Endings and beginnings

As a remarkable 2012 of sport slips away, what of those we may soon say farewell to — as we embrace a new select group of sporting stars from Ireland.

GOODBYE ... DAMIEN DUFF

Surely, it’s only yesterday since Damien Duff was a kid with a mop of mad blond hair and a pair of crazy legs dancing up and down the wings for Brian Kerr’s intoxicating Irish youth teams. It can’t be much longer ago than last week that Kerr revealed how he would painstakingly explain his precise game plan to his rapt team and then say to the blond winger “Duffer, you just do whatever you want to do.”

His career never quite reached the heights it should have, yet he gave more joy than almost any Irish player has and was as beloved as any Irish sporting hero. After his beloved Blackburn he survived big money moves between solid outfits like Chelsea, Newcastle and Fulham without ever losing his sense of himself. Sometimes it looked like overcoaching had stolen the magic from his legs, but he still possesses the ability to get an entire stadium on its feet when he surges.

Though he would never say it his decision to quit the Irish set-up was more of a comment on that set-up than it was of his own ability. His form for Fulham this year has been sublime. We miss him already.

BRIAN O’DRISCOLL

Rugby’s Beckham but with more substance to his person and more achievement to his CV. It has been perhaps his fortune (literally) to have blossomed in the dawn of the professional era and his misfortune to have had to endure the extraordinary attrition which full-time rugby now requires.

The injuries mount up, punctuating the periods between active service with ever longer and more forlorn gaps. There are no world cups left, next spring Ireland will be transitional , next summer the Lions may or may not need him. Either way 2013 will be a swansong year.

Only when his absence becomes permanent will we appreciate how stale, dull and unprofitable so much of today’s percentage oriented game has become.

DERVAL O’ROURKE

Suddenly last summer, Derval O’Rourke became an Irish athlete with a great future behind her. In London at her third Olympics she ran an almost perfect first 50metres in her 100m hurdles semi-final. Her pace flagged, though, and she came home in fifth place: for the third Olympics in a row she had failed to reach a final. She will be in her mid-thirties when Rio rolls around. There are no more chances.

She deserved better. The promise of that indoor gold over 60 metres in Moscow some six years ago, and the silvers in two European championships seemed always to suggest an athlete on the verge of something bigger.

SEÁN ÓG Ó hAILPÍN

What a gap the great warrior leaves behind him. Not just in a Cork team which feels it can do without him despite having yet to locate a successor, but in a world of hurling where icons are increasingly rare.

Sean Óg was never boring. Never anonymous. His commitment was so tangible that you could feel it. His backstory was unique, his style was swashbuckling, his All-Ireland captain’s speech was epic, his manner was always humble and charming, his loyalty was unshakeable.

Given that there’ll never be another like him we hope for a Sinatra-like series of farewells and comebacks but we know in our hearts that it’s not to be.

CONOR MORTIMER

Ok. Jilted Conor has left and gone away but a nation doesn’t exactly turn it’s lonely eyes to him. He is mourned only by those of us who like something a little different every now and then. For others he was the epitome of what seems to be wrong with Mayo football. Too much confidence and not enough concrete.

Yet he was colourful (his hair alone was a highlights show) and charismatic. The stories of his life as a student celebrity are entertaining even if only half of them are true, and his unpredictability in a game which is increasingly defensive and regimented lit up many a dull summer. Nothing befitted his career better than it’s sudden end, complete with abrupt departure and a melodramatic statement from his family mourning the loss. There were some who never trusted his talents but gaelic football has too few characters and too many robots for us to allow his passing to go unnoticed.

AND HELLO…

CIARAN KILKENNY

Kilkenny has been a prodigy since adolescence. In his early teens he dragged a team from the middle-class, rugby-minded Dublin suburb of Castleknock to an All Ireland Feile hurling title. Division One. He finished his underage career with the fledgling club by leading Castleknock to a first ever Dublin minor football championship.

He played in the All Ireland minor hurling and football finals of 2011 but failed to get the best out of himself in ether defeat. He made up for that when being brought somewhat late into the Dublin Under 21 panel this spring. Introduced as a sub, he had by the time of the All Ireland final win over Roscommon become the player of the competition. In his first year out of minor he started in the All Ireland senior semi-final against Mayo, scoring three points from play on Pat Gilroy’s team. In September, somewhat surprisingly, he was tempted to life down under by Hawthorn of the AFL. He shares a house currently with Caolan Mooney, the former Down prodigy. Kilkenny wasn’t made to be a bit player. At home or in Oz there is bigger and better to come.

JOSEPH O’BRIEN

Raised amidst the sylvan fields of Ballydoyle, with one of the world’s greatest trainers as a father and surrounded by billions of dollars worth of horse flesh and real estate, Joseph O’Brien could have been forgiven for losing the run of himself. Like his three siblings, however, he went to the local school and his life among the horse so far has been marked by extraordinary talent, extraordinary humility and extraordinary discipline.

Such prescience in one so young seems shocking. Highly strung horses just settle for him, he is confident and aggressive in the helter skelter of a tight finish and his judgement of pace during a race couldn’t be better if he had walkie talkie contact with the beast underneath him.

At almost six foot he will struggle to make a long career on the flat, but winning this year’s champion jockey title having been champion apprentice a year ago underlines how special he is.

CRAIG GILROY

Munster fans will remember that try Gilroy scored for Ulster in the Heineken Cup quarter-final last April. Rugby people in Ulster and around Dungannon in particular will have more seasoned memories. One way or another it looks like Craig Gilroy is here to stay. Ulster’s cautious use of his talent has meant that his progress has been steady and expectations until recently not too burdensome. Two weekends in November may have changed all that. A hat-trick of tries for Ireland in the non-test match against Fiji at Thomond Park suggested that we had something a little special on our hands. His performance a week later against Argentina confirmed the impression. Scoring the opening try would have been enough but Gilroy answered questions about his tackling and his physique at the same time.

WALTER WALSH

You’re big, bordering on hefty. At 6ft 4 ins you are too big to be a sprite. It was 2008 when you won your minor All Ireland, so you’re slightly too old to be a prodigy. You’re still hurling at under 21 though, so you’re slightly too young to give up on the dream of being a great senior. You have learned to hold your own in the cauldron of Kilkenny practice games but that is the expectation which falls on every hurler admitted to that crucible. And then you are plucked from obscurity just like Rudolph was, one foggy Christmas Eve. Two days before the event you are told that you will be starting your first competitive game in the All Ireland Senior Hurling replay against Galway. You will be marked by Galway’s best defender and if you can just stop his raking, creative clearances all will be well with the world.

Instead you score 1-3. You are man of the match. The first game of the rest of your career.

ROBBIE BRADY

From Mark Kennedy to Terry Dixon to Willo Flood. Just how many times have we been caught prematurely celebrating the arrival of Irish football’s ‘next big thing’ All the more reassuring then that Robbie Brady’s progress so far hasn’t resembled that of a comet streaking across our blank sky.

From Baldoyle on Dublin’s northside Brady is a little different. Sure he still plays like a kid used to running the show, but his progress since first coming to prominence with a successful school team at Pobalscoil Neasáin has been steady encouraging. He joined Manchester United as an academy player from St Kevin’s Boys. Now in his second loan spell with championship side Hull City it seems likely that his breakthrough will come somewhere beyond Old Trafford. Meanwhile he has become Ireland’s most prolific scorer at Under 21 level and gone from being somewhere outside Giovanni Trapattoni’s consciousness at the time of Euro 2012 to finishing the year with four caps and a senior goal to his name. Steady does it.

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