ROUND TABLE: The last supper of 2012

When this newspaper’s staff writers and acclaimed columnists met up in the penthouse suite of Cork’s Imperial Hotel, the debate was raucous and animated — which meant the patient kitchen staff had to wait. And wait. As the late, great Con Houlihan might say: Now read on...

KATIE, THE OLYMPICS, TURNING PRO

Tony Leen: Andy, Katie Taylor’s Olympic gold — more important for Ireland or for the development of women’s sport in Ireland?

Andy Lee: Both, but also important for female boxing as a whole too. One of the main reasons boxing was in London was because of Katie and her performances before the Olympics. She fought exhibitions at world championships and showcased what female boxing could do, and for her it was a big achievement. You look at videos of her at 14, 15, saying that was what she wanted to do. I remember her in the (National) Stadium as a kid, training with the lads, and she was unbelievable. She’s come on a lot and worked a lot with Zaur Antia, and you can see a lot of his techniques in the way she fights. She’s a role model for her personal beliefs and the way she carries herself.

Tony Leen: Was anyone here surprised she stayed amateur?

Simon Lewis: Is there that much incentive for a woman to turn professional?

Andy Lee: There were big offers for her. I spoke to promoters and they outlined plans to me — she’d have six fights in Ireland and then a world title fight. Massive money.

Tony Leen: What’s massive money in women’s boxing?

Andy Lee: Well, you couldn’t judge her by the normal standards of women’s boxing. She’s unique, but she could make a million a year, two hundred grand a fight easy, selling out the O2 Arena in Dublin.

Donal Lenihan: There seemed to be suggestions that pro women’s boxing in America was a bit shadowy and seedy.

Andy Lee: Professional boxing is that way anyway. She’s not like a regular kid with no background, just turning pro — she must have some high-powered agent or somebody behind her, looking after her the way Rory McIlroy is looked after, because that’s the league she’s in.

Simon Lewis: She could take pro women’s boxing to another level.

Andy Lee: There’s a few Mexican women fighters, a few Germans, you’d turn up to see her fight them.

John McHenry: Having watched her in recent years, she seems a very balanced person and she may be looking at a bigger picture — promoting more participation in Ireland, with her in an ambassadorial role. If you look at how she captured the imagination even with all the other sporting achievements this year — Rory’s, all of them — she was the big attraction: would she reach her goal? Like the female presidents, I think she’s looking at this and thinking she can do more and promote the game more by staying amateur, that that’s her bigger calling. I don’t think she’s motivated exclusively by money. And her parents seem very balanced as well.

Ruby Walsh: Anyone think the fact that she’d have to take the headguard off in pro boxing was a factor? It’s a whole other level. I see it in our game with girls trying to become pro national hunt jockeys. If Katie got in with a Mexican who’s five six, built like a brick outhouse, pummelling her . . .

Donal Lenihan: I’d say every mother in Ireland would have been praying for her, like Peter Stringer ten or fifteen years ago.

Liam Mackey: That’s one of the amazing things about her — the girl next door vibe. It’s amazing the way women’s boxing has become acceptable overnight. Go back a few years and people were iffy about the idea of women boxing, at which point she was working her way up. She’s such a rare combination — the humble person going for gold, that’s part of it. When my little girl goes out on the road and the boys won’t let her play, she’s old enough to say ‘Katie Taylor’. And she’s an international footballer.
Tony Leen: Other London highlights, genuine Olympic moments?

Ruby Walsh: Track and field, swimming, boxing, they’d be the big ones for me. Andy Murray and Roger Federer? That’s Wimbledon, not the Olympics. Same when golf is allowed in 2016. For me someone like Mo Farah was outstanding, the track and field is the Olympics for me.

John McHenry: There seemed to be a lot of showmen in the track and field, and given that many modern sportspeople are clones, almost, designed to perform, someone like Usain Bolt is a breath of fresh air. The way Michael Phelps re-energised himself was fantastic as well. In fairness to London, it was one of the best Olympics I’ve seen.

Michael Moynihan: It’s surprising to me that nobody wants to talk about drugs at the Olympics, that there’s such a consensus that it was a great Games; nobody wants to suggest there might be a question about some of the performances. Some of the disciplines with the worst track records in terms of drug abuse in all of sport, never mind the Olympics, were the sports celebrated completely uncritically during and after the Games.



FRANKEL, DETTORI, RACING

Tony Leen: What kind of year was it for racing, Cheltenham and Ruby Walsh?

Ruby Walsh: A good year for racing, not so good for me. For racing — Frankel and Barry Geraghty had a wonderful Cheltenham. The sport in general... it was a sad end of the year with Frankie Dettori, sad — sorry, not sad, stupid. Good news stories about the place, too, though: horse racing is healthy in Ireland and looks like it’s starting to come out of the recession. We’ve had some English people invest money and the wheel may be starting to turn.

Andy Lee: Tom Queally is a name everyone knows, but every second year there’s a wonder horse, the ‘greatest of all time’. Where does Frankel rate in that pantheon?

Ruby Walsh: Who knows? How can you measure Kauto Star against Arkle, or Frankel against what’s gone before. Henry Shefflin v Christy Ring? You can only measure what’s in your own time, and Frankel’s by far the best horse of the last four or five years. Rating horses by form against each other, he’s an incredible horse over a mile, mile and a quarter. He monopolised what he was at.

