Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Rugby's Inside Job - Who Hitches a Thoroughbred to the Plough?

There’s a fascinating article about Gordon D’Arcy in today’s Irish Independent that solves many of the mysteries about the man. Kieran Rooney’s excellent analysis is that, contrary to opinion after five o’clock GMT last Sunday, D’Arcy has not come from nowhere at all – he has been giving several chances to step up to International level before this, and he’s made a bags of them all. D’Arcy was the king of the unforced error in his previous incarnations at wing or at full-back; now, due to the injury to Brian O’Driscoll forcing Gary Ella to play D’Arcy at outside centre for Leinster, D’Arcy has bloomed, as outside centre gives D’Arcy less chance for reflection, which doesn’t suit him. At centre D’Arcy can play his natural game, and Ireland is all the better for it as a result.

Up to a point, Lord Copper. What seems to be forgotten in the rush to canonise D’Arcy is the way that Ireland are wasting the prodigious talents of Brian O’Driscoll. O’Driscoll is one of the best players in the world right now – if anybody names a World XV, O’Driscoll is handed the 13 jersey and no questions are asked. The Welsh game was further proof of his genius – two tries, the amazing strength of the man, and, what always impresses me about O’Driscoll, the man is so relaxed. He could have been going for a Saturday afternoon kickaround instead of trying to save Ireland’s season. He’s always smiling, always relaxed before a game, as he knows he belongs on the Great Stages. The man’s genius is unparalleled, thus leading anyone with eyes to see to wonder why in God’s name would anyone waste him at inside centre?

There are two ways of considering the position of inside centre on the rugby team. The first is to consider him as an auxiliary stand-off half, the second five-eighth of the Southern Hemisphere teams. This is a common designation, as a lot of inside centres have been fly-halves; Michael Lynagh played at 12 for Australia when Mark Ella was fly-half, Paul Dean played at 12 for Ollie Campbell at 10, and even Campbell himself played inside centre once or twice in the late seventies, on the very few occasions that he and Tony Ward played together. Mike Catt behind Jonny Wilkinson – the list goes on and on.

However, the most interesting, and lasting evolution, of the inside centre position occurred on the all-conquering All-Black Tour of 1967, when New Zealand swept all before them. In 1967, kicks could still go into touch on the full, meaning that the games were grim, hard and tight. It became virtually impossible for teams to score off first phase ball – from scrums and lineouts – so what New Zealand did was launch their attacks from the second phase. First phase position went out to Ian MacRae at inside centre, MacRae went straight ahead with the ball under his oxter, and when he was tackled, the All-Blacks rucked the ball back and attacked wide, the cover having being sucked towards the ruck. Easy peasy.

The All-Black rucking was spectacular on that 1967 tour – Gareth Edwards made his debut for Wales as a teenager in 1967, and he wrote in his autobiography that getting caught at the bottom of a New Zealand ruck was “like getting caught in a combine harvester” – but for our purposes the role of MacRae at inside centre on that tour is important. MacRae redefined the position – in an ideal world the inside centre is a second five-eighth, an auxiliary fly-half, but, when you need to establish a possession platform, the inside centre is a human drill-bit, burrowing his way through the opposition and giving the pack a target for the ruck. Ireland have used inside centres like this before – those dour Ulstermen, Davy Irwin of the eighties and Maurice Field, the fireman from Malone, in the nineties spring to mind – and what’s concerning An Spailpín more than somewhat is exactly what sort of inside centre Ireland expects O’Driscoll to be.

In these times of outhalf debates every time the team is named, how interesting it is that neither Ronan O’Gara nor David Humphries have been picked at inside centre. The sad fact is that Ireland do not have two world class outhalves battling for the 10 shirt but two men of whom neither can rise sufficiently high above mediocre to grab the shirt and not let go. O’Gara has youth on his side and may improve, but otherwise, the prospects are bleak.

