There weren't many better stories in Irish sport this year than Meath's victory over five-in-a-row-chasing Dublin earlier this month. But that win robbed Dublin's Hannah Tyrrell of a victorious end to a topsy-turvy sporting year of her own.
Starting the year at your country's first Six Nations game, and ending it at the All-Ireland football final sounds like a pretty good year for a spectator, let alone a sportsperson, but that's what she did this year.
She played at outhalf for her country in April, and top-scored for her county in an All-Ireland final in September. Rob Kearney got plenty of attention for lining out with his old GAA club Cooley Kickhams a couple of times recently, but he's well and truly in the ha'penny place here.
(For all that Kearney really did seem to enjoy himself, I can't shake this image of the gloss being taken off his return to the GAA fields of Louth when he got presented with 20 club lotto envelopes and told to sell those on a Saturday night – playing is a privilege after all, Rob.)
Tyrrell had decided she was going to retire from rugby after the 2021 World Cup in any case, but when that was postponed due to Covid, her decision to walk away from the IRFU was an easy one . . . easier than it should have been.
Economically, men's rugby – at club level at least – is trying to be soccer, and women's rugby is trying to be men's rugby
The slow-motion car-crash that has been the Irish women’s rugby setup over the last four years, since the disaster at the home World Cup of 2017, has asked awkward questions of so many players that it would be no surprise if Tyrrell was relieved to be able to escape to a high-performance environment on her own doorstep.
Speaking to the Second Captains podcast on Wednesday, she articulated the key difference between those rugby and GAA high-performance environments.
“With Dublin it felt like I was back with an amateur team, in a good way – I’m very happy for it to be amateur and they’re happy for it to be amateur.” This is a key lesson that rugby, men’s and women’s, is still struggling to learn. Economically, men’s rugby – at club level at least – is trying to be soccer, and women’s rugby is trying to be men’s rugby.
Men’s rugby economics were tentative even before Covid. We shall see how the latest iteration of the Pro14 - the United Rugby Championship - goes over the next few years, but a league competition made up of clubs from five different countries, one of which is in a different hemisphere, is a square that’s hard to circle.
If that’s the level of mental, and geographical, gymnastics required to make the league a viable proposition, then maybe the problem is just insurmountable.
For women’s rugby, the Sevens circuit seems to be able to wash its face economically, but the 15-aside branch of the sport sees the gap widening and widening between those unions big enough to support professionalism, and those unions for whom it’s a financial burden too far.
Ireland’s failure to qualify for the next women’s Rugby World Cup last week was not solely down to money – this Irish team got more financial support than any other team in our history – but it must be soul-destroying to see the playing-field you’re competing in get cleaved in two by money, while your squad is also getting picked apart by your own Sevens programme.
Money plays its part in the GAA as well of course, and Tyrrell was stepping back into the best-funded women’s GAA team in the country.
But she went from a situation in rugby where she was an amateur sportsperson putting in impossible hours, taking time off work to try and keep pace with the fully-professional teams she was competing against, to a position where all of a sudden she was an amateur sportsperson competing against other highly-trained amateurs, with a work-life-sport balance that finally started to make sense.
She certainly played like a woman enjoying a new-found sense of freedom. Having not played inter-county football for seven years, she played 10 games this summer in league and championship, and scored 3-55, an average of almost six and a half points a game.
She went a little better than that average in the All-Ireland final, scoring seven points, four from play, and was Dublin’s best player by a distance on the day.
And she also scored what was one of the goals of the season in the league semi-final against Cork in Thurles, an outside of the boot finish from 14 yards into the top corner that just gets better and better the more you watch it.
She scored 2-7 that day, which was literally a day after she announced her retirement from international rugby. There are seamless transitions, and then there are Hannah Tyrrell transitions.
Tyrrell may well have been devastated watching her former team-mates in Parma last weekend, but even as a losing All-Ireland finalist, it would be hard to say she made the wrong decision.