Archive for March, 2009

The day all of Ireland has been waiting for has arrived. In about ten minutes Irish rugby’s Golden Generation kick off their attempt to cement a place in history and become the second Irish team to complete a Grand Slam in the Five/Six Nations Championship, the first since 1948, by beating Wales. If they do beat Wales, or even lose by less than 13 points, they will win the Championship since 1985, the earliest one I have a decent memory of. I remember fondly Trevor Ringland’s late winning try against Scotland; I didn’t see the 15-15 draw against France but read that it was a brutally physical contest; I watched Ringland chasing Michael Bradley’s precision crossfield kick to the corner to get the ball down a millisecond before a Welsh defender and Keith Crossan scampering over the try-line to seal our first win at Cardiff Arms Park in over 20 years; and of course the finale against the Old Enemy, England, at Lansdowne Road: I missed the first-half as I was en-route to visit cousins and didn’t see Brendan Mullin’s chargedown, leading to his own try. Just after I started watching Keith Underwood went over in the corner to give England the lead and put them in pole position. A Michael Kiernan penalty brought us level before the pivotal moment. Ireland had a line-out in the English half and captain Ciaran Fitzgerald turned to his tired players and screamed “COME ON, WHERE’S YOUR F**KING PRIDE?”. The giant Donal Lenihan claimed the lineout and charged into the English “22”. From the resultant ruck, Michael Bradley whipped a pass to Kiernan, who set himself before kicking a beautiful drop goal, clinching the championship and sending Lansdowne Road wild with joy.

So here we are 24 years later. As I said earlier, this is Ireland’s Golden Generation, the best rugby team we have ever had. However, in spite of a number of near-misses (and three very creditable Triple Crowns), they have they have not won a championship. A number of this team are in the twilight of their careers so this may be their last chance at glory. In this endeavour, the mental attitude of the team is paramount, as I believe beating Wales is well within their playing abilities, however sometimes they tend to let nerves get to them and this could be their downfall. When I think of what’s required today from the Irish team in terms of that attitude I think back to the 2002 football World Cup game against Cameroon and what Mick McCarthy wrote on a board after a jittery first-half performance: “NO REGRETS”. The team must not be afraid to perform to their best by the enormity of the occasion and must leave everything on the pitch because this is their time.

COME ON IRELAND!!!!

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Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi was sentenced to three years in prison today for throwing his shoes at George W Bush on the 15th of December. This to my mind is a disgracefully harsh sentence. If Iraq wants to be seen as a mature democracy, this overreaction to a very mildly violent political protest is not going to help its cause. Protests in this vein happen regularly in democratic societies: in the 1970s Richard Nixon was egged in Ireland by an anti-war protestor; a few years back here in the UK,  John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister at the time, had an egg thrown at him by a farmer. His response? He punched the protestor and got into a scuffle. Prescott also got soaked by a jug of iced water thrown over him by a member of the band Chumbawumba, in support of striking Liverpool dockers, at the 1998 Brit Awards; only last week an environmental protestor threw green custard over Peter Mandelson, the Business Secretary, to express opposition to his support for a third runway at Heathrow Airport.

Now I understand that it’s open to debate whether this type of action is effective or appropriate, however I cannot see of any argument that could justify a prison sentence of three years, in what is likely to be a very harsh environment, being doled out to a journalist, who had been a law-abiding citizen up to this point. He has even been a victim of kidnapping himself and family members were arrested under Saddam Hussein’s regime. His weapon of choice, his shoes, show that his primary intent was to deliver an Iraqi insult, not to seriously injure Bush. Even if he had connected, he would have done no more damage to Bush than the President had done to himself with a pretzel. Bush himself was able to joke about the “attack” in the immediate aftermath and we have all had a good laugh since.

But the joke is now over – al-Zaidi’s lawyer’s plan to appeal and I hope they succeed in getting his sentence reduced significantly. In truth the time he has already served has been too harsh. In genuinely free societies, which Bush has claimed Iraq is now, people must feel free to express political opinion in a sometimes fiery manner, without fearing disproportionate reprisals from the authorities. Otherwise the country starts to look more like a police state.

PS – do you know of an incident of something non-lethal being thrown at a politician? Leave a comment and we can build a dossier.

I feel sorry for football/soccer fans in the United States – competing with American Football, Basketball, Baseball and Ice Hockey, their sport is treated as an afterthought in the American media, their league is treated as a joke by other major footballing nations, some are forced to groundshare in cavernous stadia where any efforts to create atmosphere is lost to a great extent and where you’re not sure where, exactly, the pitch perimeter is because there are American Football markings on the field of play.

And yet they turn out in their tens of thousands every week to support the sport they love. Over the past decade or so they have developed a stable league with a future seemingly assured, in the absence of major stars – even rising American stars are quickly snapped up by the major European clubs. A league-wide salary cap ensured financial stability. And then two years ago, one of their constituent clubs, the appropriately titled LA Galaxy, reached for the stars. Under new “designated player” rules, they announced a blockbuster deal to bring one of the world’s stars, David Beckham, to play in the MLS.

