Subscriber OnlyRugby

Ridicule less - remember that your sporting heroes are human

Not having an Irish team in the URC decider could be a good thing

Last season Munster won the URC when they were not expected to; this season they fell to an unexpected defeat in the semi-final. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Last weekend, in front of a worldwide audience, three modern Irish sporting icons all fell heartbreakingly short. Had Rory McIlroy, Leinster or Munster got over the line in their respective challenges we might have shared in the joy of victory. But with defeat came scorn, and many were quick to pillory these elite Irish athletes.

I was disgusted, but not surprised. It occurred to me how so many who have achieved little in their own sporting “careers” have developed such a keen sense of entitlement that they demand their heroes win. And when they fall short, those people have little problem pouring on the scorn.

The vitriol spewed forth and all three were labelled chokers.

Leinster were beaten by a Bulls team who executed a vastly superior tactical kicking game. This tactic unlocked the vast spaces that their current rushing defensive system leaves unmarked. Time and again, the Bulls fullback Willie le Roux and outhalf Johan Goosen kicked with supreme accuracy into the unguarded flanks or chipped behind Leinster’s defensive line.


This kicking game made Leinster turn countless times and in a match played at altitude – with less oxygen in the air to fill flagging Irish lungs – brought fatigue into play.

Jake White, the Bulls director of rugby, has been at the elite end of the game for more than two decades and has implemented his own version of the rush defence over the years. He understands its strengths and weaknesses. Identifying the latter, he came up with a game plan that punched holes through Jacques Nienaber’s system.

Leinster's James Ryan looks crestfallen after defeat by Bulls. Photograph: Christiaan Kotze/Steve Haag Sports/Inpho

Ireland’s defensive system might be different from that of Leinster but there are valuable lessons for Andy Farrell and his coaching staff to work on before Ireland face the Springboks for the two-match series in July.

Throw in some questionable refereeing decisions, that again went against Leinster, and such are the fine margins at the business end of the URC campaign that Leo Cullen’s side found themselves forced to taste another bitter end-of-season defeat.

At Thomond Park, Munster just had one of those days that can happen in sport. Despite their unstinting efforts, Munster seemed unable to capitalise on the bucketloads of opportunities that Glasgow provided. This frustrated them, to the point where they began to force the game and the errors flowed.

Provincial demise ends domestic season

Listen | 24:07

Despite Tadhg Beirne putting in a performance of such quality that his efforts alone should have been enough to get his team into the final – and with Glasgow doing their own cause no favours with yellow cards – somehow the visitors found a way to hang on.

Last year Munster won a semi-final and final that everyone thought they had no right to. This year they lost when the consensus was that they would win. Go figure.

I know this is not what everyone wants to hear, but not having an Irish team in the decider could be a good thing for the health of the tournament, with Glasgow getting a shot at the title.

Rory McIlroy reacts after his bogey at the final hole in the US Open. Photograph: Tracy Wilcox/PGA TOUR via Getty Images

Across the Atlantic, McIlroy had his own heart broken and US Open dreams crushed. According to the numbers guys, his putt on the 16th green was the first time this season McIlroy missed from within three feet, after successfully making 496 in a row from that range. Be it nerves, process errors or simply the law of averages, eventually everyone misses a three-foot putt. But few misses will ever carry such emotional heartbreak.

On Monday evening, after the initial pain had subsided somewhat, McIlroy took to X to congratulate Bryson DeChambeau on his win. He added: “As I reflect on my week, I’ll rue a few things over the course of the tournament, mostly the 2 missed putts on 16 and 18 on the final day. But as I always do I’ll look at the positives of the week that far outweigh the negatives ... The one word that I would describe my career as is resilient. I’ve shown my resilience over and over again in the last 17 years and I will again.”

McIlroy owned his actions, both good and bad. That is not easy for a sportsperson to do, but it is essential for growth. Soon he will heal. Then he will once again have the courage to walk out and compete, dealing with the knowledge that another humiliating defeat with the possibility of public ridicule is real. That is what all sportspeople deal with each and every week.

Just as Munster and Leinster will also do, McIlroy will once again dominate another arena and strive to perform at the highest level. Because resilience resides in all champions.

We should all heed the wisdom and decency of another Irish champion golfer, Shane Lowry, whose advice shone like a beacon.

“From the outside looking in ... this game is easy. But in reality it’s the worst game of all. We are very fortunate to get what we do from this game but over the last 24 hours it’s hit me. We do it not only for ourselves but for our family, friends and fans. What Rory has gone through is as tough as it gets in our game but I would encourage people to please be kind.”

Kindness, compassion and understanding can be a rare commodity when it comes to our sporting heroes. Understanding that our athletes are human and will make errors is vital. As is the kindness to recognise that when they do lose, the pain they feel is far greater, the punch to the guts delivered with vastly more power than even the most ardent fan can ever feel.