Endgames, Origin Stories & Superheroes Inside Us: World Cup 2019 Malaysia in Review

From Infinity Gauntlets…

images

With the abruptness of a Thanos finger snap, everything is reset and all the World Cup planning and hopes and thinking is done.

To Westeros…

Continue reading

Euros 2018 Nottingham – Final Postscript: Newton, Ibsen, Scorpions, Cultural Self-Stereotypes, Jerks & Good Fellas

15 things I heard, read or reflected on in the days following the Euros.


1. Billy Jean is not my lover…

This I heard former World Number 1 tennis player Billy Jean King say on a Desert Island Discs podcast and I like it.

‘Three of my principles in life are: 1. Relationships are everything. 2. Keep learning and keep learning how to learn. 3. Be a problem-solver.’ Continue reading

Senior Touch Championships Final – Fears, Tears, Beers & Ten Years

Sunday, October 10th. Coimbra, Portugal.

7.30am Wake Up

All the signifiers of the day of big finals are here, all so familiar and still stressful. The stiff, aching muscles, the soreness in all my body from the previous two days tournament. The tight shoulders after a restless night’s sleep. I wish I’d slept more but I can’t change that now. The feeling of anxiety in my stomach. A quiet breakfast, nodding to people, nervous joking among some of the players. I keep my head down in my muesli, in my thoughts.

A lot goes back for me to the Senior Mixed Final in 2016. The start of the bad times. I felt I played terribly. And we lost. I remember getting on the plane the day after and someone asking me if I’d got over the disappointment yet. ‘No,’ I said. And added quietly, ‘This may take months.’ It did. In my blog at the time, I made a list of twelve great sporting or literary traumas to compare it to.

Touch Euros 2016, Postscript 1

It still came out top.


8.30am Team Meeting

Sprawled over chairs in the hotel lobby, the words are laid down by Rory the coach and Frank and Baggo the team leaders, setting the tone. I can’t remember any of it apart from, ‘You’re mature men, we’re not going to say too much…’ That we are.

I allow my mind to wander and start imagining a list of 12 great sporting triumphs to compare to if we win today. There’s plenty of time to fill for thinking on days of tournament finals. Anything to distract you can help.


12. Mayo dethrone six-in-a-row winners Dublin, 2021

I’m not sure this would survive long on this list as Mayo failed to go on and win the All-Ireland final against Tyrone but watching them in a drafty marquee, eating dodgy burgers, off the N7 with friends from Carlow I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic made it memorable.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=El2j1xxhsZo

11. Alex Higgins wins the World Snooker Championship in 1982

I wouldn’t like him much looking back but at the time he was so charismatic. I was sent to bed before the final ended but allowed to sleep downstairs on the pull-out sofa. When my dad came home from the pub, he woke me up to tell me Alex had won.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5H2mYfgkwtY

10. Eamonn Coughlan Wins World Championship Gold, 1983

Coughlan had finished fourth in the Olympic final in 1976 and 1980. This was his first win in a major championship. Irish people were a bit uneasy about his showboating in the final lap. I wrote an essay the following week in school about the imagined conversation Coughlan and the Russian Dmitriy Dmitriyev had after the race in which I defended Eamonn staunchly.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1sZF23Trhw&t=9s


9.10am Trip to the Grounds

The nerves are building but at least you’re on the move now. That helps. The streets are lined with adoring fans. Sort of, well, one. That helps too. 


10.20am Semi-Final vs Scotland

Scotland beat us 9-8 on the first day. There’s some scar tissue here, not going back years, but going back to our first two days of play in this tournament, the losses, the poor play. Who knows how we’ll play?

We are playing them on the artificial surface which holds the heat in like a glove. I’m playing my best game so far. I set up scores on the right and left with long passes, then a scoop and pass, then my first properly executed quickie of the tournament. We go a couple of scores up. I’m feeling comfortable. But they come back into it.

It’s a free-for-all physically. The referees let a lot go. It suits us here because we’re winning and it slows the game but still they come back. We’re holding out, making it hard because it is hard and they’re good. There’s only one score in it. The final hooter goes. We just about do it.

