In my lifetime I cannot ever recall such a momentous sporting weekend as the brilliant one we had last weekend. It was a mix of everything, with Mayo under 21s getting the weekend off to a great start with their impressive disposal of the Rossies in Charlestown. The big event of the weekend was, undoubtedly, the Irish rugby team’s clash with Wales in Cardiff Arms Park. To cap it off Bernard Dunne completed the perfect weekend for Irish sport by winning a world title in the early hours of Sunday morning at the new O2 in Dublin. There was a fantastic buzz about the place all this week as a result of these performances. It’s a pity in a way that Bernard Dunne happened to be in action on the same day as the Irish rugby team. Their sensational victory earlier in the day had us in such a spin that we almost forgot that we had the little Neilstown lad fighting for a world title. His incredible winning performance, I felt, was overshadowed by the boys in green who had made their own bit of history earlier in the evening. But either way it was mighty stuff.
My routine was thrown off kilter a little as I had to attend an Athletics Ireland function with my wife and daughter on Saturday evening, and all the way over in Arklow. It meant I couldn’t get to Charlestown to see our under 21s. Not to worry though as I had two Mayo friends and a Rossie texting me throughout the afternoon on proceedings. I know the Mayo management were absolutely thrilled with this victory as their young charges (11 of them under age again next year ) displayed some of the never say die qualities that we associate with this grade over the last four years.
What a result
That result had me buzzing and prepared for the excitement of Cardiff Arms Park at 5.30pm. I would normally put the feet up in the comfort of home to watch a big sporting occasion like this. It allows me the privilege to jump and leap around the room without anyone seeing me make a fool of myself. Not to worry though as we found the near perfect venue in the centre of Arklow town. Gut instinct told me I had chosen well. The atmosphere was electric. The build up to the game was well underway when we walked in. There were still two hours to go before Ronan O’Gara would tee it up, but this crowd were already in party mood. Once proceedings got under way it was a white knuckle ride all the way to the finish. The Welsh are quite an awesome team, technically smart, spiritually sound, and they wear their pride like the Irish. It was obvious from the off that our Celtic brothers were not going to hand over their Grand Slam trophy won last year on a plate. At times they seemed to sense a perceived weakness in our side and really took the game to the Irish. They punished early indiscretions with two brilliantly executed penalties, and with our boys fumbling and knocking-on like never before the language from the crowd was choice. During the first half heads shook in resignation. Fingernails were being devoured as if they were the latest two for one offer from McDonalds. But we needn’t have fretted because this particular Irish team seemed happily undaunted by the failures of the past when big games would have slipped away from them when the gauge got turned up a few notches.
Kidney’s confident calmness
After the break they sent out the message to Gatland and his Welsh charges that no Irish man was going to hide today, or rest until such time as the singing of the fat lady could be heard. Declan Kidney has brought a confident calmness to the scene that had this team playing as if they knew it was their destiny to walk into the winners’ enclosure. Half time analysis in Arklow had all sorts of theories and, as ever, there were bar stool experts all round. But none of them predicted the explosiveness of that eight minute burst at the start of the second half. Two brilliant tries had the packed crowd leaping with excitement. It was mighty stuff. I personally hadn’t experienced tension like last Saturday, and I know if a heart monitor was applied to me, and those sitting near me, there would have been a pile up of ambulances at the back door. This was a cliffhanger, a thriller of a game that did justice to the occasion. The dropped goal at the finish by Ronan O’Gara was as close to a perfect football moment, fit to win any great game as any script writer could dream. Then all hell broke loose as the final whistle shrilled and the packed crowd was obviously not going to miss this once in a 61 year opportunity to have one hell of a party.
I was in Ballina then on Sunday afternoon for the visit of the Dubs. In years past a visiting Dublin side always generated great excitement. They would arrive by the bus and train load to provincial venues with banners and hooters that would have auld ones scurrying to their front doors to see what all the commotion was about. Sadly there was little evidence of the hordes of Dublin supporters that heretofore would crowd the local bars and create a bit of excitement before the action got under way. God knows we could do with a few bus loads of the old Dub supporters these days to lighten the load and lift the emptiness of spirit that has enveloped our nation. Unfortunately what I witnessed in Ballina was pretty awful. It was shapeless, in lots of cases clueless, other instances headless, and by and large spiritless. It was an occasion when practically not a single Dublin player enhanced his reputation and were it not for Alan Dillon, Liam O’Malley, and Ger Cafferkey I am sure Mayo would have lost this game. The Mayo players appear to be playing without any real winning confidence these days. I am keeping my fingers crossed that the sight of the maroon and white of Galway will bring a sparkle to our game this weekend in Tuam. I have always held an ingrained belief that there is something about our game that lends it a charm and an appeal that is unique and sets us apart from other codes. What I witnessed in Ballina last weekend is testing my faith. I am beginning to discover for the first time in my life that our ‘beautiful game’ might just not be quite as unique as I sometimes imagine.