Blur of colour

Greyhound racing
Shelbourne Park
Wednesday 19 October (first race 8pm)

My first view of racing at Shelbourne, home of the Irish Derby, is to see the blur of colours burst out of the boxes. Black and white, orange, red, white, black and blue, go on… I’m just in time for the first race of the night and I’m right on top of the traps.

I turn to look around the grandstand of this impressive greyhound track and by time I’ve turned my attention to the action again a couple of the dogs are trailing the leader by about 40 lengths. Don’t they grade* the dogs in Ireland? I know dog racing has a dodgy reputation but this is ridiculous. A quick look at the TV screen to watch the replay, though, shows that there was a bit of crash chaos, but more thankfully all the dogs compete the race and appear to be okay.

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I love dog racing and although I’ve never been here before it feels like home from home. The bookies and other track characters could be lifted up and dropped into a track in England but what’s this I spot in the form guide? Race distances  in yards as well as metres from this bastion of Europe, surely not?

Elsewhere I notice that some of the dogs have the same dad as one of my greyhounds. Good old Kinloch Brae, he’s been working hard. The prize money is impressive for greyhounds. Have I stumbled on a bumper prize night? Winner €650 and runner-up €220 for a race including dogs on the way up (or down)? There’s nothing like that in England. But then we are in the heart of racing.

Then a gaggle of student arrive, bubbling over with previously enjoyed bubbles. In what is a real working-class sport they seem out of place next to the grumpy old guys in waxed jackets.

I grab my waxed jacket and head upstairs. The tiered restaurant is fairly busy for a Wednesday night and the lamb shanks look good. The restaurant is large and it must be buzzing on a Saturday night. There are some decent deals on a Wednesday (€29.99 for a four-course dinner) and a good number are tucking in.

A Dutch couple, on a short trip to Dublin, and at the dogs for the first time ask for help in the betting terms and the form card. “Trio Allways,” I tell them, “that’s where you’ll make the money,” and proceed to lose every race.

Ticket: €10 entry.
Drink: the bars have a decent selection of beers under €5 a pint.
Getting there: the nearest DART station is Grand Canal Dock.
Score: I didn’t lose too much.

* Dogs are graded in racing in an attempt to make each race competitive, a bit like the handicap system in horse racing.

More ey up lad than what’s the craic

Rugby League
Ireland v Russia (World Cup qualifier)
The Carlisle Grounds, Bray
Saturday 29th October (5pm kick off)

“Get at ’em, hard at ’em,” shouts one of the Irish players as his team retakes its positions. Russia are about to kick off following the first try from Ireland. I can’t make out if the accent is from Wigan or Wakefield or somewhere in-between but it’s decidedly Northern (English).

As the game progresses, and Ireland rack up the points, those Northern accents are pretty much all I hear from the boys in green.

A family walks past me on the way to their seats in the main stand of the neat little Carlisle Grounds, home of Bray Wanderers football team, and recently the home of Irish Rugby League. The woman stops, not caring that she’s blocking the view, and shouts in a Mancunian accent: “hit him Will, hit him, go on hit him.”

I never heard Will Hope’s accent so I can’t tell you where he grew up, but he plays for Oldham in the English Championship, the second tier of Rugby League in England. Considering there are only three countries in the world that are any good at this sport (England, Australia and New Zealand) that makes him pretty decent.

Hope is just one of a bunch of players representing Ireland who play with English teams in the Championship or the Super League (the top-tier). Although neither are featuring in the match the programme also list a player (James Hasson) as representing  Parramatta Eels in Australia and another (Haydn Peacock) as with Carcassonne in France. They were born in England and Australia respectively.

“Ah, it sounds like another Jack Charlton to me,” says the guy at the bar in the Hibernia Inn when I tell him about the accents. I’ve managed to sneak out to this nearby pub at half-time for a pint of Smithwick’s as there is no bar in the ground. The guy’s referring, of course, to the Jack Charlton football era, from 1985-95, when, it was often joked, anyone with a green jumper qualified for Ireland.

What Charlton, did, of course, was use a number of players who were born and brought up in England but who qualified to play for Ireland through parents or grandparents. But despite the accents it did the Ireland soccer team no harm at all, with Charlton presiding over the most successful period in the country’s history.