I’m worried if we play like that in the final, are so physical, with stronger refereeing, we’ll lose. At least we’re in the final. That was far from guaranteed.


9. Manchester United win Champions League, 1999

I loved this team mostly for the two Irish players, Roy Keane and Denis Irwin. I watched it in a flat in Madrid after rushing home from teaching an English class. I was with a German lad who didn’t care too much and a Liverpool lad who was so distraught at the end, he didn’t leave his room for two days.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmtmojTSRR8&t=31s

8. Federer beats Nadal Australian Open 2017

Federer back from a long injury. Thirty-five years old. Dominated by Nadal for much of the previous decade. Roger wins from a break down in the final set. There is no logic to me caring so much about who wins this game.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9gUvgm23qMU&t=830s

7. The O’Donovan brothers win Olympic silver

I rowed back in the 1990s and trained alongside some of the rowers who finished fourth in the Olympic final in 1996. I’ve followed the sport ever since and knew only an Olympic medal would make Irish people realise how good Irish rowers were.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbRFapxCgFs&t=7s


11.30-13.30 Waiting

We go for a coffee to pass the time. As Samuel Beckett said, the time would have passed anyway. I love and hate these moments. The stomach churning, the worrying about what lies ahead. Is it going to be like all the last times? At least we’re here again. Savour it. I look happy.

WhatsApp Image 2021-10-10 at 13.49.08

13.30 Interview

As before all the big games these days, don’t you know, there are media duties. My first appearance on Portuguese TV. (22 minutes in.)

https://www.rtp.pt/play/p8156/e572570/portugal-em-direto/981083?fbclid=IwAR3Kz2pZFTifvRmGmX0Y-3OJG_oTS5MiMRHtKsqkocygtbosCT5cUcNaoYc

I sound so much more interesting when I’m subtitled in Portuguese.


6. Sonia O’Sullivan wins silver, 2000 Olympics

I loved Sonia as the whole country did. This was her comeback after the disaster of Atlanta in 1996. It was as she said ‘almost a dream come true’. She’d be even higher if it was gold.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tsJYzZ1I8pw&t=10s

5. Padraig Harrington Winning the British Open, 2007

Watching it in the family house. My brother Shane said he was welling up at the end, glanced across at me and saw I was staring hard at the ground. He thought we’d be better not to make eye contact with each other for a while. ‘Can we put butterflies in it?’

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35_vp-UT8lI&t=79s

4. Munster European Cup Win 2006

It felt like the first time an Irish team had actually won something, the whole competition, not just a moral victory along the way. I got off a train in Florence five minutes before the start, sure that my Italian friend Nicoletta wouldn’t understand the importance of me seeing this. She did thankfully and took me straight to an Irish bar.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIA7mx0b5OA&t=4s


13.50pm Warm Up

Fed leads us through a meditation and breathing exercises as part of our warm up. 

We lost to Wales 4-1 on the first day. They hammered us. It’s hard to be confident but I am. 

‘One minute warning…’ The hooter sounds.

14.20 Final vs Wales

I should have made a try on our first attack. The old simple move, scoop at the touching defender on our fifth touch of a drive.

The second attack.

A dump and split against the grain, with the touching defender over-committing to his corner. Openside defence shuts and a pass to the wing.

A score for Ger. This is looking good. I should keep doing this for the rest of the game. But it’s about to get uglier.

Welsh score. 1-1.

A ’21’ set up by Jono in the corner and pass to Damien.

Welsh score. 2-2.

We’re already getting too drawn into arguing with the referees, becoming too fractious. I got drawn into the franticness too. I know I’m not attacking as well as I could. I could be doing more for the team. I just try to stay at it.

A good drive, a pass from Paul to Barry before the defence can get set.

I set up a quickie with Jono.

WhatsApp Image 2021-10-16 at 00.14.41

I think the score should be given but I know a moment after I should have just dived outside the defender and there is no doubt.

