Laois v Armagh: An Intriguing Afternoon Awaits

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As published on PunditArena

In 2003, the pairing of Armagh and Laois in the All-Ireland series was an exciting prospect. Led by Kieran McGeeney, Armagh were the most complete team in the country while Laois, under Mick O’Dwyer’s stewardship, were finally beginning to build on the foundations laid by their all-conquering minor sides of the mid-1990s.

Sadly, tomorrow’s game is a much less attractive affair…

Of course, the scheduling of the game doesn’t help matters. With throw-in at O’Moore Park fixed for 3.30pm, the match will conflict with both the Republic of Ireland’s crunch tie against Belgium at Euro 2016 and the second instalment of what is proving to be an inspiring Irish rugby story in South Africa.

Whilst the GAA have always prided themselves on a community-based ethos, it is alarming how the association have risked the wrath of one little county so often within the space of a month.

Before the Laois game, only Stephen Cluxton had played a Championship game for Dublin outside of Croke Park. Amidst much clamour, the Leinster Council correctly overlooked the financial incentives in favour of the communal benefits of sending Dublin out into the world.

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However, instead of fixing the game for O’Moore Park, a potential boon for the local community, both sets of fans were forced to travel to Kilkenny, the outpost of Gaelic football in the province. The move ultimately backfired, with many outraged Laois fans boycotting the game. Meanwhile, the plentiful Dublin support were back on the road after the final whistle as those attending the Cat Laugh’s Comedy Festival had snapped up most of the rooms in the city.

You’d have thought that following the Nowlan Park fiasco the GAA would be mindful to ensure that Laois GAA did not get another raw deal this season. In deeming O’Moore Park to be a suitable venue for tomorrow’s game, sentiments to that effect were no doubt uttered. But, in pitching the All-Ireland first-round qualifier against one of the biggest sporting events of the year, the GAA have shown exactly where Laois and Armagh rank at HQ. I can’t imagine Dublin being put in the same position.

Nevertheless, an intriguing afternoon awaits those who resist the excitement surrounding Martin O’Neill’s side in France.

While Armagh’s season has already been tarnished by their relegation to Division 3 in the Allianz Football League and their subsequent capitulation to Cavan in the Ulster Championship, the Orchard County will be keen to respond to a wave of criticism that has come their way in recent weeks.

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According to Joe Brolly the blame lies firmly at McGeeney’s door, but amidst rumours of disharmony several of Armagh’s leading lights have come out in support of the All-Ireland-winning captain of 2002. Indeed, such comments would not be forthcoming had they not players capable of reaching a higher and better quality standard of football.

McGeeney has rung the changes this weekend. Paul Courtney, James Morgan, Ciaran O’Hanlon, Gavin McParland, Colm Watters and the injured Ethan Rafferty all make way for Patrick Morrison, Shea Heffron, Joe McElroy, Aaron Findon, Michael McKenna and Niall Grimley. Crucially, though, Ciarán McKeever and Stefan Campbell remain and will pose the greatest threat to Laois’ hopes.

With two goals conceded inside six minutes and down to 14 men before the break, Laois were on the cusp of a slaughter at the hands of Dublin in Nowlan Park two weeks ago. However, the midlanders proved to be capable of mixing it with the All-Ireland champions. Although Dublin may have taken their foot off the gas in the second period, when Ross Munnelly followed up Stephen Attride’s fine goal, a nervous energy permeated through the Dublin support.

While they might have been surprised, the Laois faithful were less so. The county has always produced fine footballers and this current crop is no different. Frustratingly for Mick Lillis the year has been hampered by injuries but gradually some of those afflicted have started to return, while the introduction of Anthony Cunningham to the set-up has added some much needed freshness. Laois will just have to hope that it hasn’t come too late.

Following their impressive cameos at Nowlan Park, both Kevin Meaney and Niall Donoher start for Laois. Encouragingly, Kieran Lillis (son of Mick) returns to the fold following a broken foot, while David Conway comes in for Evan O’Carroll. Paul Cotter, Gary Walsh and John O’Loughlin (suspended) also miss out.