And, it’s doing the Rugby League boys (called the Wolfhounds by the way) no harm either as they are number six in the world rankings, which incidentally, is the same as their much more well-known Rugby Union counterparts.

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The Field of Dreams in Bray – but maybe not for these Russians…

The qualification rules to play for a country in international sport leave a lot to be desired for many people. In football, the great Alfredo Di Stefano played for the country of his birth Argentina, squeezed in four games for Colombia, then later represented Spain. Mozambican-born Eusebio excited World Cup crowds in 1966 – playing for Portugal. In the 1990s Tiaan Strauss first played for South Africa, then moved to Australia and won the World Cup while representing them. The Japanese rugby team owes much of its recent rise in fortunes to the number of New Zealanders who qualify through residency, while few players from neighbouring islands can resist the lure of the All Blacks – or the Pacific Select XV as a friend calls them – if the call comes. Elsewhere we have (fast) East Africans representing (rich) Middle Eastern nations, an Irishman (Eoin Morgan) captaining England’s cricket team, and brothers (Jerome and Kevin Prince Boateng) representing different countries in football. It certainly puts things into perspective next time someone shouts “we won!” or screams, “we lost!”

The crowd at Bray is a few hundred strong, which is decent enough for a sport few people in Ireland know anything about and being played in a small coastal town. But it’s a good choice of venue and there are great views across the sea on the 35-minute train ride from Dublin, with the train hugging the coast and passing through a lot of  small places which seem to have little else but a harbour, a yacht club and a few houses. Maybe they’d have attracted a few more in from the capital if there weren’t bigger rugby (union) games being played the same day? I suspect the numbers at the match are made up of people connected to the sport, the families of players and a few vaguely interested locals. I meet a family from Doncaster who are on a weekend break and have wandered in to see what’s going on. The afternoon has got that sort of feel to it.

A two-for-one online ticket offer has probably helped to boost the attendance. After all, there’s few other sporting events where you get two adult tickets for a tenner. Although not everyone is interested in a bargain it seems. I have a spare voucher so I wait near the ticket booth, hoping to save someone the price of a pint. But suspicions win the day among the people I offer it to and I can’t even give it away. “I don’t want anything,” I tell them. “You can have it.” But, alas, they all seem determined to pay full price and avoid human contact. I give up and go in because I can hear the first national anthem striking up and can smell the curry chips wafting out from the van inside the ground.

Russia score the first try, somewhat to the surprise of even their own players, who only half celebrate. Maybe they know what is to come. The previously mentioned Will Hope scores the first try and the much more experienced Irish side run in 13 tries in total to win 70-16 and qualify for the World Cup Finals next year. Alan McMahon (2), Casey Dunne and James Kelly, who play for the locally based sides Galway Tribesmen, Longhorns and Dublin City Exiles respectively, all score. I go into the clubhouse to buy an Ireland shirt but they are sold out. They only brought 12, I am told, but even so I suspect that’s more than they usually sell on a chilly Saturday.

The win over Russia (ranked 16th in the world) concluded a busy period for the Wolfhounds. Games against Malta (ranked 18th) and Jamaica (ranked 27th) gave a run out for more local players in Bray, while there was also a trip to Valencia for a World Cup qualifier against Spain (ranked 21st).

Back in the Hibernia Inn with the family from Doncaster after the game, and we are discussing the game. But it’s noticeable that most of the people in the pub are more interested in the Liverpool football match on the TV. I feel like telling them that following a match just a few hundred metres away from where they sitting Ireland have just qualified for the World Cup Finals and will be off to Australia and Papua New Guinea next year. But somehow I suspect they’d only be interested if the players had Scouse accents and wore red.

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Ticket: general access for €5 (thanks to an online 2 for 1 offer).
Drink: pint of Smithwick’s (€4.30) from the Hibernia Inn.
Food: curry chips (€4) from the van in the ground.
Getting there: Bray Station is on the DART line heading south from Dublin.
Score: Ireland 70 Russia 16.

 • The Rugby League World Cup takes place in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea  from 27 October to 2 December 2017.

