Should you watch the Tour de France this year?

The Tour de France took to the roads for the 100th time yesterday but given the controversy of the Lance Armstrong scandal and events since then, should you bother watching the famous race this year?

These days it’s as easy to make fun of cycling as it is to laugh at Linda Martin. Since the Usada report forced the hand of the UCI to issue a lifetime ban to Lance Armstrong and strip him of his seven Tour victories not a week has gone by without one controversy or another: more dopers have been caught with further admissions from high profile former professionals; the result of the Fuentes doping case in Spain was a major disappointment for anti-doping campaigners with the judge ordering the destruction of hundreds of blood bags; and the ongoing mess of the UCI presidential election has enough intrigue for a Tom Clancy thriller.

In fact, one look at the ongoings of the UCI would be enough to turn you off the sport altogether. Incumbent UCI president Pat McQuaid failed to secure a nomination for his re-election from his own country’s cycling federation, not even bothering to attend Cycling Ireland’s EGM on the subject. McQuaid has spent his time attempting to secure and nomination from the Swiss federation and attacking his sole rival for the presidency, Brian Cookson. In an remarkable open letter sent to national cycling federations, McQuaid identifies a group of activists who are trying “by whatever means, to hijack and derail [his] candidature”. He goes on to claim Wojciech Walkiewicz (a supporter of Cookson) is “notorious for manipulating elections” and questions the legitimacy of a €1 million donation from a company owned by another Cookson supporter to the European Cycling Union.

pot-kettle-black

No one but political junkies and the candidates themselves could be interested in the UCI election in and of itself – but its result could have a huge impact on the future of cycling. Under McQuaid it seems the UCI is never responsible for anything that goes wrong. Armstrong caught for doping by Usada? Not UCI’s fault. Rasmussen confesses to doping throughout career? Not UCI’s fault. Stages of 2013 Giro d’Italia shortened, cancelled and rerouted due to an overly ambitious route considering the weather and the time of year? Not UCI’s fault.

Even if we look beyond the boardroom and the doping controls there are problems. How about the farcical opening stage of this year’s Tour de France? As the cyclists charged inside the 15 km to go mark, a team bus crashed into the overhead gantry marking the finish line. Organisers waited until the cyclists were 7km from the finish to inform all riders that the finish line would be brought forward to the 3km to go mark. However once the bus from the road (when the riders were at the original 5km to go mark), organisers decided to reinstate the original finish line causing even more bewilderment and frantic instruction from team cars to their rider’s ear piece radio. In the midst of the confusion two riders lost concentration and clipped wheels causing a massive crash bringing down a dozen riders at 56km/hr. Guess what? It’s not the UCI’s fault.

In spite of the inability of cycling’s governing body to successfully stage the two biggest races of the year, the magnetic attraction of cycling’s grandest of tours remains. While is impossible to gauge the attendance the Tour de France, although it was estimated over 500,000 watch an individual stage of the 2005 race (the Alpe d’Huez time trial). The sheer scale of the race make it the most awesome spectacle in sport: a struggle of 180 Davids versus the Goliath that is the road; this year covers 3,404 kilometres of French tarmac from the mountains of the Alps and the Pyrenees to the flats of Corsica and Paris. The history of the race from Cinderella story victories to financially backed success creates the opportunity for a glorious breakaway win and an equally memorable team triumph. Riders are continually reminded of the race’s epic past with supporters chalking the names of champions and stage winners onto the road. Ever mindful of this history – and it being the 100 edition of the race – Tour organisers have invited all surviving finishers of the race to the final stage in Paris. The pageantry, the colour, the buzz: there is nothing like the Tour.

This year there is particular interest in the Tour from an Irish perspective. Two Irish cyclists, Nicolas Roche and Daniel Martin, will each hope to push for a top ten finish in the race. In support of them, a group of Irish cycling junkies will attempt to take over one corner of Alpe d’Huez and cheer them to the top of the fabled climb. Two Irish journalists, who have shot to world prominence in the wake of the Lance Armstrong scandal, David Walsh and Paul Kimmage will cover the race, with Walsh having full access to race favourite Chris Froome’s Team Sky, and Kimmage filming a major documentary of the race entitled Rough Rider.

