Category Archives: Sport

RWC—Shaking out the Cobwebs

We’re sort of at the end of the first round of matches in the Rugby World Cup—because the groups have an odd number of teams, some haven’t played as others are beginning their second round of matches. Ireland fans got to have some fun in the form of Iain Henderson galloping like an angry llama through Scottish defenders, the venerable captain and hooker Rory Best trying out a sidestep and offload among his moments of acting as a backup scrum half (proving once and for all that you can teach old dogs new tricks), and the Irish pack mutating into a many-armed and -legged beast hungry for tries and opposition flesh.

For more general fans, the most enjoyable game has possibly been the most recent, with Uruguay mugging Fiji to steal an unlikely win. As someone who’s recently been to and is unreasonably fond of Uruguay, this result has been providing me with internal warmth all day. Probably a good thing, as back in Ireland we’ve definitively seen the last of summer now.

Regardless, With the flurry of games over the opening weekend having seen all the major contenders for the title fire their first shots, we can perhaps see the direction in which things might be heading. For simplicity’s sake, let’s take a look at those contenders in broad, and possibly contentious, categories.

Tier One

The out-and-out favourites for the RWC this year had a mixed set of results, mainly because two of them played each other in one of the most interesting games of the weekend. New Zealand came out the victors against South Africa, courtesy of a few moments of brilliance in the first half, but it was a much tighter game than the 10-points differential might suggest. New Zealand should go on to top the group now and face either Scotland or Japan in the quarter finals, whereas South Africa will be wary of a potential banana skin in the form of Italy. They ought to have enough in the tank to put away the Italians comfortably, but a loss already puts them at a disadvantage and nerves could take hold.

As for the other top-tier team, England stuttered a little in the first half before dispatching Tonga. It was a performance with plenty of bite in it, but coach Eddie Jones won’t be satisfied with how long it took his charges to end their challenge. With Argentina and France also in their group, England aren’t certain of anything yet, and they’ll be looking to improve over the games to come.

Tier Two

Not far below the big three come a trio of teams with eyes very much on the prize. Of them, Ireland will be by far the happiest with their performance, as mentioned above. They shut down a dangerous but ultimately disappointing Scottish team, picking up a bonus point and not letting in any tries. With their most challenging group game behind them, Ireland will now need to see off hosts Japan before they can start looking towards a potential quarter final showdown with South Africa.

Like New Zealand and South Africa, Wales and Australia share a group, but they didn’t meet on the opening weekend, instead facing and dispatching Georgia and Fiji respectively. Neither win was entirely convincing, as both teams shipped a few tries in claiming a bonus point win, but they remain on course to collect the two qualifying spots in the group. Which order they’ll end in will largely depend on their meeting this weekend, with the loser likely facing England in the quarter finals. Both will be keen to avoid that, and the more solid Wales seem likely to come out on top.

Tier Three

At this point, things get a little messy. France and Argentina share the group of death with England, and unless both of them can upset the Saxon chariot, one of them will miss out on the quarters. Their meeting over the opening weekend was a thrilling and frustrating match, with France bursting into a lead and Argentina trying and just failing to haul them back. As a result, France have the whip hand and Argentina will need to go for broke against England. Bonus points could decide things yet, and don’t put it past France to implode against one of the other nations or spring a surprise on England.

Lastly we come to Scotland, the unfortunate victims of Ireland’s impressive weekend showing. Coming into the tournament with high hopes, they’re now reeling from a loss and a few injuries that have knocked out some of their best players. Their match against Japan could be the highlight of the final group stage weekend, with the hosts desperate to make it to the quarter finals and the Scots equally desperate to avoid the ignominy of going out in the group stages.

The Also-Rans

There weren’t any dramatic surprises over the course of the opening weekend, though the lower-ranked teams performed well enough (and Uruguay‘s victory over Fiji provides hope of more to come). The best of them, Japan and Italy, both won their opening matches comfortably enough, but it’s Japan who have the better hope of making the quarter finals (as discussed above). Italy are unfortunate enough to be in the same group as New Zealand and South Africa, and a result against either seems like the longest of long shots.