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Laois: Graham Brody; Stephen Attride, Mark Timmons, Damien O’Connor; Darren Strong, Kieran Lillis, Gareth Dillon; Brendan Quigley, Kevin Meaney; Niall Donoher, Paul Cahillane, Colm Begley; Conor Meredith, Donal Kingston (captain), David Conway.

Armagh: Patrick Morrison; Shea Heffron, Brendan Donaghy, Mark Shields; Joe Mc Elroy, Ciaran Mc Keever (captain), Andy Mallon; Charlie Vernon, Aaron Findon; Tony Kernan, Rory Grugan, Aidan Forker; Miceal Mc Kenna, Stefan Campbell, Niall Grimley.

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The Little Rascals

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As Wes Messi conducted proceedings on Monday, many pundits jumped on the bandwagon claiming that they had recommended the young Dubliner to an assortment of Premier League clubs. By this morning, the anecdote that Wes Hoolahan was deemed “too small to make it” was well known.

The sight of Luka Modric similarly pulling the strings against Turkey on Sunday and with both Hoolohan and Emmanuele Giaccherini making telling contributions on Monday, gives further credence to the mantra first adopted by Spain as they began their continental dominance in 2008: size doesn’t matter. Indeed, the Spaniards once again appear at a tournament with the shortest squad – 7 players under 1.76m. But while Modric is a diminutive maestro, he is the far from the smallest in the competition.

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Yann Sommer (Switzerland) 1.82m

Height is generally be considered a crucial attribute for a goalkeeper, but it’s not essential. At 1.82m tall, Yann Sommer does not tower over many of those who complete this side below. A keeper of some repute, Sommer is the first-choice stopper for both Borussia Mönchengladbach and Switzerland. With great feet, a better leap and impressive goalkeeping intelligence, Sommer compensates for his lack of physical dominance in the penalty area. Incidentally, Shay Given is not far off at 1.83m.

 

Nathaniel Clyne (England) 1.75m

Naturally, most of the smaller players are developed further up the field where their vulnerability in the air can’t be so easily exploited. However, despite being rejected by Arsenal as a young boy for being too short, Clyne has gone on to carve out a fine career as an athletic right-back for Crystal Palace, Southampton and Liverpool.

 

Jordi Alba (Spain) 1.7m

The first of several compatriots to find their way into this team, Alba has been a regular feature at left-back for Spain since his debut in 2011. Initially an attacking player, Alba assumed a more defensive role whilst at Valencia. His performances in that position ultimately led to his move to FC Barcelona who needed to balance their backline with Daniel Alves (1.72m) on the right side.

 

Paddy McNair (Northern Ireland) 1.82m

Given the increasing physical dimension employed by sides in the competition (Lukaku, Ibrahimovic, Walters), teams have tended to allay fears by turning to those who can deal with the rough and tumble of their forward play. Originally a midfielder, McNair first emerged on the domestic scene when introduced by Louis van Gaal as a centre-half at Manchester United. Despite a promising start, McNair disappeared from the scene following an error-strewn game against Southampton in December 2014. Nevertheless, McNair remains at Old Trafford waiting on his chance and while doing so, has established himself at the heart of a Northern Irish defence that leaked only 8 goals in qualification.

 

Ergys Kace (Albania) 1.61m

KaceThe smallest player at the tournament, Kace is at the heart of this pocket-sized XI. An energetic defensive midfielder, Kace brought an end to the Xhaka duel on Saturday upon his introduction on 61 minutes against Switzerland. Just two minutes into his tournament bow he pulled at the shorts of Valon Behrami before hacking him down. This side needs a bit of graft and Kace will fulfill that role.

 

Luka Modric (Croatia) 1.74m

As the biggest physical presence in this midfield, Modric will be expected to mix it up in addition to providing a creative spark. Faced by what he terms as ‘unreal expectations’ by his homeland support, Modric acknowledged that he was more relaxed as he faced into the Champions League Final for Real Madrid last month. Inspired by the likes of Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinecki and Davor Suker, the much vaunted Modric will hope to drive the latest leading lights of Croatian football to the heights of European football. In tandem with Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic, Modric has every chance.