So should you watch the Tour? Well I’ll be watching it but then I’m overly sentimental, a sucker for the glorious French countryside, and intrigued by the nip and tuck tactics of a breakaway and the chasing pack. I know that I shouldn’t watch the race because of the scandals, the cheats and the many yet unanswered questions, but I can’t help myself. In ways cycling is a bit like the Catholic Church: many of its leaders have cheated and fooled their followers for decades yet there’s something about it that means you still wants to believe.

There’s a good quotation from an Italian police officer come doping investigator Sandro Donati in David Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins which sums things up nicely:

“I watch the Olympic Games but I don’t bother to remember the names of the athletes any more. It’s like theatre but I prefer the theatre because the relationship between actor and spectator is clear. In sport’s theatre both are still pretending it’s real.”

The Tour de France runs from 29 June to 21 July. You can watch live free streaming for the race on TG4 in the company of Páidí Ó Lionáird and Pádraic Ó Cuinn. Also available live on Eurosport.

Jammy Lions beat Hapless Wallabies

It’s a win but unless they pick it up the Lions will be beaten off the park in games two and three. Here are the reason why:

Goalkicking – While Leigh Halfpenny put in an excellent performance making five of his six kicks, the Australians missed five of their nine efforts seeing 14 points go a begging. Whatever about James O’Connor’s three misses, Kurtley Beale’s two missed kicks in the final five minutes were unforgivable and cost Australia the game. The Australians should remedy their goalkicking before the next Test.

Lineout – Although neither side lost a lineout in the match, the Lions were extremely conservative in their throwing. Only going to the back of the lineout once in the match (a wobbly low thing which O’Connell did well to hold on to) prevented the Lions from releasing their backline off the set piece. All week rumour had it the Lions were holding their lineout cards close to their chest; however this performance shows they have held nothing special in reserve.

The scrum – Warren Gatland was vindicated in his selection of Alex Corbisiero at loose head with the Lions enjoying a healthy dominance in scrum for the first 50 minutes. However the replacement of all three front rowers in the second half was a disastrous move by the coach with the Lions losing a crucial scrum on the Wallabies five metre line and then another in the dying moments; the former deflated the Lions’ momentum while the latter should have cost them the game were it not for Beale to miss a relatively simple kick.

The bench – Quite apart from the disaster of the front row replacements, Ben Youngs was poor following his introduction in the 62nd minute and must shoulder some responsibility for the failure to retain possession from the scrum. Geoff Parling made little impression when introduced for the final ten minutes to replace the exausted Alun Wyn Jones. Gatland will have to rethink his options on the bench to rival the Australian numbers 16-22 for the next Test.

Focus – The Lions’ were caught out badly in the first half for both of Israel Folau’s tries; the first came from a simple tap and go from Will Genia while Jonathan Sexton and Sam Warburton missed open field tackles on Folau in the second. After Cuthbert’s try put the Lions up by eight points in the 49th minute the Lions’ intensity dropped leaving the door open for an Australian comeback. Warburton failed to rally his troops in the latter half of the game and were it not for the outstanding Alun Wyn Jones, Tom Croft and Paul O’Connell the Australians would have rumbled over for tries at the death.

The midfield didn’t work – Jonathan Davies did his best playing out of position at inside centre but he did not have he power to blast through centre as Gatland intended either Jamie Roberts or Manu Tuilagi might. Rather than change the game plan to accommodate Davies’ all-round ability (either by spin ball wide or by using the backrow as primary ball carriers), Gatland stuck to the power-12-crash-ball plan and almost came unstuck.

There was also a failure on the pitch to execute Gatland’s desire to have the 6 foot 4 inch wingers North and Cuthbert enter the midfield, a point which annoyed Stuart Barnes on Sky Sports commentary: “Why are they using the main tour placekicker Halfpenny through the middle when you have two big wingers on the pitch?!”, an exasperated Barnes complained midway through the second half.

