Sunday 19 January 2020

Ireland's rugby stars deserve more than 15 minutes of fame

Ashleigh Baxter, Ailis Egan and Vicky McGinn celebrate their historic win over New Zealand
Ashleigh Baxter, Ailis Egan and Vicky McGinn celebrate their historic win over New Zealand
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

On Thursday of last week, I played golf with a neighbour of Ireland rugby full-back, Niamh Briggs. He has spent much of his adult life working the line with serious hurling teams, but this man spoke of Briggs with something approaching awe.

She was, he said, one of the toughest competitors he had encountered in sport, as innately hard as any hurler to wear the jersey of their native county, Waterford.

He happened to know that Briggs was carrying an injury into the women's World Cup, an injury that – theoretically – ought to have precluded her from even travelling to France. But theory was never going to win this particular arm-wrestle.

Tuesday sent a remarkable burst of light into the lives of Briggs and her team-mates with that wonderful victory over New Zealand in Marcoussis. The light proved inquisitive and, inevitably, innocent. It had followed them, too, towards the end of the 2013 Six Nations as they ground out that mud-caked Grand Slam victory in Milan, Briggs' two penalties settling history.

And it had flickered on the periphery of their endeavours to defend that crown through spring.


But the light reflected curiosity more than solid interest. women's rugby occupied the same place in our minds as women's Gaelic football, camogie, maybe women's boxing even in that strange era of ignorance before Katie Taylor and her fellow 'warrior women' went to London's East End and blew the Olympic fuses.

Briggs lists Taylor as the sportsperson she most admires because, as she puts it, the Bray boxer "changed the face of women's sport in Ireland and still doesn't get enough recognition."

The truth, of course, is that virtually nothing women do in sport is properly recognised because, deep down, their best will always be seen as some kind of dilution of the real thing. You wouldn't pit Lynn Cantwell against Brian O'Driscoll or Cora Staunton against Aidan O'Shea after all, would you? Taylor against Paddy Barnes? Well, different rules have always applied with Katie.

But our relationship with women's sport is, largely, short-term and condescending. In the media, particularly, we treat it with some kind of deep-set attention deficit.

And that's the cruel thing about this week's front-page news. Ireland pretty much had to beat the best team in the world to get a sufficient tug on the national sleeve. They had to effectively separate themselves from this country's previous history with rugby teams wearing black (accepting Munster's much celebrated midweek triumph of '78).

And it's been revealing to observe the response in New Zealand to defeat for the seemingly invincible 'Black Ferns'. Ireland's scrum-half Tania Rosser is a native Kiwi who has spent the last 14 years living in Ireland. Her presence on the Irish team facilitated a gentle trick of evasion.

Rather than fixate on any great forensic, the New Zealand media took their cameras instead to the Hastings home of Tania's parents Nancy and Dennis and dug into the family history. The Rossers came across as intensely proud of a daughter they had always tried to steer away from rugby.

Tania herself admitted she had cried down the phone-line after Tuesday's win, knowing how her parents had been up at 3.0am to watch the game, dressing themselves in Ireland shirts in the family living-room.

In radio interviews, she sounded remarkably grounded and logical about beating the tournament favourites. It had, above all, been a triumph for the collective she told us, for concentration and organisation and attention to detail. "And we haven't finished!" she said bluntly.

Which was pretty much the mantra of every last one of Philip Doyle's remarkable group.

Ordinarily in serious sport, amateurs have no business beating professionals. But the human spirit is a mysterious force and, sometimes, extraordinary things happen if people are determined to extract every last ounce of what it is that resides within.

The odds probably still weigh heavily against Ireland winning this World Cup and, chances are, the players will slip back gently into ordinary lives within days of their return from France. In time, they will exist again only on the distant fringes of our imaginations.

But last Tuesday, they called a whole nation into their world. And we were spellbound.

Armagh phoney war now bordering on the juvenile

It's hard to avoid the suspicion that Armagh's game of media hide-and-seek is now just a self-psyching gambit designed to sustain the mirage of a hostile outside world.

That such a world doesn't exist is immaterial. What matters is that Armagh bring themselves to Croke Park this evening in a general atmosphere – however contrived – of siege.

Beat Donegal and they can applaud themselves on a perfect strategy, both on and off the field. Lose and, next week, the media will all but cease to remember they even exist. So, this is a phoney war with, face it, ambivalence on every side.

I doubt Armagh's supporters have been greatly discomfited by the lack of player quotes around. If anything, they've probably been amused.

And the media? Well, actually, this kind of squabble invariably fills a lot more column inches than the earnest assertions of any inter-county man, blowing inevitable smoke up an opponent's derriere. Paul Grimley is right about having the "basic human right" not to talk into a microphone if he so chooses.

In GAA life, the pre and post-game interview is an act of courtesy, not the honouring of some contract.

But they, clearly, led the GAA authorities to believe that that courtesy would be restored this week. To then inexplicably withdraw it again, was – to borrow one of Grimley's pet words – juvenile. The outside world isn't scowling at Armagh, mind. It's just trying to stifle a yawn.

There's life after suarez for liverpool fans

The inevitable apprehension with which Liverpool supporters are contemplating a new Premier League season in the absence of Luis Suarez is entirely natural.

And, so, Thursday's brief rumblings about the club reputedly being in pole position to sign highly-regarded Colombian striker Radamel Falcao from Monaco sent Twitter into a tizzy.

It didn't last long, but, for a few hours, their title odds looked certain to be peeled back pretty dramatically.

Still, Liverpool without Suarez (or Falcao) may not be the blunt instrument so many seem to imagine.

Their win ratio with the Uruguayan last season was 45pc. Without? 61pc.

After all he has done so far at the club, Brendan Rodgers surely deserves the supporters' trust and patience.

Irish Independent

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