Farewell to an old friend, you’ll miss him now he’s gone

Last week there was something of a ripple about Michael Bent, a rugby player lately qualified to play for Ireland.

Signed by Leinster, Bent has been fast-tracked into the Irish squad, and a little controversy stirred itself about whether or not it was appropriate that a man could step off a plane from New Zealand and straight into the Irish national team set-up, which was Bent’s schedule a few days ago.

Declan Kidney tried to point out that this is common enough even for the countries with hundreds of thousands of players to draw from — it would certainly be an interesting exercise to pick an England 15 of foreigners — but it seems some people insisted on being offended anyway.

Why? Was it the references to his sister’s ability with the tin whistle as proof of his Irishness? (If he’d said he once flew to New York because the jeans were cheap there, that might have been more convincing). Was it the uncomfortable confrontation with the hard fact of the professional game: if you don’t have them, then you go out and get them? Was it the hurley? Bent was pictured with the hurley at the Irish camp in Carton House as a visual indicator of his new calling — presumably the tin whistles were unavailable. No word yet on whether he will sign for Kilmacud Crokes or Cuala when not scrummaging for Leinster, but I like to think Declan Kidney’s intentions were a tad more subliminal than that.

After all, another man who once got off the plane from down under to make a sporting impression exited the stage last week.

The departure of Seán Óg Ó hAilpín from inter-county hurling last week was hardly unexpected, given he’s 35, but it should certainly give one pause for all sorts of other reasons.

Now that he has retired, maybe we can appreciate just what the Cork man accomplished in becoming an All-Ireland-winning captain.

Reporting on and discussing games on a regular basis doesn’t afford everybody a back story; the Fermanagh-Fiji connection in Ó hAilpín’s past couldn’t, by definition, be offered after every wind-swept national league game.

But that doesn’t undercut the achievement. Even now, if a young lad who grew up in Krakow or Lagos until the age of 10 or 11 were to land in Ireland, master hurling — and Irish — and captain his county to the All-Ireland title, it would be a staggering accomplishment.

Blend in the mid-career recovery from a catastrophic knee injury or the fact that Ó hAilpín was recognised at national level in both shinty and Compromise Rules or...

That was Ó hAilpín’s gloriously improbable narrative, though. There are plenty of people so keen to take offence — see above re: Michael Bent — with his involvement in player strikes in Cork, something that will influence their perception of the Na Piarsaigh club man, an opinion they are of course entitled to.

This column’s opinion is not influenced by those events. Ó hAilpín was one of the all-time greats of Cork hurling — of Irish sport — and a gentleman. You’ll miss him now he’s gone. When his old teacher said over the weekend that his like would not be seen again, he was being literal and poetic in the one sentence.

There was another departure on Leeside last week: O2 and the Cork County Board parted ways as sponsors. The telecommunications company had been in place as a commercial partner with the red and white for 15 years — not far off Ó hAilpín’s entire career, come to think of it — but the association comes to an end at the close of this year.

Your columnist has just finished a book on money and the GAA called GAAconomics, and thus has a greater interest in such matters than heretofore. (The multinational and the Cork County Board could have helped a little by announcing the decision a few months ago and furnished me with a handy chapter, but I’m sure that’s not the reason the news only broke last week). It’s bad news for the GAA in Cork. It’s hardly a great time to be hunting around for a sponsor; on the one hand you have the attraction of involvement with a county which is likely to make the sharp end of the championship in both codes, but where are the companies with that kind of budget in today’s climate? A former GAA President said vis-a-vis sponsorship deals that they’d continue but the numbers on the cheques will, necessarily, be smaller. That’s the environment the Cork County Board now enters.

To loop back neatly to where we started, though, the obvious question to ask now is whether O2 will question their involvement with the Irish rugby team. Last week the IRFU launched a new jersey for the autumn internationals — on Thursday, to be exact (on Wednesday the end of the Cork deal was announced).

Or was that Declan Kidney’s ultimate goal with throwing a camán to Michael Bent: keep sponsoring us and we’ll throw in some hurling as well?

* michael.moynihan@examiner.ie

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