Brian O’Driscoll was also disappointed with the failure of North and Cuthbert to involve themselves more in the game. When questioned after the match by a breathless and effusively sycophantic Will Greenwood about the Welsh duo, a slightly irritated O’Driscoll replied: “Obviously it’s fantastic [to have them on the wing] but, I think if everyone runs the right lines there are opportunities – when you’ve got guys the size of those two running down the twelve and thirteen channel then people will start marking them. Maybe they’ll come good in games two and three.”

Australian injuries had little effect on the Wallabies – In spite of losing three key backs and having to play a flanker in the centre for over half an hour, the Australian strength in depth was far superior to the Lions. The Wallabies rode their luck, played the game, and left the whinging about injuries to the Northern Hemisphere journos. Rewatching the tape the Australian team will learn much of what to expect from the Lions for the second Test.

First Test for Lions


The first Test match on Saturday is the first real test the Lions face on tour. The Australian club scene has put up little resistance to the touring party. After five matches only the Brumbies managed to notch up a win, beating an under strength Lions team on Tuesday as Warren Gatland opted to rest his starting fifteen. The Wallabies will be a different kettle of fish.

I think the Lions will win tomorrow, but there are *ahem* areas of concern.

Alex Corbisiero – Brought in as a loose head replacement for the injured Cian Healey, Corbisiero has made little impression in the warm up games, and has looked far less impressive than Mako Vunipola. The only logical reason for Gatland’s selection could be a wish to introduce Vunipola as an impact sub to create havoc in the loose for the final twenty minutes or so. Should the Wallabies win the first scrum of the match, even Gatland will know that his gamble has failed.

The Lineout – The throwing of Alex Hibbard and Rory Best in the warms ups left Gatland with no choice but to select Tom Youngs at hooker. Over the six matches played the Lions have won 51 lineouts and lost 17, meaning that one in three lineouts are going to the opposition. However the stats are slightly misleading: the Lion’s greatest lineout weapon Paul O’Connell has barely caught a ball (seven Lions have caught more than him) in an effort to keep the Australian coaching staff in the dark.

The Centre – Injuries to Jamie Roberts and Manu Tuilagi have forced Gatland to select Jonathan Davies at inside centre. Ordinarily selected at 13, Davies will have a steep learning curve to fulfil the battering ram role designed by Gatland for the tour. As a rangey all-rounder, Davies will depend on the two Irish men flanking him for support. However should either Jonathan Sexton or Brian O’Driscoll fail to perform in their attacking duties, the Lions will be in trouble.

Wide Australian play – There are rumours that the Aussies could switch to spinning the ball wide (ala the Brumbies on Tuesday) which could test the Lions on both wings. With Alex Cuthbert’s defence a perennial subject of conversation and George North coming off a hamstring injury, the Lions could struggle against fast attacking play. However the Lions might well be able to take advantage of any expansive Australian play through the open field territory kicking of Halfpenny and the counter attacking pace of both Cuthbert and North.

The Bench – No Conor Murray, no Sean O’Brien. Talk about impact players…. Their exclusion defies logic.

The Aussies – They’ve been warming up behind closed doors; they’ve been written off by the English press; they’ve waited twelve years to revenge losing to the Lions in Brisbane because of Brian O’Driscoll’s genius. They will not go down without a fight.

Video: Rugby Media

Concussion turning rugby pitches into gladiator arenas

Picture via Fergus McFadden @fergmcfaddenWhen a picture of a Dublin cafe advertising ‘Free coffee for Dave Kearney’ hit the internet yesterday a colleague of Kearney’s, fellow Leinster rugby player Fergus McFadden, was the first to reply: ‘Nice gesture but don’t think he is out of hospital yet…’

Responding from his hospital bed, Kearney mustered a joke: he would accept skinny latte deliveries to his room. Yet two days earlier as he lay unconscious on the turf of Thomond Park no one was joking around. Following a kick to the head from Munster’s Paul O’Connell, Kearney was stretchered from the field, brought to hospital and diagnosed with concussion. O’Connell’s swipe was considered ‘careless’ rather than intentional by the independent citing commissioner and no suspension, warning or fine was issued.

