You’d associate that kind of reward for success with Roman Abramovich
Doyen of American sportswriters Roger Kahn differentiated between newspaper writing and magazine writing in one simple way: anticipation.
The newspaper writer, he suggested, came to the sports event he was covering with preconceptions intact, preconceptions which often find their way into written form before the event actually began, fond presumptions so difficult to put away that the writer just couldn’t bear to cut them adrift. This was not an issue for the magazine writer, who had time to weigh things up in their entirety, but his newspaper colleague, said Kahn, found it far harder to kill off those precast bons mots.
Trouble was, as Kahn also pointed out, the pitch and yaw of sport sometimes meant the pre-cooked meal didn’t suit the occasion.
We should have recalled that word of warning coming along the Ennis Road towards Thomond Park yesterday. You’d have been forgiven for drifting into contemplation of an emotional reunion between Munster prodigal son Michael Bradley, whose Edinburgh side overturned Toulouse the previous afternoon, and his native province: a high noon-type deal in the Heineken Cup semi-final at the Aviva in a couple of weeks’ time would suit nicely, with polite palaver filling the pages in the run up.
Well, we’ll forgive ourselves for precisely that kind of reverie. After all, there were plenty of grounds for that kind of forward planning. For instance, the word on Shannonside was that Stephen Ferris’ ankle was so bad that the ice he was putting on it needed to be iced itself in turn, and he was being given only a sporting chance of making it out of the tunnel in one piece; even if he did, surely there’d be a queue of red jerseyed opponents anxious to test it with an early reducer?
Even the looming presence of French referee Romain Poite, who has not endeared himself to Munster fans in the past, was generating little more than pursed-lip acceptance among those in red. Munster to gut out a tight win after an early flourish from the northerners, then, and the old Jim Sherwin line from a thousand TV commentaries — “Bradley waits” — to be resurrected for headlines in the next fortnight.
Ah well. You know the result.
Match official Mr Poite, who seems destined to be identified as neither friend nor countryman, whatever about being a Romain, was the antithesis of a homer. The technical term is refereeing one side at the breakdown; the less technical term being used in the stands and on the terraces would be described as post-post-watershed in broadcasting terms, but Ulster’s first-half primacy wasn’t entirely down to the Frenchman.
On 15 minutes, Craig Gilroy began a run somewhere in Annacotty that ended with the Ulster wing touching down for his side’s opening try. Long-standing convention demands we describe Gilroy’s surge as mazy, but mazes don’t usually feature five opponents to be beaten.
Twenty-two minutes in and Ulster 16 points up. The travails of life as a sports columnist, when fond anticipation meets grisly truth at one hundred words a minute.
And then... Simon Zebo touched down. Ronan O’Gara converted. Chris Henry was yellow-carded. O’Gara hit a penalty on the call of half-time to leave Munster just nine down, facing 14 men on the resumption, and doing their best to retrieve this columnist’s prefabricated work.
Pienaar and O’Gara swapped penalties to leave it a six-point game entering the final quarter, but fragile as the lead was, Munster didn’t create a clear try-scoring opportunity. It was a grind for the nerves if you drove a car to Limerick yesterday which had yellow number plates, but Ulster could even afford a late penalty miss from Pienaar. As Munster chased the game and began to force the issue, frustrations took hold, and the game ran away like sand slipping through the fingers.
One obvious conclusion from yesterday’s evidence, by the way, is that given Ulster’s display — controlled, calm — there must be incredible coaching talent there if they’re able to dispense with Brian McLaughlin, in a sideways internal move at the end of this season. You’d associate that kind of reward for success with Roman Abramovich: if they actually win the trophy he’ll probably end up running the under 10s, or maybe swamping out the latrines.
The mischievous among you would no doubt wonder, with the impending departure of McLaughlin from the head coaching job above, would Munster be as well to look north for an indigenous coach — wouldn’t a man who coached his side to a measured win in the Heineken Cup at Thomond Park be a good candidate to work on any weaknesses in the home team? A final warning against preconception. Who was the man leading Ulster on their lap of honour yesterday? Stephen Ferris. The ankle looked fairly reliable all day, too.
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