 

Andres Iniesta (Spain) 1.7m

Had Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi not bothered over the past decade, it is certain that Andres Iniesta would have been widely acclaimed as the player of his generation. Indeed, there is much fuel to add to that debate as it is. Although he does not possess the goal-scoring habits of the Ballon D’Or duo, Iniesta has made the best sides in the world tick for almost a decade, whilst he has also produced the most significant moments in the history of those teams, most notably the winning goal against the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup.

 

Emanuele Giaccherini (Italy) 1.67m

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A disappointment at Sunderland, Giaccherini joined the English club when sold by Antonio Conte at Juventus in 2013. Giaccherini subsequently missed out on selection for the 2014 World Cup and was promptly injured for the following season. Now on loan at Bologna, the attacking midfielder has rediscovered his form not least in Tuesday’s game against Belgium where he nabbed the opener in a crucial win for the Azzurri.

 

Pedro (Spain) 1.67m

Having carved out a fine reputation in an all-conquering Barcelona team, Pedro finally had enough of warming the bench when Neymar and Suarez arrived at the Nou Camp to assume striking duties alongside Lionel Messi. Following links with a Manchester United that could have used his creativity and energy, Pedro opted for Chelsea but failed to live up to the hype that surrounded his arrival. Rumours abound that he could be set for a shock return to his former club.

 

Wes Hoolahan (Republic of Ireland) 1.68m

When Wes Houlihan opened Ireland’s account in Euro 2016, nobody could begrudge the Norwich star his moment in the spotlight. Having churned out a career in the English lower leagues following a decision to uproot from Shelbourne in 2005, Hoolahan finally came to international prominence on Monday at the age of 34. I’m still drooling at his first touch out wide on the left in the second half. Wessi!

 

Lorenzo Insigne (Italy) 1.63m

Insigne was in fine form for Napoli last season, even drawing comparisons with Diego Maradona following a hot streak in front of goal. Although his relationship with the national side has been less than convincing, his playmaking ability adds a different dimension to an otherwise straightforward system. Indeed, due to his attributes, Goran Pandev, his captain at Napoli, has dubbed him the “Italian Messi”. How original.

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Indeed competition for places was so short that even these guys missed out:

 

Jamie Ward (Northern Ireland) 1.63m

WardThe third smallest in the competition this summer, Ward began his career at Aston Villa following a car crash that threatened his career in 2004. Ward navigated his way through the lower leagues before he became established at Derby County. Somewhat surprisingly, given his provocative role between the sides, Ward moved to Nottingham Forest last season.

 

Joe Allen (Wales) 1.68m

Between comparisons with Xavi, Andrea Pirlo and Lionel Messi, Joe Allen has done well to keep his feet on the ground over the years. Although his performances have often failed to match such heightened praise, his stature and appearance justify those remarks. Despite “Average Joe’s” consistent inconsistency since his move to Brendan Rodger’s Liverpool in 2012, he remains somewhat of a cult hero on Merseyside.

 

David Silva (Spain) 1.7m

One of the most gifted footballers to have emerged during the golden era for Spanish football, Silva made the brave decision to move to Manchester City in 2010. Many questioned whether he could cope with the physical demands of the English league, but Silva has regularly confounded his critics and will be an integral part of Pep Guardiola’s revolution at the Etihad Stadium. However, following an injury plagued campaign, Silva misses out on selection in this XI.

 

Joao Moutinho (Portugal) 1.71m

Once heralded as the player likely to lead Portugal to an ever-evasive title, Moutinho’s career has stalled somewhat following signs of significant promise at Sporting Lisbon and Porto, winning 12 major titles during his time in the Primeira Liga. His performances saw him move to AS Monaco in 2014 for €24m. Last season, Moutinho’s side finished third, trailing Paris St. Germain by 31 points.

Fergie’s Fossils

As featured on PunditArena
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While 22-year-old Eric Bailly’s arrival at Manchester United this week complies with the club’s traditional policy in the transfer market, the potential arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimovic continues to persuade the skeptics that José Mourinho will forgo building a team from the ground up at the Old Trafford club for the sake of an immediate return.While Ibrahimovic remains a formidable prospect, it is safe to assume that Mourinho does not envisage that the Swedish star will lead the line throughout his tenure in the hot seat. He should, though, expect a lasting impact. With 26 major trophies to his name, the Sweden international could reintroduce a winning mentality and swagger to the United dressing room, if he signs.

