Sporting Year roundtable: Our panel discuss the highs and lows of 2019

Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton lifts the Sam Maguire Cup after the victory over Kerry in he All-Ireland SFC Final replay at Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

And so this is 2019. And what have you done?

Well, we’ve mostly gone to things, written about them and talked endless hours of guff on the back of them – so why stop now? We gathered a few of us together and lured Game On presenter Marie Crowe and tour caddie Colin Byrne to join us. A small room in a city centre hotel, a pleasing lunch, a bottle and more of festive spirit and we’re away. Sort of . . .

Notes

Gerry Thornley: Hang on, did nobody bring notes? I had to bring notes because my brain is a sieve.

Mary Hannigan: Me too.

Malachy Clerkin: I have a few.

Marie Crowe: Me too.

Seán Moran: I have some on my phone.

[Pause while everyone scuttles off to gather their notes]

Colin Byrne: Ah, see, you’re all journalists. You come prepared. I have nothing. I have today’s Irish Times.

Malachy Clerkin: Fat lot of good that will do you.

Mary Hannigan: I was going to pick out my great moment of 2019 until I looked it up last night and found that it happened two years ago. Keith Duggan rang me up one time and asked me to nominate my moment of the year and I said Zidane’s volley in the Champions League final. Poor Keith had to be nice to me and say gently, “Mary, that was in 2002.” I don’t remember what year we were talking but it wasn’t 2002.

Gerry Thornley: Some volley though.

Malachy Clerkin: Bet nothing had beaten it in the time since.

Mary Hannigan: Exactly! I think it should have been carried forward.

Roger Federer celebrates his Wimbledon semi-final victory over Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon back in July. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Roger Federer celebrates his Wimbledon semi-final victory over Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon back in July. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Federer

Malachy Clerkin: Okay, so I gave ye all homework to do – who wants to start? Gerry, who’s your sports figure of the year?

Gerry Thornley: Why are you starting with me? I hoped the others would go first and maybe mention something I forgot about.

Malachy Clerkin: Tough.

Gerry Thornley: Okay, well, my favourite moment was Roger Federer beating Rafa Nadal at Wimbledon. My worst moment was Djokovic beating him in the final.

Malachy Clerkin: The idea that they’d still be playing each other in a Wimbledon semi-final 11 years after their epic final in 2008 would have been insane to think of back then.

Irish Times rugby correspondent Gerry Thornley felt a world of sporting pain in 2019. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Irish Times rugby correspondent Gerry Thornley felt a world of sporting pain in 2019. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Gerry Thornley: Federer is, in my view, the greatest of them all. I’ve paid a lot of money over the years to go and watch him in Wimbledon. He moves like a ballet dancer. The grace of his play is just beautiful to watch. The way he carries himself – I think if he’d been more controversial he might have been acknowledged more than he has. I think he’s the greatest sportsperson that ever lived.

Colin Byrne: To span that career for that long is phenomenal.

Marie Crowe: I’ll have to put it on my bucket list. You’ve inspired me, Gerry.

Malachy Clerkin: This is fantastic stuff for when we do our review of the tennis year.

Gerry Thornley: Yeah, maybe not what you had in mind.

Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp is thrown in the air as he celebrates with his players after winning the Champions League final against Tottenham Hotspur in Madrid in June. Photograph: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images
Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp is thrown in the air as he celebrates with his players after winning the Champions League final against Tottenham Hotspur in Madrid in June. Photograph: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Klopp

Malachy Clerkin: Who’s next?

Marie Crowe: I went a bit more mainstream. I went with Jürgen Klopp.

Gerry Thornley: So Roger Federer isn’t mainstream, no?

Marie Crowe: Klopp has featured quite a bit in my life over the last year. Liverpool are a joy to watch under him and our family is just so invested now. He’s actually on top of our Christmas tree.

Malachy Clerkin: Ah here, what sort of cult are you creating in that house?

Mary Hannigan: Roy Keane used to be in my crib.

Gerry Thornley: Jesus, it’s all coming out.

Mary Hannigan: My mother threw him in the bin and I never saw him again.

RTÉ sports presenter Maire Crowe makes a point to Irish Times Gaelic games correspondent Seán Moran. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
RTÉ sports presenter Marie Crowe makes a point to Irish Times Gaelic games correspondent Seán Moran. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Marie Crowe: My eldest and my husband went to the Champions League final. Didn’t get a ticket but they went anyway. I couldn’t go. We’ve just had such a great time around Liverpool as a family over the last year. Bringing Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool into small kids’ lives is great because there’s just such joy in it.