In the middle of the action, I know when I look back it will be obvious to me where the places to attack are that I’m missing in the moment on the pitch.

14.40pm Half-time. 3-2 Ireland.

There are some good words spoken but I can see in some of the faces that we’re still over-hyped up. I’m spending an increasing amount of time in the box between plays trying to calm us down, get us efficient again. I need to do it myself as well.


3. Sean Kelly Wins The Tour of Spain, 1988

‘1988’ is the passcode for my milkman delivery account if you’re wondering and probably a few other things. This is the reason. King Kelly. A classics rider, this was him winning a major tour for the first time. My ultimate sporting hero growing up.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y4wrcG8BWUQ

2. Ireland Beat Romania On Penalties, World Cup 1990

I watched it in Maggie Bolgers pub with my best friend Andrew. At the end, everyone went mental. Someone tried to climb up the half car sticking out of one of the walls. The barman called us a disgrace and kicked us all out blinking into the afternoon summer sunshine.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eISJX5FomgI

1. Six Nations Grand Slam Win, 2009

So used to losing for so long. The penalty at the end, I was already rationalising the defeat. And then it wasn’t a defeat. The surreal feeling stayed with me for weeks.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBN6LWmEOCU


Second Half

I think of how I’m playing as like New Zealand in the rugby World Cup final in 2011. So much pressure to finally achieve something that you tighten up, your focus becomes narrowed, you resort to hard work, doing the simple things well. That’s good up to a point.

Welsh score. 3-3.

I have a chance to reply off a scoop and should execute it better to get us back in the lead.

That calmness which I’m trying hard to exhibit. Frank exemplifies it soon after. He scoops through, passes to Denis.

Welsh score. 4-4.

I’m on the pitch for their score. Our defensive system breaks down. I can see it coming. I don’t want to slide early because I know this player likes to throw a dummy and slide in. He’s done it once already in this final and he did it to me in the Euros in 2018. I don’t feel that Dave, my other middle has recovered yet to cover my left shoulder. I could have been harder off the line in the shut down but I expect Damien to be there on my right shoulder shutting with me. He’s read it differently and stayed out.

I’m frustrated, desperately searching in my mind what I could have done differently, better, quicker. I know how important this score is.

We’re back level half way through the second half. The old feeling of helplessness as if it’s slipping away. I’m watching from the box.

We’re giving away so many penalties. In the last few minutes, we give them attack after attack on our line. Frank makes a great last gasp touch on the line.

There is a dive over the line on the final hooter. I don’t see it because I’m looking away. The referees are in discussion. I’m waiting, expecting them to give the score and it’ll all to be over.

They don’t. We haven’t lost. The agony continues.


14.45pm Drop Off

4 vs 4. Each team goes down to four players for two minutes.

I’ve been here before. Two lost drop offs in European finals. Somewhere in my head, I’m already rationalising what it’ll feel like when we lose this.

I’m on first in the defensive pod. I make four of the six touches. We hold them out and drive to the box. Get the attackers on.

It’s harder to keep the bigger picture in moments of stress, that’s the bravery Baggo and Frank show on the pitch as they come on. I don’t even see our attack. I am bent over double in the box getting my breath back.

There is still time for Wales to come back and score. I’m straight back on the pitch to defend again. We make three touches, four. I’m thinking about nothing but make the touch, get back onside, get off the line. The referee gives them a penalty. I don’t know why. I don’t argue. I’m too exhausted. I just get back on the line and defend.

The hooter goes. There’s one last play. I’m shouting ‘Push left, push, push, PUSH!’ It’s in slow motion now in my mind.

It’s made. The whistle goes. The touch is made. I turn away and every emotion rises up inside with the hugeness of a whale cresting, exploding through the surface of the water. My throat is constricted. I’m covering my face, ‘Arrrgghhh…. arrrggghhhh… arrrggghhhhh.’ My body is wretching. Fed is the first to me. It’s all happiness from him and big Argentinian smile. I can’t speak. I keep sobbing. I’ve never experienced anything like this.