Brian O’Driscoll is not an outhalf. If he was, Gary Ella would certainly have giving him a run there for Leinster after the Contreponi fiasco. What Brian O’Driscoll is, above all, is a strike runner. What O’Driscoll has is explosive acceleration, incredible change of pace, phenomenal strength and tremendous balance – the blueprint for an outside centre who can break the gain line and cut through the opposition right through their heart. Talents like O’Driscoll’s do not arrive often, and when they do, they should be cherished. As such, when the Irish pack have secured ball off a ruck, it should be popped out to O’Driscoll straight away, but, if he’s selected at inside centre, that can’t happen in Twickenham as he’ll be at the bottom of the ruck that started it all. Drawing water is no way to treat a thoroughbred, but that is the policy that the Irish management seem set on. Why that is I can’t understand, and I fear that we will pay dearly for it down the road - Rugby Road, Twickenham, TW1 1DS to be precise.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

The Passion of the Christ

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is released today in the United States, and already the debate is raging. There appears to be very little middle ground in this debate; The Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert gives the movie four stars, while Jami Bernard of the New York Daily News excoriates the movie as spectacularly violent, and, remarkably, "the most virulently anti-Semitic movie made since the German propaganda films of World War II."

Those German propaganda movies were pretty anti-Semitic, looking back, so for Mad Max to have topped them must be some achievement. Or else Ms. Bernard is taking through her hat.

Let's take a look. Ms Bernard remarks that the movie is a propaganda tool, and identifies Caiphas' response to Pilate, who wants to set Jesus free, "His blood be on us - and our our people," as the most damning of all.

Interestingly, Caiphas speaks this line, as do all the Jewish characters, in Aramaic. The movie is subtitled, but that line is not - Gibson is fully aware of the delicacy of feeling about this, and therefore doesn't subtitle the line, meaning that the only person who can be offended are those who are fluent in Aramaic, a very small population indeed, and those who are going to see the movie with the sole and specific purpose of being offended. Ms Bernard is one or the other. In propaganda terms, who is the spinner, and whom is the spun?

As regards the violence of the movie, we can only assume that Ms. Bernard is on surer footing. Ms Bernard is the author of Quentin Tarantino: The Man and His Movies so we can take it as - God forgive me - Gospel that she intimately familiar with ears being sliced off, someone's brains being blown all over the back seat of a car and people being sliced up like loaves of bread. No mention of fishes, of course. As the author of a study of Tarantino, Ms Bernard must be able to justify the violence that is emblematic of the Tarantino oeuvre, she must find it necessary; how exactly Ms Bernard would direct a story about a crucifixion without lashings of blood and gore is an interesting one.

Here is the one thing I know about Mel Gibson's Passion: at a time when there is no more devoted retailer of old rope than the movie industry, which churns out stultifying and insulting movies every weekend, there is no percentage for Mel Gibson in making this movie. Instead of figuring out how the least creative effort can achieve the maximum return, as happened with, say, Bad Boys II, Gibson made the Passion because he believed in it. The Passion is rare indeed in this regard, and, whether you like the movie or hate it, you have to respect what's gone into it. I'm looking forward to seeing it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

A Short, Sharp Shock for Kevin Maggs

It takes a very subtle mind to keep up with IRFU politics, but Eddie O'Sullivan has brought it to a new and higher level with his team selection for the crucial Welsh game on this coming Sunday. Eddie has achieved such a level of cunning that he deserved to be ranked with the great scholastic philosophers of the Medieval Church - the lads that used to count the angels on the head of a pin, and that sort of thing.

That Brian O'Driscoll would return at the earliest opportunity was clear for all with eyes to see; that Kevin Maggs would be the man to make way is completely out of blue. Even more astonishingly, O'Driscoll will play inside centre, while Gordon D'Arcy retains the thirteen shirt.

This is just bizarre. The Irish midfield defence was parted on Saturday in Paris as the Red Sea was parted by Moses during the flight from Israel, but it seems unfair to pin the blame for all that on Maggs. It's especially unfair on a man who had a superb World Cup doing the thankless work that an inside centre does, which is tackling all day and taking crash ball two or three yards before getting smashed to the ground by the biggest hombres in any rugby team. Hard lines indeed, especially as it seems that the one man who wouldn't be dropped on any basis was Gordon D'Arcy.