Tony Leen: With all the sports we’re talking about, two where we overachieve consistently are horse racing and golf. With respect to boxing...

LEINSTER, MUNSTER, ET AL

John McHenry: When you look at the resources the IRFU gives to rugby, compared to France and England, we’re overachieving there as well in the Heineken Cup.

Tony Leen: What are Leinster doing now that is so special?

Donal Lenihan: Well, they were the sleeping giants for the first ten years of the Heineken Cup. They’re in a capital city — I remember they played in Donnybrook at the start of the competition, 7,000 people, and they were delighted to fill that. It took them a long time to grasp the capacity for professional rugby in Dublin. They’ve done an unbelievable job in the RDS, and they’ve gotten rid of the Dublin 4 image successfully — everyone remembers a time when people in Wexford and Kilkenny preferred to follow Munster. That’s gone now. When Munster won the Heineken Cup in 2006, Tony, you asked me about the benefits financially, participation-wise and so on. I don’t think Munster got the same kick then as Leinster have — they have 1.2m people in the capital, but they also have Sean O’Brien from Carlow, Gordon D’Arcy, Wexford, Leo Cullen from Wicklow — that’s helping. And they can get better. If you look at the teams which are doing well in pro rugby, they’re teams which represent somewhere. Look at Saracens, struggling for identity for years, moving stadia and so on. Teams that represent an area have a better chance and Leinster have copped that.

Michael Moynihan: What Donal says about Leinster getting their act together is like the situation in Gaelic football and hurling, with Dublin getting their act together. Given the numbers and the finance available in the capital you could have a situation where internationally Leinster are dominating rugby and domestically Dublin are dominating the GAA. The question is how that would sit with sponsors and broadcasters — you see the rumbling from England and France about the Heineken Cup already.

Donal O’Grady: Leo Cullen deserves huge credit in Leinster. Came back from Leicester and became captain — a shrewd move because Brian O’Driscoll might have had too much on his plate. Cullen reorganised Leinster, they had a base — you read that before that they might be togging from the boot of their cars.

John McHenry: He and Shane Jennings brought back that Leicester culture ...

Donal O’Grady: Before their arrival, you might have had a situation of ‘that’s my spot’ on the bus or in the dressing-room, which happens in a lot of teams. I think Cullen brought a new approach, a oneness, and his performances on the field have been outstanding as well.

Ruby Walsh: Before he came Leinster trained until lunchtime. Then they trained until Leo time.

Donal Lenihan: John’s right. Leicester are old school, thump each other in training and so on. Jennings and Cullen brought that back with them. Michael Cheika was exactly what was needed in terms of sorting out the forwards. The lady boy image ... that was unfair, but they let themselves down at times in big games, like losing to Perpignan in Dublin. Then you had the 2006 semi-final, losing to Munster in Lansdowne Road, which was the point at which they said to themselves, ‘this has to change’.

Donal’s point about the captaincy is right too. In Munster Paul O’Connell did a great job but, like Brian O’Driscoll, he’s in international camp five months of the year. What Cullen does is what Doug Howlett does now in Munster, where the captain is there all the time.

John McHenry: In that context, if you look at Cheika and Joe Schmidt, that looks a logical progression. Looking at Munster, Tony McGahan coming in, were there dead years that Munster lost in terms of transition, fans asking ‘where’s the transition’? Is Rob Penney coming in to rescue a half-sinking ship?

Donal Lenihan: Munster were victims of their own success: the majority of their players were in the national squad — John Hayes wanted to retire two years ago but Declan (Kidney) wanted him to hang on. He didn’t have a squad number for Munster in 2011, but they beat him into hanging around as cover for Mike Ross. It’s one of my pet gripes. Generally when teams or organisations are at the top, they don’t make changes. That’s when you should be making changes. One of Declan’s master strokes in the Grand Slam year was making four changes for the Scottish game, Game Four. The players had won three of three, knew Wales would be a Grand Slam game if they beat Scotland — but suddenly they realised they wouldn’t be playing in Cardiff if they didn’t perform against Scotland.

If you can apply that organisationally, then Munster didn’t make changes at the right time. McGahan’s legacy will be that he did integrate the likes of Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Tommy O’Donnell — he played them over the last 18 months. You might say it’s too little too late.

Simon Lewis: You could also say his hand was forced by injuries. More accident than design.

Donal Lenihan: And the same could be said about the autumn internationals — Craig Gilroy, Simon Zebo and so on. I thought it was daft to pick Paul O’Connell, having played 60 minutes in five months, against South Africa, the most physical team you can meet — and he collapses three days beforehand. Mike McCarthy is picked and he becomes man of the match.

John McHenry: Looking at Ulster and the way David Humphreys has ruthlessly jettisoned Brian McLaughlin, his own brother and other key players ... he’s made difficult decisions, brought in a relatively unknown coach and now they’re unbeaten. Would Leinster have hung on to Tony McGahan that long? Would they have said ‘enough is enough, we need to move again’?

