Rio Olympics: Reflections

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The end springs eternal

August 21st. The end of the Rio Olympics. I have kept my powder dry until the end of the Olympics. It was a sporting extravaganza which inspired, it was a sporting extravaganza which questioned the ideals of the Olympic movement with greed and corruption. It was an event which has put the spotlight on Ireland for the good and bad reasons, it is time to reflect, it is time to review the accomplishments but also plan how best to achieve sporting glory in Tokyo 2020.

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The good, the bad and the downright ugly

The picture above sums up my sporting thoughts from the last weeks. We have had some inspirational performances from Ireland in sporting events either home or in Rio.

Rio Olympics will go down as the games where Annalise Murphy and the O’Donovan brothers came to national prominence with performances which fully merited their silver medals. Murphy’s triumph was so poignant considering the final medal race in London 2012; the post race interview where she was devastated. Experiences of failure either make or break you and Murphy’s resilience and determination to win a medal was truly inspiring.

The O’Donovan brothers were equally inspiring; their focus and drive to win along with their interviews to raise the profile of rowing in this country was phenomenal. Their planning, dedication and their ability to focus on what was required paled into contrast when you seen the performance of the lauded boxing team.

Irish boxing team can blame judging decisions but the preparation of the squad was off. Apart from Conlon and Donnelly, all other boxers in this tournament under-performed. I felt so sorry for Katie Taylor, the golden girl of London  2012 is now facing a decision on her boxing career. The alarming defeats this year were compounded by a loss to a Finnish boxer who on paper should not have posed many issues. Taylor owes nothing to this country, her sporting exploits are unparalleled but the management of her and the rest of the team post Billy Walsh must be called into focus. Distinct lack of tactics in several Ireland boxing performances and visibly exhaustion in the later rounds of bouts unfortunately caught the eye.

The rumors of Michael O’Reilly not participating in training camps to the lead-up to the games was embarrassing let alone compounded by the doping test result. The fact that Paddy Barnes was forced to drop massive weight the day of his fight looked shabby. The fact that Joe Ward did not implement a proper game plan to beat his Ecuadorian opponent speaks of a team in chaos. Conlan’s performances were the highlight, he was robbed of a medal but the team as a whole were well off the pace. Over-trained?

Massive questions are now on the high performance boxing unit need to be asked considering the level of funding put into the programme. Zero medals is a massive let down. The lack of focus in several twits from the boxing team speaks it all. Sorry state of affairs as Conlan will turn professional while the likes of Taylor, Ward and Barnes must assess where next in their careers.

The ticketing fiasco is a national disgrace; the manner in which Mr. Mallon came to receive the OCI tickets is one thing but the subsequent events of Pat Hickey’s arrest (evading Brazilian Police in a hotel room) casts a major PR blow to Ireland as an assured, reputable Olympic member. It is a shame considering the admirable detection and calling out of Michael O’Reilly in the lead-up to the games. Ireland doping test procedures coming up trumps where other countries are lagging well behind (Caribbean, East African countries) to name but a few.

More uncomfortable evidence will ensue in the weeks to come but OCI needs a revamp. Hickey needs to go and needs to be replaced by a person who has experienced the games and knows the changes required. Sonia O’Sullivan or Derval O’Rourke for me look like ideal candidates to fill the role. To replace Hickey with another crony is simply not an option. The ticket fiasco may be a god scent for the OCI going forward.

For the horrific bad news stories coming from Ireland in this Olympiad, there were several standout performances on the track. Thomas Barr was exceptional in the 400 meters hurdle race. The modern pentathletes were superb in finishing in the top ten. Rob Heffernan yet gain produced a consistently high level of performance to finish sixth. The Ireland field hockey team provided several keynote moments, their teamwork and work rate were immense.

Can Ireland strategize funding to maximize sporting success?

While looking at the GB medal haul, they have strategized on the sports to win their medals. Why can’t Ireland have a sevens rugby outfit for men to follow the women? Why can’t Ireland invest in velodromes to unearth cyclists from all over the country? Why can’t Ireland look to improve their equestrian ranking to get more riders into the Olympics? A shame when the likes of Bertrand Allen was missing from the event. The planning for Tokyo 2020 starts tomorrow, sincerely hope that OCI / Shane Ross think long term in sporting investment and look to spend funding in an efficient manner to yield more medals in the next Olympiad. Enforce national centers of excellence for swimming, athletics. Our performances in the Games needs to be accountable like Team GB where funding is determined on performances in competition. Precious little in the past so hoping for more scrutiny in the performances of our competitors in order to give the potential athletes who could medal at Tokyo 2020 to get more funding.