Aside

Oh I do like to be beside a stadium

Rugby
Leinster v Ospreys (Pro 12)
RDS Arena, Dublin
Friday 23 September (7.35pm)

House prices are booming in Dublin. One of those news reports said so. In the report the price rises were broken down into regions around the city so the people in the fast-rising areas could be all smug while the people in the poorer areas just shrug and say, “Oh well, we don’t own the house anyway.”

What the reporter didn’t say was that anyone looking for a property in Ballsbridge and surrounds should not be adverse to the odd sports stadium being on their doorstep.

Having passed the Shelbourne Park greyhound stadium I jump off the train at Lansdowne Road, where there is the impressive Aviva Stadium. The bigger rugby games are played here (Leinster v Muster in a couple of weeks for instance) but tonight it’s a short walk to the RDS Arena. And to add to the area’s sporting grounds we have more rugby venues nearby: the Donnybrook Stadium (home to Bective Rangers and Old Wesley),  Merrion Road (home of rugby club Wanderers Football Club), and the ground for Old Belvedere Rugby Club, as well as Merrion Cricket Club (handily featured elsewhere on this blog),  and just down the road the Elm Park Golf and Sports Club.

There is also a Tesco and the Lithuanian Embassy close, which is handy if you want to get some shopping and sort out your Baltic paperwork after a game. All in all it’s a surprise there is any room left for houses in Dublin 4.

Ospreys are top of the Guinness Pro12 table at the kick off but Leinster tear into them in the first 20 minutes with pure intensity and pace. Josh van der Flier picks up a try and with Ireland’s star kicker Jonny Sexton converts this to add points to his earlier penalty to leave the Welsh side trailing by double digits. Frustration builds and the big, bearded Moldovan Dmitri Arhip, not a man you’d pick a fight with, high challenges Isa Ncewa and is sin binned.

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The grandstand, with Bedouin tent-style roofing, was rebuilt in 2006 when Leinster moved to the RDS Arena. The South Stand, as seen from the 1927 Anglesea Stand, is for fans who like a bit of fresh air with their evening rugby.

“Gron Leinster, gron,” growls the old man behind me. And he gets his way as continued pressure leads to a penalty try in the corner of the pitch farthest from me. Luckily the big screen keeps rolling during the game (unlike at football matches) so all is good on the viewing front. Super Jonny adds another try to ensure the Guinness goes down well at half-time.

I like the RDS Arena. The oval grassy area, used for equestrian events, provides a nice open feel at the rear of the Angelsea Stand that not even the best newly built stadiums can match. The openess creates a relaxed atmosphere as fans mill around the food and drink stands, situated on the walkways along the edge of the equestrian area, eating, drinking and discussing the game. A lot of them are still there when Van der Flier adds more points to the Leinster total a few minutes into the second half.

The old guy is still growling “Gron Leinster, gron,” when I get back inside the stadium. But his magic has deserted him and Ospreys grab a try and super Jonny gets a yellow card as Leinster lose focus. The Swansea-based side hit two more late tries which just intensifies his growling, although it does make the last few minutes of the match moderately more exciting if the higher pitch of his “grons” are anything to go by.

Ticket: Anglesea terrace €22 (including the €2 Ticketmaster fee).
Drink: Smithwick’s red ale (€5.10 a pint) in Crowes pub on Merrion Road and a Guinness (€5.40 a pint) in the ground.
Getting there: DART to either Lansdowne Road or Sandymount.
Score: Leinster 31 Ospreys 19.

Football? Which paint colour?

Football (Soccer)
Dundalk v Legia Warsaw
Champions League Qualifier (first leg)
Aviva Stadium, Dublin
17 August 2016

The landlord in the Ha’penny Bridge Inn doesn’t like football (or soccer as he calls it). According to him he’s never watched it.

“It’s like watching paint dry.”

Of course, I want to ask him how he knows it’s like watching paint dry if he’s never watched it but I suspect he might throw his hot soup over me. Anyway, when I was a painter and decorator I used to enjoy watching paint dry because it meant I could get the next coat on quicker.

I stare at my Guinness. Eventually he lifts his head and asks, “Is it a big game then?”

“Probably one of the biggest ever for an Irish club,” I tell him. “After all, it’s not every day they move a Dundalk game to Lansdowne Road. They’re expecting over 20,000.”