Donal Lenihan: It’s different in that David Humphries is a director of rugby and that’s where Munster have a blip, in my view. In Munster you have a CEO and he has a lot of responsibilities — the bottom line, season tickets, commercial angle, all of that. A director of rugby is looking at players to buy and so on. Munster don’t have that. A director of rugby can look down the line four or five years, but if I’m the coach I need instant results, I need to make decisions to win the next game rather than look to the long-term goals of the organisation.

John McHenry: That’s the job, to keep coming up with suggestions even if some of those are shot down. I’d agree that Munster have fallen down a bit there.

TRAPATTONI, LESSONS LEARNED?

Tony Leen: We’re talking rugby, and the benefit of bringing through young talent — which is one of the big criticisms of Giovanni Trapattoni. Liam, is there now a terminal disconnect between the Irish public and the national soccer team?

Liam Mackey: Yeah, there is, and it’s not mysterious. Thousands of people paid loads of money to travel, anticipating a great celebration and a glorious chapter, but it all went pear-shaped. It’s like all sport — the connection between the team and the fans is contingent on events.

Tony Leen: Aren’t we used to glorious failures at least?

Liam Mackey: Going back to the previous tournaments, there was always a glory day — Stuttgart, Giants Stadium, Ibaraki. But the results masked a lot of deficiencies. Quality of football? The game which led to the penalty shoot-out in Genoa in 1990: if you want to bore yourself, watch that. I’m not defending Trap. He stands or falls by results.

Tony Leen: So you agree with Trap’s ‘if you want entertainment go to the theatre’ line?

Liam Mackey: If you have Trap as manager, yes. You’re not going to get entertainment, you’ll get organisation, you’ll get results, up to a point. In two campaigns he’s done more than any manager has done in the past ten years, so you have to give him credit. He got us to the brink of a World Cup, where we lost in famously controversial circumstances, and then got us to the Euros. Ireland are third seeds, don’t forget that. We’re not world-beaters. There’s a real problem because he hasn’t brought young players through. He put his eggs in one basket by relying on the older players who got him there, but there were injury worries ...

Liam Mackey: Shay Given, but I don’t think John O’Shea and Richard Dunne were 100% either. You can be wise after the event and say that, but it’s all part of the rap sheet now with Trap.

Donal Lenihan: Isn’t that like the Paul O’Connell situation — if you’re not fit you shouldn’t play?

Liam Mackey: But here’s the point — Paul McGrath wasn’t fit in 1994. Mick McCarthy wasn’t fit the night before Stuttgart, they had him bandaged up.

John McHenry: Observing from a distance, there are issues. First you have Denis O’Brien supporting the manager financially, which I think is a disaster, because there’s another influence on the manager. You also have a manager who’s decided he won’t speak English and uses an interpreter. And finally the manager didn’t attend games until recently. And we accept all that?

Liam Mackey: But it wasn’t a ‘disaster’ when we nearly made the World Cup, or when we qualified for Poland. Trapattoni is one of the great football managers. You can disagree with his approach but you can’t disagree with his track record. The reality is we’re journeymen. Mid-ranking. Qualifying is an achievement.

Andy Lee: But there are other players — Wes Hoolahan, is Stephen Ireland going to play, Seamus Coleman ... he’s playing lads on the wing like Simon Cox..

Andy Lee: He doesn’t see the players, so how does he pick the team?

Liam Mackey: If he was that incompetent, how did we qualify for the European championships? That was a hell of an achievement.

John McHenry: Will he walk away and let the debris behind him, a divided camp with inexperienced players? Will the next manager have to start blooding new players again?

Liam Mackey: The one thing is that he says to judge him on results and he hasn’t gotten those results. He failed, no question about that. The issue is that now people are heaping on him all the faults of Irish international football, and I’d suggest that his record doesn’t justify that. The Euros justifies criticism, not his record.

Donal Lenihan: Surely the qualification is at one level and the tournament itself is at another level? To qualify you meet teams at your level, your peers, but the chasm to the top teams is so big you’ll get stuffed anyway.

Tony Leen: The bottom line is surely that we have as average a squad of players now as we ever hard. We don’t have anyone in the world-class bracket.

Ruby Walsh: Shay Given and Richard Dunne? If they were fit. If you asked any other team at the Euros which of our players they wanted, they might have taken Given, might have taken Dunne. They wouldn’t have any of the rest.

Andy Lee: A lot would take Shane Long.

Tony Leen: Is stubbornness the most problematic issue with Trap?

Liam Mackey: I don’t think he has a plan B. That’s a huge fault. The thing is I don’t know of a manager who’d try a different plan and do any better.

Andy Lee: Darren Gibson?

Liam Mackey: Darren Gibson couldn’t get a game with Man United. He’s playing well with Everton now, but he wasn’t at the start, and the point is that at the Euros you’re up against the top players from Italy and Spain and Germany, not some fella who’s doing well in midfield for West Brom.

John McHenry: Donal, when you came in, the Cork hurlers were in the doldrums, but you put a structure in place and that was built upon. My issue with Trap is that I don’t see him building any structure, and the players don’t seem to know what’s going on. I think the public would like to see some building blocks put in place, things beginning to develop — as is happening in Munster — then people will be patient.