At various stages throughout his tenure at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson made similar approaches for veterans. While some of the eventual signings raised eyebrows, for the most part their influence around Old Trafford became their predominant legacy.

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 Teddy Sheringham (1997)

Aged 31 at the time, Sheringham was tasked with the daunting challenge of replacing the iconic Eric Cantona at Old Trafford. His early career in red was somewhat difficult in that he failed to guide United to the title in 1998 – almost a given with Cantona in tow. Consequently, Ferguson decided to act and brought in Dwight Yorke to partner Andy Cole the following season.

While Sheringham’s role in the treble-winning campaign was limited, his role will never be forgotten. Having won the first major trophy of his career against his former club on the final day of the league, a week later Sheringham emerged from the bench to score the opener in United’s victory over Newcastle in the FA Cup Final.

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Then, as the Red Devils desperately sought a way back in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich, Sheringham intervened with an equaliser in stoppage time. A matter of moments later he guided a header in the path of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who pounced to claim the spoils for United.

With his name forever etched in the club’s history, somewhat of a burden was finally lifted from Sheringham’s shoulders. Whilst his role did not drastically change as United regained the title the following year, the Cole-Yorke magic was nevertheless waning.

Finally, in 2000/2001, Sheringham took centre stage with aplomb, leading United to a third consecutive title and in so doing he was voted the PFA and Writer’s Player of the Year. At 35 years of age, Sheringham’s performances were rewarded with a recall to the England squad for the 2002 World Cup.

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Laurent Blanc (2001)

Critics of Sir Alex Ferguson continue to maintain that the legendary manager left Manchester United in a somewhat precarious state when he departed in 2013. The same accusation was also made of him when his future was the subject of much conjecture in 2001. Although Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Sebastien Véron had arrived in the off-season, Ferguson opted to replace Jaap Stam with an aging Laurent Blanc.

Ferguson had been a long-time admirer of the French defender before he finally arrived in Manchester. Given that Stam had been a rock at the heart of the defence in an all-conquering United side, it was no great surprise that Blanc, at 35, was quickly singled out for blame as United’s fortunes quickly faded. An elegant footballer, Blanc struggled with the physicality and pace of the English game. United ultimately finished third that season, their lowest placing in the history of the Premier League while they were also dumped out of the FA Cup in the fourth round.

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However, once Ferguson’s future was clarified moves were afoot to bring in Rio Ferdinand from Leeds United. Despite some moderate success in Yorkshire, Ferdinand was still a raw talent when he became the world’s most expensive defender.

But with Blanc as his mentor, his reputation was soon further enhanced as United reclaimed the Premier League. Indeed, Blanc’s time at Old Trafford was mutually beneficial in that the club learned much from a World Cup winner with an astute tactical mind and an experienced insight into success at the very highest level, while the Frenchman also honed his own managerial capacity under Ferguson.

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Edwin van der Saar (2005)

To many, Van der Saar was one of Ferguson’s greatest signings. At the sprightly age of 34, the Dutchman became the latest goalkeeper to be charged with filling the boots of Peter Schmeichel following the travails of Mark Bosnich, Fabien Barthez and Tim Howard.

Over the course of six years, Van der Saar won four Premier League titles and was instrumental in the Champions League triumph of 2008, saving Nicolas Anelka’s penalty in the shootout against Chelsea.

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Remarkably, Van der Saar’s fine form continued into his 38th year as he broke the world record for not conceding a goal. He lasted for 1,311 minutes.

Having wrapped up another league title in 2011, Van der Saar finally chose to retire. At 40 years old he is the oldest player to win the Premier League.

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Henrik Larsson (2007)

Following two seasons in Barcelona, Henrik Larsson opted to return to his hometown club of Helsingborg to finish out his distinguished career. However, not long after making the switch, the opportunity of one last challenge at Manchester United proved too difficult to resist for the former Celtic star.