High point of the Games

A toss-up between Fiji’s gold medal in the Rugby Sevens or the unstoppable force that was Usain Bolt in his treble treble success in successive Olympic games. Bolt is the guiding light of the athletics sport, his charisma and performances leave you awe inspired. Andy Murray’s defense of the Mens Tennis gold has to be noted too, something Novak cannot boost on his resume. Simon Biles in the gymnastics. Team GB medal haul. Jason Kenny. Michael Phelps in the pool but it is probably Fiji’s performance in the rugby. World class, celebrations were emotional.

Low point of the Games

Michael O’Reilly. Boxing judging. Nikitin’s result over a Thailand boxer in the previous round before facing Conlon was even more bare faced. GB Joyce’s loss to French boxer Yoka this afternoon summed it up perfectly with the judging. Doping cheats caught rotten during the tourney. Hostile home crowd to any opponent who dared compete well against a home nation competitor. Lack of crowds. No lasting legacy for Rio after the Games. Paralympic funding debacle; where did the money go? Ryan Lochte and chums on their infamous nightout in Rio – embarrassing. Men’s golfers who decided it was best to ditch Rio over Zika even though the women top golfers participated. Bullet holes in media center tents, let the drug war recommence in the Favelas tomorrow. Pat Hickey. OCI ticket distribution process.

All Ireland SFC Semi-Final: Mayo 2-13 0-14 Tipperary

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David did not slay Goliath today as Mayo secured their berth in the All Ireland SFC final with a five point victory over Tipperary at Croke Park this afternoon. Apart from a scintillating ten minute spell before the interval where the Connacht team hit 1-7 to 0-1, this was a performance which at times baffled and at times highlighted the fear of losing from a Mayo perspective.

The good news for Mayo is that they will enter the All Ireland finale as a massive underdog, the pressure of expectancy from within the county should be diluted to a certain extent and allow management and panel to focus on producing their most complete performance this season. Keith Higgins, Andy Moran and Aidan O’Shea stood up to the fore when questions were asked of Mayo before the interval and the last ten minutes of the opening period was inspired by all three players vital contributions.

Higgins was instrumental in the opening Mayo goal of the contest, bursting through the Tipperary rearguard to setup Jason Doherty with the simplest of tasks. The green flag then resulted in an avalanche of points with both Moran and O’Shea spearheading the point scoring stakes. Tipperary were rattled and the half-time whistle was greeted by the Premier County like a boxer on the ropes and hearing the bell for the end of the round.

The bad news for Mayo is that vast improvement is required in both defensive and attacking side of play. Tipperary exposed Mayo defensively with swift running lines in the opening period leaving massive gaps for the likes of Sweeney and Austin to exploit. Mayo backs conceded several poor frees in this period and a repeat in four weeks times will spell curtains for their Sam Maguire ambitions this season.

After attempting to convert Kevin McLaughlin as a sweeper, it was a surprise to see Barry Moran assigned the role for this contest positioned behind his half-back line. In fairness, Moran did what was expected and won aerial ball defensively but his lack of pace will be exploited by Dublin or Kerry in four weeks time. Were Mayo trying to pull the wool over Kerry or Dublin eyes? Kevin McLauglin will surely be deployed as a sweeper in the final.

The more worrying point for Mayo is the lack of form of the O’Connor brothers leading into the final. Cillian O’Connor was quiet in open play and Diarmuid wasted several opportunities from play (perhaps due to coming back from injury) but their off day was masked by the performance of Andy Moran whose four point haul bailed out the Mayo inside full forward line. Doherty’s influence was minimal apart from his goal. Mayo need the O’Connors to fire in four weeks time to provide additional forward line threat.

The one aspect of play that Mayo deployed this afternoon was to remove Lee Keegan from his marauding half-back running role and assigned him the role of nullifying Tipperary danger man Michael Quinlivan. The experiment did not work as Keegan’s persistent fouling on another day could have proved crucial and seen a dismissal.

