Aintree Grand National, horse racing’s greatest shop window and lightning conductor for criticism

The story of ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed; must-win rugby games aplenty; Greg McWilliams calls for end to negativity

Groundstaff check the course at Aintree. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty

On the eve of the English Grand National there’s no little nervousness over at Aintree about the planned protest by animal rights activists who are aiming to disrupt the race, reports suggesting that they intend forming a human barricade across the track.

Brian O’Connor describes the National as “both the sport’s greatest shop window and its biggest lightning conductor for welfare criticism”, 15 horses having sustained fatal injuries in the race since 2020. While for animal lovers, that’s 15 too many, Brian argues that racing can stand over the National “as a fair challenge”, particularly in light of the changes made to the course over the years.

In boxing, former world champion ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed was a bit of a thoroughbred himself back in the day, having been shown the ropes, so to speak, by his Dublin-born trainer Brendan Ingle. Johnny Watterson, in Hamed’s native Sheffield ahead of the start of the snooker World Championships, reflects on his career, during which a love of fast cars got him in to a world of bother.

In Gaelic games, Seán Moran talks to former Laois hurling captain Matthew Whelan who, in the midst of the ongoing debate about the game’s structures and the merit, or otherwise, of its various competitions, puts up a stout defence of the Joe McDonagh, arguing that it played a key role in the county’s memorable championship run four years ago.

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Gerry Thornley, meanwhile, hears from Connacht captain Jack Carty who is back to full fitness in time for the province’s final regular URC home fixture of the season, against Cardiff on Saturday. A must-win game it is for Connacht too, the prize a place in the quarter-finals.

Saturday’s Six Nations visit to Parma will feel like a must-win game too for Greg McWilliams after his Irish side suffered those heavy defeats in the opening two rounds of the Championship. The last thing he would have needed ahead of the meeting with Italy were any more off-the-field controversies, but an article in Thursday’s Daily Telegraph provided just that.

Daire Walsh heard McWilliams insist that the allegations made in the article, which included “revelations that paint an unflattering picture of the union when it comes to how they operate the female code”, were historical, dismissing any notion that the IRFU, in its current form, is “a sexist organisation”.

Never a dull moment.

Telly watch: There’s plenty of live coverage of United Rugby Championship games on your screens this evening, including the meeting of Ulster and the Dragons in Belfast (Premier Sports 1, 7.35). And RTÉ2 brings us the Airtricity League clash between beloved Dublin neighbours Shamrock Rovers and Shelbourne (kick-off 7.45).

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