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Ongoing injury problems for both Louis Saha and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer prompted Ferguson to move for Larsson in January 2007. Larsson would go on to make 13 appearances in all competitions, contributing three goals. Although his stint was brief (he made a promise to his family that he would return home in March), his impact was significant.

Ferguson openly admitted that he wanted Larsson to stay, praising his professionalism and attitude. Larsson, despite being 36, brought much needed energy to a United side in the process of a transition. With Larsson and Wayne Rooney in tandem, United navigated their way through a tricky winter period before going on to win the title.

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Other Premier League sides have also availed of seasoned campaigners. Prior to the Roman Abramovich era, Ken Bates proved himself to be a wily operator in the transfer market. Eager to put an end to Chelsea’s 25-year wait for a trophy, superstars such as Ruud Gullit (1995) and Gianluca Vialli (1996) arrived in London to help the side to the FA Cup in 1997.

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Notably, Sam Allardyce summoned the likes Jay-Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff and Ivan Campo to the Reebok Stadium in 2002 as he sought to firmly establish the club in the upper tiers. Further afield, the decision of AC Milan to allow Andrea Pirlo join Juventus will be eternally ridiculed. The Italian maestro duly led the Turin club to four consecutive Scudetto titles. While most recently, former Real Madrid and Inter Milan midfielder Esteban Cambiasso picked up the Player of the Year award at Leicester City having helped steer them clear of safety in 2015, no doubt helping to lay some of the foundations for what was to come at the King Power Stadium.

It would seem that Ibrahimovic’s personality alone will be enough to light up Old Trafford, should he sign. Such character has been missing in Manchester for some time. Down through the years, the Stretford End has grown to love those who infuriate the opposition and offer spiritual leadership to their own. Whether it was George Best’s playful nutmegs or Roy Keane’s deathly stare, the United faithful were happy to have them on their side. To this day ‘ooh aah Cantona’ rings out as soon as fans descend on Sir Matt Busby Way, while hopes that Cristiano Ronaldo will one day return remain undimmed.

Whilst pinning their hopes on a veteran might not sit well with United’s traditions, Ibrahimovic’s influence would likely be considerable. In dipping their toes in the water last season, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford have shown that, with the proper guidance, their careers can hit meteoric heights.

Ibrahimović’s presence would only help them on that journey. Given his age, the ex-Ajax man would not be expected to play every week and so their participation would not be compromised by his arrival. Yet even if he failed to make the team sheet the Swede would still command the headlines and the young duo would be allowed to prosper in the distracted environment that he creates.

Most importantly though, in playing with Ibrahimovic on a daily basis, they would learn how to live, play and act like a champion… And a swagger will return to Manchester United.

A View From Within

As published on PunditArena

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There’s an old saying I came across before: “It’s six o’clock and there isn’t a cow milked or a child washed.” I wouldn’t be surprised if it applied over there in Connacht last weekend.

For my sins, I was in Galway last Saturday evening. With my Leinster jersey in tow, I perched myself in The Lough Inn on Woodquay, surrounded by an army of Connacht fans. It was a brave and brazen move – and, as it turns out, I’ll never be allowed to forget it.

I can’t remember when Mikey Sheehy chipped Paddy Cullen in ‘78 but I can still see myself on holidays in a full Irish kit when Ray Houghton had Gianluca Pagliuca similarly floundering in ‘94. I was in a shop when Katie Taylor struck gold in London and catching up on some homework when Paul McGinley jumped in the lake at The Belfry. In 2009, I was jumping on a couch when Tony Ward screamed like a Belieber as Ronan O’Gara dropped Ireland into euphoria in Cardiff.

These are all moments that are part of Irish sporting folklore. After Saturday, we can add another: where were you when the rugby team from the west of Ireland made history by winning their first ever title in Edinburgh?

None of us were around when Queen Méabh led the warriors of Connacht into battle to claim the most famous bull in Ireland in the Cattle Raid of Cooley. In time, folklore will record that it was actually Pat Lam in charge that day.