Keegan struggled to mark Quinlivan and perhaps was fortunate not to get a second yellow card for pulling the Clonmel Commercial marksman in the penalty area in the second half.  Keegan is a natural wing back, his scoring prowess is sensational. Back to the drawing board on finding a defender who can tightly mark and nullify an opposition key player.

Tipperary will rue this opportunity. Mayo were under-par for vast majorities of this contest. The first twenty minutes was dominated by Tipperary where Acheson, Austin and Sweeney were to the fore with their running lines. The key decisions did not go their way and the spotlight on the black card will ensue.

Robbie Kiely has trained all year to make an appearance in the All Ireland semi-final and the black card was embarrassingly harsh; genuine attempt to go for the ball which Diarmuid O’Connor had no control of was a free but certainly not a black card. It affected Tipperary’s shape as his replacement Leahy was ineffective and had to be replaced by Moloney. Two substitutions for the Tipperary side and it exposed lack of depth on the bench.

The performance of the match official and linesmen today left a lot to be desired. When you consider how McGoldrick officiated the All Ireland finale last season where Kerry and Dublin were guilty of deliberate fouling with no black card issued, it is ironic that the Meath official thought it was the right time to issue a black card to a player from Tipperary who was plying his trade in NFL Division 3.

If a similar coming together happens next weekend, chances are that the match official will not issue a black card. It was a ridiculous decision and one that affected Tipperary in the manner of their attacks. Kiely’s endless running would have posed Mayo massive issues but it was not to be. Harsh for a player who has excelled this season at half-back.

The second decision was the sending off of wing back Maher. A decision coming no doubt from the linesman. Handbags incident and a red card issued. I would love if the GAA published officials post-game reports on these incidents as there was precious little in the incident. The game was probably over as a contest when the red card was issued but it was another decision which went against the minnow. Wondering again if an incident like this happens next weekend, will a red card be issued? Probably a good chance it will not.

The decisions went against Tipperary but they were their own worse enemy. The Mayo opening goal was down to a risky hand pass by  O’Shaughnessy in the middle of the field and it was latched onto by Mayo leading with Higgins exposing Kiely’s absence to setup Doherty for the green flag. The lack of movement from Tipperary to provide outlets for Comerford in the kick outs after the goal allowed Mayo to assert their dominance and their class shone through with the emphatic 1-7 haul before half-time.

Tipperary’s heart and determination could not faulted and their fightback to reduce the arrears to two point 1-11 to 0-12 was admirable but again several missed opportunities proved fatal. Tipperary’s dominance in the second half was not illustrated on the scoreboard and Mayo finished the game off with a goal from Conor O’Shea who latched onto a miskick from Evan Regan. No Tipperary defenders were alert to the potential danger inside and the Breaffy clubman hit a nice effort into the net despite the best efforts of Comerford who saved well earlier in the half from point blank range.

The second Mayo goal spelled the end of the contest and Mayo decided to hold onto what they had, falling deeper defensively. No goal chances from Tipperary were created in the last quarter, something which will encourage Mayo management. Plenty of scope to improve for Mayo but given the media articles which will write them off in the upcoming weeks, I expect Mayo to produce a performance in the All Ireland final. Whether it is good enough to win Sam Maguire is an entirely different story.

For Tipperary, a memorable championship concludes. The absentees to the panel at the start of the year makes this run even more extraordinary. Liam Kearns stock continues to rise and their game plan worked perfectly for long periods to stifle Mayo. The likes of Conor Sweeney, Michael Quinlivan and Robbie Kiely are now known to the GAA fraternity and expect at least one of these players to get a nod in the All Star awards.

Acheson and Hannigan in midfield typified all that was good with Tipperary this season, leadership and drove the team forward. Tipperary need to reset their goals; secure NFL Division 3 promotion and perhaps a jaunt at Munster honors next season. Tipperary’s skill set was refreshing to see, the focus now is to develop a squad which can continue the work of this season.

All Ireland Senior Hurling Semi-Final: Kilkenny 1-21 0-24 Waterford

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Have Waterford blown their chance?

Old habits die hard

When Maurice Shanahan struck a superb point from the sideline, Waterford were four points up with twenty minutes to go. Kilkenny, the perennial champions were on the ropes and the reaction from the Kilkenny bench spoke volumes; Cody stood an isolated figure on the sideline willing his charges on as his selectors and substitutes sat on the bench motionless. Waterford were dominating with their work rate, pace and hunger. Kilkenny needed something special to get back into the contest.

