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The diminutive Peter Stringer was a colossus against Scotland. Photo by: PA Archive/PA Photos

Little men deliver big performances

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The diminutive Peter Stringer was a colossus against Scotland. Photo by: PA Archive/PA Photos

Let's go all twee on it, seeing as how it is Paddy’s week and all that, and suggest that it’s been a great time for the little people of Ireland and a pleasure to watch them go about their business.

All last week I was enthralled on my first visit to Cheltenham as jockey Ruby Walsh defied gravity and the history books to record not one, but a record seven winners at racing’s biggest festival.

That I managed to back more than one of Ruby’s magnificent seven as a racing heathen may be even more surprising to some of you, but more on that anon.

Last Saturday, battle weary after a hard week keeping up with everything that Cheltenham has to offer but determined to get back there next year, it was time to allow rugby to take center stage.

 Now anyone who lets on that they know me – and there are still a few outside the family circle – will tell you that I know as much about rugby as I do about racing.

That said, I did try my hand at a game of rugby once in the far distant past, although I’ve never been up on a horse, not yet anyway. Maybe that’s something I should put right before I go back on Ruby watch next year.

My one game of rugby came in first year in school when our sports teacher took up an offer from Suttonians to try us out, an effort on their part, I believe, to find the next generation of heroes at a time when Tom Kiernan’s career was coming to an end. (Readers of a certain age will know who Tom Kiernan was!)

We got a go at all sorts of positions that day, and I have to admit that I fancied the number nine short that belongs to the scrum-half, the fellow who throws the ball into the scrums and basically dictates the passes from forwards to backs that make the game tick (see, I know a little about rugby!)

The infatuation with rugby lasted all of 60 minutes. We moved house shortly afterwards on the back of a family tragedy and Co. Meath beckoned, but not Navan Rugby Club, which featured only as a disco venue in the Dervan teenage years.

I’ve always wondered about life as a scrum-half, however — until last Saturday that is. Having watched with awe as Walsh maximized the power in his sleight frame to guide huge horses over fences and around the racecourse and into the winner’s enclosure at Cheltenham, I realized that any potential life as a jockey has definitely passed me by.

That life as a horse for any horse who’d have me on his back would also be over is another story for another day! By Saturday night, after digesting a powerhouse performance from a small man with a big point to prove at Murrayfield, I realized that life as a number nine was probably never meant for me either.

Some 18 months ago I was in the stadium in Bordeaux when Peter Stringer threw a suicidal pass against Georgia in a World Cup match. The look on the face of Brian O’Driscoll, the intended recipient, as Georgia broke for the line could have killed Stringer in its own right with its icy intensity.

The pass itself was almost fatal in terms of Stringer’s rugby career.  He was discarded instantly by Eddie O’Sullivan as Eoin Reddan came in for the next game and stayed there for over a year.

Worse then followed for the diminutive Corkman when Munster went all the way to a second Heineken Cup title last year with Tomas O’Leary in the starting team and Stringer on the bench.

Ironically it was Declan Kidney, the very man who dropped Stringer for Munster last year, who restored him to the Ireland squad for this season’s championship.

Kidney’s loyalty went one step further last weekend when he recalled Stringer to the starting team for the vital Six Nations visit to Edinburgh, with Ireland’s Grand Slam hopes hanging in the air.

It was a masterly piece of judgment on Kidney’s behalf, more proof that he is indeed a Messiah after personally resurrecting Brian O’Driscoll’s claims to be a rugby legend this season.

Stringer, like Walsh all week in Cheltenham, was imperious. He was only on the field for 65 of the 80 minutes but he was brilliant from start to finish, and even managed to make the break that led to Ireland’s only and decisive try from Jamie Heaslip in the 50th minute.

It was a pleasure to see Stringer confirm his second coming with the man of the match award from the BBC at the end of the game.Like Walsh, he is small in stature but big in heart. Like Walsh, he enjoyed some week this past week.

Like Stringer’s performance in Edinburgh, Walsh’s display at Cheltenham was an eye opener for this racing novice.

After years of listening to people tell me that Cheltenham is the best thing since sliced bread, I finally understood what they meant after a week enjoying life on the course at Prestbury Park, and life off it with the festival goers in famous venues like the Queens, O’Neills, the 21 Club and a wonderful pub called the Retreat.

I managed to end the week some 500 euros up even after a long retreat to the Retreat on our final night, and I will be back for more.  The enduring memory, though, surrounds Walsh and the thoroughbreds he steered to victory seven times last week.

I now understand why racing at the highest level is the sport of kings. I now know why so many friends rate Walsh as one of the greatest Irish sportsmen of all time. He is a master in a sport that will now earn the respect it deserves in the Dervan household.

 Was the road to Cheltenham also a road to Damascus? You bet. And I’ll even give you odds on it now that I’m a serious punter thanks to Go Native, Quevega, Big Bucks and their likes!

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