Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Waking Up When September Ends

On a wet and windy September afternoon, with temperatures dropping and the days getting shorter, the University College Cork Olympic Handball Club has begun its first steps towards another season in the Irish league. The four remaining members from last year’s team sit down with an iPod flickering images of the 2012 Olympic final. Next to it sit about three or four sheets of paper, probably one of the most important documents the team will have all season. They’re not league registration papers, or orders for new equipment; these sheets contain information far more valuable than any of these things, names.

Coach Carlo Hefner (Left) and Captain Harry Tracey (Right)

Due to the nature of the University setup, players come and go at a frightening rate. Player turnover is alarming; with perhaps one or two Cork natives providing continuity from the season previous. The rest of the side is made up of students visiting the college, primarily as part of the ERASMUS programme who stay for a maximum of nine months. This makes for a truly international team, which has both its perks and pitfalls; depending on how trips are organized for these visiting students, a team for Saturday’s game might be obliterated with players-cum-day trippers off taking in the scenery of the Cliffs of Moher or being entertained at Temple Bar.

On the flip side, the University nature of the team brings some hugely talented players who have come to Ireland not even realising they would get the chance to continue where they left off at their clubs. In the last few years ‘UCC OHC’ has welcomed a number of semi-professional players to their ranks, bolstering the first team, and also improving the native players’ skills.

What a difference a year makes: The team in 2012
The club has fallen at the final hurdle in the National Cup for the last two years. The national league meanwhile is somewhat of a sideshow for the team, whose visiting students have long gone home before the final playoffs in the middle of June, something that is hoped to be changed this coming season. Finishing second place in the Cup enabled UCC to qualify for the EHF Challenge Cup, despite being unable to compete due to the expenses required, made prohibitive by the lack of funding for a sport that doesn’t register in the Irish consciousness.

Despite this, the niche sport has grown in the country due to the hard work and dedication of a handful of individuals, who have endeavoured to not only strengthen but also expand the game on a countrywide level. They have seen the fruits of their labour flourish over the past few years, with new clubs sprouting up, as well as an establishment of a women’s national side.

And a year later in 2013, only three surviving from the first photo
As the lights of the gymnasium were turned on and the balls pumped up, the side began their first training session in a typically haphazard fashion. Semi-professional players lined up alongside native Irish who had never held a handball in their life as the troupe began their warm-up. There’s something heart-warming about this levelling of the playing field though; whatever reputation and ego a skilled player has made at home is left on the plane as they adapt to life where the word ‘handball’ is used to describe a totally different game altogether.

With the first training session over there is lots on the horizon: Long bus journeys around the country will be endured, games will be won and lost, and UCC will be hoping to finally take home glory this season. Whatever happens, the long list of names on the sheets at sign-up day shows the future is bright for Olympic Handball, not only in University College Cork, but Ireland as a whole.

Friday, September 13, 2013

All-Ireland Final Replay Preview

As Domhnall O’Donovan slotted over the match-levelling, career defining point, the 81,651 watching in Croke Park, and the many more on TV let out a final gasp of many during the course of one of the most astonishing finals ever seen in any sport.

A loss would have been rough justice for the Banner, who by all accounts were the better side on the day; but Cork’s efficiency in front of goal saw them close down a six point lead in the remaining fifteen minutes. Goals from Conor Lehane, goalkeeper Anthony Nash from a 20m free, and then Pa Horgan in the second half saw a dramatic shift in momentum on a balmy Sunday afternoon in Croker, forcing a replay which given the occasion was unusually usual.
It's a long long way to All-Ireland final day!

Backtrack five months and a freezing Gaelic Grounds in Limerick hosted the same two teams in a league relegation battle. Having lost to Clare earlier in the season, Cork were on the verge of dumping their Munster rivals out of the division after a late goal (sounds familiar, eh?), but two points in as many additional minutes forced the game to extra time. The Banner took the momentum in  the added period though, and powered ahead to win despite a late Cathal Noughton scare.

Momentum has been key between these teams; not so much who has it but how the team who doesn’t deals with it. Davy Fitzgerald’s Clare side had it for virtually the entirety of the first half and only led by two points. Cork meanwhile had it for fifteen minutes and made up seven on their Munster rivals. The difference between the two was execution, particularly in the final third of the field. Pa Horgan’s goal followed an inexcusable miss by Banner’s Podge Collins, a game-changing minute if there ever was one.

One excuse the Clare forward might have looked to is the soccer style slide tackle employed by Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash, which should have seen a free-in for the Western county. That was one of a string of controversial decisions given in favour of Jimmy Barry Murphy’s Cork side. Controversy naturally was the centre of a thrilling final. Cork’s Shane O’Neill let out a palpable sigh of relief, having slashed his hurley down the back of Darach Honan’s helmet, while Anthony Nash felt his effort on goal should’ve been retaken in the first half after Clare netminder Patrick Kelly rushed off his goal line.

Controversy has already gripped this game, particularly with it’s scheduling. While last year’s replay saw the Ladies Football Final moved to accommodate the unforeseen extra game, the GAA have decided this time to have the All-Ireland final on a Saturday, a first for the sport of Hurling, and something which Cork manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy subsequently slated, believing Sunday to be the only reasonable option

The 5pm throw in has also proved an unpopular decision; with purists due to the fact that it will have to be played partially under floodlight conditions, but also with fans of both sides who will be forced to return home from Dublin in heavy traffic under darkness, something which Championship supporters consider unfamiliar territory.

The first ever All-Ireland Hurling final under lights
Expect controversy to take centre-stage on the pitch as well on the 28th, particularly given the fact that this will be the fifth time these two sides will have met competitively this season, a record seldom seen. There were signs of the antagonistic feeling between the two at the start of September; apart from O’Neill’s outburst, there were handbags following Nash’s goal. Given the cagey start to that game, one must conclude that both sides will be keen to gain the advantage early, both on the scoreboard and the battleground. Expect skirmishes across the field on Saturday.

Anthony Nash strikes a goal
While the conspiracy theories of fixed draws by Cork fans left a bad taste in the palette following a spectacular final, it cannot be denied that the result is somewhat of a coup for the association, who, to their credit, again reduced ticket prices for the rerun, as with a year previous. It’s estimated that All-Ireland final day is worth around €4 million to the association including sponsorship, and TV revenue as well as revenue from the gates. The 28th will also be an added boost to the pubs in both counties.

In reality though this is a mute point to a final that promises to be as exhilarating, enthralling, captivating, and heart stopping as before.  Both sides have had their backs to the wall and chips on their respective shoulders since the season began in May, both sides additionally will be out to prove a point not just to others but also to themselves. To predict a winner would be foolish but if the first game teaches us one thing it’s watch it right to the end!