Elsewhere, no one has really put their hand up as someone to watch, though everyone has contributed to what’s been a fun opening few days. Concerns about refereeing and punishments over high tackles aside, this looks like it’s set to be the tournament we were hoping it would be. Roll on the next few weeks…

Japan, Eight Years On

We’re just hours away from the kickoff of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. It’s something of a bittersweet moment for me—rugby is my favourite sport to watch, either on TV or in person, and eight years ago I was in Japan while the 2011 RWC was taking place in New Zealand. Falling in love with the country, I decided that I would return, and that my return would coincide with the 2019 RWC.

Well, the gods laugh when men make plans, and that hasn’t happened. For a few reasons, the most notable of which was the subject of this blog’s most recent travelogue. Two major expeditions in one year would stretch my finances and holiday allowance far beyond breaking point, and so I’m leaving the up-close-and-personal experience to my brother, who’s heading to Japan himself in a day or two. For myself, I’ll have to be content with watching as many games as I can from the comfort of my couch or a suitably raucous pub.

I’m primarily a fan of the Ireland team, of course, representing as it does Ireland north and south (and east and west—there are four proud provinces, after all), and Ireland have a similarly fraught relationship to the RWC. Despite a few outstanding performances, they’ve never made it past the quarter finals (in 2011, I sat in a pub in Santa Cruz with a couple of professional golf caddies and watched them get thoroughly outplayed by Wales). This time, it seems that they might have timed their run well. Having enjoyed an annus mirabilis in 2018, they’ve been far less impressive in 2019 so far, other teams having seemingly figured out how to beat them. Improbably, a couple of wins against Wales in their last two games have elevated Ireland to the number 1 slot in the world rankings, and all of a sudden Irish fans are starting to believe that coach Joe Schmidt might just have enough tricks up his sleeve to take them to the promised land.

Of course, there are plenty of obstacles in the way. Assuming Ireland get through their group, they’ll likely face either New Zealand or South Africa in the quarters. It’s hard to say which would be the greater challenge. New Zealand have been the best team in the world for years, in addition to being the reigning champions, but they’ve looked fallible in the past year, and Ireland have a solid winning record against them recently. South Africa, who share a group with New Zealand, arrive from the opposite direction. Having been in the wilderness for a few years, they’re now looking as good as any team out there, led by coach Rassie Erasmus, formerly of Irish provincial side Munster. I’d actually back them to beat New Zealand to top their group and would even mark them as current favourites to win the whole thing.

As for the other main contenders? England are brutally efficient and have worked hard to eliminate the fallibilities that have undermined them in recent years. They took an undercooked Ireland to the cleaners in their most recent meeting, but which side will have benefited most from that lopsided result is hard to say before the tournament is over. Wales are the closest side to Ireland in terms of their ability to beat anyone when their system clicks, and they’re probably a little more reliable in terms of recent results. They share a group with Australia though, and the mercurial Ozzies are likely to surprise someone before the tournament is over. A far bigger surprise would be if France were to achieve anything of note—they’ve been a shambles for years—but that’s practically France’s raison d’etre, so England will not be comfortable sharing a group with them. Last of the tier-one nations, Scotland share a group with Ireland and are far from favourites to come out ahead in their meeting, just a week away now, but they can sparkle in attack if their opponents make the mistake of letting them do so. Ireland under Schmidt will have to be well prepared.

For neutrals and tournament organisers though, the tier-two nations are where it’s at. Teams like hosts Japan, who famously defeated South Africa in the 2015 RWC, as well as perennial also-rans like Georgia, Fiji, and Canada, and larger nations with the potential to spread the gospel of rugby union, like Russia and the USA. The better these teams do and the more competitive they are—especially if one or two of them can spring a surprise against the larger teams—the better it is for the tournament, both this year and in the future. Both fans and organisers will be happier too, so there’s no downside unless you’re in or supporting a team on the wrong side of one of those surprises. (Looks nervously at the boys in green and crosses his fingers.)