Donal O’Grady: I think Trap had his own system and he got the players to play that system. He knew that to get to the Euros the crucial thing was not to lose — you don’t lose, you get a point in every game, you’ll qualify. Anybody who watches good football teams will see that they all have top mid-fielders. Jack Charlton probably wasted the talent he had at his disposal, but good teams always have a midfielder who’ll get the ball, pick a pass to the forward — goal.

We don’t have one of those. I was hoping Duff would stay on and play in the middle of midfield, he might hold the ball. We can’t hold the ball in midfield.

John McHenry: We’ve accepted there’s a difference between the qualification standard and the tournament standard. What’s the use in achieving the qualification standard if you can’t reach the tournament standard? Shouldn’t we build towards the tournament standard?

Liam Mackey: But that’s fantasy. I think it’s cyclical. For Ireland to do well you need a good crop of players coming through. Part of it relates to structures, but it’s also luck. Look at Barcelona, bringing through four of the greatest players of all time at the same time.

Donal Lenihan: Liam, you’re talking about Trap’s loyalty and we accept that, but for a man on €1.5m a year isn’t it completely unacceptable that he doesn’t go and watch players?

Tony Leen: He does now but he had to be embarrassed into it.

Donal O’Grady: Isn’t that part of the system, though? Alex Ferguson doesn’t go to watch every player, he has trusted scouts.

John McHenry: But Ferguson has 60 games a year. Trap has only four or five.

Liam Mackey: I think it’s a terrible flaw that Trap appears remote from his players — it looks bad, can’t be good for the players and so on. What he says is that Marco Tardelli, who’s based in London, is his eyes and ears, and when he says there’s someone to go and see he goes. That’s his explanation, but I don’t think it’s acceptable.

Dara Ó Cinnéide: When Ian Rush went to play in Italy — the whole ‘it’s like a foreign country’ thing — there was no buy-in from Rush. It’s the same with Trap — no attempt to engage.

John McHenry: I agree with Liam on the golden generation argument, and you can see it with Irish rugby in terms of the players moving on now. But there are structures in place now that weren’t there 15, 16 years ago, and that doesn’t seem to be the case in soccer.

Liam Mackey: There’s elite player development, there are regional coaches, but all of that is being affected by the recession. The FAI is in a parlous financial state with the Aviva ticket sales and so on.

Ruby Walsh: Look, there are five million people in Ireland. Take out one million OAPs, one million kids, we don’t have a huge pool of people. You’d have some team if we all played the one sport — Henry Shefflin alongside Brian O’Driscoll, Gaelic footballers alongside rugby players.

Tony Leen: Everyone has a criticism of the FAI, but there’s broad agreement that Trap won’t be staying beyond this campaign — who’s the next Ireland manager?

Liam Mackey: If Denis O’Brien walks the money won’t be there, so that’ll be the end of the box office names. Of the current crop, I’d say Chris Hughton would be an obvious choice.

Ruby Walsh: Pat Fenlon?

Liam Mackey: I think he has to do more. What Hughton’s done with Newcastle and Norwich is at a higher level than what Fenlon’s done with Hibs, though I’m delighted with him because he had a tough start and he’s getting experience outside Ireland.

Colm O’Connor: Mick McCarthy?

Liam Mackey: I don’t think it’d be the smartest move.

ROY KEANE

Ruby Walsh: Roy?

Liam Mackey: The problem with Roy is — as he said himself — they’d have the best facilities but nobody would want to play for him.

Tony Leen: Managerially, is he damaged goods?

Liam Mackey: I’d say there are huge questions after Ipswich. His approach, his perfectionism, the fact that he looks for his players to produce what he produced, apparently effortlessly — even though it wasn’t. I think he’s a unique personality. In any sport, in any position of authority, I think there would be people who’d find him very difficult.

John McHenry: I know a lot of people like Keane at that upper echelon — the most contrary people, great performers and wired into doing that, but for themselves. They understand and they’ll take direction but when it comes to the bigger picture . . . Keane is as honest as the day is long but that can kill him a lot of the time.

Tony Leen: Keane has said ‘if I don’t get a job in the next few months I’ll jack it in’. The Turkey thing struck me as a spratt to catch a salmon?

Donal Lenihan: Or boredom. He’s sitting at home all day.

Liam Mackey: The Turkey thing might have been leveraging Blackburn, maybe.

Donal Lenihan: It was always the case with Roy that things which came naturally to him, he’d be frustrated if others couldn’t do that — even at United, with great players, never mind at Championship level.

Liam Mackey: In fairness to him, he took Sunderland, when they were almost falling out of the Championship, to the title.

Donal O’Grady: You’ll find, as Donal said, that some great players can’t make it as coaches. Christy Ring wouldn’t have been a great coach because he wouldn’t understand why a fella couldn’t cut the ball over the bar from 60 yards. Might be the same with Keane, it may not be in his make-up. Ruby probably finds the same with jockeys who are trainers.

Ruby Walsh: Tommy Carmody could be difficult to ride for. Charlie Swan too. They were such good riders that they’d explain everything that might happen instead of letting you do it.

Tony Leen: Is the Premiership hype machine in danger of cannibalising itself. Diving? Racism?

Ruby Walsh: This racism stuff....a grown man on a field can’t take a bit of lip from another player? Come on.

Colm O’Connor: And on a hundred and thirty grand a week.

