radar before it was easy to become enraptured by a team which wore the green jersey with such pride. This is the kind of performance you dream of seeing from our teams at international level.

If you want to put the victory into perspective, consider this: the Black Ferns have won the last four World Cups. And, having missed the 1994 tournament, they haven't actually lost a game in the finals since 1991. They are an even more dominant outfit than the All Blacks. In 2010, their average winning margin in the finals was just under 31 points a game. In 2006, it was almost 34 points. They had opened this year's tournament with a 74-point 14-try thrashing of Kazakhstan. So this was probably as big a shock result as you'll see anywhere in the world of sport this year.

Because, while Ireland's Grand Slam last year of two years ago showed that the game is on the up here, we still wouldn't have been anyone's idea of the team most likely to turn over the world champions. In 40 games against the Six Nations big two of England and France, there have been just three victories. Ireland departed the 2010 finals after a 40-3 trouncing by USA, who we've already beaten in this year's tournament. In 2006, there was a 43-0 defeat by France and in 2002 a 57-0 loss to Canada and an 18-0 one against Japan.

I mention these results not in any way to belittle the pioneers of the international game in this country. In fact, the willingness of the players on those teams to struggle on kept the flame burning long enough for a result like last Tuesday's to become possible. But it does show the remarkable strides the national team has made in the last few years. Credit must go to coach Philip Doyle. Doyle has coached men's senior club rugby in Leinster and he was at the helm of the women from 2003 to 2006 before returning as coach in 2010. That was just four years ago but he admitted in the run-up to those finals that eighth would be a very creditable result.

They finished seventh and have motored on since. This time around they have made the semi-finals for the first time and, while England and the All Blacks remain the favourites, no-one is writing off the possibility of further upsets from the Irish. And this despite an enormous disadvantage in terms of population and financial resources compared to the big two. England have a staggering 170 senior clubs while 19 of the Black Ferns are paid by the New Zealand Rugby Football Union with top players earning at least $30,000. The women's All-Ireland League, on the other hand, consists of just eight teams.

The IRFU have ambitious plans and are joining with the Irish Sports Council to invest €1.1m in Women's Sevens with a view to qualifying for the Olympics in Rio. They've embarked on a series of assessment camps in an effort to find players who might figure in that squad. There have been a host of 'give it a try' days at rugby clubs throughout the country and a screening programme to find girls for a Sevens team in two major underage international tournaments next month.

Yet could any amount of money have provided the same boost as that victory over the All Blacks just did? Just as Katie Taylor's exploits in the ring have led to a generation of young women trying to emulate her and making their own mark at international level, chances are that many sports-mad young women who get a look at that Briggs-Miller combination for the try and realise that here is yet another game where they have a chance to be the best in the world will sign up in their droves. The heroines of Marcoussis aren't just providing Irish women's rugby with an exciting present; they're practically guaranteeing it a glorious future too. They are one game from a world cup final and two from a world title.

Five years ago RTé ran a poll to pick Ireland's Greatest Ever Sportsperson. They shouldn't have bothered with the 'person' bit really as 29 of the 32 shortlisted were men. If you, like myself, have daughters, you can vouch for the fact that being left out of things like that annoys them; they like female role models and female heroines. You'd hope if that list is drawn up in five years' time it might be a bit more balanced.

Anyone who disagrees with that, and the few mean-spirited misogynists who always seem to try and talk down female sporting achievement in this country, should take a look at the Briggs break and the Miller try again. Look and learn. There's more to sport than boy meets boy.

I think there will also be girls across the country who'll get a big kick out of hearing that the movie the team watched the night before the game was not the usual macho sports vehicle but the brilliant Disney musical Frozen, a favourite with my daughters on the grounds that, as one of them explained to me last week, "The princesses save each other, they don't need to wait for a man to do it." Which strikes me as a great message the night before you face into playing New Zealand. You don't have to be macho to be tough. There's more than one way to topple a fern.

Or in the words of Frozen's great anthem, 'Let It Go', "It's time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through." Let the storm rage on.

In Dunne we had a true hero

I suppose the image which will be brought up most often when discussing the retirement of Richard Dunne from international football last week at the age of 34 is of him clambering to his feet in Moscow with scars on his face from a collision with the running track. That scoreless draw in 2011 ultimately enabled Ireland to qualify for the following year's European Championship finals and Dunne was great on the night. Without him we'd have been sunk.

Yet there's something about that picture of Dunne which makes him seem like a kind of barnstorming Roy of the Rovers figure, one of those death-or-glory Mick McCarthy-type folk heroes who made up for a lack of ability with commitment to the cause. Dunne never lacked commitment but he never lacked quality either. He was a terrific Premier League centre-back for several seasons, most notably in the 2009-10 season when he made the PFA team of the year ahead of the likes of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry when playing for Aston Villa.