But given that there’s only a few hours to go, and you don’t know much about rugby (its rules are less straightforward to parse than football’s), what can you do to catch up quick? Well, the first thing I’d advise you to do is hop onto Twitter and search for Squidge Rugby. This rugby-loving channel offers an affectionate and funny take on this sport of thugs, played by gentlemen, and he’s in Japan as I write this, preparing to serve up videos throughout the tournament. Even better, before the tournament he provided brief profiles of each of the competing teams—their history, players, and chances in the games to come—so a small amount of entertaining effort will give you plenty of facts to drop into any rugby-related conversation you find yourself in.

For more immediate information, seek out Murray Kinsella on Twitter (@Murray_Kinsella). Possibly Ireland’s greatest living store of rugby-related knowledge, he’s been providing detailed breakdowns on Ireland’s games for years on, and he’ll likely be working flat out during the tournament. Lastly, for listening while on the go, there’s the Blood & Mud podcast (@bloodandmud). A relaxed but engaged take on the rugby world, it’ll fill any gaps you’re seeking to have filled.

That’s as much info as any person, novice or otherwise, is likely to need. Apart from those, sit back, find a handy screen that’ll be showing the games (most of them in the early morning here in Ireland, due to the time difference), and enjoy. I know I will (with possible blips should Ireland’s participation turn into a nightmare once more). This should be one of the closest RWCs ever, and it’s genuinely impossible to pick a definite favourite from among the world’s top six teams. #shouldertoshoulder

Running Into (and Out Of) the Darkness

The runners await the off. Grey but not raining at this point.

A little over a year ago, spurred into challenging myself by a combination of boredom and the marathon-running example of my younger brother, I signed up for the Focus Ireland Triathlon. Not having done any serious exercise in years, I was pretty happy to finish the event, let alone do so in the middle of the field. A longer-lasting effect of this success was that I decided to make an effort to maintain my fitness and maybe enter the odd event or two.

That was how I ended up at the Point Village this morning, waiting with a few thousand others to begin the Focus Ireland Tunnel Run, a 10k race through the twin bores of the Port Tunnel that links Dublin’s docklands to the north of the city. Sunday morning may not be the best time for exertion, but it’s a habit of mine to run and swim on a Sunday, so it wasn’t a complete shock to the system. My preparations could have been more professional though: Saturday night drinks with friends and only five hours of sleep, most of which were pretty restless and dominated by dreams of giant spiders – interpret as you will.

My goal for the run was to finish in 45 minutes or less. Although this was only my third 10k run in the year since the triathlon, I’d managed 46 minutes on the Samsung Night Run, despite pouring rain, an overcrowded course, a futile attempt at shoelace-tying, and the decision to wear my rain jacket all the way through. The other 10k run had taken place the week before the Focus Ireland event, a more leisurely solo run along the coast near home in Northern Ireland.

This was the first time that the Port Tunnel had been closed for runners. A previous 10k event had taken place just before its grand opening, but Focus Ireland had managed to secure it for three hours, hopefully not inconveniencing the Dublin traffic system too much. Organisationally, it all went pretty smoothly, apart from a few glitches, like the Bootcamp Ireland warm up music drowning out the official announcer just before the start.

What the announcer was trying to tell us about was a last-minute change in the plans for the start. Initially, the idea had been for the runners to start in waves, fastest first, presumably to prevent crowding in the two-lane tunnels. Instead, were all released together, shuffling towards the start and then pushing hard for position as we escaped the starter lane. Whatever the reason for the change in starting protocol, crowding proved an illusory problem. The wide toll plaza gave everyone room to run at their own pace before they hit the first tunnel, sorting out the strollers from the runners.