It seemed like a mutually beneficial deal. Out of favour with Fabio Capello at Real Madrid and with his international career seemingly over, it gave Beckham a lucrative opportunity to extend his career. In return, as one of the world game’s most marketable stars, he would draw attention to the Galaxy and, by extension, the league. He made a lot of positive (although somewhat squeaky noises) about what a great challenge this was for him and how he was looking forward to promoting the league.

However, right from the start, his commitment seemed to be less than 100%. Still contracted to Real Madrid, he wouldn’t arrive for the Galaxy until months into the new US season, and then after a long, hard Spanish season where he had picked up various knocks and would not appear on the field immediately. After recovering from these he finally started playing and, while he did contribute to some victories for the Galaxy and attracted big crowds to games in Boston and New York, he had arrived too late to salvage his team’s season. And then England came calling. After playing pretty much non-stop for over a year he suddenly flew from LA to London to play in a pretty meaningless international friendly and picked up another injury. So his first season was pretty much a washout.

Last year he had a more uneventful season at the Galaxy (again failing to make the playoffs) but his eye seemed to be always on extending his international career. So when Fabio Capello intimated that he would have to be playing regularly over the MLS close season to keep fit for the Spring internationals, a loan deal was set up to take Beckham to AC Milan. But of course he would be returning for the start of the new MLS season in March, he said. Then after a few games his tone changed…he was really enjoying his time in Milan and how great it would be if he could stay. And then the club got involved…and then the agents…and the whole saga took on an air of inevitability.

The Galaxy tried to put up a fight: first they insisted that Beckham would be returning in time for the MLS kick-off; then they slapped a $10 million price on his head. But of course it was a losing battle for them. At the time of writing the new deal sounds something like this: Beckham will play in Italy until the end of the season, will return to the Galaxy in July, before rejoining Milan next winter. So what’s the betting that he will either a) stay in Milan throughout the summer or b) will return to the US briefly only to return to Europe in time for the new Italian season.

Basically Beckham has treated the MLS and its fans with utter contempt, seeing them only as a cash cow vehicle for his own career rehabilitation and running off as soon as a more glamorous suitor arrived on the scene. This will be a big blow for the league as those who came through the turnstiles, curious to see a big footballing star, will drift away from the sport, leaving only a hardcore of passionate fans. It may survive, it may not. But if Beckham does come back in the summer, I suggest that wherever he goes to play, he is roundly booed as a form of protest at this blatant display of disloyalty and disrespect towards fans of the game that gave him so much.

I nearly tore my hair out watching Ireland play England in rugby yesterday. Ireland were victorious, 14-13, in a performance that the phrase “winning ugly” could have been invented for. Beating the “old enemy” is normally a cause for wild celebration, but on this occasion my major reaction at the final whistle was a big-ass sigh of relief.

This is not how it should have been. The current Irish squad is almost definitely THE best Irish rugby side ever. We have a wealth of talent in all areas of the team – a pack capable of dominating the impact areas and lineouts, an out-half (Ronan O’Gara) who is capable of pinning opponents back again and again with raking kicks to the corner and punishing their indiscipline by racking up penalty points, and talented runners throughout the backs including, of course, a world-class centre and leader in Brian O’Driscoll. They were on a high after defeating France (our bogey team for as long as I’ve been watching the Five/Six Nations) and are on course for only our second ever Grand Slam. The current English team is relatively weak and played poorly yesterday – they gave away numerous penalties and had two players sent to the sin bin for ten minutes. And yet we were only clinging on at the end. Our performance was tepid and one-dimensional and O’Gara missed four kicks, which would have put the result beyond doubt much earlier.

The reason? In my opinion, there’s a problem that has afflicted Irish sports stars for decades – we aren’t comfortable with being considered favourites, being far more comfortable with the tag of underdogs, happier with “doing our best and seeing how it goes” than aiming for victory. Now the Irish rugby team have made big strides in their approach to games – in previous years they relied on disrupting opponents’ gameplans in the hope of snatching a win here and there. Now there is a genuine pattern to our play and an aim to win on our own merits. But the team still doesn’t seem to accept that they are better than other teams and that they should be able to brush opponents aside with contempt. They have won three Triple Crowns in recent years but haven’t won the championship or Grand Slam. On the BBC after the game even Keith Wood, the former Irish captain (who himself railed against the attitude of accepting “moral victories”), was predicting that Declan Kidney, the Irish manager, would downplay our chances against Scotland to such an extent that, by the time the game starts, Scotland would be favourites! And Scotland are currently worse than England!

Seriously, if the Irish rugby team doesn’t have a sports psychologist (and I can’t find one on their website), they need to get one immediately to salvage our best chance at a Grand Slam and Six Nations Championship in years, if not ever. They need to get their heads around the fact that they are a great team who are not just capable of defeating anybody else, but SHOULD beat almost any other team comfortably. They should go to Scotland accepting the favourites tags and ready to play up to it, not become paralysed by nerves from being associated with the title and the enormity of what they could well achieve. After all, the most successful Irish sports stars last year, namely Padraig Harrington and the Olympic Boxing Team, used sports psychologists. So come on lads, get on that couch, close your eyes and start to visualise victory.