I say sorry as I shake hands and commiserate with the Welsh players still crying. ‘I’ve never won anything in Touch. In over a decade. Sorry.’ I laugh self-consciously. ‘This is ridiculous.’ The other thing I say over and over is ‘I’m so happy. I’m just so ****ing happy.’ I’m laughing at myself because I can’t stop crying.

A decade of caring about something you probably shouldn’t care so much about.


14.47pm – 3.12am

There is the prizegiving and presentations after, beers after, standing around in the sun, stupid conversations, embraces with members of the opposition wearing wigs and with referees. I’m in love with the world.

The night. The intense reliving of moments with teammates, of what we just did and what legends we all are. ‘You’re radiating happiness,’ somebody says to me. ‘Yep.’ Big talks. Big emotions. Big smiles. There is no footage of it but I believe I do some of my best dancing in a long, long time.


10.00am October 11th – Now

After the tournament, my gums hurt, my nose is running even though I don’t have a cold, I’m coughing, my nostrils hurt, everything hurts. I’m exhausted and don’t really care.

What have I learned?

Like New Zealand, winning this doesn’t dull my enthusiasm, it frees you up.

new-zealand-lift-rugby-world-cup-getty-3011875

Like Samson, my strength lies in my hair and I should never shave it again.

samson-and-delilah-liz-hurley

I love being in Portugal and part of this tournament. I love how much it means to Portuguese Touch to run it well.

I love being part of this team. How the coach and the leaders led. How everyone contributed. There are reasons people in this team have been so successful.

246383528_826229674721517_1716351210123419081_n

I’ve spoken to a couple of teammates who said they still haven’t come down. ‘Don’t,’ I said. ‘Stay up there a while longer, as long as you want.’


After the Euros in 2016, I took months to get over it. I’m giving myself two solid weeks to enjoy this. Week 1 has been pretty good so far.

Finally, I think about the new little O’Malley on the way and that I’ll have some video to bore her or him with of me actually winning something. That’s a nice thought.

WhatsApp Image 2021-10-16 at 11.37.57

Senior Touch Championships – Day 3: Campeões!!

Final vs Wales: 4-4 at full time.

Drop off – each team down to four players.

Won 5-4.

The first thing I’ve ever won in Touch in over a decade playing. I’ll write about it tomorrow.

But this is how I reacted. I couldn’t stop.

Senior Touch Championships – Day 2: Proverbs, Passports & Pastels

images

I felt like a different player from yesterday. I didn’t sleep very well at all. The adrenaline was flowing though my body all night in wave after wave. I couldn’t stop visualising attack moves and moments from the games in my head. Then I felt great today when I got up, even though I’m not sure how much I slept at all. I’d plenty of energy. Getting ready for the games, unlike yesterday, I wasn’t afraid that I was going to pull up with injury at some point. And after that last quickie dive against Switzerland in the last game yesterday, I felt I’d remembered how to attack again. 

Game 1 vs Portugal – Won 8-2

We weren’t on Pitch 1 today so this is the only grainy footage of one of the tries. 5th Touch, scoop on the two middles. Oldest move there is really but very effective at any level. 

I scored two others as well from dives. It’s great to see that the Portuguese have developed a huge amount since I played three years ago in the Euros. They’re still a bit too much ‘rugby’ skills focused, lots of passing, stepping and running, rather than running Touch specific moves but they improved a lot.  


Game 2 vs Switzerland – Won 6-1

This was our best game of the tournament so far. We prepared for and defended their M/L or 33 attack move really well. We changed how we defended it, I switched from right to left middle in defence, so I was making the touch, and cornering back. I could watch the trigger of the direction of the ball, break off my short side corner and chase the ball, push my other mid into a man-on-man so there was no overlap and no need for the link to shut, which is where we were getting destroyed yesterday. We also focused on pushing off the line harder as they were setting up their move, to take time away from them and force them to waste touches ten metres out. I scored two, one a dive from a quickie and the second off a 32.  

I felt bad for all the lads I know on the Swiss team, good lads, considering what we did next. We basically made it impossible for them to reach the semi-finals.  


