Monthly Archives: March 2014

Hollywood ending for Sullivan Upper ruined by Methody

Belfast school earns third schools cup in as many years

Methodist College 27
Sullivan Upper 12

“We don’t get a free pass to the final every year,” claimed Methody coach Nick Wells on Friday, and Sullivan Upper were less than charitable as the Belfast school earned their third schools cup in as many years after a pulsating contest.

Sullivan had hoped to put over 100 years of misery to right and win their first title, but thoughts of a fairytale ending for the Hollywood side never looked likely.

Methody were forced into replacing Ross McAllistair at tighthead after he suffered concussion in the semi-final but suggestions that this would upset forward dominance and defensive routines were short-lived, as their pack made a major difference in winning the game.

Full advantage
The Belfast side began the match intent upon taking full advantage of early Sullivan infringements. Josh Bingham kicked for touch after being awarded a penalty at the breakdown and their first line out led to the opening try from Connor McKee .

At times throughout the game, Sullivan captain Ross Todd stood upright as he was tackled, actively seeking to show himself as the epitome of an underdog, with the ability and tactical savvy to wrestle yards from an unforgiving defence stood before him.

Unfortunately for Sullivan, his performance did not count for more than winning well- meaning compliments upon losing. McKee soon took Methody to a 12- point lead when he scored a second try after intercepting a loose Sullivan pass.

In reply Chris Jordan brought the Ravenhill family stand – housing the majority of Sullivan supporters – to its feet after completing a deserved score that began withscrum half Charlie McEwan delivering a quick pass to Josh Davidson. The second row rambled through the Methody 22 and offloaded to Jordan for a try that proved to be Sullivan’s most entertaining moment of a difficult day.

Before the break, Alastair McIvor crossed for a third Methody try.

Things might have been different had Methody’s defence given way to a Sullivan drive at the end of 35 minutes, but Michael Lagan walked his team to their dressing home in full command of a 37th schools cup triumph.

Sullivan were heartened soon after the break by a try from full back Johnny Betts; that also encouraged neutrals to believe an upset might be emerging. Yet Methody never panicked and instead they produced the brand of rugby for which they are most revered – hard-hitting forward dominance that allow backs to score with seamless motions.

Their fourth and fifth tries were of this traditional ilk, as Josh Jordan finished in the right corner, before a delightful move that saw backs Fraser Wallace and Rory Cairns exchange passes before releasing full back Connor Kelly to cross Sullivan’s line, closed out the game.

This article was published by The Irish Times on Tuesday 18th March 2014


It’s not Songs of Praise or the Antiques Roadshow

With a distinguished career as a broadcast journalist and long-time voice of Irish rugby, Jim Neilly sees his beloved sport as more than a game for Sunday evening television.

Jim Neilly has already apologised for being late before our scheduled interview to discuss his career and the state of Irish rugby. On his original call, he wasn’t sure if it was “just the traffic” or something more time consuming. Now as he settles into a large cappuccino, the barista finishes his sentence about the sketched like froth on top, looking like “an atomic bomb.” Once comfortable, more sincere sentiment about his delay from Hillsborough arrive on account of three lanes being reduced to one. He hasn’t reached the impassioned tones that have come to characterise his familiar commentary on major rugby international matches or world title boxing bouts; but there is a distinctive gravitas to the voice peeved by traffic congestion. He is certainly beginning to warm to speaking at an excitable if less audible level than he might otherwise at Ravenhill, the Aviva or Twickenham.

 Aside from the support of his great friend and broadcaster George Hamilon, Neilly ventured into a career as a broadcast journalist almost by chance. On that subject he describes himself listening to a rugby game between Instonians and the City of Derry in 1977. “I met George for a beer that night and said he (the commentator) wasn’t very good and he said why don’t you try it?” A week later Neilly broke his hand with Instonians (he won’t tell me how), and was forced to stop playing rugby for six weeks. While recovering he accompanied Hamilton to a Murrayfield trip for an Ireland Scotland B international. Equipped with a tape recorder and microphone borrowed from his friend, Neilly completed his first novice broadcast at the back of the Murrayfield stand.

