Wednesday 21 February 2018

Lions have chance to make history in a city steeped with successes of Irish sporting heroes

Billy Keane

Billy Keane

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the Lions play tonight. That's an Australia night. For such is the wonderfulness and weirdness of this little revolving ball we cling to, night and day meet at the same time, in the same room.

So, millions of us will turn morning into night and somehow transport our being into another time zone and to another faraway place. It is now possible to be in two places at the same time.

Tonight and this morning, sporting history is in the making in the great city of Melbourne. It was here in 1956 that young Ronnie Delany won the biggest race of the Olympics. This is the place where Dermot Weld became the first non-Australian to carry off the Melbourne Cup with Vintage Crop.

Tadhg Kennelly was the first foreigner to win an AFL title in Melbourne.

Yes, Melbourne has been good to the Irish and not just on the sports paddocks.

Thousands of our compatriots live in the city that has given them the dignity of work at a time when they have been denied that basic human right in their beloved, but flawed country of origin.

Watching the Lions has now become a communal experience.

A throwback to the days when neighbours gathered at the house with the radio. Men drank deep and were silent. Packed it was in the old kitchen. Static crackled like a pig on a spit. Every word was a treasure.

The home of my granduncle Jackeen Keane, the cattle jobber who had money, was a radio house.

The people backed out onto the street and those furthest back out of earshot were given second-hand information that was sometimes distorted by carelessness and bias. But they could all see the game in the mind's eye.

The recession has given us a sense of that shared experience. Not that many can afford the luxury of Sky Sports, who have the exclusive rights to the Test series. To be fair, Sky have done an excellent job and have been very fair to the Irish players – but it's all about 'moolah' isn't it?

We indirectly pay the outrageous wages of mercenary soccer players whose only loyalty is to their own unrelenting and insatiable greed. Anglo United. The culture is of loyalty to the corporate entity. Many have forsaken their own countries.

Yet the Lions carry the reminder of every blow that struck them. They play for pride and for the Pride. Paul O'Connell, a massive loss not just for his play, but for his strategies, will walk up the aisle in a few weeks' time with his arm in a cast. There is hardly a player on the field this morning who is not carrying an injury.

Many will pay a huge price for the hits. Think Mohammad Ali and the tolls the blows from big men stole from his once powerful and graceful body.

We are lucky science and, yes, moolah, has given us the opportunity to watch every minute live in the company of friends and neighbours. For now we gather in the Sky House.

Tea is made and rashers grilled. Fresh bread rolls are filled and men and women gather round the TV.

Yes this city has been good to the Irish. This morning Tommy Bowe, Jonathan Sexton, Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip wear the red jersey of the Lions. Sean O'Brien and Conor Murray will probably see action in a contest that will reap an attrition rate far above the normal.

Be sure this is a game where the hits will be ferocious and every ball will be fought for like it was the last one ever to be made.

Men are being made too big for sports now. Our sons tower over us. Every blow is twice what it was. There was a time when the big lads couldn't run. Fairytale's most celebrated burglar, 'Jack in the Beanstalk,' would have been well gobbled up by today's giants. Now the wingers are as big as the second-rows.

In years to come, these men will meet at dinners and after matches. The talk will be of paper pension deficits and plastic hips. Of grandchildren and how the eight- year-old scored two tries in tip rugby.

"How's the knee? I'm due a transplant," he'll say.

"Was it worth it?" they will be asked. We can only guess at the answer.

Young men never think of growing old. Ask a young lad the state pension age and he won't have a clue. So, what will they say then when they are old?

I have often asked the question of old heroes who walk with limps and one shoulder lower than the other.

The answer is nearly always the same. Yes, it was worth it. If I had my life to live all over again, I would still have played the game. They speak not so much of the winning, but of the camaraderie, the glory of being part of it all and the unity of purpose.

When the belt is buckled on the furthest notch and the hairline recedes over and beyond the saddle of the head, attitudes soften towards old foes. At reunions, they meet in quiet corners and find much in common.

The next day they say he wasn't such a bad fellow after all.

The Lions are only a game away from history; from a place on the top table at those dinners in 40 of 50 years time.

But the here and now is different. This long day's journey into night will be a battle that will test mind and body.

The rugby field in Melbourne is no country for old men.

Irish Independent

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