Instead of going for the throat, Waterford went back to their original game plan; sit deep and try to soak up the Kilkenny pressure. De Burca cleared endless ball in around the D but it only takes one ball, one chance for Kilkenny and when Colin Fennelly found space inside the Waterford twenty-two meter line, his quick hand pass to supporting runner Walter Walsh was unceremoniously hit to the net with one minute left in normal time.

This hammer blow should have being the fatal nail in the Waterford coffin but credit to the Deise, they won the next 50/50 ball from O’Keefe’s puckout and Barron was fouled by Colin Fennelly. Pauraic Mahony unerring in free taking all day slotted over and with ninety seconds left in injury time, Waterford were one point clear. Waterford continued to persist sitting deep and Conor Fogarty long range effort secured the draw and it only have much more when Paul Murphy had an opportunity to score from long range but his effort went wide. Murphy again exploiting Waterford’s reluctance to push up.

With that effort, James McGrath blew the final whistle. A replay in Thurles next Saturday night and if it is anything like today, we are all in for a treat. McGrath let everything go in the last quarter and the game flowed in breathtaking fashion. Both sides putting in the heavy hits, excellent aerial wins and superb point taking.

Derek McGrath can be justifiably proud of his charges’ efforts today. The recent U21 hurling team success where they played with flair and freedom was evident in their play for fifty minutes. Waterford went toe to toe with Kilkenny in their key strengths; aerial battle and work rate. Austin Gleeson was sensational with several scores but his ball catching ability caused Kieran Joyce endless problems so much so that the centre back was hauled off in the second half. A rare sight.

Waterford’s half-back line after a less than convincing start to the contest where Kilkenny half-forward were on top in the 50/50 aerial battle contained the likes of Reid, Hogan and Michael Fennelly in the second period. De Burca rose to the occasion with a dominant second half display; game reading well and distributing the ball with accuracy. The full back line were tight and competitive and the fact that TJ Reid lack of scoring from play spoke volumes; Farrell was anonymous and was replaced by Larkin.

Barron and Moran in midfield produce a massive display. Moran was unlucky not to score a goal straight after the interval and will perhaps rue the missed point which was initially flagged a point and then after Hawkeye review (hope the hurling setting was turned on) was reversed. Kilkenny were second best in all areas for long periods of the game.

However, you have to applaud the nature and hunger of this Kilkenny team. They were incredibly underpar. Richie Hogan had initially threatened to win the game on his own with several early scores from play as Waterford’s decision to not deploy a man marker on the talisman forward was backfiring incredibly. Once Waterford closed down Hogan’s space, Kilkenny faded from the game.

The back line admirably defended the threat from Waterford; no serious goal chances created apart from Moran’s second half chance. The half-back line had a mixed day. Joyce struggled to gain aerial supremacy but Walsh and Buckley were prominent at vital stages albeit Buckley did hit one or two wides from distance. Eoin Murphy’s long range free taking in in that opening period will have not gone unnoticed by Cody.

Kilkenny looked sluggish at times; a surprise considering that they are usually well primed for this stage of the season. Waterford’s youthful pace was causing Kilkenny middle third endless problems. The midfield was run ragged at times with Barron having a superb game. Kilkenny despite all this difficulty could have and should have won this contest, it was more down to sheer determination and stubbornness not to get beaten. Champions have this trait in abundance.

The lack of Kilkenny substitutes entering the fray spoke volumes; no confidence by management on the squad depth. It is a serious issue for Kilkenny as a potential replay victory will take a bit out of the players and with Tipp / Galway waiting, the tank may not get to the finishing line in September.

Waterford have unfortunately had their chance to upset Kilkenny. A Thurles replay should be a plus for the Deise men with the vast amount of space on the field of legends. However, when the game was there to be put away, Waterford blinked and allowed Kilkenny a way back into the contest. Look at the wides in that last ten minute spell; Moran, Gleeson, Curran all missed chances which needed to go over and once you give this Kilkenny team a sniff, inevitable sequence of events like what happened today take place.

Great game. The championship has sparked into life. Roll on next weekend for more of the same. It is shame that it took until early August to arouse the excitement in the beautiful game.