Game 3 vs Portugal – Lost 4-3

Did this really happen? Was it a dream? Did we really just lose to Portugal? You’re tired, in the heat of the afternoon sun, straight after an intense game with Switzerland without any proper recuperation time. But still. It’s interesting how teams, our team, react when the momentum swings, when you go from a score up to a score down. Already a bit of panicking sets in, you tighten up, especially against a team you feel you should be beating, a team you’d already beaten earlier that day.

I was confident right to the end that if I got the ball in an attacking position, I’d score. For whatever reason, I didn’t really get in position. 

Portugal’s first ever win in an international Touch game. I’m happy for them. 

I lost my first nine international games for Ireland so I know how it feels. I score one in this game and set up one and also let in a terrible try in defence where I got lazy and stopped running. Bad.  

Anyway, according to their captain, we’ll be welcome in Portugal for life so at least that’s something. That’s a lifetime supply of Pastel de Nata so.

001-pastel-de-nata


Ultimately the loss didn’t matter in terms of our ranking going into the semi-finals tomorrow. Switzerland beat Portugal 4-3 in the last game, but ended up finishing fifth. We went though in third position and we’ll play the second placed team Wales tomorrow. 

This was the one moment worth remembering from me in the first game against Wales. 

Hopefully, we’ll have more to remember from the game tomorrow.

Can we beat them? Yes. Would I put money on us? How could you? We’re so inconsistent.

87297baf48a26f8785ad0283885755bd 

Senior Touch Championships: Rocky Balboa’s Basement & the Wisdom of Jose

Publication1

The 4.20 alarm. Eating a bowl of porridge while driving. Long term Blue car park. Waiting for ages for the shuttle bus. Then the long, shuffling queue. This being the busiest time of the day in the airport will never cease to be weird. Then sitting squashed up in a blue and yellow McDonalds Big Mac box for three hours with knees up against the seat in front. The flight full, masks under chins. You can’t hold your breath for the whole flight. I’m thinking, yes, this is the freedom we’ve missed for the last year.

Listening to podcasts about songs and criminals and sports and reading a book about rowing and Nazis. The air hostess that walks with such confidence and makes me think of the air hostess that I watched on Netflix. There must be people who hook up with flight attendants.

What a pleasure and relief to land in Lisbon and sit in the sunshine in the centre, drinking coffee and watching different looking people shopping in the same shops. The different accents, way of walking, interacting. It’s a balm for the soul. Lisbon, with it’s open spaces and signature buildings, remants of a global empire. Compared to the packed bustle of its Spanish rival Madrid, it reminds me a bit of a expensive shopping centre that never quite filled all its units. Then a two hour train journey to the university town of Coimbra, one of the oldest universities in Europe, around since 1290.


2009731-Dylan-Thomas-Quote-Do-not-go-gently-into-that-good-night-but-rage

And so we’re back to playing Touch. It’s been two years since I played in a tournament. For a long time during the various lockdowns, I felt like I was waiting in the long grass, working away, training, still trying to get better.

I hate older sportspeople pretending not to care, not to take it seriously. I disliked it even when I was younger. As a spectator, mental strength and smartness doesn’t strike as impressively in visual sense as youthful athleticism. I look at it like this, not many people were ever looking anyway so that shouldn’t matter too much. What matters, to me, is what you’re trying to achieve yourself, how you’re trying to challenge yourself.

Then injury struck, then another injury, then a few of them together. It’s fascinating how a tiny part of your body can bring down the whole, and how your head begins wrecking itself. I’m stressing if I can give my best in the tournament.

I thought to myself a few days ago, I couldn’t feel the excitement. I didn’t feel anything much. I was wondering if I still cared as much I used to. Could I still care as much?

The injuries are the vestiges of injuries, memories and hang ups in your neural system. But still real, can still pull you up and inhibit you. Will I be moving freely? Who knows?


DAY 1 – Scotland, Wales, Switzerland

I walked around the pitches, looking around, taking it all in.

I always find it hard to be social during a tournament.

