Two lovely lines from the stories surrounding Munster’s defeat to Clermont in the Heineken Cup semifinal prove that the Celtic Tiger didn’t take our soul and spirit with it when it followed the snakes out of Ireland a few years back.
The Red Army, as ever, marched on France for the semi with their usual flair. The economic crisis may have visibly cut their numbers, but their passion and fervor has never been a commodity traded on the stock exchanges.
Nor has their utter belief in their team and their heroes been diminished by a recent fall from rugby’s top table, a trait common to the game in Ireland at present.
The RTE cameras caught that belief in all its intensity on Saturday afternoon as their news crew caught up with some of the Munster fans as they sampled the delights of Montpellier in the hours before the big kickoff.
Asked how their team was going to do, one big Corkman hit a prospective nail on the head. “Sure didn’t we land in Lourdes, isn’t that a good enough omen for you?” he asked the bemused reporter from Ireland’s state broadcaster.
As it happened, Munster were inspired by something in their battle with one of the giants of French rugby and a Clermont side regarded by those who know, and those who don’t, as the best side in Europe right now.
Maybe it was the waters down the road in Lourdes, maybe it was the chance to emulate their European heroics of before, maybe it was just sheer guts and glory of old, but Munster were bloody brilliant on Saturday afternoon.
They didn’t win the game – they lost by just six points – but they almost stole it right at the end when they camped on the French line and might easily have grabbed a sneaky match-winning try.
It would have been unmerited and unexpected, but a Munster win was almost the end result in a big European game on Saturday, not the first time such an event has been recorded on these pages.
Nor is this the first time that this column has eulogized Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara, collectively and separately.
Both were immense again this past weekend. Both were hugely influential in their team’s performance. And both shed a tear or two with the fans in the crushing minutes that followed defeat.
O’Gara, according to some reports, was saying his last goodbyes to the Munster fans as he engaged in a lap of honor with his young son on his arms. His tears were mirrored in the stands and his eyes had the look of a man who knew more than the game was lost.
Maybe he will retire now as one headline suggested. Maybe he won’t as the story beneath that very same
headline seemed to suggest on Monday morning.
Either way, Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell and Munster proved that sport defies all economic woe and all national malaise.
Just as Brian O’Driscoll was brilliant for Leinster in their Amlin Cup semifinal win over Biarritz the same day, both O’Gara and O’Connell proved they have something more to offer club and country.
So Ronan, don’t go, don’t leave us now. Ignore the headlines and the hype and hang around with Munster for at least one more year.
And Dricco – you heard the fans shout “one more year” at the RDS on Saturday. You heard the new Ireland coach Joe Schmidt say he wants to see you in a green jersey next season and will be telling you as much every time he can in your remaining time together with Leinster before he switches jobs in the summer.
Trust me, you will both miss playing when you are gone. I’ve not met a retired sportsman or woman yet who has found anything in their lives to match the thrill of competing at the highest level.
Another year in action is nothing in the greater scheme of things for Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara.
And for Paul O’Connell, retribution for Europe can come with the Lions in Australia this summer, the best stage of all to get it off his chest.
(Cathal Dervan is sports editor of the Irish Sun newspaper in Dublin)
RUGBY: England’s rugby writers were exuberant as Jonny Wilkinson kicked Toulon into a Heineken Cup semifinal victory over Saracens at Twickenham on Sunday, so exuberant that they claimed he was a certainty for the Lions tour to Australia this summer. Little did they know that Wilko had already turned down an invite to join the Lions from coach Warren Gatland at that stage. Apparently he doesn’t feel he could cope with the demands of a seven tour to Australia at his age, but don’t be surprised if he ends up down under as a replacement. Then the English rugby writers will be happy again.
GAA: Some people are just too fit. Not alone did Bryan Cullen win a National League medal with Dublin at Croke Park on Sunday afternoon, he then ran the @night 10l road race in the capital that night. One of 7,000 runners in the popular race, Bryan took just 40 minutes to cover the course. Not bad for a guy who played 45 minutes of top class football earlier that day.
SOCCER: Neil Lennon bristled with anger last week when the Scottish Professional Footballers Association failed to nominate any of his stars for their Player of the Year award, a bizarre oversight considering their Champions League run alone. I wonder how Lennon felt this week when the same association nominated him for their Manager of the Year award? And will be turn up at their dinner to collect it if he wins? I doubt it.
SOCCER: Nice to see some sort of normal service resumed in Glasgow on Monday night when Celtic got to play Rangers again. Smoke bombs were let off, seats were ripped up and three arrests were made, one for an alleged assault. It was an under-17 Glasgow Cup final by the way which attracted such behavior from a minority in a 6,000 strong crowd. Clearly they miss the Old Firm games.
GAA: Nice to see the Limerick footballers win a national title in the NFL Division Four final on Saturday night. Nicer still to see their talented midfielder John Galvin make his return after a second cruciate knee operation. John picked up another injury in the match against Offaly but it’s only muscular and won’t keep him out of the Munster Championship – which Limerick fancy their chances of winning this summer.
GAA: The Kerry legend Maurice Fitzgerald finally collected his Sigerson Cup college football medal on Saturday night – 25 years after he won it with University College Cork. Fitzgerald missed the original presentation ceremony in 1988 due to commitments with Kerry but finally received it at a silver jubilee presentation in Cork last weekend. Better late than never, as they say.
SOCCER: Another part of my youth died with the death of former Irish midfielder Tony Grealish at the age of 56 last week. Tony’s trademark beard is a stand-out memory from the Giles and Hand era with Ireland, and his honesty on the pitch was always to be admired. Good footballer, great guy.
GAA: Simon Fagan was back on duty as a GAA with the St. Joseph’s club in Co. Louth on Sunday – hours after winning $5 million on the Irish National Lottery on Saturday night. Now that’s dedication.
HERO OF THE WEEK
BARNEY Rock was a great Gaelic footballer with Dublin who could have made it as a goalkeeper with Arsenal. His son Dean is mostly a Gaelic footballer with Ballymun Kickhams who has yet to follow in his father’s footsteps with the Dubs. Until now that is. Dean got a second chance at county level under new boss Jim Gavin and made it count with two crucial late points as his team beat Tyrone by the narrowest of margins in the NFL final on Sunday. Like father, like son.
IDIOTS OF THE WEEK
THE Donegal County Board made a big deal out of an alleged bite on one of their players by a Dubliner footballer in a recent NFL game, then failed to provide the evidence. Biting is wrong in any sport, and the 10 game ban handed down by the English FA to Liverpool idiot Luis Suarez proves how seriously they take it. So why couldn’t the Donegal Board ensure justice was done in this instance – if it needed to be done.