The honour must have been especially sweet because it came after Dunne had been moved on from Manchester City where he'd been Player of the Year every season from 2004-2005 to 2007-2008. Bizarre comments by City's chief executive Gary Cook at the time made it seem as though the transfer had as much to do with marketing as footballing ability and Dunne would have served City better than Joleon Lescott who came in to replace him.

Another misleading notion is the one that he was always a hero to Irish fans. I can remember being at the vital World Cup qualification match against Portugal in 2001 when he got quite a bit of barracking from the home support.

Dunne was heavier then and looked cumbersome against the speedy Portuguese attack, yet my memory is that he actually made some vital interceptions. Anyway, Gary Breen got the nod ahead of him for the finals.

It's not quite true that he was a fixture in the national team either. When Mick McCarthy went after those finals, Dunne was left out most of the time by Brian Kerr. Brought back into the team late in the qualification campaign for the 2006 World Cup finals, he was outstanding. When, in the final match of that campaign, Ireland needed just one goal at home to Switzerland to qualify it was Dunne who drove the team forward in the closing stages and almost saved Kerr's job.

He was probably at his peak during the 2010 World Cup qualification campaign, scoring vital goals both home and away against Bulgaria and repaying the obvious faith of Giovanni Trapattoni. The Henry handball was a bad break for him personally because when we made the following European Championship finals Dunne was injured and couldn't do himself justice.

It was a rare and unavoidable lapse. Because once he'd turned his career around in 2003 after Manchester City were poised to show him the road, what Ireland got from Richard Dunne was 100 per cent every time he showed up for work.

He needed no scars to be a hero.

Limerick's loose cannons have fairytale in them

Last November after Sligo Rovers had won the FAI Cup final for probably the last time in at least a decade, I ended up celebrating in one of those late-night bars in the Harcourt Street area of our capital city. Next thing two sturdy-looking gents tapped me on the shoulder. "Are you Eamonn Sweeney?" they asked. I couldn't deny it. "Have you got Conlon with you," said one of the boys, who informed me that they were from the Castlecomer area of Kilkenny.

This was, you may remember, at a time when my back page colleague had written a few lines about not being all that fond of Kilkenny hurlers, and been rewarded with the kind of reaction you'd expect from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if you bought him The Satanic Verses for Christmas. I didn't have him with me but I didn't disown him either, even though I invoked my Kilkenny ancestry and pointed out that I'm usually biased towards the Cats. The lads turned out to be as decent a pair as you could find, I denied the existence of some grand Sunday Independent conspiracy to denigrate the Black and Amber and we parted on good terms.

Now here's the problem. I believe that this year's hurling championship needs Limerick to score an upset victory today. Sorry lads. And I can only hope my late father will still keep that prime spot near the air conditioner for me in that warm spot below. The problem is that I've been spoiled by last year's hurling championship

After several years of crushing predictability, we all needed a break, didn't we? It wasn't just the six wins in seven years for Kilkenny, it was the fact that there'd been three years in a row of finals between themselves and Tipperary, the only time in GAA history we'd seen a hat-trick of identical pairings. You hardly needed to play the bloody championship. And then along came glorious, lunatic 2013, Tipp gone in the qualifiers, Kilkenny gone in the quarters, Dublin's first provincial title in 52 years, Limerick's first in 17, Cork out of the doldrums and Clare winning the whole thing after two classic finals. Maybe the best hurling championship ever.

So you see, if we end up back with Kilkenny and Tipp in the final again this year, it's going to be like a hurling equivalent of the Arab Spring, a brief flurry of excitement, a vision of a bright future and then the same dictatorship back in charge again. And while Brian Cody's Kilkenny team are the greatest ever to have played the game, after a while - whether it's Mick O'Dwyer's Kerry or Alex Ferguson's Manchester United or Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls - you just want to see someone new at the top.

And who better to make this year's championship special than Limerick, the eternal under-achievers, the loose cannons, the Mayo of hurling. One of the great counties of the game and just one All-Ireland title to their credit since Mick Mackey won his final one in 1940, against Kilkenny as it happens. They beat Kilkenny again in 1973 but there have been five final defeats since then. Like Mayo, they specialise in leaving themselves an impossible task by giving away early goals, two in the first nine minutes against Kilkenny seven years ago, two in the first eight against Galway in 1980. Though just for variety they threw away the 1994 final by letting Offaly score 2-5 in the last five minutes. That kind of suffering can't be good for them.

So I'd like Limerick to win today. Not because I have anything against Kilkenny, but because I know they'll come back and probably win three or more of the next five or so. Whereas Limerick, who knows? It's nothing personal against the land of my father, it's just that I'd like another special hurling year.

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