Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Shane Bennett, who has recently stepped away from the Waterford senior hurling panel, for the foreseeable future, at the age of 21. Photos: Inpho.

Any of you out there with young kids will know only too well of the battle it is to try and watch a bit of live sport on the telly, unless it’s on after they’re gone to bed. I sneaked my way in front of the TV on Sunday to partake in a bit of top class National Hunt racing with a bit of soccer and rugby thrown in, only for my four year old to arrive in, look me straight in the eye and ask, dad, why do you always watch sport?
I could have attempted to go down the road of, well it’s my job or other such reasoned arguments but the first line that came to mind to defend myself was, because I love it…..
My first love in terms of sport, has always and still is hurling. To me it’s the greatest game on earth but the more and more I watch it and hear players and managers speak and get a bit of insight from family and friends of players, the more worried I am about it and Gaelic Football’s future.
How can that be? I hear you ask. Hurling for most people is in a great place. Sure, a lot of people are worried about tactics and the increase of sweeper systems and so on and so am I but overall the players have never been fitter, the game has never been faster, the crowds are up and so on….so what’s the problem….therein lies the problem.
I think the level of commitment now needed to be an inter-county hurler of footballer, at nearly all levels but especially at the elite senior level is just too much. The whole thing has been taken too far, and I’m sure it’s nowhere near its peak, which is even more worrying.
The inter-county player’s life now revolves around playing hurling or football for their county. Everything else, their careers included, have to form an orderly queue in behind. People might argue that it was always like this, but I would argue that never to the extent that it is now. And surely this has to drain the enjoyment out of it, especially for the less successful counties.

Year after year you hear of players taking a leave of absence from the jobs, Kilkenny’s Richie Hogan and Kerry’s Darren O’Sullivan being two that spring to mind, so they concentrate on playing for the counties? I would argue that this is not a good thing. At the end of the day, it’s supposed to be sport and training or playing five or six days a week, for about ten or eleven months of the year is a ferocious commitment and is too much in my eyes.
Over the last number of years we have seen high profile inter-county players taking years out, in the prime of their careers. Dublin footballer, Jack McCaffery did it a couple of years back and Waterford’s own Tom Devine did it in 2017 and has already committed to doing so again in 2019.
Four weeks ago, we reported here on these pages, that Ballysaggart’s Shane Bennett has opted out of the Waterford panel for the foreseeable future and while the management are hoping that he will be back in the squad in the Spring of 2018, the only person who knows exactly when he will return to the fold is Shane himself.
Shane, who turned 21 recently, really shot to prominence when he was man of the match for the Waterford U-21s in their win over Cork in Pairc Ui Rinn in June 2015. On the night he scored 1-4 from play, after rushing to Cork after doing his final Leaving Cert exam earlier that day in Lismore. Less than a month later he was playing in a senior Munster Final against Tipperary and he has been virtually ever present since then, including helping Waterford to Munster and All-Ireland U-21 titles in 2016. He also lined out in that grade this year and played a key role in Waterford’s march to a first All-Ireland senior final since 2008 and just a second since 1963.
He has been in the senior squad since he was 18 and he has hardly had a break and with his own 21st and no doubt a load of his friends’ birthdays coming down the track too, I can fully understand why he has decided to take a break. He’s playing a bit of junior soccer, by all accounts, and he’s being a normal 21 year old. I certainly wouldn’t blame him for that.In fact I say fair play to him because it can’t have been easy to make that call at his tender age. Hopefully we’ll see him back in the white and blue very soon but until them I hope he enjoys his brush with normal life because there’s no doubt that being an inter-county player is definitely not a normal life. They even train on Christmas Day you know.
Of course these players are privileged to have the skills to be able to play sport at that level and most of us, who never had that talent, would jump at the opportunity but surely a balance must be struck. These lads are training too much and have no life outside of hurling or football and at the end of the day it’s an amateur sport and they’re young men and women, as it’s similar in camogie and ladies football. Someone has to call a halt before it gets even more out of hand.