Concussions in rugby are a ticking time-bomb for the sports’ administrators. As players continue to become stronger and fitter, the risk of head injury and brain trauma is multiplied. In response the International Rugby Board has formulated a detailed list of guidelines surrounding concussions which states that players suspected of having concussion be removed from play and sidelined until a thorough medical assessment deems them fit to play again.

However a controversial amendment to the guidelines, introduced on a trial basis last summer, has raised eyebrows. It states that a player suspected of suffering concussion will be allowed return to the action if they can pass a series of touchline tests lasting five minutes. Test questions include, ‘What’s the score?’ and, ‘Who are you playing against?’

The introduction of the ‘five minute rule’ led to a high profile resignation from the IRB’s own medical advisory committee. Barry O’Driscoll, a medical doctor and former Irish international, stood down after fifteen years with the IRB, arguing that ‘rugby is trivialising concussions’.

‘They are sending these guys back onto the field and into the most brutal arena. It’s ferocious out there. The same player who 18 months ago was given a minimum of seven days recovery time is now given five minutes.’

Quite apart from the O’Connell-Kearney incident, these comments follow on from a number of serious concussion cases involving Irish players. During Ireland’s clash with France in March, a blow to the head left Brian O’Driscoll confused and shaken. Visibly unsteady, he was helped from the pitch only to re-enter the fray minutes later and play to the finish. Frightening footage of O’Driscoll stumbling around the field as the final whistle was blown shows the need to completely remove the decision to play from the player, and to do away with the proposed ‘five minute rule’.

Perhaps more worrying than the injuries to O’Driscoll and Kearney were those sustained by Luke Marshall who suffered three concussions in as many games. Twenty-two year old Marshall was concussed in Ireland’s draw with France and another head injury saw him substituted seven days later in the Ireland-Italy game. Eleven days later, while playing for Ulster against Saracens, Marshall was knocked unconscious for the third time in four weeks. Coaching and medical staff from both Ireland and Ulster confirmed that Marshall was fit to take part in all games over the four week period.

The IRB tread a well-worn path when it comes to player safety in sport. Recent research into the long term effects of concussion on American Football players by Boston University has led to public outcry and the demand for rule changes. In 2011 the National Football League advanced the ball five yards for kick-offs; a minor change which resulted in a 50 percent drop in concussions on those plays. For the 2013 NFL season, independent neurological specialists will be present on the sidelines for all games to work with the team staff and will act autonomously.

Yet for many, these changes are too little too late. Boston University’s research has confirmed many former players suffer from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated brain trauma which can result in memory loss, mood swings and depression. The suicide of former players suffering from CTE has prompted an ongoing lawsuit involving some 4,000 former players against the NFL. The players allege the League knew the dangers of head injuries and failed to act accordingly.

If rugby administrators wish to protect players and the future viability of the game they would do well to heed ongoing developments in the NFL and the words of current NFL star Eric Winston, ‘We are athletes… We are not gladiators and this is not the Roman Colosseum.’

Picture via Fergus McFadden

State o’ the Six Nations: Week 2

The Six Nations Table after Week 2

The Six Nations Table after Week 2

Ireland 6 – England 12

In a nutshell
A disciplined English side hold their nerve against injury and knock-on prone Ireland in lowest scoring Six Nations match ever.

Beyond the nut
Handling errors from Ireland gifted possession and territory to England and became the difference between the sides. The first half was a comedy of errors: dropped catches from Jamie Heaslip along with knock-ons from Gordon D’Arcy, Mike McCarthy and Rory Best deflated the Irish team and put them on the back foot.

With poor performances throughout the field it’s harsh and unfair to single out one player for criticism, yet Declan Kidney must now consider either Ian Keatley, Ian Madigan or Paddy Jackson for the number 10 position in place of Ronan O’Gara. A younger O’Gara would have controlled yesterday’s game with astute kicks from hand and the penalty tee.