This time I took some to take it, the happiness in people to be back playing, back interacting. The faces you hadn’t seen in two years. The people who greet you and who you greet like old friends, with genuine enthusiasm, whose names you have no idea of but that hardly matters.

It wasn’t seamless. There were a lot of fist-pumps greeting handshakes.

Scotland – Lost 9-8

We could have, should have won this game. I was so nervous in the warm up, so tentative, the fear that the injuries would come biting, clawing at you. Physically I felt ok during the game, that was the first thing. Mentally, I was surprised how overstimulated I became so quickly. You have to relearn to handle the emotion.

I felt sharp at times and so sluggish at other times. Hopefully, we’ll meet this team again later in the tournament. We did score this one in the last play of the game.

Do I still care? Hmm.

Wales. Lost 4-1

This was a worse performance than the first game. I remember many years ago an ex-player, I can’t remember who, in commentary on Eric Cantona returning from his 9-month ban for kung-fu kicking a fan. His first match back was against Liverpool. Was this a risk in such a big game? ‘Nah, the first match back is not the difficult one,’ said the ex-player. ‘You get through that on pure adrenaline. It’s the four or five matches afterwards where you struggle.’ It was like that for me.

In this game, I felt like Willie Beamen in ‘Any Given Sunday’. Overloaded with input.

My close in work was so, so poor. I just couldn’t see the plays, the angles. Everything was off. Getting rushed in attack, getting hesitant in defence, not able to read things quickly enough. Like a computer with too many windows open, getting slow and sluggish as it tries to process everything.

I set up our score and apart from that I did nothing in attack.

Switzerland. Drew 5-5

The derby of sorts. I thought we’d lost it till about five minutes after the final whistle.

WhatsApp Image 2021-10-08 at 21.39.39

Searching for divine inspiration after letting in a really poor try through the middle.

After letting in that score, myself and Fed stayed on the pitch and went up the pitch. Finally, I began to get the rhythm. It’s not the most elegant dive. I knew it wasn’t when I was doing it but finally, finally I began to get the timing. And we came back from two down to draw. That’s something at least.


Not a great first day to a tournament but this team has a tradition of improving. I was so impressed by the talk of the established leaders in this team going back till before records were being kept. I felt like I was sitting at the feet of the elders of the tribe soaking in their wisdom.

Their good sense and positivity gives me a good feeling for the rest of the tournament. It’s not going to happen just because we want it to happen. We have to make it happen.

As a Portuguese philosopher said…

ea2c9d057044b77581736d4f263f93e5

World Cup 2019 Malaysia – Day 4

I slept in the night thankfully but not before having to go down to the hotel lobby after midnight and meditate for an hour on a sofa about what has been keeping me awake all these nights. I’ve been wound up for months, a lot of it unavoidable in fairness. I managed, after a discussion with myself, to sleep. That’s all that mattered.

Game 1: vs Malaysia. Won 11-4. 

I expected us to win both these games and I hoped we would for the lads because finishing a tournament with wins, no matter who against, always mean a lot. We beat Malaysia more comfortably than the first time which showed some of the progress we’d made. Continue reading

World Cup 2019 Malaysia – Day 3

In the fraught early stillness of the dawn, men walk in silence, each isolated, each drawn inexorably forward, burdened by their thoughts, by the weight of their role in the impending events.

Game 1: vs Singapore. Lost 4-2. 

Continue reading

World Cup 2019 Malaysia – Day 2

MALAYSIA 2019

Game 1: vs New Zealand Something to them. 1 to us. 

I’m sitting in the cafe tent, the coldest place in the playing fields. It’s like a fridge. When I came in here yesterday, it still took me an hour to stop sweating after our games, I was so over-heated. Today I’m finding the weather grand, like an Irish spring day.

Continue reading

World Cup 2019 Malaysia – Day 1

Nottingham 2018 – End of blog

15. AND NOW

Where next? Will I lead? Be led. Want to be involved. Will I be part of the solution? End up drinking bottles of whiskey alone?

Continue reading