I got my TV licence renewal letter in the post the other day, you probably got yours too. 160 notes. It’s a lot of money and at times you’d be saying what on earth am I paying this for, to subside the likes of Fair City and other such things that I never watch but every now and again RTE comes up trumps and they did so over the past five or six weeks with the Ireland’s Greatest programme every Thursday night.
If you didn’t see it, each night they picked a different era or decade of Irish sport and picked four or five of the greatest sporting moments from that era and after a panel of RTE pundits tore them to shreds, the public picked their favourite moment, meaning that it came down to four moments on Thursday night last, to be crowned as Ireland’s Greatest Sporting Moment.
The four moments were: 1. the Ireland v Romania penalty shootout at Italia ’90, 2. Ray Houghton’s goal in the 1-0 win over England at Euro ’88, 3. Padraig Harrington’s first Open win at Carnoustie and 4. Munster beating the All-Blacks in Limerick in 1978.
For the final programme they interviewed key people from each of those four moments before an RTE panel picked their favourites and then the public had the final say. I wasn’t at all surprised that the penalty shooutout in Genoa in 1990 came out on top but I was surprised that it only won by a single percent from Padraig Harrington.
I remember Padraig Harrington winning that day like it was yesterday but for me Italia ’90 was on a different level. It stopped a nation and to this day everyone still knows exactly where they were. The show had its controversies over the weeks, none more so than Joe Brolly and Eamon Dunphy savaging Barry McGuigan’s achievements in the 1980s but surely the best line of the whole series was delivered in the final few moments of the final show. When asked for his winner, Eamon Dunphy said, ‘my head says Harrington but my heart says Italia ’90,’ to which fellow panelist Ted Walsh replied, ‘you actually have a heart?’ Priceless stuff. A very enjoyable series and if you didn’t see it, I’d encourage you to look it up on the RTE player as it really makes you appreciate what a great sporting nation we are for such a small country.

It was no surprise that Ireland’s Italia ’90 penalty shootout win over Romania was voted as Ireland’s Greatest Sporting Moment. 

Speaking of us being a great sporting nation, we are extremely lucky right now to be living in the age of one of Ireland’s greatest ever sportsmen. On Sunday morning the Aidan O’Brien trained Highland Reel ran his last ever race in winning the prestigious Hong Kong Vase to give O’Brien his 28th Group or Grade One win of 2017. He beat the world record a couple of months ago and since then he has continued to rack up the wins just to put the new total further and further out of reach of those hoping to match or better it in the future.
This man is just a phenomenon. He is incredible and it was fascinating around the time that he was beating the record to listen to some of the great jockeys that have ridden for him, talking about what makes him so great. People like Kieren Fallon, Johnny Murtagh, Ryan Moore, Jamie Spencer are or were top of the range jockeys and to hear them speak about him in glowing terms shows the respect he garners in the world of racing, but I’m not sure he gets his deserved kudos outside racing. The word that kept coming up in those interviews was Genius….no better word to describe him. His achievements, not just in 2017 but since he arrived in Ballydoyle in 1996 (at the tender age 26) have been amazing and he does it year after year.
I could be wrong but I get the sense that he’s not over popular in the UK. Not just because he harvests most of their top races each year, but because he gives nothing away. His interviews are legendary at this stage because of the fact that he says nothing. He always says that it’s a team effort and how lucky he is to be part of such a team and when asked as to what a certain horse will do next, he almost always says, ‘that will be down to the lads, they decide all those things.’ The lads being his employers, John Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith of Coolmore.
To me he’s a very honest endearing character who lives for racing and is as already described, a genius. Long may he reign.
His biggest rival in years to come might just be his son, Joseph, who last month became the youngest trainer to ever win the Melbourne Cup. He’s just 24. There’s an old saying, ‘what’s got by nature, costs no money.’

The brilliant Aidan O’Brien at the recent Horse Racing Ireland Awards.

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