Yet on the evidence of yesterday it seems O’Gara – who will be 36 next month – is unable to compete at international level. His attempted garryowens were ill-struck, his kicks for touch from penalties were awful, and he sailed a crucial kick at goal wide. So slow was he in the loose that O’Gara was unable to pass on the run or feign a dummy, while on three occasions he failed the out-half’s most basic task of clearing his lines with the English pack tackling him before he could get his kicks away.

Injuries are a major worry for Ireland now with Simon Zebo out of the tournament and Jonny Sexton ruled out for the next match and possibly more. Sean O’Brien, Rob Kearney, Brian O’Driscoll, Mike McCarthy and Donnacha Ryan all picked up knocks so Ireland will have to make the most of the two week break before travelling to Murrayfield. Meanwhile Cian Healy could face a long term ban for an alleged stamp.

It seems England of 2013 with Owen Farrell are a cut and paste copy of England 2003 with Jonny Wilkinson. The England 2.0 game plan is simple: win territory, win penalties and let the out-half kick the points. Farrell was calm and assured in his play yesterday which belied his 21 years and he could well be selected at number 10 for the Lions this summer ahead of Sexton.

Defensively the English were superb with Ireland never threatening to score a try. England captain Chris Robshaw led from the front with a superb display of tackling, ball carrying and decision making. The leadership shown by Robshaw was markedly absent on the Irish side and the 26 year old was rightly named Man of the Match.

Were it not for a few missed kicks from Farrell the score-line would have better reflected the England’s dominance.

France 6 – Wales 16

In a nutshell
Wales out muscle poorly selected and largely uninterested French side in bish-bash-bosh affair.

Beyond the nut
Pffffff. Awful rugby match. Why Philippe Saint-Andre refuses to start world class players like Morgan Parra and François Trinh-Duc is a mystery and his decision to introduce Trinh-Duc as a number 12 substitute would bewilder even Sherlock Holmes.

Wales will be happy with their effort and completing the biggest Welsh win in Paris since 1975 will kick-start their season.

A lot of huff and puff, couldn’t watch it all.

Scotland 34 – Italy 10

In a nutshell
Two breakaway tries sealed a Scottish victory over on Italy side still celebrating their defeat of France in week 1.

Beyond the nut
With Italy and Scotland both recording a victory maybe France will get the wooden spoon this year.

Live Radio Roadshow: Game On from the Aviva Stadium

Damien O'Meara setting Game On live from the Aviva

Damien O’Meara setting up for Game On live

This week RTE launched Game On a new one hour weeknight sports show to rival Newstalk’s outrageously popular Off the Ball. To mark the occasion they decided to set up camp in the IRFU suite of Aviva stadium in the company of the Irish Rugby Supports Club for a live broadcast.

It was a great night with usual presenter Damien O’Meara joined with guests Michael “the Voice” Corcoran, Shane Byrne, Brent Pope and Brian Kerr. Here are some of the talking points.

First question to Michael Corcoran, any thoughts on the Ireland England match?
Michael the Voice: “You could play Ireland and England in a Tesco car park and there’d still be a lot of interest in it.”
Right you are so. With mental images of Brian O’Driscoll ploughing through shopping trolleys, Damien asked again, what did Michael think of the game.
Michael the Voice: “The game on Sunday is going to be incredible. I mean I’ve been trying hard all week not to get too… ‘aroused’ is the word I was going to use…”
Damien’s a little unsure now. How about Shane Byrne? Thoughts? Ireland at home against England?
Shane: “If you can’t get up for that there’s something wrong with you.”
Titters of laughter from the giddy Irish Rugby Supporters Club. Poor Damien isn’t sure where to go next. Time to play a trump card: he goes to Popey.
Damien: “Brent, dig us out of the gutter and bring the standard of conversation back up – no double entendres now if you would.”
Brent, “Well I’m not aroused.”
Damien (stuttering): “Good, good. Well I’m glad to hear it… I don’t know what to say.”