Ruby Walsh: Never mind what he’s getting. If he’s playing for nothing on a Sunday he’ll get a jibe or two.

Liam Mackey: Name the sport that would give you anything like Ibrahimovic’s goal.

Donal Lenihan: John Fenton’s goal against Limerick in 1987. Jimmy Barry Murphy’s goal against Galway.

Ruby Walsh: Sexton’s drop goal from halfway for Leinster.

Liam Mackey: So it comes close. But we’re also living in the age of Messi.

John McHenry: But nobody else plays like him.

Liam Mackey: Spain do. Barcelona do. Germany have reinvented their style. Look at how the Premiership finished last year?

Donal Lenihan: But we’re talking about players getting hundreds of thousand of pounds a week, but if someone breezes past them, they’re dead. Embarrassing.

Tony Leen: Football’s conundrum summed up in two words — Cristiano Ronaldo. Great player or actor?

Donal Lenihan: I’d have said Drogba. He drives me mad.

Dara Ó Cinnéide: The one thing is that Drogba is such a big horse of a man, but the way he goes down....

Michael Moynihan: One problem with soccer is that Premiership players, for better or worse, are fully-fledged celebrities, which taints the entirety of the professional sport. Because people have a clear notion of how Wayne Rooney relaxes or how unpleasant John Terry may be there’s a sense not so much of them being role models but of them being fully open to the public. Whether those notions are accurate or not doesn’t really matter, but it means that all professional soccer players are evaluated the same way.

Liam Mackey: The top players are on big money but someone like Brian Barry-Murphy, there are loads of those guys, honest pros — and it’s the same sport. You can’t behead the top and focus on that.

IS RUGBY THE CURE-ALL?

Tony Leen: I’m not saying rugby has cured all its ills, but soccer and GAA could learn an awful lot from the disciplinary codes in rugby.

John McHenry: Look at all the changes that were proposed by the FRC for gaelic football. Nothing though about the captain is the only person allowed to speak to the referee. Now, that would take a ferocious amount of acrimony out of the game in one quick step. There still trying to define the tackle which I think is amazing after all this time. I think there’s a lot the GAA could do to help themselves but they don’t get to the nub of it. If you see a rugby match and there’s fisticuffs in the first five minutes, they sort it out and the referee is bang, bang, bang — and from that moment on, they’re crawling up to the ref saying, ‘Excuse me sir, could I have a word in your ear...please’.

Donal Lenihan: It’s a cultural thing. If you spoke to a referee in rugby when you were eight or ten years of age, you would automatically be taken off the pitch. It was part of the development process in the game.

Liam Mackey: I must say, I get a little bit irritated with the notion that rugby exists on a higher moral plane to football.

Donal Lenihan: I’m not saying that.

Liam Mackey: But there are people who do say it. They say it’s the role model for other sports. But when I look at rugby I see fellas getting their heads stamped on on the ground...

Donal Lenihan: No you don’t.

Liam Mackey: Yes I do.

Donal Lenihan: If you see a fella stamping on a fella’s head now, he will be cited within 24 hours and suspended.

Tony Leen: Liam’s point is that, while it might be dealt with, it does still happen.

Donal Lenihan: Tell me the last fella who had his head stood on in any game. Just give me one example.

Ruby Walsh: One part of that I agree with is citing. And that’s what soccer has to do. But it won’t embrace goal-line technology or anything. You cannot expect a referee 20 yards away to decide if Drogba dived or not.

John McHenry: And I think rugby has embraced technology brilliantly; waiting for the decision on the big screen has almost become an entertaining part of the game, part of the drama.

Donal O’Grady: Why are they so slow to change in soccer, Liam? If I was in charge of, we’ll say, the Premier League and I could do what I want, I’d have fellas in a box and after every goal — as they now do for tries in the Premiership in rugby — they’d look back and see was anything wrong. If someone scores but is flagged offside, the fella in the box can look at it, say, ‘sorry, he was onside, the goal stands’ and tell the ref. It would only take ten seconds. Isn’t that a fairer system?

Liam Mackey: Well, I’ve been banging on about this for years — the idea that I can be sitting hundreds or even thousands of miles away watching a live match on television and yet have access to information that the referee in the game doesn’t have, is just absurd.

John McHenry: But not only that, if there’s a contentious one and someone is offside, five minutes into the match and it’s been shown on television and proven — smartphones mean the people in the ground can pick up this and so for 85 minutes you have angry fans baying at the referee. Fifteen years ago, the fans would have been oblivious to whether it was right or wrong.

Donal O’Grady: The point is justice for the players, surely. Take that situation with Louth and Meath a couple of years ago. If there was a fella up in a box, he could have said, ‘Martin, he walked the ball over the line, that goal should be disallowed’. Free out to Louth. Justice would be served. But instead it’s a case of keep it under the carpet and the ref gets all about the abuse.

Liam Mackey: But it goes even further than that. The true spirit of sport should be about excellence and skill and the best getting its reward, but the absence of video technology in football works against all that. To spring an offside trap, say, requires split-second timing by the man releasing the pass and the player receiving it. But the human eye can’t possibly see both all the time. So if it’s done with absolute precision, the chances are it will fool the linesman — and the result is that players are actually get punished for being good. And that’s ludicrous. That’s got nothing to do with the spirit of sport.