Malachy Clerkin: That wouldn’t have been the case 10 years ago – it would have been cause for calling in the authorities.

Colin Byrne: My lad follows Liverpool because he saw Klopp doing a car ad. He was never into football before really. But he saw Klopp in one of these car ads and thought he was a cool character. Now he’s a Liverpool fan.

Marie Crowe: Even the way they play. The games are so exciting, they’re cliffhangers to the end. So watching these games as a family is a great thing. I have three little boys and I just love seeing them so invested in it, running around screaming and hugging after a late winner. And then Klopp pops up at the end hugging everyone, so full of joy and fun. It’s brilliant.

Gerry Thornley: He’s a good choice because he’s made them likeable as well as good. He’s a very good front for any club.

Seán Moran: What happens to your kids though when they start losing?

Malachy Clerkin: Says the desolate Everton fan.

Marie Crowe: They’ll just have to get used to losing. It comes to us all.

Seán Moran: There’s a great yarn about the old Sunday Tribune where Eamon Dunphy was lecturing Vincent Browne about the disastrous form of the Ireland team under Eoin Hand. They’d been trimmed by Norway when they had been expected to do better and Dunphy was in declarative mode. “But Vincent! Kids went to bed crying because of them!” To which Browne apparently replied: “Why, would you prefer Norwegian children to go to bed crying?”

Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton celebrates with manager Jim Gavin after the victory over Kerry in the All-Ireland SFC replay at Croke Park. Photograph: Oisín Keniry/Inpho
Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton celebrates with manager Jim Gavin after the victory over Kerry in the All-Ireland SFC replay at Croke Park. Photograph: Oisín Keniry/Inpho

The Dubs

Malachy Clerkin: Let’s keep going – your figure of the year, Seán?

Seán Moran: I went closer to home. The Dubs made history by winning five-in-a-row. It’s in the history books now as something that was never done before and it’s given slightly more urgency now by the fact that Jim Gavin has gone. I don’t subscribe to the theory that Dublin have ended football and will just win year after year after year now. Gavin will be missed. Their finals never came easy, which is one of the odd things about them as serial winners. Even this year took a replay.

Gerry Thornley: Kerry should have won it that first day. If they had a bit more nerve about them. They looked over the net and saw Federer looking back at them.

Seán Moran: From Dublin’s point of view, that closing stretch in the drawn game was the key passage of the year. With 14 men, they managed to keep their pressing game up and they were the attackers.

Malachy Clerkin: They had five shots in that time. Kerry had none.

Seán Moran: From my own point of view, it made me feel old. Eoin Murchan scored the goal straight after half-time and he was in my son’s year in school.

Mary Hannigan: Is your son 12 years old as well?

Seán Moran: The replays on a Saturday night have been a great addition. I know some of the traditionalists aren’t mad about it and think the final should always be on a Sunday afternoon. But it has a great feel to it on the night.

Malachy Clerkin: I went back and checked before the second game – there have been 21 All-Ireland finals in football and hurling that have gone to replays since the GAA began. That’s 21 out of 270 or whatever it is. And five of them have been since 2012. Nearly a quarter of all final replays in history have been in the last seven years.

Colin Byrne: Isn’t that the way sport has gone? The margins have become so much narrower in every sport. Particularly in finals.

Seán Moran: Before the 2012 hurling final replay, there hadn’t been a drawn hurling final since 1959. The last hurling final replay before 2012 was the day my parents got married. After that, there wasn’t one for 53 years and then we had three in a row. I suppose it averages itself out in the broad sweep of time.

Malachy Clerkin: Colin has a point though. Analysis and stats-work mean that modern sport has become all about squeezing margins and cutting down percentages. Look at the difference in how Gaelic football looks even over the course of Dublin’s five-in-a-row. They take no chances with kick-outs or shooting. Diarmuid Connolly kicked a wide in injury-time in the drawn game – it was the first time in the whole championship a Dublin player had attempted a shot from play from outside the 45. Teams play to patterns – when you get to the sharpest end of it, there’s nothing unknown.

Marie Crowe: And it’s nothing at all to do with the money these replays bring in.