Around 30 from the Irish Rugby Supporter's Club attended

Around 30 from the Irish Rugby Supporter’s Club attended

On went the chat and the banter. Damien inquired as to the fitness of the team: was Gordon D’Arcy recovered after limping off against Wales? Michael had been at the Millennium Stadium:
Michael the Voice: “To see Gordon D’Arcy coming out of the changing room last week it looked for all intents and purposes as if somebody had sawed off the bottom half of his leg from the knee down – and I mean that honestly.”
Gasps from the supporters club. But Michael wasn’t done yet.
Michael the Voice: “He had a tracksuit bottom him and his leg was taped up into position at that angle (motions with hands and description peters out).”
Laughter from the lads. Sorry what angle? Shane wanted to know the precise angle of Gordon’s battered leg. Michael has no answer. Brent wondered what Michael got in maths. Michael has no answer. To hell with the rugby, maths was a more interesting conversation topic.
Michael the Voice: “I read somewhere that Brian O’Driscoll has more caps for Ireland than the English backline…?” Damien steps in to help out.
Damien: “The starting fifteen have 242 caps between them which is only twice what Brian O’Driscoll has – if my maths is correct.”
Brian Kerr puts a hand in the air.
Brian: “We used to call it ‘sums’ in school rather than maths, and given your figures I reckon the English have an average of 16 caps each. So that sounds to me like not too much experience.”
One nil to the football pundit on a rugby panel.

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The view from the IRFU suite

Damien: “Lansdowne Road as a venue, as a place – every time you walk down towards the train tracks – is it a place that brings back fond memories? Does it have a special place in your heart?”
You can hear a pin drop in the suite as misty eyed Irish Rugby Supporters Club members anticipate Brian’s nostalgia fuelled response.
Brian: “Eh… from the point of view of going to rugby matches?” (delighted Supporters Club members erupt with laughter)
Damien: (exasperated) “No soccer. From your career’s point of view… Thanks Brian.” Did Brian identify with hallowed Lansdowne Road from a soccer point of view?
Brian: “Not particularly… I used to come in the door as the manager of the international team, get off the bus and in the door and there’d only be pictures of rugby players all around the hall.”
Hmm… and how about the brand new shining stadium? Any improvement there?
Brian: “It’s a lovely stadium but I don’t think they’ve recreated the atmosphere in the stadium, certainly not in soccer – the rugby matches have been fine… I still like coming to the place but I’ve mixed feelings about whether the opposition are afraid of it. I don’t see teams coming here with the same fear as they did with the previous ground when the crowd were right in on top of you. I don’t get that sense now.”
Ah well, things looked nice enough from the swish IRFU suite. No smell of prawn sandwiches though the nibbles were lovely.
Here’s hoping the lads do as good a job on Sunday as the radio boys did yesterday.

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Nibbles were had!

Gutsy Gonzaga beaten by Brave Blackrock: Pictures

A gutsy Gonzaga were beaten by a brave Blackrock in the opening round of this year’s Leinster Schools Rugby Senior Cup.

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Allianz Football League Opener: Pictures

Fireworks, 100 years of Croker and free ham!

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Superbowl Storylines: The Bluffer’s Guide to Sunday night’s action

SAM_0493Need some Cliff Notes for the upcoming climax to the NFL season? Here is a summary of the major plot lines so you can avoid displaying your ignorance at the dinner table.

The forty-seventh edition of the Superbowl will be hosted in New Orleans on Sunday and features the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers. Amazingly – for the first time in the history of all American sports playoff games – the two teams are coached by brothers. Only one year apart in age, John and Jim Harbaugh will be playing for their parents’ love. No really I suppose their parents Jack and Jackie (Seriously? Jim, John, Jack and Jackie?) are proud as punch etc…

The star of Superbowl 47 is Raven’s defensive linebacker Ray Lewis. Known as much for his over-the-top pre-game dance routines as he is for his inspirational leadership qualities, 37 year old Lewis epitomises many of the contradictions of the modern NFL star. An outstanding talent, his past has raised more than a few eyebrows. Since 2000 Lewis’ career has been in the shadow of a murder case in which he plead guilty to obstruction of justice and testified against his friends. He was in the news once again this week for allegedly using deer antler spray (a banned product which includes insulin-like growth hormone) to help his recovery from torn triceps earlier in the season. Love him or hate him, the Superbowl will be Lewis’ last game before retiremnet and he’ll hope to end his career at the very top.

