But now as we head into the final two rounds of Heineken Cup pool games we are facing the very real possibility of none of our three teams making the quarterfinals this year.
Ulster are practically out, but Munster and Leinster can still theoretically top their pools. However, at this stage I think they would both be happy to get the best runners-up spot. On Friday night, Munster, who have lost two Heineken Cup finals, travel to France to play Castres, whom they beat at Thomond Park at the end of October. Paul O’Connell is back after a hand injury and the Irish second row is a big addition to Munster’s forward pack, but their defence still lacks any flair. A win in France would set them up nicely for their final pool game at fortress Thomond against table toppers Sale on Jan 21. Munster have been winning their games, but have failed to pick up bonus points for tries scored.
Leinster, who have never qualified for a Heineken final, have lost twice this season, but they have picked up four bonus points along the way. After a poor start, Leinster are looking much sharper now under coach Michael Cheika and they are buoyed by the return of captain Brian O’Driscoll and the equally exciting Denis Hickie. They should beat Glasgow at the RDS on Saturday next, but then face a difficult last game, away to pool leaders Bath on Sunday week.
Unlike the other two, who are second in their pool, Ulster find themselves in third place. They are home to pool leaders Biarritz on Friday and finish with an away game against Treviso. Even if they win their last two games, it looks
like an early exit for Ulster once again.
CITIES GET LION’S
SHARE OF AWARDS
Eircom League champions Cork City and runners-up Derry City dominate the nominations for the Soccer Writers’ Personality of the Year award, which will be presented at a banquet in Dublin on Friday night. Cork manager Damien Richardson must be the favorite for the award and also nominated from Cork are players Joe Gamble and George O’Callaghan.
Derry City manager Stephen Kenny is also nominated as are two of his players Peter Hutton and Mark Farren. And the goalkeepers from both clubs are in the short list for the Goalkeeper of the Year award. Derry’s David Forde and Cork’s Michael Devine are nominated along with Barry Murphy of Shamrock Rovers.
KICKING KING IS OUT
Kicking King, the ante-post favorite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup is out of this year’s big race on St Patrick’s Day. The Tom Taaffe-trained eight-year-old, had looked good at Christmas when winning the King George VI Chase at Sandown. But early in the New Year the horse’s trainer confirmed that Kicking King would not be bidding to retain the trophy he won last March.
Taaffe said: ‘The horse has strained his left fore tendon, it probably happened at Sandown. The injury is to the upper part of his tendon. If a horse is to have an injury then that’s the place to have it. He has shown good healing powers in the past, but we won’t rush him back. He might be back racing by next Christmas, but at this stage our target is the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2007.’ Last year Kicking King was declared a non-starter 19 days prior to the big race having scoped dirty, but ten days before the meeting he was declared fit to run. However, this time there is no hope of a quick recovery. Another Irish horse, the Michael Hourigan-trained Beef or Salmon has now been installed as 5/1 favorite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Also out of the Cheltenham Festival are Rathgar Beau and Harchibald. The latter had an operation on New Year’s Day to remove a piece of birch from his leg which he probably picked up at Leopardstown at Christmas. Rathgar Beau injured a tendon at Mallow last month and is also out of Cheltenham and the rest of the jumping season.
RUN IN SCOTLAND
Sonia O’Sullivan will travel from Australia to compete in the Great Edinburgh Cross Country race on Jan. 14. O’Sullivan, who hopes to represent Australia in the Commonwealth Games in March, will run in the colors of Ireland at the Scottish meeting. The race, at Holyrood Park, is expected to attract some world-class runners.
CORK HURLERS WON’T
FLY WITH ALL STARS
There is controversy each November when the All-Star football and hurling teams are announced. Most of the complaints a few months back concerned the selection of the football team when just three counties provided the 15 All-Stars.
But now it has been revealed that possibly none of Cork players selected in the 2004 or 2005 All-Stars hurling team will travel to Singapore for an exhibition game between the 2004 and 2005 winners later this month. That decision is good news for the replacement players who have already been called up: Eoin Kelly (Waterford), Philip Maher (Tipperary), Eoin Larkin (Kilkenny) and Niall Gilligan and Brian Lohan (Clare).
The official reason for the Cork players absence is that they are currently on holiday in South Africa and as amateurs would have difficulty getting time off from work again for a trip with the All-Stars to Singapore on Jan. 18. But in Ireland naturally some people are suggesting that there are ulterior motives and that the Cork players are still annoyed that goalkeeper Donal Og Cusack failed to get an All-Star. GAA spokesman Fergal McGill said ‘We should not read too much into the withdrawals. Two years ago we had a similar situation with the trip to Phoenix. That time the Cork players were on holiday in Vietnam and nobody blinked an eye, everybody just said it was unfortunate.’
All-Star tours were a good idea back in the days when GAA players didn’t get official holidays. But now every club and county who win anything are rewarded with a holiday in the sun and they clearly it’s difficult to fit in the annual All-Stars tour in January into their schedule. The sun holidays are not confined to winners as the Wicklow senior footballers, who won nothing in 2005, are currently on holiday in Gran Canaria.
SHELS OFFLOAD STARS
Last season Shelbourne signed five big-name players before the start of the season and they were odds-on favorites to make it a hat-trick of Eircom League Premier Division titles. This time around the Reds appear to be willing to release some of their large panel. Irish under-21 midfielder Wesley Hoolahan has already left for Livingston, but the proposed transfer of Jason Byrne to Swedish club Djurgardens is off.
Apparently Shels would have had to hand over a sizable share of the transfer fee to Bray Wanderers, who sold Byrne to Shels. Glen Fitzpatrick, who spent most of last season on the subs bench at Tolka Park has joined Drogheda United.
Meanwhile Shamrock Rovers have confirmed that they will play some of their first division games at a Premier Division ground. The Hoops are going back to Tolka Park, which they will share with Shelbourne.
In hurling, the students of University College Dublin would, given the opportunity, probably beat the Dublin senior hurling team. But things are different in football where The Dubs should be too strong for the students. Well that’s what I think anyway and my hunch will be put to the test this evening when Dublin play UCD in the O’Byrne Cup under the Parnell Park floodlights. The winners play Wicklow or Wexford in the next round.
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RYAN TO COACH TIPP CLUB
Tom Ryan, who quit as manager of the Westmeath senior hurlers last summer, is back in management. The Limerick man has been appointed manager of Tipperary club Loughmore-Castleiney. Ryan, always an outspoken character, said he will give it a go for two years. Ryan was in charge of the last Limerick team to win the Munster championship in 1996.
In Kildare, Ben Dorney is the new senior hurling manager, taking over from Morgan Lawlor. Dorney, from Ballyhea in North Cork was in charge of Dublin club St. Vincent’s last year. His first game in charge of the Lilywhites will be in the Kehoe Cup later this month.
And Wicklow are on the look out for a new hurling manager following Willie Carley’s decision to step down. The Wexford native will continue to manage his own county’s senior Camogie team.
BEST BELFAST MEMORIAL
City councilors last week unanimously agreed to provide a permanent memorial to George Best in the grounds of Belfast City Hall. The memorial, which will be either a statue or a sculpture, will be built after discussions with the family of the former soccer star.
Councilor Jim Rodgers, who proposed the motion said: “At the end of the day it will be for the family to approve what type of statue or sculpture they want erected. I would hope it will be placed at the front of City Hall where most people, including tourists can see it.”
It’s expected that the monument, when approved, will cost around