Gerry Thornley: Is there bonus money for referees? Those replays must bring in serious wonga.

Malachy Clerkin: In fairness, they cut the ticket prices in half for a final replay.

Gerry Thornley: Do they?

Marie Crowe: Ah no, they only take about 20 quid off.

Malachy Clerkin: Is it not halved, no?

Marie Crowe: Definitely not. Seán will know.

Seán Moran: Not halved, no. They take it down from €80 to €60.

Marie Crowe: It was €90 this year I think.

Malachy Clerkin: Check out the table full of people who don’t pay into matches.

Tiger Woods celebrates winning the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club back in April. Photograph: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Tiger Woods celebrates winning the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club back in April. Photograph: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Tiger

Malachy Clerkin: Colin, you were there for two of the biggest stories of the year. Which do you want to do first?

Colin Byrne: Tiger at Augusta. For the first time ever, the green jackets decided they maybe weren’t as all-powerful as they thought they were in that they accepted they couldn’t control the weather. There was a storm warning for later in the day so they had the first ever two-tee start on the weekend. And we were on the wrong nine. We were on the front nine as all the action was on the back.

Malachy Clerkin: Did you feel you were missing it?

Colin Byrne: No, you could hear the roars. You knew what was happening. The thing I’ll always remember about it was the following day, driving to the next tournament and turning on National Public Radio. Now, NPR are allergic to sport. They’re more likely to report on a coup in Ghana than a sports event. But Tiger winning the Masters was the first thing on the NPR news at three o’clock the next day.

Malachy Clerkin: What does that tell you?

Colin Byrne: It basically sums up for me what a monumental story it was. His decline, his comeback, his rise to the top again. And also, within the game, it has guaranteed our futures again for a while.

Gerry Thornley: Really? He’s that vital to the industry, is he?

Colin Byrne: Absolutely. You look at the contracts that have been signed since then, TV deals, advertising deals, everything. It’s an absolute fact that when he’s involved and competitive, the number golf can command goes up and up and up.

Malachy Clerkin chaired this year’s round table review of the sporting year. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Malachy Clerkin chaired this year’s round table review of the sporting year. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Malachy Clerkin: I’ve heard people in golf say that countless times – “We owe him our careers”, etc – and they’re not even being glib about it. They’re sincere.

Colin Byrne: Exactly. Well, I am being slightly glib about it in a way. But there’s no doubt he has improved my life, the money I’m able to make in my job, the money everyone in golf is able to make. And for him to come back and for us all to be able to stretch that out a little bit more, nobody is under any illusion about it.

Gerry Thornley: They all get it, do they?

Colin Byrne: Mostly they do. I find myself having to remind younger guys from time to time how good he was. I say it to Xander Schauffle and those guys. “You cannot believe how much this guy dominated when he was at the top.” Some guys have a few good months back to back, maybe win two out of six and have three top-10s. Rory does that from time to time, Dustin Johnson, Koepka, these guys. And it’s incredible to watch them do it. This guy did it for 10 years.

Marie Crowe: And not that long ago. It’s mad that people forget.

Colin Byrne: Maybe I remember better because I was on the receiving end of it for so long.

Shane Lowry celebrates with the Claret Jug after his victory in the British Open at Royal Portrush. Photograph: Matt Mackey/Inpho/Presseye
Shane Lowry celebrates with the Claret Jug after his victory in the British Open at Royal Portrush. Photograph: Matt Mackey/Inpho/Presseye

Lowry

Malachy Clerkin: Tell us about Portrush.

Colin Byrne: The thing was that we all went there at the start of the week and everyone expected Rory to win. For Shane to do it – and with a Northern Irish caddie – it made it such an incredible occasion. To be up there as an Irishman for an Open in Ireland was better than anything. You talk to guys who came over, the players, and it just surpassed their expectations.

Malachy Clerkin: What does that mean though? Surely a British Open is a British Open?

Colin Byrne: Yeah but it can go wrong. The course, the set-up – people in the outside world just wouldn’t be aware of how you can ruin a good course with a bad set-up. The R&A did it really well in Portrush.

Malachy Clerkin: And then an Irishman won, to cap it all off.