If Ray Lewis is the star of Superbowl 47 then Colin Kaepernick leads the supporting cast. The 49ers’ quarterback was been a sensational success since he was controversially made the first team starter after regular quarterback Alex Smith missed a mid-season game due to a concussion. By permanently giving Kaepernick the number one role at quarterback in place of Smith (who had been enjoying a stellar year), Coach Harbaugh divided San Francisco fans down the middle: the Smith faithful vs the Kaepernick usurpers. However Kaepernick has overcome the hullaballoo and led the 49ers to the Superbowl by using his quick feet to outpace defensive backs and his arm to out distance secondary defences. Unless his inexperience catches up with him, Kaepernick should bring a sixth Lombardi Trophy back to San Fran.

There’ll be plenty of off field action too: Beyonce is scheduled to perform the half-time show (ooh will she sing live or will she lip-sync as she did for Obama etc), Alicia Keys will sing the US National Anthem (ooh will she sing live or etc), and if this is anything to go by the much hyped all-American-consumerist Superbowl ads will be even lamer than usual.

It promises to be a hell of a show!

Preview: Allianz Football League Division One

SAM_0484
“I’m looking forward to the League, I think the League is better than Championship. There’s a lot of pressure in the Championship… The League is just that much more relaxed… I’m excited!” – Martin McHugh (RTE Sunday Sport).

Say what you want about the League it’s far more important than it was in years gone by. Here’s a preview of the eight teams in Division One.

Cork
Conor Counihan’s side is looking to make it four National League titles in a row this year; a feat last accomplished by Mick O’Dwyer’s 1974 Kerry team. Unlike most other teams in Division One, Cork have an established starting line-up with only the likes of young Odhran Mulrooney and Andrew O’Sullivan with a realistic shout of becoming first choice Championship starters. Eoin Cadogan’s decision to focus solely on football this year will be music to Counihan’s ears as will news of Damien Cahalane who has also chosen to ditch his dual sport role in favour of football. Although book-makers have made Cork favourites to land this year’s League title, one feels Cork would prefer to concentrate the efforts on adding to their 2010 All-Ireland success.

Dublin
It’s all change in Dublin with new manager Jim Gavin promoted to the top spot after guiding Dublin to an Under 21 All-Ireland title. With the retirements of Tomás Quinn and Paul Casey, the new backroom team has decided to overlook the likes of Eamonn Fennell, Ross McConnell and Paul Brogan in favour of younger players from the Under 21 ranks. After a number of open trials, Gavin fielded what was effectively a Dublin B-Team for the O’Byrne Cup and saw them push Kildare all the way in the final. The strength of Dublin’s squad is truly an embarrassment of riches for the county and with the return of Ciarán Kilkenny from Australia to supplement the Brogan brothers in the forward line, Dublin will be a force to be reckoned with in 2013. Playing five games in Croke Park will also boost Dublin’s chances (and the GAA’s coffers).

Donegal
The All Ireland champs have had a relaxed run up to the League: unable to train before Christmas, Jim McGuinness charged U21 manager Maxi Curranin with the responsibility of blooding young players for the McKenna Cup while the main side jetted off to Dubai for a final celebratory holiday to mark the end of the 2012 season. Although Monaghan and Fermanagh subsequently hammered Donegal in that competition one feels that McGuinness didn’t lose much sleep over it. A number of injuries will not help Donegal’s League prospects with both Karl Lacey and Mark McHugh confined to the sidelines. Statistically McGuinness’s side has been poor in the League even needing a last gasp win against Armagh to avoid relegation last year. By contrast Donegal’s Championship record under McGuinness has been outstanding, registering only one loss to date – the 2011 All-Ireland semi final against Dublin – and a poor run in this campaign will probably only result in supporters remarking, “Sure ‘tis only the League.”