During the much more crowded Samsung Night Run, I’d found myself stuck well back down the order at the start, meaning that when I had the chance to run at pace, I was able to target runners ahead of myself and overhaul them. Being nearer the start, I had few slow runners ahead of me and was overtaken as often as I overtook. Still, running as part of a pack makes it easier to pace yourself, and I felt pretty comfortable after any initial stiffness faded away.

Running through the tunnels proved a strange experience: long, sweeping curves; gentle slopes that were difficult to gauge due to the lack of a horizon; and absolutely no wind. The air didn’t get as stuffy as I’d feared, but it might have been worse for those further behind. There was plenty of space too, and there was more and more as the race went on. Adding some amusement to the run was the fact that the lightboards used to deliver warnings to traffic were instead filled with messages of encouragement for runners, presumably tunnel staff or their family members.

The first tunnel was the tougher of the two, with a long uphill stretch towards the end, and it was a relief to see daylight and the water station at the halfway (actually just over halfway) mark. Quick sips solved any dehydration problem that had lingered from the night before, and the long, gentle downhill slope that began the second tunnel allowed me to push harder as I began the run for home. Other runners must have had a similar idea, as I was overtaken more than I overtook once again, but as soon as I hit the flat, that changed. I had targets in front of me again, and I knew I was closing on the finish line.

The appearance of daylight at the far end of the tunnel was cruelly deceptive, bouncing as it did off several curving walls that marked the end of the hardest uphill stretch of the whole run. Still, the announcement that there were only 500 metres helped me to summon up what energy I had left and head for the line as fast as my tiring legs could take me.

Not quite fast enough, as it turned out. My own timekeeping marked me at 45 minutes and 3 seconds, which the official results would later amend to 45 minutes and 21 seconds. Even so, that was a personal best, placing me 161st fastest among the runners on the day, and far better than I would have considered myself capable of a year ago. I barely noticed the rain as I trudged back to the Point Village to collect my bags. Though to be fair, the rain may well have been steaming off my overheated shoulders as I recovered my breath.

Although it wasn’t quite an Olympian endeavour on my part, it’s hard to be unhappy. A year ago, I hadn’t run in almost 20 years, hadn’t cycled in almost as long, and was at best an indifferent swimmer. The changes since then have contributed a lot to a year that’s been all about rebuilding and expanding my horizons. The simple satisfaction of being in shape and being able to challenge myself and come out on top is a well I plan to keep going back to.

The Olympics Gap

Watching the Olympics outdoors in Belfast on a sunny day. Something of a surreal experience.

Much to my surprise, I’ve found myself really enjoying the London Olympics. Having been mired in British cynicism ever since London won the bid many years ago, I guessed that this would be, at best, a mediocre games. Well, I’m glad to say that I was wrong. From the torch run that visited Ireland on the way to criss-crossing the U.K. to Danny Boyle’s spectacular, whimsical and multicultural opening ceremony, the build-up was pitch perfect: positive without being pompous or pretentious. Amazingly, the games themselves took that solid start and ran with it, converting even the most ardent sceptics.

The success that British Olympians have enjoyed in the past two weeks has helped a lot. I’ve been flicking between BBC and RTE for my coverage, and while the former’s constant mood of celebration has occasioned eye-rolling at times, there have been some spectacular moments at times, and the flood of golds have undoubtedly added to the party mood in London. Having considered going last year, I decided against it. A bad move, it seems. Every report I’ve heard has suggested that there’s been no better place to be this summer.

RTE has had a tougher time with its coverage – not having the resources of the BBC, it has more or less devoted one of its channels and much of its Internet resources to covering the massive array of events. The start of the games wasn’t easy for RTE either, with one Irish Olympian after another seeing their hopes of a medal slipping away before the final moments of their events. Thankfully, things seem to have come good at last, with the boxing team, led by the amazing Katie Taylor, now on course to take home a fistful of medals, together with a surprise bronze in the individual showjumping.

