They traveled to Longford for a first outing of the championship and returned to the capital with an underwhelming two-point victory. On that showing, it looked like most of the Ulster teams would savage them, Kerry would beat them off the park, and they mighn’t even get out of Leinster in the first place.
Laois were next. Not exactly one of the nation’s powerhouses, but any group of players under Mick O’Dwyer’s tutelage had to be taken seriously. If Dublin went into last Sunday’s game as favorites, their billing was marginal.
And somehow they emerged from Croke Park as serious contenders for a first All Ireland title since 1995. So where did it suddenly all go right?
Even if Dublin’s recent record against some of the stronger counties has been nothing to shout about, there was enough evidence from this performance to suggest that overdue success might not be too far away.
Dublin were quick, positive and confident. They amassed 3-17, and their winning total could have been more. Admittedly, the energy appeared to drain from Laois when they lost their influential midfielder Padraig Clancy midway through the first half with a shoulder injury, but the men in blue still played with the sort of swagger that has been missing of late.
Not that supporters of Tyrone, Armagh, Kerry, Mayo or Galway would necessarily be wishing them well, but there is something about Dublin on a roll that adds the finishing touches to a championship summer.
The sight of Conal Keaney driving forward, of Ciaran Whelan muscling around midfield and of Ray Cosgrove returning to the very top level after a three-year absence made it a Sunday reminiscent of the good old days when Jason Sherlock – the only remaining link with the 1995 championship winning side – was a new kid on the block.
Not long after that uneasy display against Longford, Dublin gave what O’Dwyer described as an “exhibition,” and if one spark has been ignited, there is the possibility that another could be snuffed out.
In his 32nd year in senior inter-county management, O’Dwyer is now facing one of his highest hurdles. “We have some footballers who didn’t perform,” he raged after the defeat. “They were terrible.” There was some good news for Laois in that their qualifier won’t be played until Saturday week, giving them time to regroup, but the bad news came in the form of their opponents, Tyrone.
If he is unable to find some magic over the next few days, and if his players “throw in the towel” as he suggested they did against Dublin, it might be the end of the road for O’Dwyer as a manager.
It may be premature, but Dublin, who await the winners of the Offaly-Wexford game in the Leinster final, could be on the verge of something special, while the county’s old nemesis could be on the way out. The next week or so will determine who are the cockerels and who are the feather dusters.
For Harrington, a
near miss that hurts
It might just have escaped your attention, but an Irishman nearly won one of golf’s major championships. And when you consider that the last, and only, time an Irishman has won one of golf’s majors was back in 1947, Padraig Harrington’s near miss at Winged Foot was all the more frustrating.
While Phil Mickelson should have, and Colin Montgomerie could have, Harrington might have. Even if Australia’s Geoff Oglivy did actually win the US Open, the stories of implosion and bitter disappointment will live on longer than Oglivy’s unexpected success.
Mickelson will recover from his brainstorm at the final hole, but after hitting one of the worst iron shots under pressure of his long career, Montgomerie might not. As for Harrington, this was the only time he was truly in the mix in the final stages of a major.
At the British Open in Muirfield in 2002, he finished one stroke out of a play-off that involved the eventual winner Ernie Els, Stuart Appleby, Steve Elkington and Thomas Levet, but with Els out on the course, and threatening to run away with the tournament, Harrington couldn’t have known what total he needed to post.
As it was, he felt he needed to birdie the 18th to have any chance. Opting for the driver off the tee, he wound up in a fairway bunker and in the end did well to make a bogey. Significantly, his playing partner Appleby chose the safer play with an iron off the tee and his resultant birdie got him into the play-off.
At Winged Foot, it was different. With Mickelson, Montgomerie, Olgivy and Jim Furyk ebbing and flowing on a brutally difficult course, Harrington was playing by some way the best golf of the contenders. Having got to two under par for the final round, he found himself tied for the lead standing on the 16th tee.
Until that moment, he hadn’t recorded a single bogey, and then he had three in a row. Now bogeys are routine in the last, energy-sapping, round of a US Open, but three in succession when you need three pars to win your first major? Hardly a coincidence.
It seemed that after missing the fairways at the 16th and 17th holes, Harrington pushed too hard with his second shots. At the 18th, probably realizing that he had blown his chance, he simply hit a poor approach and then three-putted.
If he was philosophical about what happened four years ago at Muirfield, this one hurt. Compared to Mickelson and to Montgomerie, Harrington’s scars will heal quicker, but he knows an elusive major was within his grasp.
Next month, the British Open is played at Hoylake where Fred Daly won that solitary major for Ireland just after World War Two. That might be an omen for Harrington.
Irish lose 3 tests, but rugby
has never had it so good
Endless winter just about sums it up. Nearly the end of June, and Ireland’s rugby squad are just about to take a break after three test matches in the Southern hemisphere.
The positive element to be gleaned from the two defeats in New Zealand is that the Irish went close. They took on the best team in the world in its own backyard and could have won both games had it not been for a combination of fatigue and uncharacteristic mistakes in the final few minutes.
There was less to shout about following last weekend’s 37-15 reversal at the hands of Australia in Perth. Ireland had the initiative at one stage when Ronan O’Gara and Neil Best scored tries, but once again they capitulated in the closing stages.
Even if there have been complaints over coach Eddie O’Sullivan’s rigid, my-way-or-the-highway approach – there was a fall-out between the management and the media during the tour – his period in charge has brought unprecedented success. A couple of Triple Crown victories, a tilt at a Six Nations grand slam, and wins over all the major nations bar New Zealand. With Munster winning the European Cup, Irish rugby has never had it so good.
Yet the next big hurdle is less than 18 months away. For O’Sullivan and his players to be given a formal seal of progress, they must reach the semi-finals of the World Cup which is staged in France in Autumn 2007. And while this is an era that has produced Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell – both unquestionably world-class players – and while the team is highly competitive, one or two injuries could kill off Ireland’s amibition.
Because the overriding fact from this season is that O’Sullivan has no bench to work from. Or either that he believes he has no bench to work from. Jeremy Staunton was brought to New Zealand and Australia as cover for O’Gara, yet the only opportunity he got was as a replacement wing in injury time against Australia.
If Staunton is regarded as the back-up insuch a key position, then surely he should have been given more game time during the tour. Equally, there is a shortage of cover for John Hayes and for Peter Stringer. In the end, the only player from the three games who could have been said to have developed was wing forward Best.
Question marks also remain over O’Gara’s defence, while Andrew Trimble has yet to relax in the unaccustomed position of wing. On the positive side, Denis Leamy has made great strides at number eight.
Ireland and O’Sullivan have had a good season, but that target of a place in the semi-finals of the World Cup remains a distant one.