Hibernation over for gaelic players
This has probably been the busiest sporting week of the year thus far. There were a host of events from Friday night's Dublin derby between Shelbourne and Bohemians to Ken Doherty missing the most expensive black ball of his life at the Benson & Hedges at Wembley and Padraig Harrington going well but eventually losing out in Taiwan. There was record-breaking athletics in Nenagh and bust-ups in English Premier League games that would be more at home in the wilder reaches of junior hurling. The most significant event however, was of course the resumption of the Church and General National Football League and the semi-finals of the AIB All-Ireland Club Hurling Championships. With the resumption of activities in our national games after the much-needed winter break, you can now sense that spring is in the air.
The winter break, however, did not apply to those clubs involved in the semi-finals at the weekend. In an interview after Athenry's fully deserved win over Birr on Sunday, Pat Nally (the Athenry manager) made reference to his team having done over 150 training sessions since their campaign began. This shows an astonishing commitment from club players right throughout the winter. I'm sure the other participants at this stage of the competition are also putting in equal hours of toil. In the other semi-final, St. Joseph's Doora/Barefield were warm favourites to overcome the Challenge of RuairÌ ''g, Cushendall and book their place in the St. Patrick's day final. It is a measure of how far Clare hurling has come in the past five years that the Clare champions would so readily be installed as All-Ireland favourites. But the men from Antrim seemed not to have read the script for this clash in Parnell Park and gave the reigning All-Ireland Champions a real scare. In fact Cushendall, were the better team on the day and were unlucky only to come away with a draw.
The club teams involved in the All-Ireland Series spent their winter adhering to a spartan training regime, but the rest of the country's club players were more akin to beef cattle `wintering well'
The general feeling after a game of this type is that the lesser-fancied team have `blown' their chance. In this instance I'm not so sure. Cushendall physically dominated the Claremen and out-hurled them for most of the game. St. Joseph's will have to considerably raise their game to have any chance of retaining their title.
The National League got off to a competitive start with some teams shaping up well. Longford continued their successful winter with a noteworthy scalp of neighbours Cavan in Pearse Park. Fermanagh scored a memorable victory away to Kildare, while Dublin showed impressive disregard for the league by getting hammered away to Roscommon (I'm sure Meath are positively quaking). Elsewhere, Cork had a welcome win in Tuam against an unimpressive Galway side, while Kerry gave Armagh (minus their Crossmaglen contingent) a hiding in Killarney. Wiser men than I will sagely nod their heads at this time of year and tell you to wait until the championship, but as the past few years have shown, the only teams who claim not to value the League are those who perform dismally in it.
As stated previously, while the club teams involved in the All-Ireland Series spent their winter adhering to a spartan training regime, the rest of the country's club players were more akin to beef cattle `wintering well'. In the past month, training has generally resumed all over the country. The excesses of the festive season and the extra poundage acquired for the cold months are being shed in gut-bursting sessions the length and breath of the land. This is the time for promises of abstinence and diligence, when last year's vanquished teams assemble and boldly declare to `give it one big effort this year'. A good draw in the first round and sure who knows? ``This could be our year, boys''.
The more mature players on the panel have to consider if they can go through it all again - if the recurring injuries can be staved off, if the legs will hold up. But the pull of the summer is too strong; the thoughts of championship games, bright evenings and solid pitches will drive them on. It drives you on through the cold evenings on sodden ground, you keep going because you know, like every year, you will eventually start to feel better.
It's starting to happen - Gaeldom is awakening from its seasonal slumber and stretching its collective legs. There is a slight stretch in the evenings and the sap is beginning to rise. There is a spring in your step because even though you are ploughing through mucky training fields, you know that the back of the winter has been broken. Around the corner, the good weather is coming, not just yet, but it's in the post.
BY PADDY SWAINE