As a proud Irishman, he would have no doubt revelled in what was a highly impressive display, but part of him might have been wishing that some of the players he once coached hadn’t looked so full of self-belief.
Approaching the final days of Kerr’s reign, Damien Duff had been lacklustre, Robbie Keane appeared to have lost his spark, and as for team spirit, well…what team spirit? Ireland were shambolic as the World Cup qualifying campaign ground to an unedifying halt towards the end of last year.
Out went Kerr, a coach who had never played at a high level, and in came Steve Staunton, a great player who had never coached. The contrast between the two men couldn’t have been more marked, and from what was witnessed against Sweden, the contrast between the two teams couldn’t have been more marked.
Whereas Kerr had been infected by fear and loathing – fear of losing and apparent loathing for the media which were calling for his head – Staunton has breezed into the job with the sort of calm confidence that was conspicuous by its absence during both Kerr’s and his predecessor Mick McCarthy’s time at the helm.
And how the players responded. Not just by the convincing way they defeated Sweden, but also by the manner in which they did it. Judging by the celebrations after the goals by Duff and Keane, there already appears to be a genuine connection between the new manager and his charges.
Following his emphatic shot which put Ireland 2-0 in front, Keane, who has significantly been awarded the captaincy by Staunton, also indulged in some unashamed hugging with the squad’s physiotherapist Mick Byrne. A permanent fixture during both the Jack Charlton and McCarthy eras, Byrne was left out in the cold once Kerr took over.
Now, Byrne might not be required to speak at seminars conducted by the Institute of Chartered Physiotherapists, but he is a highly experienced cornerman who has worked in a number of sports, and perhaps more importantly, he is hugely popular among the players.
If he has been installed as a positive symbol of the new regime, then there was something of a surprise for journalists in the build-up to last week’s game. Used to frosty vibes given off by both Kerr and his squad, suddenly, here was Staunton ready to meet and greet over 24 hours before kick-off with as many as eight smiling players offered for interview.
Of course, these are early days, but while it might be unjust to compare the two landscapes in terms of the two managers, that is what has happened. Staunton good, Kerr bad.
There is another friendly game against Chile in May, and then the serious business of qualification for the 2008 European Championship finals begins in the autumn. That is when Staunton’s credentials should be examined in earnest, and not now in some beauty contest with his predecessor.
Kerr fell from grace, but to fall in sport, you have to have climbed first. Staunton has experienced the heights as a player, but as of now, he barely has one foot on the ladder.
spanner in works
You might not know this, and then again you might not care all that much, but Lansdowne Road in Dublin is the oldest rugby stadium in the world. The ground is positively steeped in history with its first international game between Ireland and England dating back to 1878.
The great New Zealand team of 1905, led by the legendary Donegal-born Dave Gallaher who later died at Passchendaele during the first world war, played there. Storied Irish players such as Jack Kyle, Tony O’Reilly, Tom Kiernan, Willie John McBride and Mike Gibson graced the pitch, and more recently Keith Wood and the Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll have burned themselves into Irish rugby folklore.
There have been days of high jubiliation such as when Ireland clinched the Triple Crown on three occasions in recent decades, 1982, 1985 and 2004, and probably more of intense frustration epitomised by the capitulation to Australia in the dying minutes of a dramatic World Cup quarter-final in 1991.
Outside of rugby, a young Diego Maradona came, saw and laid down a marker for the genius that would blossom later, while the leading Irish players of their generations such as John Giles, Liam Brady, Paul McGrath and Roy Keane all found a home from home at the IRFU headquarters.
So, while you would expect that a premium should be put on so much tradition, for all its longevity, Lansdowne Road has failed to move with the times. Other rugby grounds in Europe such as the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Twickenham in London and Murrayfield in Edinburgh reinvented themselves to comply with the demands of the modern spectator, however, the arrival of floodlighting and the installation of an electronic scoreboard turned out to be Irish rugby’s main concessions to high tech advancements.
The nearby magnificence of the new Croke Park only put Lansdowne Road’s decrepit condition into stark relief, and it came as no surprise when it was announced that the rugby and soccer governing bodies were joining forces, with some backing from the Irish taxpayer, to demolish the current stadium and to build a new 50,000 all-seater facility on the same site.
Better late than never, we thought. On top of the news, there was also the welcome outbreak of sporting ecumenism with the GAA offering Croke Park for major rugby and soccer internationals once the work at Lansdowne Road got underway next year.
Naturally, there were objections to the planning application by local residents, with the height of the proposed stadium apparently the main sticking point. However, another problem has emerged from a much less predictable source, that of Wanderers, one of the IRFU’s own clubs.
Wanderers have had a pavilion at Lansdowne Road for as long as anyone can remember, but the pavilion, and its bar, is only used on match days. For the rest of the rugby year, Wanderers make do with their own clubhouse and playing pitches about three miles down the road.
Under the plans for the new stadium, Wanderers would receive a new pavilion at Lansdowne Road, the use of a hospitality suite for international games, as well as a grant towards the upgrade of their existing clubhouse. Sweet enough deal.
Wanderers seemed happy enough with the arrangement, until they threw a spanner in the works. Irish rugby clubs are entitled to buy a number of international match tickets from the IRFU, and the tickets are a highly valued resource as, sometimes, clubs – not Wanderers, of course – have been known to sell them on for a significant profit.
It seems Wanderers have had an allocation of 465 tickets, and now presumably as compensation for losing their pavilion, they want another 1,000 tickets. The IRFU has said no, and the parties are currently deadlocked.
If peace does eventually break out between the IRFU, Wanderers and the local residents, and if a wrecking ball is swung at the crumbling West Stand next year, then this Saturday’s Six Nations championship game against Scotland will be the last competitive rugby international staged at the old stadium.
Not that there will be the slightest bit of nostalgia coursing through the veins of O’Driscoll and his team as they attempt to keep their championship and Triple Crown hopes alive by beating the Scots who blew the title race wide open with their recent unexpected win over England.
After a couple of seasons in the doldrums, Scotland are rejuvenated, but Ireland should still be good enough to win. Paul O’Connell, who missed the comprehensive, yet strangely unconvincing victory over Wales, will return in place of Donncha O’Callaghan, and then the Irish will head for London and a showdown with England.
So, Saturday will be a farewell of sorts to the old stadium – that’s only if rugby’s little civil war fizzles out.
as GAA screw up
With one eye, you see the gleaming grandeur that is Croke Park, and with the other you are gobsmacked by the GAA’s imcompetence. The National Football League is the second most important competition in the association, so it would not be overcooking it to expect a perfectly conceived fixture list. But no.
So much so in fact, that Division 2A counties Longford and Donegal were left without a game last weekend. Longford had played three home games and four away in each of the last three seasons, and they wanted a change. However, when the fixtures were announced, there it was again – three home and four away.
Longford made their protest, and the county’s officials went away with the understanding that their away game against Donegal would be switched to Pearse Park. But that meant that Donegal would have five away games and just two at home.
The elephant stood in the room for a while, and yet no one in authority did anything about it until the days before the game. Donegal protested, Longford said they’d already protested, and the GAA wrung its hands. Net result, no match last Sunday.
Just not good enough.