Colin Byrne: Yeah, and Shane did it the right way. He celebrated it properly. Brilliant. These guys don’t do that enough. They’re always moving onto the next thing, the next city, the next tournament. We met his management on Saturday night in the Bushmills Inn and we were saying to them, “Whatever you do, make sure he takes next week off.” He was due to play the following week and obviously the pressure comes on in those situations, the sponsor wants the Open Champion there and all the rest of it. But he did it right. He took it off and celebrated like no one has celebrated before. Good for him. It’s a testament to who he is.

Seán Moran: The intensity of these events – individual and team events – has reached such a pitch that I think that’s partly why Lowry’s success was so widely welcomed. He comes across and this sort of Irish everyman sportsman. Obviously his father has the history that everyone knows about in the GAA but as well as that, he comes across as someone with a real interest in other sports. He turned up at the Galway v Mayo match on the Saturday night of the Irish Open.

Gerry Thornley: He’s a top bloke, isn’t that it Colin? What you see is what you get. I met him in Japan at the World Cup and we went for a couple of drinks. I was honoured to be in his company. But the Shane Lowry you meet over a couple of drinks is the same Shane Lowry who celebrates winning a tournament.

Colin Byrne: That’s exactly right. But what sets him apart is that he’s not the same Shane Lowry that you see over a golf ball. He manages to balance those two sides of himself. This is what I always say to golfers. Intensity has to be at the right time. It needs to be something you can plug into over a golf ball and switch off in between.

Seán Moran: I was watching TV one night after the Open and they were talking about a big tournament coming up and who might contend. They went through the Major winners and the guys who had won big during the year and when they came to Lowry, they were almost dismissive. It was as though they were going, “Well, it’s a great local story and good luck to the big fella but that’s as good as it’s going to get for him”. And they moved swiftly on.

Colin Byrne: They don’t know how to figure him out yet in the US. We played in front of him the first two rounds at Portrush and he was playing with Phil Mickelson. Normally when Mickelson is playing, there’s an army following him and everything is focused on him. But those two days, he was dwarfed. It was the first time in my life I’ve seen him on a golf course be completely ignored. And those guys almost never experience that. They never really get to feel that thing of a home crowd being the 15th club.

Seán Moran: But is there a view within golf that the things that make him appealing to us might prevent him being a serious contender at the highest level?

Colin Byrne: There’s an element of that, yeah. His whole nature, the balance he has in his life, his interest in other sports, the fact that he doesn’t play a huge amount. But there’s no doubt he is hugely talented. There’s an intensity to him on the course. He’s a tough guy to work for, I’d say, and that’s what makes those guys great. But he has that balance too. Not a lot of guys have that balance.

Seán Moran: Has he hit his ceiling?

Colin Byrne: Oh no, I doubt it very much.

Rory McIlroy is congratulated by Brooks Koepka after winning the FedEx Cup and Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club on in Atlanta. Photograph: Kevin C Cox/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy is congratulated by Brooks Koepka after winning the FedEx Cup and Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club on in Atlanta. Photograph: Kevin C Cox/Getty Images

Rory

Malachy Clerkin: Perception is a funny thing. Rory McIlroy won four tournaments in 2019. He won the Players, the Tour Championship, the Fed-Ex – probably his best ever non-Major year. And yet he didn’t make the shortlist for RTÉ Sportsperson of the Year. Lowry was the winner and well deserved it but McIlroy didn’t make it past the longlist.

Colin Byrne: Rory suffers from huge over-expectation.

Seán Moran: Plus, the general public are really only exercised by Majors.

Malachy Clerkin: I came in to do our podcast one Monday during the summer and Rory hadn’t won whatever tournament had been on that weekend but had finished top 10. And one of our engineers said, “God, Rory McIlroy must be one of the biggest disappointments to you sports guys. Any time I hear his name on the radio he’s after losing again.”

Colin Byrne: We played with him in Portrush on the Tuesday of the Open and we were going, “God, you must be having a mental week of it.” And he was going, 'No, it’s going okay. Everybody is being so respectful and I can feel them trying to let me do my own thing.' But the pressure he must have felt himself under that week. The world these guys live in, there’s always someone trying to tear off a piece of them. And no matter how much people were trying to leave him alone that week, obviously in his head he had put so much pressure on himself. And he got on the course and did everything wrong.

Malachy Clerkin: That Friday will live on as one of my memories of the year. It all just came down to watching McIlroy to see could he make the cut. It was one of the most dramatic things I watched in any sport all year. He was so human in that round, trying to live up to the expectations of his own people and do justice to the event that was there in part because of him. And he just came up short.