The list of Irish one-cap wonders is a long and ignoble one, and any sensible man would suggest that a man needs more than eighty minutes to find his way in the white heat of International rugby. At the same time, nobody can suggest that D'Arcy is a better outside centre than O'Driscoll, as right now nobody on the planet is a better outside centre than O'Driscoll. As such, Darwinism wins out over Gordon D'Arcy's feelings, and D'Arcy goes to the bench. Yet all during the aftermath of Paris, it was never suggested that D'Arcy's place was in danger - if O'Driscoll was to return it would be at the cost of either Dempsey, for whom D'Arcy would take over at full-back, or Howe, for whom D'Arcy would take over on the wing.

D'Arcy's place was inviolate. Why?

I can see why someone wouldn't pick Howe in the first place. Thirty-two is old for a winger, and seeing him out there in all that open space with his scrumcap tied tightly under his chin reminds me of nothing so much as the child of an overconsiderate mother who ensures that he never leaves the house without his hat and mittens. If Howe breakfasts solely on Ready Brek An Spailpín wouldn't be a bit surprised.

That said, the only thing Howe did wrong in Paris was the double movement for the try, and that's more for the French to complain about than the Irish. So why should Howe be sacrificed for D'Arcy? What's so special about D'Arcy?

If An Spailpín were any hand at all the scholastic philosophy he could posit a hypothesis that the reason D'Arcy remains and Maggs got the bullet is because, with the demotion of Malcolm O'Kelly and the rightful promotion of Donncha O'Callaghan to the second row, the number of Leinstermen in the side remains constant. The only demographic that's down numbers therefore is the Exiles, and who ever sings for them? Miserably, though, An Spailpín is an innocent, simple fellow, and can't figure this out at all.

Although Malcolm O'Kelly hasn't been setting the world on fire - he's almost as anonymous as his Leinster predecessor of the eighties, Mr Francis, the Media Darling - there is an argument to be made in favour of retaining Kelly and putting big Donncha in at Number Eight. Foley is an excellent defensive eight, but he's not exactly the man to grab the ball and head to where battle is thickest. This is O'Callaghan in a nutshell, a harum-scarum devil-may-care-um broth of an Irish boy, and exactly what the doctor ordered to pluck those Welsh feathers. Because, if the Welsh win then suddenly last year's Grand Slam contenders are making their way to Twickenham to take on the English in the first English appearance at Twickers in a full international since they won the World Cup. And if Ireland is going there with an 0-2 record, then we're no such much co-celebrants at the high altar as the ritual sacrifice. And we wouldn't like that.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Banphrionsa Leia

Bhí agallamh ins an Manchester Guardian inné idir scríobhnóir ón Guardian le Carrie Fisher, agus clú agus caill uirthi mar Banphrionsa Leia ins na scannain Cogadh na Rialta, Buaileann an Ríaltas Ar Ais, agus Casadh an Chedí. Bhuail Carrie agus an scríobhnóir í mBaile Átha Cliath, agus chuir Carrie súil ar clár Gaeileach ar an teilefís, ar TG4 is docha. Seo mar a cheap sí: "So I was watching the TV in my hotel room, and there was this show on and swear to God it was in the language of the elves. What the hell language is that? I know it's not Welsh, I know it's not Latvian."

Í gCoill na gCuilinn amháin.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Sports Commentators

Paul "Dr Z" Zimmerman is the greatest writer currently writing on American Football, if not the greatest ever. Every year, in his column in Sports Illustrated, Dr Z holds his TV Commentator Awards, where he rates the TV Commentators from five stars to no stars whatsoever.

Imagine if that were to happen here - there's be riots in the streets. In my memory, two RTÉ commentators have ever been criticised in the press, Ger Canning by Tom Humphries in the Irish Times in the early nineties, when Big Tom was just starting out, and Brian Carthy by Tommy Conlon in the Sunday Independent two years or eighteen months ago. Both Canning and Carthy sued for defamatory libel, claiming that their ability to earn an living had been unfairly impugned, and they wanted cash on the barrelhead fairly lively.

Maybe the Mandy Johnson libel loss yesterday against The Star will make the Four Courts seem less like an ATM machine, but until then mediocre commentary will continue to rule the waves.

