If the criticism of the standard of play won’t have been lost on Donegal manager, Brian McIver, he will surely accentuate the positive. After years of frustration in both Ulster championship and league deciders, Donegal at last did what they have been threatening to do for quite a while. They won a major game.
The fact that it just happened to be the county’s first ever national league title won’t have done any harm to the team’s morale either. Nine victories out of nine games in the campaign, including wins over Tyrone, Kerry and Mayo, and Donegal appear to be on the right track.
“I’m not looking on this league in anything other than a positive light,” said McIver. “It’s been a tough campaign, but on top of it all, it was very important for this team to win a national title, that these lads know how to do it.
“You only had to watch our younger players out there to realise they were in no way daunted about playing in Croke Park, and that’s a great advantage,” he said.
Certainly, Donegal demonstrated that they currently have impressive strength in depth with three substitutes kicking the last three scores in extra-time which gave them the winning cushion over Mayo. McIver has also constructed a strong midfield with Kevin Cassidy moving forward from half-back to partner Neil Gallagher, while Karl Lacey and Barry Dunnion are two top-quality defenders.
Not surprisingly, the question now centers on whether Donegal have the ability and the self-belief to carry their form into the championship. Rather than luxuriate in their long-overdue league success, many of the players were already looking forward to the meeting with Armagh on May 27.
Even if defeat there would send them into the qualifiers, Donegal realise that how they cope with the challenge of Armagh, rather than their league win, will represent a true measure of their progress.
“I’m hopeful that all our players will be available to us as we push on towards the championship,” McIver added. “Ciaran Bonner was mildly concussed last Sunday, but is not suffering from double-vision and should be fine. Neil Gallagher will also have a very sore eye for a few more days, but thankfully we’ve nothing long-term.”
Significantly, Armagh have beaten Donegal in each of the last five championships, winning by a goal last year, after a replay in 2005, and also coming through in a close All Ireland semi-final in 2003. Only in the 2002 and ’04 Ulster finals was there a comfortable margin between the two counties.
This summer, boosted by the confidence of their league triumph, Donegal have an opportunity to set the record straight.
Meanwhile, Kilkenny don’t need to set any records straight as they prepare for Sunday’s hurling league decider against Waterford in Thurles. Although they looked to be out of contention for another title when they were beaten by Tipperary in March, Kilkenny responded well with wins over Limerick, Antrim and Galway to reach the semi-final.
Henry Shefflin was kept in reserve for that semi-final victory over Wexford, and all the indications are that he will be on the bench again for the final. Shefflin missed out on Kilkenny’s group games due to Ballyhale Shamrocks’ All Ireland club success as well his recent wedding, however, he took part in a challenge match against Laois last weekend.
Waterford’s task is demanding enough given the quality of the opposition, but with Shefflin primed to make an appearance off the bench, Kilkenny are deserved favorites.
All Black stars move to Europe
AS the rugby season draws to a close, and preparations begin in earnest for the World Cup in France in the autumn, there has been an extraordinary amount of news regarding player movement following the finals.
Already a number of New Zealand’s leading players, as well as several more from Australia and South Africa, have signed deals with clubs in Europe. More significantly, these are not veterans hoping to bump up their pension plans at the end of their careers.
Carl Hayman, widely regarded as one of the best prop forwards in the world, is on his way to Newcastle in England, while other top New Zealanders such as Aaron Mauger and Chris Jack are also bound for England, with current international teammates Byron Kelleher and Luke McAlister reputedly moving to France.
Equally, there has been speculation linking Australia’s Jeremy Paul with London club, Saracens, and South Africa’s Joe van Niekerk with another English club, Northampton.
In the not too distant past, several prized southern hemisphere players such as Christian Cullen, Jim Williams, Trevor Halstead and Justin Harrison signed for Irish provinces, but now it seems, as the cheque books are brandished, the supply is not being directed towards Ireland.
While some observers have taken the view that importing overseas talent simply stunts the progress of young home-grown players, the experience and leadership qualities that come with most of the best of the southern hemisphere are invaluable additions to Munster, Leinster and Ulster.
Leinster have secured the signatures of former South Africa international, Ollie Le Roux, who at 34 could be past his best, as well as Argentina’s Juan Gomez, but as recruits, they are not in the same league as the New Zealanders.
It’s not that Ireland is short of high-class Irish players, but it’s a worrying trend when players from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa who are keen to try professional rugby in Europe are effectively ignoring the Irish provinces as an option.
Money is obviously talking.
Racewalker calls it quits
GILLIAN O’SULLIVAN has never been a household name, and when it came to women’s athletics in Ireland in recent years, she was understandably overshadowed by someone else called O’Sullivan.
So when Gillian O’Sullivan decided to retire earlier this month, there was no great fanfare, no fulsome tributes. She had been struggling with a injury for a while, her form was nowhere near as good as it had been, and the time was right to quit.
The reason O’Sullivan flew beneath the radar for much of her career came down to her choice of sport. Whereas track athletes traditionally hog the limelight, there has never been too much interest in racewalkers. Not in Irish racewalkers, and definitely not in Irish women racewalkers.
But when she became the first woman from Kerry to compete at the Olympic Games, and when she finished an impressive 10th in the 20k walk in Sydney in 2000, O’Sullivan put herself and her sport on the map.
And there were more achievements to come. In 2002, she came fourth in the European Championships, set a world record in Dublin for the 5k walk the same year, and then in 2003 won a silver medal at the World Championships in Paris.
“I wonder how many people remember all that,” she told the Sunday Tribune. “I had to win a medal to make a front page, and still there were some papers that ignored it. There will be people reading this who will wonder who I am, and what I’ve done, and it leaves me thinking in athletics in Ireland, what is it you have to do to be a household name?”
In year in which Sonia O’Sullivan – unquestionably Ireland’s greatest athlete – is doing a final lap of honor, spare a thought for Gillian O’Sullivan who blazed a trail so unfashionably and so successfully. No glamour, only honest endeavour.
Laser surgery makes Hoey a winner again
Not unlike Gillian O’Sullivan, Michael Hoey lives in the sporting shadows. If you’re Irish, and professional golf is your game, then it’s often hard to generate headlines when Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley are around.
When Hoey won the prestigious British Amateur Championship in 2001, he looked set for a career which would take him to the sort of heights attained by Harrington, Clarke and McGinley. But even though he won a pro event on the Challenge Tour – Europe’s equivalent of the Nationwide Tour – in 2005, he has struggled to make an impression.
Losing his European Tour card last season didn’t help matters, and when the 28-year-old from Belfast realised as well that his eyesight wasn’t as sharp as it should be for someone in his profession, Hoey’s prospects appeared worse than ever. “I was sick of asking caddies where my ball had landed to be honest,” he said.
But laser eye surgery in January changed everything, and a much more focused Hoey duly won again on the Challenge Tour with a play-off victory in Italy last weekend.
A far cry from the major championships, but a step in the right direction.