Lionel Messi scores a free-kick in the Champions League semi-final first leg against Liverpool at the Nou Camp. Photograph: Jose Jordan/AFP via Getty Images
Lionel Messi scores a free-kick in the Champions League semi-final first leg against Liverpool at the Nou Camp. Photograph: Jose Jordan/AFP via Getty Images

Messi

Malachy Clerkin: Who was your figure of the year, Mary?

Mary Hannigan: Everybody has taken them! I’ll go with Lionel Messi. It’s just great to live in an era where you can turn on the TV and see him twice a week. There’s a bit of that with Federer and Tiger as well obviously but I just think with Messi, you’re always just on the verge of something extraordinary.

Marie Crowe: I was at the Liverpool match when he scored that free-kick. And it was just unbelievable. There was silence for a second, as if nobody could quite believe it. And then everybody started whistling all around us. It was surreal. Even though I’m a Liverpool fan and Liverpool had lost, that atmosphere was just amazing.

Malachy Clerkin: Did you see the video of Diego Simeone after his goal against Atletico? He scored this typical Messi goal, a one-two with Suarez, bends it in with his left foot, complete economy of effort and body shape.

Gerry Thornley: Put it in the only spot he could have scored, eye of the needle stuff. Classic Messi.

Malachy Clerkin: And there was a video of Simeone afterwards watching him watching Messi and it runs the whole way from his roaring at his defenders to go to Messi, to being distraught that he has scored, to walking back to his dugout shrugging his shoulder as if to say, “What can you do? He’s Messi.”

Marie Crowe: That’s the effect he has on you. At that game I was at, everybody stood up – Liverpool fans as well as Barcelona fans – and started going, “Messi! Messi! Messi!” Because you couldn’t but. He’s so phenomenal.

Malachy Clerkin: Five years from now, there’ll be no Messi, there’ll be no Federer, no Tiger.

Mary Hannigan enjoyed every minute of Lionel Messi’s brilliance throughout the year. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Mary Hannigan enjoyed every minute of Lionel Messi’s brilliance throughout the year. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Mary Hannigan: I’m really conscious of that now with Messi. Every week, I check to see what Spanish football is on because it’s not so far off that the day comes when he’s not around.

Gerry Thornley: What age is he, 31?

Mary Hannigan: Bit older, 32 I think.

Marie Crowe: It’s over so quickly. I’m often walking across the RTÉ campus with Donncha O’Callaghan who does the show with me and a little kid will come up to him and go, “You’re from Ireland’s Fittest Family!” Or better again, “You’re in the Centra ad!”

Malachy Clerkin: My little girl knows him from Donncha’s Two Talented.

Marie Crowe: He only retired in 2018! But that’s the way of it. My kids play football in the back garden and if Bernard Brogan walked out to have a kickabout with them, they wouldn’t have a notion who he is. But if Paul Mannion or Con O’Callaghan arrived, different story. Everything moves on, soon enough you’re the guy from the Centra ad.

Mary Hannigan: Messi is Messi though.

Women’s World Cup

Mary Hannigan: The women’s World Cup couldn’t have gone better.

Malachy Clerkin: It was so enjoyable.

Marie Crowe: I think it killed off at last a lot of the concerns around the quality of the women’s game. As Megan Rapinoe said, it’s time to move the conversation on. She’s dead right. Move it onto better analysis, equal pay, all the important stuff.

Gerry Thornley: A huge landmark World Cup for the women’s game. You can even see it now – Spurs and Arsenal played in front of 40,000 people a few weeks ago. Without the World Cup, that wouldn’t have happened.

Mary Hannigan: It’s funny with Rapinoe. She won the Ballon D’Or and people were giving out that she’s not even the best player in America, never mind the world. That she was getting the award for off the pitch stuff rather than purely the football.

Seán Moran: Shouldn’t that be taken into account though?

Marie Crowe: It is. I’m a judge and one of the criteria is your career as a whole.

Malachy Clerkin: Hang on – you’re a Ballon D’Or judge?

Marie Crowe: I am, yeah.

Malachy Clerkin: Wow. That fairly elevates the credibility of this round-table. A bit of lunch was a small price to pay.

