LARRY RYAN: The enduring mystery of the hype game

Larry Ryan is taking an irreversible decision to walk out on the week’s sport.

On Thursday, two Irish Examiner columnists jumped off at different angles and landed round about the same place.

Dr Ed Coughlan, writing from the skills coach’s perspective, figured anything we see in a sporting event is now a direct product of the coaching setup. He could almost slap a traceability label on every shot, pinpointing the field where that skill was produced.

“What we see is what they got. Rarely, if ever, will an athlete do something they haven’t been coached to do or practised at length before the ball is thrown in.”

He argues that coaching is baked into results as much as goals or saves or tackles, reminding coaches: “Your part may be the decisive figure when the final numbers are totted up to determine who wins on that day of days.”

John McHenry, too, sees no more than he expects to see these days. Previewing a first US Open in 25 years without Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, the former pro surveyed an excellent field without a superstar. And he expected victory to be programmed on the range, not improvised on the hoof. A yard here, an inch there, tweaked by mechanics poring over spreadsheets and calibrating club heads. Not drawn from genius.

“In today’s era, where statistical data is everything and technology is uniform, it is easy to understand how the gap between the great and the really good player has shrunk dramatically. With everyone now capable of studying each other’s playing stats, there has never been less mystery regarding performances.”

If Coughlan is energised by the scope to fine-tune athletes and micromanage performances, McHenry sounded weary.

“With greater depth, equally talented players and fewer superstars, the professional game runs the risk of becoming... well increasingly boring.”

The mystery is gone. It sounds like a problem for Deidre’s Photo Casebook in The Sun. But it might be the great difficulty facing professional sport, as TV ratings plummet.

Already, biological passporting has reduced heroics to biomechanics in sports like athletics and cycling. To stand any chance of survival, these sports have had to target mystery. To hunt it down and eradicate it.

Once, a performance that ‘fell outside permissible limits of the athlete’s established levels’ might have been the dream. Now it sets off alarms.

In 2013, when L’Equipe crunched Chris Froome’s numbers, it concluded: “his performances are coherent”. In its view, they were traceable and logical and unmysterious. The greatest possible accolade for a pro cyclist.

Soon mystery will be extinct in the ball games too. Second season syndrome is now second game syndrome. You might get one game free before your weaknesses have been plotted and strengths neutralised.

‘The mystery is gone’ might be a cover version of the familiar Eamon Dunphy lament: “There are no great players out there.” Or at least of John Giles’ complaint: “If everybody is great, then nobody is great.”

Only a dwindling band of superhumans remain whose talent can’t be plotted without redrawing the axes. Messi, Ronaldo, LeBron, Federer. Maybe Brady and Curry.

It killed Hollywood first, the lack of mystery. Everything plotted by focus group to suit a 60-second trailer that tells you all you need or want to know.

Thursday must have been the day intrigue finally died because Ronan O’Gara and Dan Carter also weighed in, suggesting the Lions — a farcical relic sustained on myth and mystery and blue chip sponsors — lacked an ‘X-factor’ such as Brian O’Driscoll once provided.

Perhaps the saving grace for rugby is that most of its new fan base is too fresh to the game to realise how predictable it is. But they will get over that gain line eventually too.

In many quarters, perhaps mystery has been partially replaced by ‘controvassy’. But even the seductive appeal of ‘Jose blasts Pep’ has waned in the barmy blizzard of nonsense fired off daily by actual world leaders.

But there is still our other old friend, hype. If there are no great players out there, the very good ones better have some other means to distinguish themselves. So they can at least dab their way to viral sensation. Or to becoming the world’s most expensive player.

It’s hard to know if Conor McGregor is good or great, but he has always mastered the knack of distinguishing himself. Floyd Mayweather has not been found wanting on the greatness or attention seeking fronts, so it is easy see the attraction of their match.

The enduring mystery of the hype game

And even if the outcome of this mutant contest is more predictable than any major event you’ll watch this year, at least one of the participants has no established levels. We will only see what he got on the night.

And in these traceable times, mutant may well be the future. Because you can’t put a price on a hint of mystery.

Video reffing as clear as mud

The war on controversy continues apace as video refereeing edges a foot in football’s door. Happily, for those whose biggest worry about technology is the fear it will eradicate ‘talking points’, Italian Davide Massa and his team showed refs are capable of seeing what they want to see from multiple angles with the bizarre sending-off of Raphael Varane during France v England.

Those of us concerned that retrospective reffing will fundamentally change the game may be more interested in the sending-off of Italy’s Giuseppe Pezzella in the U20 World Cup, where the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) managed, on closer inspection, to detect a slight push. And who could definitively say he was wrong, since there was blessed ‘contact’, however minor.

Amid the accusations that referee David Borbalan was Austria’s 12th man last Sunday, some felt a VAR could have helped Ireland, but what official could have ignored footage of Shane Duffy leading with his arm on the disallowed goal?

More realistically, could a VAR have reasonably allowed Jon Walters’ nudge on Aleksandar Dragovic for the goal that did count? Contact that looks natural and fair in real time to a referee can appear much more incriminating in super slo-mo.

Will games be reffed differently in retrospective?

It’s over for gentleman Cogley

Much as you can still hear the late great Brian Moore roar “it’s in there”, you can easily tune in the departed Fred Cogley’s distinctive “it’s over”, from the days when rugby was the brief spring diversion it ought to have stayed.

It’s hard to imagine Fred having too much truck — or trailer — with the modern jargon-heavy vernacular. They were simpler times, when the object of the sport appeared to be to avoid rather than collide.

The enduring mystery of the hype game

Though he was a versatile man and famously commentated on everything — handball, rallying, what have you — plus one Sports Stadium, during some kind of industrial dispute.

Everybody says Fred was a grand man too and a chat with George Hamilton a few years ago confirmed he was a decent sort.

It was George, not Fred, on commentary for one of the landmark Irish rugby moments of the time, when Australia were almost unseated in the 1991 World Cup quarter-final.

Cogley was Head of Sport and chief rugby commentator, but the rota said it was George’s turn and there was no pulling rank.

So, George, not Fred, got to tell us his namesake was “over” in the corner.

Heroes & villains

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

Cillian Sheridan:

The Jagiellonia Bialystok frontman nailed it on Twitter. “Hearing the undercard will be incredible. Roger Federer is going to race Usain Bolt.”

John Mullane:

Paul Rouse hailed his radio work on Friday, though he missed one classic line from Wexford Park: “A few lads are not cutting the cheese today.”

HELL IN A HANDCART

Whiff of bullshit:

It’s more or less a rule now. Grander the claim, the looser the touch with reality. “For me, the Lions are the ultimate in team sport. The Ryder Cup in golf is the only thing I can think of that comes close,” writes Ian McGeechan in his new book, neatly tying sport’s two greatest shams into one sorrowful mystery. Stephen Espinoza, boss of Showtime, which will screen Mayweather v McGregor, smoothly took the baton: “We’ve never seen a combat sports event, or even a sporting event, of this magnitude.”


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