Down
Perhaps the weakest team in Division One, Down’s efforts to stay in Division One will not be helped by the injuries to key players Dan Gordon, Daniel Hughes and Ambrose Rogers. However manager James McCartan defied all pundits last year when he produced his team superbly with Down finishing third in the Division. Wins over Armagh and Cavan in this year’s McKenna Cup will have bred confidence in the team, and with an experienced group of players led by their on-field talisman Conor Laverty, Down will fancy their chances of turning over some of the bigger names. However away trips to Donegal, Kerry and Dublin mean that Down will have to be at their best to avoid relegation.

Kerry
Éamonn Fitzmaurice has taken over a Kerry team which must be still licking its wounds from defeats to Cork in last year’s Munster final and then to Mayo in the All-Ireland semi final. The Finuge man made a shrew decision to get silverware straight away and in winning the McGrath Cup he will have settled some of the mutterings that his side Kerry side are over the hill. With seemingly endless experience at his disposal (Gooch Cooper, Kieran Donaghy, Paul Galvin, Brendan Kealy, Anthony Maher, the Ó Se brothers, Darran O’Sullivan and Bryan Sheehan), Fitzmaurice must be bold in his selection of some younger players to freshen up his panel: Jack Sherwood, who played under Fitzmaurice at Under 21 level last year, is certainly one to watch out for. It would take a brave punter to bet against Kerry winning more matches than they lose in this campaign.

Kildare
Once billed as “the fittest team in the country”, Kildare under Kieran McGeeney have gradually slipped out of the media limelight they occupied in 2010 and 2011. Now entering into his sixth year in charge, McGeeney may finally reap the benefits of lower expectation from the fans and less pressure from the tabloids. Having quietly wrapped up the O’Byrne Cup last month, the Armagh man will be pleased with Johnny Doyle’s decision to stay another year, and spurred on by Dermot Earley’s return to training. McGeeney also has options with some younger players and with the return of Paul Cribbin from the AFL there is a real prospect for a future county star to replace long serving heroes Doyle and Earley. It has been four long years since the Lilywhites last competed in Division One of the League and there will be real hunger to see that they don’t go down at the first time of asking. But with their opening four matches against the four previous All-Ireland champions, Kildare will have to hit the ground running if they are to avoid that fate.

Mayo
Defeated All-Ireland finalists and beaten in the League final in two of the last three years, Mayo seem to be living up to their cruel tag of being the nearly men. However considering the recent war of words between manager James Horan and Joe Brolly over the Derry man’s comments made during last year’s Championship, it’s safe to say Mayo have not gone away. After a team holiday to Miami, Horan will want to knuckle down to business immediately and his first priority should be to introduce a new scorer or two to a forward line which lacked for firepower at crucial stages last year. With three All Star defenders led by the peerless David Clarke it’s clear that Mayo will not concede many scores this year and that should stand them in good stead as the season progresses. The real question is whether Mayo will be able to hold their nerve in front of goal and throughout the field when the pressure comes on them in the Championship. But for now the men from the West will fancy themselves to go all the way in this year’s League.

Tyrone
Promoted this year along with Kildare to Division One, Tyrone’s rebuilding work from the triple All-Ireland winning team of the mid 2000s goes on apace. Mickey Harte will begin his eleventh year in charge without the services of Championship regulars Ryan McMenamin, Brian McGuigan and Davy Harte. Possible new faces include midfielder Plunkett Kane and forward Conor McAliskey who both impressed in the Tyrone side which won the McKenna Cup in January and one feels it will fall to these young guns to take responsibility if the side is to have any success this year. The return of Seán Cavanagh from injury and the continued fitness of Captain Stephen O’Neill will be major factors for Tyrone this year and supporters will dare to dream of glory once again should these players perform to their ability. Mickey Harte was quoted by the BBC earlier this year that he believed he has a squad that can genuinely challenge for the All-Ireland. Only time will tell if his side will make good on that belief.

Prediction
The strength of Dublin’s squad to outmatch committed performances from Cork and Tyrone with Down propping up the bottom of the table.