TONY LEEN: Buckling under the weight of Ireland’s greatest noughties moments

So, sports fans are outraged that Jermaine Defoe is missing from the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award shortlist? (According to click king Mr Google Analytics). Wait til they see this evening what the chainsaw gang in Montrose have done to the array of Ireland’s Greatest Sporting Moments in the 2000s, writes Tony Leen.

In defence of RTÉ, shrinking the long list of Irish sporting achievement in the noughties to a select handful for tonight’s penultimate run of the TV series is a lose-lose act ever before one even contemplates said list. Narrowing it to five borders on self-flagellation.

Not helping in any way is the material necessity of extending the noughties from a decade to 12 years to incorporate Katie Taylor’s Olympic gold in London in the final discussion before an overall winner from the four studio debates is made on RTÉ in a week’s time.

What it amounts to is a bit of oul’ winter talk, but tonight’s RTÉ discussion, fronted by Des Cahill and Evanne Ni Chuilinn, will surely serve to remind us all what a stupendously successful period Irish sport has enjoyed from 2002 on.

Over the course of the three programmes to date, the merit of what properly constitutes a GSM (great sporting moment) has been frequently debated. To that end, one can query how surprising it is that the longlist of 29 moments does not mention Roy Keane and Saipan in 2002, certainly one of the most momentous episodes I can recall from 20-odd years as sports editor of this newspaper. Of course, one can argue: was that actually a sporting moment? Presumably, candidature is limited to a moment in competition? (And sure what else was Roy and Mick, sez he…)

Ruby Walsh raised this issue a few weeks back in relation to the merits, or less, of Ray Houghton’s winning goal against Arrigo Sacchi’s Italy at the 1994 World Cup in New Jersey, arguing that our subsequent failure in the tournament disqualified it under the provisions of the ‘Stop Celebrating Moral Victories’ clause. Ruby’s point was passionately argued and valid, but as someone who was present for the greening of Giants Stadium that Saturday, it was a truly electrifying experience. And moment.

It is in that context, I presume, that tonight’s studio panel will elevate or dismiss the virtues of Padraig Harrington’s first Open Championship victory, Sonia O’Sullivan’s Olympic silver medal, the five Irish successes in rugby’s European Cup (three Leinster, two Munster), Ronan O’Gara’s Grand Slam drop goal, the Ryder Cup at the K Club, Katie’s London gold medal — and we haven’t even gone near the GAA or Rory’s and McDowell’s majors. Robbie Keane in Ibaraki? McAteer at Lansdowne Road against the all-dancing Dutch? And what of the England visit to Croke Park for that momentous Six Nations game a decade ago. Only a game?, as one of tonight’s studio guests might have asked.

Undoubtedly it was more. An evening when sport and politics, culture and history clashed like cymbals, a frisson so great that only the dead were unmoved. Only twice have I regretted handing over tickets to a match — and that was one of them. But when you can appreciate a moment so profoundly significant from the distance of one’s own living room, when the heady cocktail of emotions reduces John Hayes to a quivering wreck, then what is to do but join with him. Ireland won the match too.

There are those around us on the sports desk weary of the bandwagon’s path, who recoil at the strong currency of rugby, but the noughties was a game-changer in that regard. Five Heineken Cups (up to 2012), three triple crowns and the 2009 Grand Slam to boot. What will serve the afternoon in Cardiff well in terms of voter appeal tonight is that the achievement — as a result of the win over Wales — featured the obligatory ‘Moment’ in the drop goal from Mr O’Gara.

But is that a greater moment than Pádraig Harrington’s first of three majors at Carnoustie, or McDowell’s US Open at Pebble Beach or Rory eviscerating the field in the same major a year later at Congressional? Each, remember, conquering the cream of the game when it mattered most on the global stage.

And that, of course, is the unavoidable limitation placed on great Gaelic games moments in the noughties. And there were some. I would have thought Conor Gormley’s block of Steven McDonnell’s goalbound effort late in the 2003 All-Ireland final, which sealed an historic first All-Ireland for Tyrone, was a volcanic moment of sporting theatre and merits acclaim as ‘The Block’ like American sports immortalises The Drive (John Elway, Denver Broncos v Cleveland) or The Catch (Dwight Clark, 49ers v Dallas).

I rate Sonia O’Sullivan’s second place in Sydney in the 5,000m final above the gold won by Katie Taylor by the metric of competition but both were epic and emotional journeys in their own right. And only now we mention Derval O’Rourke’s 60m world indoor gold in 2006. Was she really overlooked for RTÉ Sports Personality of the Year

11 years ago for Henry Shefflin of the Kilkenny hurling team?

Should individual achievement on the world stage — Sonia, Padraig, Katie — trump team victory? Thankfully in the context of this televised debate, it’s moot. The key is sporting theatre, a moment that carried it and us above and beyond its own orbit, that thundered its way into every pub and watercooler conversation for weeks and often months.

How Pádraig Harrington dragged his humiliated self out of the Barry Burn to win the Open. How Rog aced the most suffocating clutch moment of his career. And how Ireland looked itself up and down and liked what it saw when the time came to respect ‘God Save the Queen’ at Croke Park. Even John Hayes buckled under the weight of that moment.


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