John McHenry: Also, in sports where they’re not using technology the referee gets the blame for every wrong decision. Whereas the referee probably makes more bad decisions in rugby, but because they’re using technology he’s forgiven for making those mistakes.

Donal O’Grady: If you look back, the first sport to bring in video technology was cricket.

Ruby Walsh: We’ve had it in racing for 40 years!

Donal O’Grady: Sorry. The SECOND sport to bring it in was the cricket and the worry was would they be doing down the umpire whose word had always been law. But the umpires have embraced it. Sometimes they get it wrong and it comes up on the big screen: he’s out. And now they have reviews. But they’ve accepted it, no big deal.

Tony Leen: Is there a danger though that it could take the authenticity of the moment out of sport? If we cross the threshold where would it stop? In soccer, say, would you have two challenges per half or what?

Liam Mackey: There has to be some kind of structure to it, but when people say they’re worried that it’ll break up the game and matches will become disjointed or stop/start, well, just think back to Thierry Henry — how long did it take that game to restart by the time Shay Given had chased the referee halfway around the Stade de France? People are always quick to enumerate soccer’s ills but, unfortunately, one of them does happen to be that the two most important administrators in the world game — as in Blatter and Platini — are real old school reactionary figures when it comes to using technology.

RORY AND THAT DEAL?

Colm O’Connor: Sticking with the technology theme and leading us on to golf — will the Nike deal make Rory McIlroy a better player?

Tony Leen: Or a less consistent player?

John McHenry: I think it’s the great equaliser. When McIlroy is playing at the top of his game, all things equal, he’s proved that he’s vastly superior, okay? But the reality is that he’s now introducing four new dimensions to his game: a new driver, a new ball, new wedges and a new putter. The contract would suggest he’s setting himself up for life but, believe it or not, I’ve spoken to a number of people who reckon it isn’t worth enough.

Tony Leen: A two hundred million deal?

John McHenry: I’ll tell you why. It’s all all-in deal by all accounts and in ten years twenty million isn’t going to worth anywhere near twenty million. If you take the four key areas — hat, sleeve, chest and bag — you’re coming close to twenty million there and then.

Tony Leen: So he’s sold himself short?

John McHenry: He’s selling himself short in the context of bringing four new dimensions into his game — which is very risky because it’s a game of confidence. The flip side of it is that he’s actually setting himself up for life. And, from a management point of view, they’re getting commission out of it — they weren’t getting any commission out of Titleist. If he performs with Nike, it’s wonderful because not only is he getting the money but he’s also performing at the same level. But to me this is great equaliser. If I was Tiger Woods, I’d be thrilled.

Donal Lenihan: Why can’t Nike just take his Titleist club and replicate them?

John McHenry: This is all about confidence. I think he’s playing with an inferior product. Like, Tiger has played all his life with an inferior product. Mickelson famously said that no-one gives Tiger the real credit for the player he is because if he was playing with our technology we wouldn’t be mapped. Rory is now stepping into that league of inferior technology. You now have a different feel, a different sound, a different connection, the ball isn’t reacting the same way, it’s not flying the same way. And, most importantly, on a Sunday afternoon when you really have to push it and trust yourself — are you going to trust yourself?

Dara Ó Cinnéide: But the flipside of that is that if he succeeds with the Nike gear, won’t that be the new challenge for him, the next frontier?

Andy Lee: I don’t see why he can’t. He’s young enough in his game. I think his talent means he should take to the new equipment like a breeze and if it means winning by six strokes instead of eight, then he’s still winning majors. Tiger only started using Nike when he turned pro, isn’t that right? He played Titleist up to that point, didn’t he?

John McHenry: Tiger had it in his contract that if Nike didn’t come up to the best performing product then he could use that other product. I don’t think Rory has that in his contract.

Tony Leen: What’s the view around the table of Rory’s Olympic conundrum in 2016?

Ruby Walsh: I’d go out sick if I was him. He doesn’t need Olympic glory. He doesn’t have to nail his colours to any mast. If I was him, I’d be sick and take 2016 off.

Donal Lenihan: It’s a no-win situation.

Donal O’Grady: If he plays under our flag he’ll get flak in the UK. If he plays with the UK he’ll get flak here.

John McHenry: If you think of Rory as a world player, it’s the Irish diaspora around the world who’ll make him commercially successfully. If he is to play in the Olympics for the UK, first of all he has to qualify for a team which would potentially have Luke Donald, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and a number of other really high calibre players. He isn’t going to get the same status as he would playing for Ireland.

THE CHAMPIONSHIPS

Tony Leen: Throwing things forward to 2013 for a moment, anyone want to put their head on the block already and...

Ruby Walsh: (pretend coughs): Kildare!

Tony Leen: But, if you don’t mind, I’ll go to young Cinnéide first to see if he agrees. Kildare? Or Donegal again? Or is there someone lurking in the undergrowth we should be mindful of?

Dara Ó Cinnéide: You couldn’t take your eye off Dublin.

Tony Leen: Dublin? To win the All Ireland in 2013??

Dara Ó Cinnéide: You have a lot of the building blocks there. A team that under-achieved all through 2012. A disciplinary issue right throughout the league. Key players were injured. They have a new manager — Gilroy was a fantastic manager — but they have a new man cut from the same stone who produced two All Ireland U21 winning teams, who’s going introduce a certain amount of those players and put pressure on established players — there’s an awful lot to like about Dublin in 2013.