Ireland players celebrate after qualifying for next year’s Olympic games in Tokyo after victory over Canada following penalty strokes after the second leg of the qualifier in Donnybrook. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Ireland players celebrate after qualifying for next year’s Olympic games in Tokyo after victory over Canada following penalty strokes after the second leg of the qualifier in Donnybrook. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

The Hockey

Malachy Clerkin: The thing with the women’s hockey team is that all the goodwill from the previous year could have fizzled out very easily. It would have taken very little for it to go away. And then they do what they did.

Mary Hannigan: Absolutely. As it turned out, the thing that they needed most actually happened. The qualified for the Olympics and they did it live on RTÉ after a penalty shoot-out on a Sunday evening. They couldn’t have captured the imaginations any better than that.

Malachy Clerkin: They are going to be the dominant story of the Olympics. The public will latch onto a team quicker than they latch onto an individual.

Gerry Thornley: And because of what they did at the World Cup, people have a sense of who they are now.

Mary Hannigan: They’re great characters, the way they engage with each other.

Malachy Clerkin: That whole weekend of the playoff against Canada kicked them to another level.

Mary Hannigan: My abiding memory of it, away from the shootout, was arriving on the Saturday in the lashings of rain to find a ticket tout lurking in the shadows outside asking if I was buying or selling. At a hockey match! In Ireland! That’s when you know you’ve arrived.

Caddie Colin Byrne was thrilled by the performances of Tiger Woods and Shane Lowry in 2019. But don’t mention slow play. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill 

Bugbears

Malachy Clerkin: Okay, the other bit of homework was to come up with something that bugged you in 2019. Gerry, keep it short.

Gerry Thornley: Okay, things that bugged me. Spurs getting to the Champions League final. That’s not just me being an Arsenal fan – Ajax would have been a better story. Arsenal in general bug me and bore me on a constant basis. If I start complaining about them I’ll never stop.

Mary Hannigan: You’re taking it well, in fairness to you.

Gerry Thornley: The English media’s worship of José Mourinho.

Colin Byrne: I’m with Gerry. Can’t look at him, can’t read about him.

Mary Hannigan: What would you have done if he’d become Arsenal manager?

Gerry Thornley: I would have stopped supporting them.

Marie Crowe: Oh wow.

Gerry Thornley: I couldn’t have done it. Couldn’t and wouldn’t. But the thing that bugged me most this year, this decade even, was to go back to where I started – Djokovic beating Federer in the Wimbledon final.

Malachy Clerkin: You can’t get over it.

Gerry Thornley: I’ll never get over it. I didn’t sleep for four or five nights after it.

Malachy Clerkin: Ah stop.

Gerry Thornley: I get very emotionally involved with it when Federer is playing.

Malachy Clerkin: Clearly.

Gerry Thornley: I had a bad sporting year. And that’s before I even talk about Ireland at the World Cup.

Malachy Clerkin: We’ll get to that.

Gerry Thornley: Yeah, it could have been a great year. Ireland could have made a semi-final, Federer could have won Wimbledon, Arsenal could have won the Europa League. But it was crap. Even the hurling final, I was at it and it was disappointing. The sending-off ruined it.

A view of the GAA Special Congress in Cork. Photograph: Inpho
A view of the GAA Special Congress in Cork. Photograph: Inpho

Tier two, new rules

Malachy Clerkin: What about you, Marie?

Marie Crowe: The Tier Two football championship and all that went with them. First off, the lack of proper conversation around them, apparently because people decided they weren’t a sexy topic of conversation. There wasn’t enough debate, people didn’t engage, it was railroaded in and I don’t think people have really thought through the consequences. We didn’t hear enough voices on it, the Tier One teams didn’t support the people who will actually be affected by it.

Malachy Clerkin: It’s the sort of thing that won’t hit home with people until it happens.

Seán Moran: I think it’s fair to point out that Tier Two counties were consulted about it.

Marie Crowe: Officials rather than players though.

Seán Moran: Some players had an input, maybe not all of them.

Marie Crowe: I spoke to players in one particular county whose county chairman was a big proponent of it but the players themselves didn’t want it.

Seán Moran: It will be interesting to see how it pans out. But what you’re talking about there Marie feeds into one of my pet peeves and it’s the general level of deliberation around decision-making in the GAA. And I would relate it especially this year to the changes in playing rules.

Malachy Clerkin: Ah yes, now we’re onto the sexy stuff.

