It might be a clumsy class of a butterfly that emerges for only two weeks a year, and as more than a few have pointed out, right now the cross between Gaelic football and Aussie Rules is played by at most 60 people worldwide, yet there was exhilaration and entertainment by the West coast.
With Ireland surging home by 48-40 thanks to a highly impressive final quarter, the cushion going into Sunday’s second, and decisive, game at Croke Park is a tantalizing one. There will be another large crowd in Dublin who won’t care a damn if the cynics turn away from this attempt to give Gaelic games an international dimension.
The purists will point to the lack of tender loving care being applied to hurling on our own shores, and to the improvements that football needs to make at a time when money and energy is being expended on a fabricated game which might have a heart, but which clearly has no soul.
Still, when you watch someone like Kieran McGeeney sweating for a cause in an Irish jersey, you can go some of the way to believing that the cause is worth it. Equally, in Galway, there was no unsavory repeat of the violence that marred last year’s series.
But apart from the closing phase which had the home attendance on the edge of the seats, last weekend’s game was mostly bereft of quality. Sean Marty Lockhart demonstrated his experience, and Steven McDonnell his class, but this was much more an event than a contest between two sets of footballers.
Not surprisingly, Ireland manager Sean Boylan has been having no truck with the critics. “Maybe the game wasn’t a classic from start to finish, but I’m not sure what people are expecting from the series,” said Boylan. “There was lots of criticism of some of the incidents last year, and rightly so, and now we find some people complaining when the game is played in the right spirit.”
There is a sense that with a week between the two matches, news is being generated to boost the ratings when there really has been no news at all. Okay, one of the Aussie players, Brendan Fevola, was sent home following an alleged assault on a barman in Galway – not that that was the sort of news the series needed – but there were stories of complaints by the Australians following a few pitch incursions at Pearse Stadium.
Frankly, it was hard to believe that a bunch of macho Aussies were discommoded by a few hundred kids who ran on to the pitch at the end of the game. The stewarding might have been tighter around the perimeter of the ground, but for the tourists to claim they found the situation “intimidating” is laughable.
The Cormac McAnallen trophy will be handed over to the winning captain on Sunday, and his memory is a fitting one to mark an occasion for players from both countries. It will be an event, an occasion at Croke Park, but don’t say the football was great.
Munster keep flag flying
From the high of last week, there has been a bumpy landing for Irish rugby. The noisy celebrations, with, let it be said, just a touch of smugness, that accompanied three wins for the provinces in the first series of European Cup games, have fallen silent.
Leinster frustratingly lost by a point in Edinburgh, Ulster were turned over at Llanelli in Wales, while it was left to Munster to keep the flag flying as they crushed the French side, Bourgoin, by 41-23 at Fortress Thomond in Limerick.
There were some justifiable hand-wringing from Leinster who felt they were on the wrong end of several refereeing decisions, but they still made far too many unforced errors – despite scoring three tries to one – and were eventually suckered by an injury time drop goal by Duncan Hodge.
So, it’s back to reality for the provinces as well as Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan who has already begun preparations for the three autumn internationals against South Africa, Australia and the Pacific Islands.
Not that high-profile test matches should be dress rehearsals for anything, but these fixtures assume added importance as they mark the start of the countdown to the World Cup in just under a year’s time. They will also provide an indication of O’Sullivan’s mindset regarding the make-up of his team.
Because if the coach is going to change the core of the team which has served him well, he has to do it now. There is no logic in throwing an inexperienced player into the heat of a World Cup finals and expecting him to perform.
If O’Sullivan takes the view that the likes of the 19-year-old Leinster wing, Luke Fitzgerald, and the emerging Ulster forward Stephen Ferris are made of the right stuff, then they should be given an opportunity some time this month.
The games against South Africa and Australia might represent too much of a challenge for the youngsters, however, both could well get their chance against the Pacific Islands which will be the last ever match at Lansdowne Road before the stadium is completely rebuilt.
And there are other bones of contention to pick over. It might seem like heresy following his heroics for Munster last season, but Peter Stringer is under pressure to hold on to his place as Isaac Boss – an imported New Zealander with Irish qualifications – and Eoin Reddan continue to stake their claims.
Stringer has become an institution, and his partnership with the in-form Ronan O’Gara a mainstay of the national team, however, if Ireland are to reach the World Cup semifinals for the first time, a scrum half with a greater range of qualities could be needed. If neither contender has Stringer’s speed of pass, Boss is certainly more powerful and Reddan is more of an attacking threat.
With the vastly experienced David Humphreys deciding to retire from international rugby, O’Sullivan has to find out if Jeremy Staunton is a viable understudy to O’Gara, and the coach also has to choose between Geordan Murphy and Girvan Dempsey at full back.
With the incumbent hooker Jerry Flannery out injured, there will be a contest between Frankie Sheahan and Rory Best, while Simon Easterby and Neil Best are vying for the number six jersey.
South Africa are the first opponents on Saturday week. The match might not answer all the questions, but it will kick-start Ireland’s World Cup journey.
Europe’s money list
There have been reasons to doubt Padraig Harrington. Not just this year when he led the U.S. Open standing on the 16th tee and finished with three bogeys, not just when he missed the cut at both the British Open and the PGA Championship, and not just when he failed to win a match at the Ryder Cup.
By branding him as a serial runner-up – last weekend’s second place finish at the Volvo Masters in Spain was the 30th of his career – it has been convenient to write Harrington off as someone who regularly gets in contention and who regularly fails to close the deal.
But he also happens to be a player who has won 16 times worldwide, including two events on the PGA Tour, and he happens to be the 11th ranked player in the world. And that most recent second-place finish at Valderrama happened to win him the European Tour’s order of merit title for the first time.
Of course he would have liked to have won the tournament as well, but the way he snatched the title from the overwhelming favorite, Paul Casey, was typical of Harrington’s graft and determination.
Exactly when the game looked up on the back nine on Sunday, exactly when those doubters would have been switching off their TVs, he single-putted the last eight greens, made a par five after going in the water at the treacherous 17th hole, and then he made another par at the last after twice visiting the rough.
The mission might not have been accomplished in the imperious style of Tiger Woods, but as his main challengers, David Howell, Robert Karlsson and Casey, faded for different reasons, Harrington was in the arena, battling to the last.
At 35, he almost certainly has his best five years in front of him. Victory in the European Tour’s money list won’t exactly reverberate around the golf world, but privately it will give him that added satisfaction, and added ounce of confidence to go on and accomplish his primary goal.
Harrington knows that when he finally puts his clubs away, he will be judged on whether or not he won a major championship. It’s clear now he has the ability, and the temperament. Luck, that remaining elusive ingredient, could be around the corner in 2007.