Tony Leen: But doesn’t it take a couple of years to bed in young lads?

Dara Ó Cinnéide: Not when you’re coming from U21 All Ireland winning level. I don’t think the step up is that huge. Tyrone have shown it, Kerry have shown it, Cork have shown it in recent years. And Dublin have six or seven from their U21 teams of the last couple of years who are well capable of the step up.

Tony Leen: You wrote around this time last year that you were fascinated to see how Donegal would develop themselves in 2012. Now how can they develop that again in 2013?

Dara Ó Cinnéide: I think they’ll have to struggle because the game they play is so choreographed. There were even signs at the end of this year that one of the key parts of that choreography, Mark McHugh, was being read — certainly by Cork for a particular stage in the semi-final and by Mayo as well for large parts of the final.

Dara Ó Cinnéide: History suggests that retaining an All Ireland is very difficult. Kerry did it in ’06 and ’07 and probably weren’t given half enough credit for it. Cork have discovered how hard it is. Dublin were flat this year. I know McGuinness has all his psychology and all his talk about getting heads right but if you even look at Twitter at the moment, the Donegal lads are partying — and they’re entitled to party — but it’s going to have its effect. In the final this year, there was a sense that — take out the first ten minutes — an average enough Mayo team were starting to read them. And there’s going to be so much footage on Donegal and what worked against them — which wasn’t a whole lot. Certain aspects of Tyrone’s game worked very well and parts of Mayo’s game in the final worked very well. And if you amalgamate all that, it’s going to catch up with Donegal.

Tony Leen: But they’re still the number one rated side in the country, the team with a big X on their back?

Dara Ó Cinnéide: Well bearing in mind we’re talking in December 2012 about who’ll win in September 2013 — Dublin more building blocks, most of the bare essentials. Kerry know how to do it...

Colm O’Connor: What do you think of Eamonn Fitzmaurice coming in for Kerry?

Dara Ó Cinnéide: He’s an unbelievably shrewd operator and he’s going to get an awful lot out of them. But I saw Pat Gilroy saying there lately that any one of ten teams could win the All Ireland and Kerry are now one of those teams. There was a time there for six or seven years when Kerry and Tyrone had it all to themselves, they were that bit ahead of everyone. Then Cork came on board and it became a bit of a democracy after that.

Colm O’Connor: Ruby mentioned Kildare — we keep saying it’s a make or break year for Kildare.

Dara Ó Cinnéide: The one thing McGeeney has going for him from his own playing career is that it took him years and year and years to get to win one All-Ireland medal and that’s the mentality that’s driving him here. He’s shaking it up, bringing in Jason Ryan, but is there going to be that much different about Kildare?

Colm O’Connor: Cork?

Dara Ó Cinnéide: Cork are the most frustrating team in Ireland. If you’re a Cork person I imagine you’d be pulling your hair out. I actually thought they were going to beat Donegal this year in the All-Ireland semi-final. I thought their key players were playing well enough, I thought they had the physicality, and when Paddy Kelly turned over Mark McHugh early on I thought, ‘yes, this is going to happen’. But then they went back to doing... the decision-making was just terrible on the ball. It was terrible. I thought that they had seen enough from the Kerry game and all the mistakes Kerry made, that if they were younger, fitter, faster, stronger players than Kerry then they would be able to execute a better game, but I came away from Croke Park that day thinking ‘why did I think Cork would win that game?’

Donal O’Grady: I was disappointed with their second-half display against Donegal. I thought you had to move the ball quickly if you wanted to get by Donegal. You’ve got to move the ball fast. But when Donegal got a few points up, Cork went back to the way they’ve been playing for the last four or five years, which frustrates me, anyway.

Dara Ó Cinnéide: Safe football.

Donal O’Grady: Across the field, slow it down, fellas pushing the ball back from the 45 and back along. All Donegal had to do, it was affording them enough time to get men back behind the ball.

Tony Leen: Were you surprised that Counihan remained on?

Donal O’Grady: That’s his decision, he wanted to stay on and maybe he felt that if he had won last year, he’d have gone. But he’s looked again and said... ‘hey, I think we’re good enough to win it this year now’. He has changed things and brought in Brian Cuthbert and a lot of the backroom team have gone, so he clearly felt that was time to freshen up things. When you look at the stats, the scorelines, the closest any team got to Donegal last year were Kerry, and you couldn’t say they were at the peak of their powers. But Cork needed to move the ball a bit quicker, maybe they need one or two more players up front to move the ball. Nicholas Murphy’s gone now...

Donal Lenihan: You’d have to think now, as an interested GAA supporter, that Cork have massively under-achieved over the last five or six years and that’s frustrating.

Donal O’Grady: That’s a fair point. Maybe you could say it was the old story that when they get up to Croke Park.... But I still feel that with their style of play, with the modern day phenomenon of getting men behind the ball, that you need to move the ball quicker. Cork don’t and they got by because they had big players inside who grabbed the ball and wore sides down. And taking Dara’s point about barely beating Down when Cork were the far superior team on paper, they were lucky enough, but maybe they needed that All-Ireland.