Ignore Dr Z at your peril. Dr Z points out that the trend in US broadcasting is to sell the package and not the game, to hype stars even when those "stars" are tanking, and to generally ignore what's going on the paddock according to whatever marketing plan was decided on by the Marketing (not Sports) Department on Wednesday. As happens in the States, so happens maybe three years later in Britain, and eventually it washes up on our shores. Original ideas are not thick on the ground in RTÉ so you can bet your bottom dollar that if anything new happens on an RTÉ sports show, it's because the boys saw it somewhere else first.

Editorial cowardice doesn't help either. For a long time The Sunday Game analysts were taking the Book of Dunphy to heart. No matter what they saw they didn't like it, and things were always better in the old days. Now, when football has been reduced to a slaparama every weekend, their hands are tied to condemn the modern trend of football in case Somebody's Feelings Are Hurt. Remember Pat Spillane's line about "puke football?" The only instance possibly ever of a man on an RTÉ panel telling it like it was, and he had to drawn in his horns big style since. You can go with one editorial policy or the other, but not both.

The only commentators worth listening to are on the radio, of course. Mícheál is known to all of course, but I would recommend plugging in the radio for this weekend's rugger. In Michael Corcoran, RTÉ have a bone fide star, a man who tells it like it is, and goes utterly ape when it's time to go ape, and not because he got a memo beforehand. Long may he reign.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Irish Hearts Broken on St Valentine's Day?

Steady Eddie O'Sullivan has played the percentages in his Irish selection, with the one - perhaps inspired? - shock being his selection of captain. Paul O'Connell is leading the Irish, presumably because there's no better man to cry havoc and unleash the dogs of war in Paris.

Other than that, Girvan Dempsey retains 15, D'Arcy is in for O'Driscoll and the pack is as you were, more or less, from the World Cup, with Shane Byrne and Keith Gleeson doubtless considering themselves very lucky men indeed. O'Sullivan's stuck with O'Gara at stand-off half, which could explain the odd selection on the left wing.

Ulster must have their day and as such, when the biggest, nastiest bruisers in all of France are snarling and biting and baying for blood in the first five minutes, and that damned band is playing Les Marseillaises over and over again, and Michalak launches a garryowen into the starry heavens, there'll be a little maneen beneath it, wearing a scrumcap on the left wing. Tyrone Howe, this is your life - or immenient death. The Lodge will see one of their own, the French will see only prey, and they'll torture Howe as mercilessly as they tortured John Kelly down in Australia.

France to cover, methinks.

Monday, February 09, 2004

Something Stirring Among the Yew Trees?

Maigh Eo 1-10
Áth Cliath 0-03

Not since Miss Hilton and Miss Richie made their way down to Arkansas to help out on the farm has any group of sophisticated metropolitans got as rude an awakening in the sticks as Dublin did when they came to Castlebar to play Mayo in the National Football League yesterday. For Tommy Lyons' Dublin, the journey from cock of the walk to feather duster took just seventy minutes as Mayo put in the performance the like of which hasn't been seen in the Plain of the Yew Trees for many a long year.

How bad Dublin are is difficult to say. That they're not much good is certain, although Paddy Christie was outstanding, as was Shane Ryan, even if Ryan did stray a little into less than legal activity. Jason Sherlock was a revelation, as much a victim as a benificiary of the Dublin Media Hype over the years. Although Sherlock didn't score, he was always game, brave and a very fine player indeed. How Dublin haven't utilised him more since 1995 is one of many mysteries that shroud Dublin football.

Contrary to what an outbreak of shoneenism on a later RTÉ radio report might indicate, the reason why Dublin failed to score for fifty-two minutes of play was clear to the merest football intelligence: they weren't let. Dublin got two soft frees in the first fifteen minutes and a Darren Homan point from play, but after that the Mayo defence, so long the leitmotif of the John Maughan style, drew breath and flexed its considerable muscle. Dublin, try though they might, were crushed in the defence's embrace, just as the press crushes the grape. For Dublin, there was just no way out.

But, contrary to the opinions of our friends in the no-so-national broadcaster, this is not a Dublin story. Mayo v Dublin in Castlebar is a Mayo story, from first to last. The Mayo support, loyal throughout the humiliations of Sligo, Westmeath, Cork and Fermanagh in the past four years, finally left a Mayo game with hope for the future. Even in Mayo's worst days in the past four years the defence has been good; yesterday it was as the rock of Gibraltar, standing proud and unmoved as the blue waves crashed against it. By the end, if Dublin were to score one point after being held scoreless for so long, it would have felt like a defeat.

