Magnificent Ireland step up to the mark

WHAT A privilege it was on Sunday to see Irish rugby finally grow up. That’s two big wins over two southern hemisphere sides but what was even more impressive, both wins were recorded as favourites.

How I’ve longed for the day when Irish teams would finally stand up and be counted. No more doffing the cap, no more choking, no more wishing we could go back to being underdogs, when we didn’t have to handle the pressure of expectation. Munster set the tone earlier this year with the Heineken Cup win, now this Irish team is following suit.

Credit to them for that. Credit also to coach Eddie O’Sullivan, a man criticised here many times. There’s a massive change in his demeanour in the past six months or so, a smiling face, a more relaxed attitude. Not before time. That’s the way we should be, now and always, in our relationship with sport.

Being at Lansdowne Road meant I missed the two Munster club hurling semi-finals. I haven’t yet seen footage of the Erin’s Own/Wolfe Tones game, but I did record Toomevara/Mount Sion, and what a cracker it was.

Rugby, at least, is recognised as a winter sport, hurling is not, most definitely not in the conditions that prevailed in Nenagh last Sunday. And yet two club teams combined to serve up a super contest. Toomevara, five Dunne brothers, 15 warriors, Mount Sion, three McGraths, 15 heroes, all fought to the very end in what was a fine match.

From first puck to last, it had everything. It was tight, it was close; it had several outstanding players on either side, several outstanding scores.

What about Mount Sion corner forward Micheál White’s fantastic brace of points in the first half, one off his right side, one off his left, off either wing? The skill level required to do that in any conditions is impressive enough, but in a Munster club semi-final? On a bog-like sod (no fault to the groundsman in Nenagh), in a storm? The balance, the poise, the little shimmy, the nerve, the accuracy — ah, magnificent. It had passion, and why wouldn’t it? A little outbreak of argy-bargy, but what about it? The game itself was played in fantastic spirit, not a bad stroke even as players were slipping and sliding all over the place.

And it had controversy. What a goal for Mount Sion by White, what a decision to disallow it. I could see no lines delineating the edge of the square; perhaps they were there, and perhaps even he was inside them at the point of contact. But that goal should have stood. He came in from outside the square (notional or not), did nothing to impede the keeper, made perfect in-the-air contact with Ken McGrath’s 65.

Goal, in my book, disallowed by Diarmuid Kirwan, and heartbreak for the Waterford champions. A pity, a real pity, because Waterford deserves a lift in hurling, yet you can’t take anything from Toomevara. What character there is in that side, in both those sides.

Hurling is our game, our own native game, played by ourselves among ourselves. At inter-county level it’s a spectacle without equal in sport, and I say that without apology to anyone; at club level, however, is where it really comes into its own.

There are so many clichés attached to sport now that interviewing players before and after matches has become a bit of a joke; there are also the truisms, not to be confused with those clichés, and the most repeated one of all by inter-county players, is this — I love playing with my club, because that’s where it all started, that’s where it will all finish.

Mount Sion had to battle their way out of Waterford to get this far in the Munster club championship, Toomevara likewise in Tipperary, before getting past Ballyduff of Kerry in the first round. In every county in Munster it’s a massive test to win your own county final, a huge honour, that becomes greater again with each passing round. Fifteen guys from each of those clubs, each representing his own parish, his own people — it doesn’t get any better.

Then we come to the rugby. Where hurling is our war-game, handed down in its various guises through the centuries, through the millennia, rugby was made for us, we were made for rugby. A bit like hurling, it’s a minority sport in this country, was confined to a few dedicated areas; a bit like hurling, it’s growing in recognition.

Unlike hurling, however, it has an international outlet, and this is important. For too long we have played second fiddle on the world stage.

Hopefully 2007 will be the year Ireland wins the Rugby World Cup.

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