Donal Lenihan: But I thought they’d kick on from that, that the monkey was off the back; they had the medal in the pocket and now they could really show what they’re capable of.

Dara Ó Cinnéide: They need a half-back line that are kicking. Really good kickers around midfield and the half-back line behind them. For the Cork-Donegal game I deliberately went to Hill 16, just to see how both full-forward lines were working. Colm O’Neill was losing his man momentarily in every attack, but they didn’t have the kickers to hit him every time. He was on fire and just wasn’t getting enough of it. Donncha O’Connor had a terrible game that day but would have had a better game if he were better serviced by kickers out the field.

MORE FROM KILKENNY?

Tony Leen: How much more is in Kilkenny? How many more championship seasons can they wring out of an exceptional, if ever-changing group?

Donal O’Grady: If you look at it, we’ll say Henry Shefflin dragged them through the first All-Ireland final this year and you could categorically state without fear of contradiction that if he hadn’t been playing, there were gone. He was like the captain of a ship that was going down and he got a big oar and started rowing the thing himself, and eventually four or five other players bought into it. Galway had a big chance of winning the match and if they had won it, who knows what might have happened? I think you need causes and Kilkenny were great for causes, and they have a cause now for next year and that’s Henry’s 10th. It will put him up there and Kilkenny up there. If Noel Hickey stays on, he’s on nine and you’ve other fellas coming in with eight. I think Kilkenny will stay until such time as other teams are capable of beating them.

Tony Leen: Anyone out there?

Donal O’Grady: Galway had a chance this year, and even in the replay there was a crucial six or seven minutes that Galway were getting a bit of momentum and got blown back by the referee for a goal that could have been allowed — if that had happened there was only a point between them. They were getting into the game a little bit and you could see Kilkenny had, I won’t say lost their way, but they had lost their comfort levels. They had been playing comfortably and then Cyril Donnellan was sent off and that was that.

Colm O’Connor: Another big question is where will Tipp be next year under Eamon O’Shea?

Donal O’Grady: I think he’s a top-class coach. He was the coach on Tipp when Liam Sheedy was the manager and I think the players had great belief in him and they trusted him that his game was going to deliver them an All-Ireland. They were unlucky in 09 — you could say they were the better team on the day, but a few decisions went against them. But they were clearly unhappy for the last two years and they weren’t playing to their optimum level. With O’Shea back they have hope, but whether they have the personnel is another thing. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a good coach or not, if you don’t have players you’re not going to get there. But Kilkenny are still the team to beat and most of the money will be going on them to win.

Ruby Walsh: Is there nothing like the pain of losing and the disgust that will motivate Galway enough? The pure sickness when you walk away having got beat when you should have won the first one. That will surely motivate Galway into next year.

Donal O’Grady: Possibly, but there’s also the fact that this year they believed and if anything, Anthony Cunningham only made one mistake this year as the manager, playing Skehill in the replay when he clearly wasn’t... I met Skehill the following day and said to him you could tell you were in pain. He ran out at one stage and kicked the ball and turned away and he was grimacing. He told me ‘I actually couldn’t bend forward, any movement from the shoulders forward and I was in ferocious pain’.

Donal Lenihan: Goes back to the whole Paul O’Connell thing, playing players who aren’t 100 per cent.

Donal O’Grady: If Galway get up to the level of belief and say ‘hey, we should have beaten them this year’ then the hunger can kick in. But if there’s any little doubt it’ll be ‘ah, typical Galway’. They had Kilkenny on the rack the first day, left it after them and that will always happen. That’s a culture, a mentality, that get into teams sometimes and it’s very difficult to get out of them.

Michael Moynihan: As long as they have Henry Shefflin and JJ Delaney, Kilkenny will win the All-Ireland. Hard to see Galway get the same bounce from being an unknown quantity, so I’d say Tipperary will make the final, but they have too many questions to answer at the back, somewhere Kilkenny are designed to interrogate you. Same as you were in hurling for me.

Liam Mackey: Can I say just one more thing before we finish. We lost our old buddy, Con Houlihan, this year. When you look back on 2012 and all the other big sports milestones, the passing of Con, in terms of sportswriting and sports appreciation in this country is huge. I was with Harriet, his right-hand woman, the other day and he would have been 87 this month. And he was still filing columns a week before he died. Whatever comes along in 2013 it will be a long time before sportswriting produces anyone to match Con’s talent and longevity.

Who broke bread

(from left) Michael Moynihan, Irish Examiner sportswriter

Dara Ó Cinnéide, All-Ireland winning Kerry football captain

Donal Lenihan, ex-Ireland rugby captain, manager

Donal O’Grady, All-Ireland winning Cork hurling coach

Ruby Walsh, multi champion National Hunt jockey

Tony Leen, Irish Examiner sports editor

Simon Lewis, Irish Examiner rugby and golf writer

John McHenry, former European Tour golf professional

Andy Lee, professional middle-weight boxer

Colm O’Connor, Irish Examiner deputy sports editor

Liam Mackey, Irish Examiner soccer writer

Columnists Andy Lee, Donal Lenihan, John McHenry, Dara O Cinnéide, Donal O’Grady and Ruby Walsh will also be writing for the Irish Examiner in 2013.


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