He says he didn’t even know the game was on. And why should he? He’s got a nice pub right by the river at the entrance to Temple Bar. What’s another 20,000 people when you can fill your pub up with the flow of tourists the city normally gets anyway?

I head off to Temple Bar pub. If I’m going to be ripped off for my beer I might as well do it where they at least pretend to know the difference between football and paint. Anyway, if there’s one thing a football match deserves, it’s a couple of pre-match pints. Even if kick-off is seven hours away.

Dundalk start well. I’m impressed. They knock it about with composure as if they are made for this Champions League stuff. No Irish team has ever made the group stages of Europe’s big money competition and I must admit I don’t fancy their chances against Legia Warsaw, the seasoned Polish team ranked 182 places above them. But they start with confidence, as they should, having impressively knocked out the Belarusian’s BATE Borisov – ranked 200 places above them – in the previous round.

The rain is persistent and I’m wet through. People are still finding their seats 20 minutes into the first half. Crowds like this (it is 30,000 apparently) don’t happen to League of Ireland sides too often and it’s clearly confused the timekeeping of most spectators.

I suspect a lot of them are still in the Sandymount Hotel, an ideal watering hole near the ground. They serve the beer in plastic glasses mind.

Plastic glasses and rain. Add in the pointless, waste-of-time body searches en route to the ground (flares were later let off inside), the small group of young lads in ill-fitting jeans, who are so twitchy from the Bolivian marching powder that a strong coffee would bring them down, and the faint whiff of weed in the air and it’s fair to conclude that this is a proper football match. Watching paint dry indeed.

From what I saw there was no boredom among the large crowd. The only problem was that none of us football tourists knew any of the Dundalk songs, so apart from the odd “come on Dundalk”, there was not much noise coming from the stands. The hardcore Lilywhite fans (in a reversal of national colours Dundalk were in white and Legia Warsaw in green) in the lower South Stand were doing there best but it was the Polish fans crammed together in the opposite end of the ground who were having the party. Flares were left off (I mentioned the pointless searches, right?), giant flags were let loose, and shirts were taken off en masse and helicoptered around heads.

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A naming rights deal means the 51,700 all-seater stadium will be called the Aviva Stadium at least until 2019. Away fans do love to cluster together, even when given the worst part of the stadium for viewing. Giant flags ensure no-one can see anyway.

All the time they sang more songs the rest of us didn’t know, although the tunes were at least recognisable, such is the global nature of football chants. My favourite Polish song that I didn’t know was chanted to the tune Seven Nation Army (originally by White Stripes) because I could easily insert their team name into my head thanks to it having the perfect number of syllables for the riff: “Oh Leg-i-a War-saw, oh Leg-i-a War-saw”…

Sadly Dundalk concede a penalty to a harsh decision in the 56th minute, but apart from a few minutes of chaos in the defence following this they continue to look pretty composed. Unfortunately they rarely look like offering a threat themselves, and this gets worse as the game goes on with the impressive Daryl Horgan starting to get sucked deeper in search of the ball. I’m surprised the number seven is not playing in England, and even involved in the national set-up.

But, as an excellent piece in the programme by Dundalk fan Kenneth Sloane points out, it’s been a long time since a League of Ireland player has played for Ireland. In fact the last one to play in a competitive fixture was Pat Byrne when he was with Shamrock Rovers, although Glen Crowe made two appearances in friendlies in 2002 and 2003. Current Dundalk ‘keeper Gary Rogers has recently been involved in manager Martin O’Neill’s squad as back-up.

Sloane’s piece also  expresses a hope that Dundalk’s performance will impress people enough that they will want to watch more League of Ireland matches. Well, despite them conceding another goal late on the answer is yes it does.

Ticket: seat in the corner pretty high up (€17, which included €2 service fee from Ticketmaster).
Drink: Guinness in the Sandymount Hotel (€5 a pint).
Getting there: DART to Lansdowne Road.
Score: Dundalk 0, Legia Warsaw 2

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The Aviva Stadium looking from Beatty’s Avenue across the River Dodder. It might be called an avenue but it’s no more than towpath, not ideal as those with red route tickets scuttle one way as others with purple route tickets squeeze the other, all wishing they had left the pub earlier. No, we’ll never listen.