 He recalls the event proudly, clearly entertained by its amateur gloss. “We played the cassette in the car on the way back to Stranraer. We laughed so much using words you wouldn’t want to hear on broadcast journalism (programmes). At one stage George missed a turn and we drove into some woman’s farmyard. It was so funny.” From there his cassette reached the head of BBC sport, by way of Hamilton’s hand. After receiving a phone call from the BBC asking him to try “some stuff” on their Saturday afternoon Sportsround programme, Neilly began formal commentating with Collegiates against Civil Service from Deramore Park in December 1977.

Names, dates and times are never missed on Neilly’s watch – not even at this Belfast coffee shop where it would be easy to skip a few while being distracted by two restless babies within spitting distance of our conversation. In between a series of broadcasts in 1978, he suffered another lengthy layoff (this time a dislocated shoulder) and decided to concentrate fully on a career in broadcast. No longer a member of the teaching profession as he had been for the previous seven years, (including educating those at Belfast’s Boys’ Model), he progressed to live broadcasting with the Ulster Schools Cup Final. That game saw Bangor Grammar defeat Annadale Grammar. As though only recently prepared notes on the former school’s performance that day, he picks out their winning captain Kenny Hooks, “who went on to play for Ireland quite a few times.” Following 35 commentaries of the event, Neilly has yet to mention a grandson of local friends and family.

Ulster schools rugby has traditionally been dominated by Methodist College Belfast, Campbell College and Royal Belfast Academical Institution. The schools cup in the province predates all other rugby competitions with the exception of the Hospitals Cup. With distinct love for his alma mater RBAI, Neilly rattles off their greatest achievement in the sport, that of their contribution to the international game. “They have produced more internationals than any other school in all of Ireland. 85 internationals, 13 lions and 2 lions captains. Not even Blackrock has come close to that.” The professional type of structure within schools rugby has often been admired by outsiders looking in but Neilly is convinced the pressure to succeed at such a young age has a negative effect on those who commit themselves to stepping out at Ravenhill on March 17th. “You wonder sometimes, by the time they leave school have they had enough of rugby?” He says with concern. “The numbers playing rugby after (Secondary) school have dropped, in my mind, alarmingly because they think if they aren’t making it as a pro there’s no point in playing. I think that’s wrong and it’s very sad.” Away from rugby at schoolboy level, Irish rugby is in rude health presently with three sides involved at the quarter final stages of the Heineken Cup. The national side have added to expectations befitting past grand slam teams also.

To be consistently within touching distance of these pulsating moments has been a pleasure for Neilly. Just out of shot from front-line, bruising competition is his most treasured position. “It’s not Songs of Praise or the Antiques Roadshow. It’s live, vibrant, muscular rugby.” He seems to remind himself of the fact, as though Ireland holds her breathe before a crucial game to be won or lost on Johnnie Sexton’s right boot. No less enthused about manager Joe Schmidt (always very heavily focussed) and players Devin Toner (everyone thought he was a big, lanky giraffe but he has been a revelation this year) and Peter O’Mahony (he has been working his socks off) to name two; it is refreshing to hear the full complement of players being mentioned by Neilly.

While much has been written and broadcast about supposed or actual divisions among Northern and Southern team mates in the past, no such tension has been obvious from their performances of late. Indeed the recent displays of Ulster men in green jerseys have been notable across the pitch. Dan Tuohy made the absence of captain Paul O’Connell a moot point after victory against Scotland. Rory Best’s return to the front row after suffering a broken arm against New Zealand has been powerful – so powerful, as to create crushing mauls from which Ireland rumped to win over Wales. A try for backs Andrew Trimble (Scotland) and Paddy Jackson (Wales) have helped the cause too. As a proud Ulster man Neilly wouldn’t have it any other way.

What can Wannabes Learn From The Life Of Georgina Henry?

Georgina Henry

Georgina Henry

Georgina was the former deputy editor of the Guardian who died this month of cancer, aged 53.