That Mayo had a find in Gary Mullins at centre-half back was the one thing the Mayo faithful could take from last year's championship; yesterday he had good men on his right in Conor Moran and his left in Fergal Costello. Costello has been excellent for years; Moran is new on the scene but he's fast, skilful and brave. He needs to be brave, as he's giving away size in a game that's become very physical since the Ulster Ascendancy of the past two years - perhaps a fistful of calfnuts in Moran's breakfast porridge could work the oracle over the next couple of months?

Behind the half-backs, the line of steel tightened with Geraghty, Ruane and James Nallen. Geraghty came on a sub and quickly subdued the lively Sherlock, and that Gary Ruane is a pocket battleship of a player is no news to anyone with eyes to see. But, wearing the unaccustomed No 2 jersey and placed in the corner away from the limelight, James Nallen gave truth once more to the old saw about the permanence of class. Nallen has worn the Green above the Red in full many a foreign field, and been felled and disappointed in most of them. With many miles on the odometer now, some of his speed is gone, but none of his craft, and none of his smarts. Whenever the defence was threatened Nallen was always there to pour balmy oil on troubled waters, calm heads and clear dangers. What a man.

Fans of TG4's marvellous reality show Underdogs will be aware that one question any team playing Dublin has to answer is how to combat Ciarán Whelan. Yesterday, Mayo's dominance in midfield was such that neither Whelan nor Homan (or Whelo and Homo, if you prefer the jolly Jackeens' own system of nomenclature) finished the game. Whelan was called ashore long before the end, and Homan left before that again, the bearer of two yellow cards and certain marching orders. It was an all-Ballina midfield of Brian Ruane and Ronan McGarrity that vanquished them; Ruane had a curate's egg sort of game, but McGarrity, only just returned to Ballina after three years playing Collegiate Basketball in the States, is a bone fide star. As the game got on and McGarrity found his feet his achievements became greater and greater. Come the summer, Mayo may finally be in a position to return to their tradition of outstanding midfield talent.

The combination of the absence of the likes Marty McNicolas, Conor Mortimer and McDanger himself, and the fact that we are talking Mayo after all, meant that forward play was always going to be a work in progress. But in Castlebar, a new star was born, or perhaps an old one reincarnated. Austin O'Malley, from the town of Louisburgh on the edge of the broad Atlantic, gave an exhibition of half-forward point scoring from distance, the like of which hasn't been seen since the late nineties when James Horan, the flying Kiwi from Ballintubber, was lording Croke Park. Horan had a strange style of kicking, a kind of weird arcing looped approach and motion; O'Malley is more a classicist, taking a sideways stance to aim over the shoulder and crack one over the black spot.

New beginnings are never easy to tell from false dawns, and the Mayo bubble could quickly be burst next Saturday night under the harsh lights of Pairc Ui Rinn and a Rebel roasting the like of which Cork have handed out so often to Mayo in the past. Que sera sera of course, but, in the meantime, Mayo heads are held high with a navy and sky blue trophy mounted above the mantelpiece. There hasn't been much to cheer in Mayo since Maughan went away; now it looks like the Messiah is back.

Thursday, February 05, 2004


Towards the end of Planxty’s reunion concert in Dublin’s Vicar Street last Wednesday night, Christy Moore mentioned about how, ever since the band broke up in 1982, 22 years ago, they always talked about reforming but somehow never got around to it. It wasn’t until Leagues O’Toole devoted an entire episode of No Disco, Network Two’s alternative music programme, to traditional music’s first and only supergroup that they got the momentum to go on the road one more time. And as I listened to Christy, I suddenly realised: My God, they were worried that nobody would come. Twenty years on, they were worried that Planxty had been forgotten about.

Planxty were anything but that. The touts were hovering around Vicar Street an hour before the show, inquiring if anyone was boyin’ or sellin’ a tickeh. Gaybo and Kathleen Watkins arrived with half an hour to spare, and Gaybo looked like a man that was ready to rock. By half-eight, the joint was packed, and nobody was worried about the least traditional of trad accompaniments – a dry bar – as they waited on the Planxty reunion.

Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine, Liam Óg Ó Floinn and Christy Moore walked onstage to a thunderous welcome, and for the next two hours they played music the like of which the people had never heard before, nor will again. Afterwards, I thought I heard someone say that Andy Irvine played a bum note during one of the reels; the scoundrel was beaten senseless on the street where he stood by the outraged citizens.

It was amazing to watch them. The audience had heard the albums, or at least some of them. Some more had read the story of the band, how they met first in 1972 to give Christy Moore a dig out with his solo album Prosperous, how they formed Planxty, how they revolutionised Irish traditional music in a period of revolution, and how they had gone their separate ways, after less than ten years and six records. And now the four men were back, making their music come alive, and it was even more fantastic than anyone could have hoped.

Donal Lunny sat at the end of the stage. In our time, Donal Lunny has been a fixture in the music; anything that’s happened that’s worthwhile in Irish traditional music has had Lunny associated with it. Donal Lunny is the rock on which Planxty build their church, always there, always setting the bar high.

Andy Irvine, grand old hippy that he is, gave Planxty their chic. The shock of curls, still black but shot through now with grey, the bouzouki, the guitar, and the songs – As I Roved Out, Arthur McBride, and the West Coast of Clare, with the saddest opening lyric of any song written: “Sorrow and sadness; bitterness, grief.”

Liam Óg Ó Floinn was a revelation. In person, he looks like someone’s da; his hair is sensibly parted, he’s wearing a sensible shirt and slacks. He seems a very nice man. But every time he lifted his bellows and chanters, he brought the crowd to places they had never been. His was an artistry unmatched; every time the first skirl of his pipes was heard in a song, the crowd roared their appreciation, lost to his mastery. When he was sitting out, he’d sit there proudly and indulgently listening to the other three, like a father eyeing a son who’s made it to the Under-16 panel. It’s a given that the uileann pipes are the ultimate instrument in Irish traditional music because there’s something in them, something that resonates with the soul, if there exists such a thing. It’s something that is rarely captured on record, but to hear a master like Ó Floinn, live and in his element, is never to be able to go back.

Christy Moore has been The Beloved Entertainer for so long it’s easy to forget who he really is, and what he’s done. Since Planxty broke up, he’s been the Storm in the T-shirt, he’s been Lisdoonvarna, he’s been on the Late Late Show, he’s been the man who’s been able to release a lot of substandard albums without ever being called up for it. He’s also been the grumpy old man at concerts – his own concerts – who’ll stop in the middle of song to give out about the noise the crowd is making.

Last night in Vicar Street, returned to the environment that showed his talents at their best, Christy Moore was where he will be always remembered and cherished – at the right hand of Luke Kelly as one of our greatest of balladeers. The media has been hinting in the past number of years that the black dog of depression had been on Christy’s trail; with the strength of Planxty behind him, Christy turned around and softened that dog’s arse with kicks. He was like a man returned to youth, laughing with the rest of the band, cracking the good ones he hasn’t cracked in twenty years, and sometimes, listening to the rest of the band, his face bore the look of wonder that all the audience bore, wonder that he was in the same room with such artistry. You could see what it meant to him to be reunited with Planxty at the end as the band took their bows – Christy had them all with their arms around each others shoulders, and the delight was clearly written on his face.

For years Christy Moore has gotten annoyed at people for singing along with him. He believed it put him off, and he was more than likely right. But the God of Art and the God of Joy stood hand in hand in Vicar Street on Wednesday night, and the crowd were not to be denied. As the final part of the encore, Christy sang the Cliffs of Dooneen, and no-one could stop themselves from joining in what was an anthem for Moore, for Planxty, for the night itself, for the series of reunion concerts, and for the Irish nation itself, that nation of travellers, wanderers and wonderers. Reader, remember them this way:

You may travel far, far from your own native home
Far away o’er the mountains, far away o’er the foam
But of all the fine places that ‘ere I have been
Sure there’s none to compare with the Cliffs of Dooneen.

Or Planxty.