Seán Moran: The Special Congress in Cork that rubberstamped the Tier Two also rubberstamped the changes to the playing rules. And Cork is a long way from a lot of counties. So when the playing rules were debated after lunch, it was clear that the foremost thing in people’s minds was getting on the road. By my reckoning, the playing rule changes occupied about half an hour of debate.

Malachy Clerkin: Jesus.

Seán Moran: The sin-bin rule is a huge change. The black card made players themselves pay the price of their delinquency. Whereas with this, the team picks up the tab and the downside of committing an act cynical play is automatically lessened. There was just such a lack of debate that day. And that’s only the lead up to the worst one, which is the advanced mark.

Marie Crowe: Jim Gavin was at an event that I was MCing a couple of weeks ago and he was just dismayed at the introduction of it.

Seán Moran: John Horan was speaking to us afterwards and he was a little bit taken aback that it got through so smoothly and with so little discussion. On the All Stars trip, David Gough who refereed the drawn All-Ireland final said that it’s going to be carnage. Referees are used to judging a certain distance, 13 metres, from a fixed position start. Here, they have to judge 20 metres from players who are on the move to players who are on the move. And he’s really apprehensive that referees will be held up to ridicule in the analysis. On TV, they’ll have access to measuring technology to show the ball only went 17 metres or whatever.

Spain’s Rafa Cabrera-Bello discusses a shot with caddie Colin Byrne during the BMW International Open at Golfclub Munchen Eichenried in June. Photograph: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
Spain’s Rafa Cabrera-Bello discusses a shot with caddie Colin Byrne during the BMW International Open at Golfclub Munchen Eichenried in June. Photograph: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Slow play

Malachy Clerkin: How about you Colin? Any bugbears?

Gerry Thornley: There must be something in golf that bores you or annoys you.

Colin Byrne: Oh, slow play. Or is that too boring?

Malachy Clerkin: Not at all.

Mary Hannigan: It’s perfect for this category.

Colin Byrne: When I meet the rules officials most mornings, I always say, “We’ll see you later.” Because my guy [Rafa Cabrera-Bello] is so slow. I know that usually before the end of the front nine, we’ll have a rules official out to us telling us to hurry up. And sure enough, out they come. I always greet them and say, “Hi. What kept you? I could have done with you earlier because this guy has the handbrake on.”

Gerry Thornley: See? I knew there had to be something.

Colin Byrne: I’ve been doing this for three decades and slow play has only got slower. Every year they’ve got some new device to hurry it up but none of it works because they won’t take shots off them. An official in the US told me this year, off the record, “We fined this guy 150 grand and he doesn’t give a shit. He’s playing slower now than he was before. We could fine him a million and he wouldn’t quicken up.”

Malachy Clerkin: They don’t care.

Colin Byrne: They don’t, not one bit. They’re so self-absorbed, it all about me, me, me. It’s killing the sport.

Malachy Clerkin: Are you telling me that being allowed to leave the pin in the hole for putting hasn’t sped the game up?

Colin Byrne: It’s slowed it down! Seriously. In a threeball, one guy wants it in but it’s not his go, one guy wants it out so you have to take it out and put it over there and then run and get it and bring it back and put it in. Meanwhile, you’re looking at the other caddies going, “In? Out? Which is it?” It’s actually caused some issue with caddies because you try to help each other out but at the same time you’re going, “Am I interfering here? Am I putting this guy off?”

Mary Hannigan: Is it DeChambeau who is the really slow guy?

Colin Byrne: DeChambeau is painfully slow. The Scientist.

Mary Hannigan: I saw him interviewed by David Feherty during the year and Feherty talked to him about being slow and it’s like you say, he just couldn’t care less.

Colin Byrne: And it’s eating into the game, away from the pro game. I was playing this year with my 82-year-old father and his 77-year-old mate and I’m over 50. We were playing away and the group in front of us was made up of three lads in their 20s, one of them a former Walker Cup player. And we got accused by them of playing too quickly.

Malachy Clerkin: Ah here.

Colin Byrne: That’ll tell you the effect it’s having. We were hitting way more shots, we are old and decrepit and they’re great golfers. Yet we were going too quick for them. That sums up the entitlement that runs through the game. It’s that mindset that says, “I’m the great player and this is what makes me great.”

Gerry Thornley: Would deducting shots help?