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I have long suspected this term that Lam has a magic potion his players ingest on match days; after Saturday I have no doubts about it. I’ve also imagined that there are a lot of little gremlins and assorted spirits that lurk about the Sportsground spooking out their opponents. Granted, a numbers of those gremlins hanging around last Monday morning were self-induced, but on Saturday, the coalition of a magic concoction and supernatural forces pulled down one of the best sides that this country has ever produced.

After just 12 minutes, Leinster fans looking on were questioning the strength of their own alcoholic potions as Matt Healy scythed through the middle of the field in the lead up to Tiernan O’Halloran’s opener. I promptly sought refuge in the bathroom and as I summoned the strength to return, I found myself having angry flashbacks to Santiago Cordero leading Ireland on a merry dance in Cardiff last October. For the locals, the moment was probably more reminiscent of Michael Donnellan’s solo burst through Kildare in the All-Ireland final of 1998.

When Nigel Owens finally brought proceedings to a close, there was little I could be bitter about despite my biased frustrations. Connacht had simply been the better team.

While Devin Toner’s unfortunate loss damaged Leinster’s capacity from touch, Connacht did not seek to solely exploit any advantage in that area. Indeed, it was a guilty pleasure to see how they took the game to their eastern counterparts, restoring our faith in running rugby. At almost every opportunity Messrs Healy, O’Halloran and Niyi Adeolokun wrought havoc, led by AJ McGinty who enjoyed the most impressive afternoon by an Irish out-half this year. Regretfully, he has to call himself an American these days.

Elsewhere, as he set about waging war in Edinburgh, John Muldoon reminded me of Éamon de Valera: to some people he represented the Second Coming but to those in the blue shirts he was the Devil incarnate. Meanwhile, the local quarries are struggling to cut enough stone for Bundee Aki’s statue in Eyre Square.

Of course I heard many wild, whirling and jumbled words in the aftermath of the famous victory. One man though suggested that Connacht’s inferiority complex had finally been buried forever – and he was talking about more than rugby.

Thanks to success on the pitch and astute management off it, Leinster Rugby has flourished in the professional era – the fanbase has grown exponentially, so too the trophy cabinet and it is now the strongest rugby franchise in the Northern Hemisphere. Their growth has been such that the RDS Arena requires redevelopment to the tune of €20million. Their strength in depth is such that the bench comprised an aggregate of 116 Test appearances on Saturday. Sean Cronin alone has more caps than the entirety of the Connacht panel. And that’s before you ever mention that ten further internationals were not involved.

Despite being the first Irish side to triumph in Europe in 1999, Ulster have been perennial underachievers ever since. Now allegedly bankrolled by the world’s most famous golfer, their continued development has posed the most substantial threat to Leinster’s throne in recent years. With the maturation of Paddy Jackson, Iain Henderson, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Stuart Olding and now Sean Reidy, Ulster are likely to have a significant say in domestic and national proceedings. It helps that they can also count the Irish captain among their ranks.

This summer Munster will welcome Rassie Erasmus as their new Director of Rugby in an effort to address their current plight. However, it is generally accepted that the best in Munster come from within. While there have been obvious exceptions, most notably CJ Stander, the likes of Gerhard van den Heever and Mark Chisholm haven’t exactly filled the 26,000 seats at Thomond Park. Legendary characters of old are woven into the fabric of the club. For the moment, they will continue to apply extensive funding into their development programmes in the hope that the next Paul O’Connell is lying in wait.

They have all been, and will be again, great sides. But for now Connacht deserve the acclaim. They defied all the odds and have shaken up the old order.

It would have been hard for anyone not to have been moved by the unbridled joy in Galway last weekend. “Ecstatic” almost seems too pale a word. Men and women who might never have set foot inside the windy terraces at the Sportsground celebrated as though it were their own flesh and blood that had taken to the Murrayfield pitch.

Nevertheless, life goes on. I’m sure those cows were eventually milked and children washed. On Sunday, even as the party continued across the City of the Tribes, there was no postponing of the Galway Senior Football Championship in Pearse Stadium. The only difference was all the youngsters in the stands wearing green and cradling a rugby ball.

It can only be a good thing for Irish rugby.