Those early struggles though, combined with British success, may have given rise to some suspicions that the Irish media has been deliberately avoiding giving much prominence to the British gold rush. Partly this might be down to the fact that anyone in Ireland who wants to know how the British team is doing can quickly find out by switching (as I’ve been doing) to the BBC. There’s always a small section of the population in Ireland though who’ll reject anything with the taint of Britishness. Whether that extends to the media, I can’t be sure, but I’m glad to say that I’ve only heard of a few examples of it. (About as many as I have of the British media trying to claim our more successful athletes.)

As for myself, despite the fact that I sit at two removes from any sense of Britishness (growing up in a Catholic, nationalist family in Northern Ireland, and living the most recent half of my life in Dublin), I love the fact that this Olympics is so close to home. The BBC has a lot to do with that: it was responsible for at least half of my cultural education, and I tend to prefer watching the Olympics on the BBC rather than RTE, for at least two reasons: no advertisments and a multiplicity of channels, meaning I can watch what I want, when I want.

I can live with the BBC presenters’ over-the-top praise of their athletes as they get swept up in Olympic fever, but when the time comes for coverage of Irish athletes, I’ll turn to RTE for all the details. If nothing else, there are gems in the RTE coverage too. Such as the wildly enthusiastic commentary on the basketball and Jimmy Magee dissolving into raptures every time an Irish boxer lands a punch or two. And when Katie Taylor and the rest of those who have trained for all of their lives for this moment get their just rewards, it won’t matter where my own heritage comes from: I’ll be cheering along with the rest.

A Sporting Digression

Go to your happy place…

I started this trip just before the Rugby World Cup kicked off. Back then, there wasn’t a huge amount of hope for Irish glory, after a run of defeats in friendly games. However, as I managed to sneak Internet access across Asia, I heard about a string of victories instead: a hard-fought win over the U.S., an almighty upset against Australia, and a competent demolition of Russia. When I finally got to see them play, in a British pub in Los Angeles, I watched one of their most solid performances in years as they first ground down and then broke Italy to claim top spot in their qualifying group.

Then last night I watched the quarterfinal against Wales in Wellington. Ouch.

The immediate reaction among the pundits seemed to be that Ireland had played well but had come up against a superior Welsh side. True as far as it goes, but one suspects that the team won’t find much solace in that notion. There may not have been any disastrous performances on the Irish side, but the tactics employed didn’t make a massive amount of sense.

In the first half, apart from Shane Williams’ 3rd-minute try, Ireland seemed to be intent on keeping a Wales side who were dangerous with ball in hand from ever getting that ball. And it worked: Ireland looked by far the most likely team to score, threatening the Welsh line several times. You could argue that O’Gara should have kicked for goal a few more times, but he took the one kick that was a nailed-on certainty. Going in at half time 10-3 down but in control, what was needed was patience. Instead, the second half saw a reversion to bad habits.

Keith Earls sneaked in for a try early on, and O’Gara added the conversion to level the scores. However, with Ireland opting to kick and chase, rarely with any hope of challenging for the resulting ball, Wales had plenty of possession, and they were all too keen to use it. After Mike Phillips copied Earls with a try in the corner to put Wales ahead again, Ireland looked momentarily panicked and rushed, with the normally solid O’Driscoll and Healy making errors. In the end, another try put the result beyond reach, and all the pressure that Ireland applied went nowhere.

All credit to Wales for executing an intelligent plan with passion and determination, earning a deserved win. Ireland, though, will know that they could have done much better. For many in the team, it was their last shot at a World Cup, and to miss out at the quarterfinals again will hurt badly. It may not have been what those stalwarts deserved, but the sad thing about sport is that what you get is not so much what you deserve as what you earn.

(Oh, and I’m not going to comment on England getting dumped out by the perennially surprising French other than to say that the All Blacks will be none too happy to see their regular World Cup nemeses showing signs of life once more…)