Colin Byrne: Absolutely. And it would help the players themselves. I know my guy plays better when he speeds up. The vast majority of them do. Because they go back to playing their natural game and they’re all amazing golfers. I say it to Rafa all the time, “You play better when you’re not going slow. Because you’re not crippling yourself with overthinking everything.”

Ireland players dejected after the Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeat to new Zealand in Tokyo. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Ireland players dejected after the Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeat to new Zealand in Tokyo. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

The World Cup

Colin Byrne: The biggest disappointment was Joe Schmidt. I saw him as someone who had done so much and who had brought such success and pride to Irish rugby and he seems to have gone out with a whimper. I don’t know what happened. If he’d left a year ago, I’d have thought there was no one like him. Maybe you’d argue differently, Gerry.

Gerry Thornley: No, you’re entitled to feel disappointed, for sure.

Colin Byrne: And not about performance. I know what it’s like to perform. But success is only supposed to be the first step. You do it, then you do it again. And it’s harder because everyone comes gunning for you but that’s the price of success. And Ireland weren’t able to handle it. Being underdogs is very easy and it’s what we seem to be comfortable with.

Seán Moran: I was disappointed but I have to say, when that draw came out, I never believed for an instant that Ireland were going to beat South Africa or New Zealand in a quarter-final.

Gerry Thornley: It’s clear that 2018 raised expectations and it also made Ireland the hunted ones. England, Japan, Wales and the All Blacks studied us in much greater detail and knowing that was going to be the case, the gameplan should have evolved and it didn’t. Unquestionably, Joe gets a lot of the credit for what happened in the eight years he was with Leinster and Ireland. We might never have a period like it again. But still and all, it’s the nature of the defeat to the All Blacks that will stay forever.

Colin Byrne: That’s the thing. Everybody loses eventually but the way it happened.

Gerry Thornley: The funny thing is, they had five great chances in that first 20 minutes to get into the game and every last one of them went wrong. The kicks that didn’t make touch, Rob Kearney running into Johnny Sexton, Keith Earls missing Jordan Larmour, Stockdale’s intercept knock-on. It was a horror show. Against the greats, the big moments need to go your way from the start. They didn’t cope with the pressure. They didn’t develop the gameplan. And when it mattered most, their performance had an element of stress and anxiety.

Colin Byrne: I worked for a guy once called Greg Turner. He was an average golfer but he had this mentality where he said, “If I’m on my game, I can beat anyone in the world on a given day. I won’t do it most days but on the days I have it, I can beat anyone.” Ireland seemed to be moving on from that mentality but I think the World Cup showed that they’re not there. They can’t handle being the hunted.

Gerry Thornley: You’re right. It was a crushing disappointment, 24-0 after 25 minutes. Gone.

Mary Hannigan: You’re reliving the horror here, Gerry.

Gerry Thornley: It’s haunting me and if it’s haunting me, imagine what it’s doing to Joe Schmidt.

Malachy Clerkin: I hope for his sake he’s not a Federer fan. The pair of you might never sleep again.

Dublin hurling manager Mattie Kenny on the sidelines during the All-Ireland SHC preliminary quarter-final against Laois at O’Moore Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Dublin hurling manager Mattie Kenny on the sidelines during the All-Ireland SHC preliminary quarter-final against Laois at O’Moore Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Too f**king late

Malachy Clerkin: Let’s finish on an up-note. What made you laugh this year?

Seán Moran: I have one, a manager quote. Dublin went from the high of putting Galway out of the hurling championship to losing to Laois the next day out. We stood in front of Mattie Kenny afterwards who was steaming but holding it together as best he could. I have the quote here. “There is an element of responsibility between the players and the management today. That was an unacceptable performance from our group and we know that. The problem is, it’s too f**king late now.”

Malachy Clerkin: Brilliant. God bless the quotable manager.

Mary Hannigan: The saddest moment of the year was in the London marathon. There’s a category for the fastest person dressed as a landmark building, which is currently held by a German guy who ran it dressed as the Holsten Gate in Lubeck. Well this year, a lad ran it dressed as Big Ben. He made it all around the course, only to get jammed under the finished line. For 30 seconds they tried to get him under the barrier and across the line and couldn’t.

Malachy Clerkin: There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Mary Hannigan: Yeah, don’t run the marathon dressed as Big Ben.