At her memorial service in the Round Chapel Hackney last week, friends, family and former colleagues weaved personal stories into their speeches, each full of uplifting remarks, making the occasion more than a typically sombre affair. Such a tone accompanied a request from Georgina herself that the event not be mawkish and full of sadness.

It feels difficult to suggest to aspiring journalists what is required to reach the upper echelons of the profession because of the vast contribution Georgina made to it; but clearly those who spoke of her skills and attitude to journalism did so with ease. This is because Georgina was an easy subject to write about.


Close friend and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger spoke of her genuine selflessness and dedication to the pursuit of a story. Ian Katz, now editor of Newsnight told of his favourite trait of hers; he recalled that George (as she was known to most) used to lick her finger tips before beginning an assignment like a person starved of food ready to eat at a feast.


Roger Alton made a point of how the collective audience would have wanted George on their team. During a flight the pair both shared, an air hostess informed George that she was seated at the emergency exit and in the event of an emergency she would be responsible for opening it. So George asked “What exactly do I do?” The air hostess motioned the manoeuvre of pushing and turning the handle; to which George replied “Oh yes of course I will do that!” When Alton finished, “She bloody well would have n’ all”, everyone laughed and nodded approvingly.


There were other mentions of her consideration for fellow journalists, not least trainees and new writers. Merope Mills admitted that without George her career at the Guardian would never have happened. Breaking from the idea of senior figures’ often cold reputations, she recounted that upon recognising anguish in a writer at an appraisal with George; the meeting was put on hold to discuss their relationship break-up.

That kind-hearted, human face of journalism is something that George has entrusted to this generation of journalists and which she will be fondly remembered for. For those who continue to be inspired by her, (recent Guardian trainees included) and those yet to be, it is obvious that becoming a better journalist means supporting the work of others and not becoming immune to the wider issues of human experience to suit ourselves.


To the point of cliche and deadened words, journalism in some quarters seems to have lost its reputation as an honourable profession, but wannabe hacks can draw on the exceptional talent of George to change this trend immediately. This might mean taking on a fiery persona at times and identifying with positions of right and wrong on the basis of principle.

For George this meant opening up conversations to all, not reserving them for newsprint writers. It would be remiss not to make mention of the wonderfully courageous and brave effort she brought to the Guardian offices when conceiving and developing Comment is Free.


Comment threads form a special and central relationship between writer and reader; Georgina’s foresight brought that to bear better than most. While her interests were deeply political, she clearly enjoyed extending debate to an unlimited audience through digital media.


To make the site work, George and her team constantly pushed beyond mainstream political culture. She commissioned the translation of the Qur’an from Arabic to English in the wake of the stigma of terrorism being attached to Muslim communties after the 7/7 bombings in London. Writers of colour were approached, female voices were given more of a hearing, so too the young and old.

Here was the Guardian side-stepping the so-called ‘experts’ within journalism and academia and creating a fresh, diverse range of opinion from which its readers could learn. Some didn’t like it but George was proven to be right in the long run.


Her example exposed and corrected the problems of lazy journalism too as she interrogated writers’ copy, while committed to the values of the Guardian. Accepted wisdom has its merits but it shouldn’t go unchallenged. Injustices require careful attention from journalists regardless of experience. While the conversation at the memorial never directly turned to what makes a great journalist, phrases like ‘fairness’ and ‘good judgment’ were spoken of consistently.


Above all else, George was an honest and modest person to the point of naivety. Her last conversations with Rusbridger were characterised by this sense of herself, “I can’t imagine too many people will turn up (at the memorial)” she said.

The swell of people who arrived at the service denied any truth to this statement and learned of a highly motivated woman who drew strength from a work ethic borrowed from her novelist/screen writer husband Ronan Bennett, “Dry your eyes and do your bird (bird translates as time/work).” These words are fitting inspiration to hacks, as George’s legacy is left to journalists ready to pursue what they believe in.

This article was published by Wannabe Hacks on Monday 3rd March 2014.