Ireland’s clash with France captures public’s imagination

Run to knockout stage of Euro 2016 has eclipsed interest in both rugby and GAA

26 June ~ While marketeers will occasionally try to aver that Ireland has become “rugby country”, the national team’s progress at Euro 2016 continues to illustrate that nothing comes close to capturing the collective imagination.

Yesterday the Under-20 World Rugby Championship final pitted Ireland against England, but the journey to that decider didn’t receive the kind of acclaim it might have in other years, while the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) have made a large concession to public opinion too. Two big Gaelic football games scheduled for today in Dublin’s Croke Park have been put back until after the clash with France while the big screen in at the venue will show the second half.

Considering that, until 1972, members of the GAA risked being banned for even attending a soccer match, or that journalists at a Gaelic game in 2002 were prevented from watching Ireland’s World Cup tie with Spain, it’s clear that this is a positive development.

On the pitch, the hope is that the team can continue their progress from Wednesday night’s victory over Italy. Martin O’Neill surprised a lot of people with his line-up, making four changes from the loss to Belgium as he introduced Shane Duffy and Richard Keogh in central defence and kept Wes Hoolahan, the team’s creative hub, on the bench until his late, decisive intervention, crossing for Robbie Brady’s winner just after missing a glorious chance himself.

Hoolahan should return – his ability to play three games in a short timespan like the group stage has always been a concern – but how the team will be set up is another question. Against Italy (a largely second-string, already-qualified team, as some analysts have been keen to impress), Ireland had to win; now, against the tournament hosts, there is again something to lose so caution may be exercised.

Were Glenn Whelan to be included instead of the energetic James McClean (whose focus seemed to drift slightly on Friday, when he tweeted about the possibility of a united Ireland in the wake of the British referendum result) the approach would be clearer.

Beyond Hoolahan, Jeff Hendrick has been the other bright performer, with the hope being that his impressive long-range efforts can test the law of averages eventually. Shane Long – and Daryl Murphy, his partner on Wednesday – has had to battle hard with little opportunity of an end product. Sadly, while captain Robbie Keane has had some game time, he no longer looks capable of being an influence at this level.

Thankfully, while there has been some talk about revenge for the “hand of Henry” of 2009, it hasn’t overshadowed the build-up. That incident came after one of the best Irish performances in living memory – a repeat display would be most welcome. Denis Hurley