Spring comes with a blaze of sungold over the whole of Clare and the west. The Ides of March never began better or brighter. Daffodil days for sure. Mating frogs fill the garden pond with the glittering mottled spawn of the new season. Tuppence and Thruppence, the two young cats, begin sprinting up to the very tips of the two apple trees, the chapel bell rings with that peculiar clarity you only get on crisp spring days. We emerge from winter. The early days of March stretch their evenings just as fluently as the young cats in the treetops. Tomorrow, I feel, the rooks will begin building their nests in the tall evergreens at the end of the garden. And, despite the economic recession, it has been a great sporting weekend for Ireland and the Irish. A weekend when the tough men got going when the going got tough. There is a special feeling and passion involved in beating England at rugby. We managed that by a single point in the end in a Croke Park, where more nails were chewed to the quick in the last couple of minutes than is normally the case even on All-Ireland day. It was a bruising and grueling battle from the start. The “hits” intensified as the game went on. I interviewed a World War II German soldier a few years ago, and that grizzled old one told me how hard it was to put Tommy out of action when he was fighting British troops in the Black Forest. It was like that in Croke Park on Saturday. The English shot themselves in the foot through indisciplines which meant they had a man in the sin bin for most of the game. But by God did they not have a proper go despite that, and they put the Irish to the pin of their collars before losing by the slightest of margins. It was a great help to them that the normally peerless Irish kicker Ronan O’Gara selected this occasion for one of his worst outings in the green vest. The English would probably have won had not the Irish captain Brian O’Driscoll been the real tough and talented man who got going when the chips were down. There had been talk months ago that, having just turned 30, he was past his best. But class is class, and he has never had a better season that this one to date. With O’Gara missing penalties it was O’Driscoll who snapped up the chance of a drop goal that Ireland sorely needed just after the start of the second half. And when the fat was really sizzling, despite having been heavily fouled and concussed minutes earlier, it was O’Driscoll who scored the only Irish try. To do so he had to drive through a thicket of burly English bodies. He effectively put his head where most would scarce dare put their boot. He was the man of a memorable match. Ireland is the only unbeaten side so far in the Six Nations tournament. But that is secondary to beating England in the only game that really matters to very many of us. It’s childish but it is true. The recession would have felt much worse if we had lost to the old enemy. And with the hurlers back in action in the national league competition there is a return bout between champions Kilkenny and the Waterford side they thrashed in the same Croke Park in the All-Ireland final last September. Waterford are managed nowadays by the fiery Davy Fitzgerald, the former Clare goalkeeper, and they go into battle with the same dynamic determination and fire as always marked Davy’s play in his day. Tough men have scores to settle once the action starts, and Waterford is out for revenge. The pot is so close to boiling even before they properly begin that it is certain to rattle the lid and boil over long before the end. And it does too! There’s nearly as many “hits” as in the rugby game, red and yellow cards are flying like confetti before the end, and by the time the reduced armies reach the long whistle the big Dan Shanahan has struck another vital goal and Waterford have secured their revenge. A thriller from beginning to end. And their next meeting come the championship season is certain to be a cracker. Recession? What recession? And far away in Tucson where all the big guns used blaze away, the 19-year-old prodigy of Irish golf, the remarkable Rory McIlroy of the cherubic face and curls, shows why he is already in the Top 20 in the world by battling like a Kerry terrier in match play against the very best in the game. Remarkably, when all his talented Irish elders like Harrington and McDowell have already been beaten, McIlroy gets through to the penultimate stage and is only beaten by the eventual overall winner Ogilvie, who hit a purple patch of form when it mattered. A tough and talented kid too is McIlroy. His star shone so bright in the Tucson sunset that it stole away some of the luster from the return of the Tiger. That takes some doing. But the toughest Irishman of them all over the sporting weekend was a beefy taximan from Belfast by the name of Martin Rogan. Martin is 37 years old, but few of ye ever heard of him until now. He’s built like the back of a Belfast bus. He is a part-time actor as well as a taximan. And, despite his age, he only took up boxing very recently. He made some headlines last year when he beat three or four opponents on the one night in York to win a prizefighter competition on Sky Sports. Then he easily defeated the ranking Audley Harrison a month or so later to qualify for a fight against a big ebony boxer called Matt Skelton in Birmingham on the last Saturday night in February for the Commonwealth heavyweight title. Skelton is a polished and durable boxer who has never been stopped or dropped in his distinguished career. He has fast hands and they’re heavy. He could land three punches on the Belfast man for every one being thrown by an opponent who had only 12 fights up to then! Skelton began by hitting Rogan with about everything but the kitchen sink. Then Rogan began throwing the kitchen sink back at him with interest. What began as a boring looking skirmish with Skelton hotly fancied soon turned into a bloody epic in every sense of the word. And the more brutal and bloody it got (most of the blood from Skelton’s cut eye), then the better Rogan seemed to like it. He had a rocky patch in the middle rounds, but then he began to dish out what you could call a Rocky scenario himself to his opponent. The harder he was hit, the harder he hit back. The man must have a granite chin. And in the penultimate 11th round he came out of his corner throwing lethal leather that felled Skelton. And hit him with such a deadly flurry of head shots when they resumed that the referee stepped in to save Skelton, who stopped for the first time ever. It was compulsive viewing, maybe the most compulsive viewing of a tough weekend. Rogan said afterwards that his aim now is to become the first Irish heavyweight champion of the world for a long, long time, back even to the Wall Street crash era by my reckoning. It is not beyond the parameters of what is possible, either, given his durability and punching power. Everybody is talking about his exploits since. I did not hear one word about the recession all day!
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