Monday 11 December 2017

'Auld enemy' now just white ghosts blocking our way

Gerry 'Ginger' McLoughlin scores a famous try against England at Twickenham in 1982
Gerry 'Ginger' McLoughlin scores a famous try against England at Twickenham in 1982
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

In Croke Park eight years ago, Mary McAleese resembled a mother preparing to wave her sons to war. Maybe she still had the mud on her brogues from four years earlier, but the sight of Ireland's President bending so low and earnest to take each out-stretched hand in two of her own spoke of an occasion already over-run with trembling energy.

What did she say to the team?

"This is the day!" she kept telling them. "This is the day!"

'Bull' Hayes blubbered like a child during the anthems and, when it was all over, the sight of an obliterated England team applauding Ireland off seemed to answer a few million prayers. Maybe we could, obliquely, even thread it in our minds to some kind of late surge of the native spirit against those Black and Tan bullets that had cut down 14 innocents there in another lifetime.

Rugby was the least of it that day.

Dignity

It seemed to matter inordinately to Irish people just how we stood, the way we bore the weight of all that history. More important the shine in our eyes than the anger in our singing. Maybe nothing felt better than our dignity that day. And how it rhymed with England's.

Martin Corry led his team with a beautiful, intuitive sense of what was unfolding and, if there was a right way to lose, his England surely found it.

You think back to that day and it seems ever more absurd how we still side with cartoon thoughts when the 'Swing Low' anthem comes rolling off the planes and ferries of a Six Nations weekend.

England will forever be the 'auld enemy' in back-page parlance, the team we are programmed to meet with reflex antipathy. And maybe there will always be some deep, subliminal bonus mark in the mind of an Irish player for beating England.

When Eddie O'Sullivan proposed applauding the new world champions onto the Twickenham pitch in '04, the response of his players was unequivocal as a gunshot. "You know you were talking about clapping them on the field tomorrow, then kicking them off it," Brian O'Driscoll said to him after a team meeting. "Well f**k the clapping bit!"

Yet anecdotally, the evidence suggests that Ireland players gel better with their English counterparts, both socially and on Lions tours, than they do with their Celtic cousins (certainly the Welsh branch, as Warren Gatland so infamously averred in '09).

And old rugby gatherings will never tire of John Pullin's post-match line in the old Hibernian Hotel 43 years ago that England "might not be very good but at least we turned up" in a jibe at the Welsh and Scots, whose refusal to travel to Dublin a year earlier had, perhaps, cost Ireland a Grand Slam.

For generations, maybe Irish rugby's relationship with England was simply tuned to some form of incoherent paranoia.

But now? What is there to dislike about Stuart Lancaster and the team he brings to Dublin this weekend apart from their obvious threat? Does winning the Millennium Trophy hold any more emotional purchase for us than claiming the Centenary Quaich?

Is there a single Irish player programmed to see this game then as anything more epochal than another step closer to a successful title defence?

England will, undeniably, be formidable with their enormous pack and powerful midfield hydraulics. The way some have been talking them up, they may even have to take the field under the direction of airport marshals with glow-sticks.

But Ireland still expect to win. They do so because, under Joe Schmidt, they are unemotional about how they do their work. They don't roll dice, they strategise.

Actually, Schmidt strikes me as the kind of man who would pack two wardrobes for a hill-walk. He leaves little to chance and, better still, understands the transience of fame. Yet, in Lancaster tomorrow, he meets a kindred spirit.

Much of the old hubris and self-regard we associate with good England teams has been hosed away on this coach's watch and they come to Dublin wearing humility like a black tie. If they win, people might even see them as World Cup contenders come autumn. But, for now, they remain a giant assembly of individuals with everything still to prove.

Expect Schmidt to pack a sniper's suitcase.

Breen defying the odds in euro rally title bid

It probably felt a kind of discharge from Purgatory for Craig Breen (right) to win the recent Rally Liepaja in Latvia.

He'd slipped off the road gallingly early during the opening round of the European Championship in Austria and, in a viciously punitive sport, that could have been ruinous for his whole season. The Waterford driver was, after all, trying to do something that should not really be feasible.

He was looking to outpace the fastest East Europeans and Scandinavians on snow-covered roads.

But, in becoming the first Irishman to win a winter rally, Breen catapulted himself up to second in the Championship table, with his home event, the Circuit of Ireland, next on the ERC list this Easter.

Breen was in Lisburn this week for the launch of that event, admitting that the Circuit trophy is the one he wants to win more than any other.

For Circuit director Bobby Willis, that would probably represent the dream scenario: a home winner to the rally he has worked so assiduously to restore to something approaching its former glory.

If Breen can beat Europe's finest in the snow, there's no reason to believe he can't take a resounding step towards a European crown now on Ulster asphalt in April.

Watching him try will be one of the truly spine-tingling treats of this Irish sporting year.

Football's nose still in its shoes over Qatar 2022

How profoundly depressing the blaze of uproar suddenly running through European football this week over Qatar 2022, the black comedy that keeps on giving.

It was caught in microcosm on Sky Sports, Alan Shearer (right) bringing his noted sagacity to bear with an expression of concern for those trying to get home for Christmas from a tournament scheduled to end on December 23.

Of all the asterisks placed under FIFA's greatest modern pantomime, this was a kind of watershed declaration of football's struggle to lift its nose from its shoes.

The game is uptight, essentially, because of the disruption a winter tournament might cause, not because every last aspect of Qatar 2022 sits as an insult to human intelligence.

Qatar's grandiosely termed Supreme Committee offered re-assurance this week that it was taking steps to protect the migrant workers said to be dying in small multiples on the construction of Disney-like stadium projects in microwave conditions.

What it did not do was explain why so many of these workers had passports confiscated while forced to live in the kind of conditions you or I might baulk at for a house pet.

Money begat Qatar 2022 and money, rest assured, will thus over-ride all moral quibbles about a host nation stained with an abysmal human rights record (when did that ever matter to a global sports audience?) and linked to allegations of funding for those charming murderers in black who chop innocent people's heads off.

So the story is just a sewer backing up now, football missing the point with every fresh, asinine utterance.

Anyone thought of asking Robbie Savage his view?

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