"To love a woman, you've got to know - how the rich die poor and the strong grow weak, Slave to love." Bryan Ferry's lyrics floated in the Budley air nearest young Mark Stephens' Bluetooth headset. He had love on his mind. Not of the unrequited type but one borne of mutuality - of purity of strike and swooshing of hoop. The young malletman (perhaps the finest hoopman to have ever excelled at Technical Drawing in Cabra-on-Sea during a brief pupil exchange with a Jose Maria Escriva academy of brown scapular woolmen) undertook his day three task with relish. Run hoops with chaste abandon, given the sensibilities of his former chalkmen - one of whom was holidaying in Budley with a sacristan from the Syriac Church in Antioch. Stephens tends to play better when his mind is fully engaged. To that end, he began the day by penning a pamphlet on a gegenpressing visionary called 'Ian Rush - Ode to a Kop moustache.'
Karl Murphy enjoyed a handsome portion of Flahavan's jumbo oats (lower glycaemic value than the steel cut version) at a local B & B run by a Ballyjamesduff woman who had eloped with the son of the local rector in 1974. He had subsequently left her for a bloke he'd met at Asda off the M1 near Tilsbury. Nevermind. Eggs royale were a superb protein follow-on from the carb-fest, a nod to the jubilee year.
Meanwhile, Rob O'Donoghue had hit the local golf links for an early morning round with club professional and course record holder, Rupert Willoughby. RoD found the edge of the left fairway with a 265yard 3 wood off the dog leg first before drilling a 7 iron into the stiff wind that settled 18 feet from the hole. Willoughby found a greenside bunker off his second shot before splashing a sand wedge to gimme distance. O'Donoghue drained the putt to go in front, a match play lead he never relinquished. Cross-code sporting excellence, something we all covet. Few manage to do it of course, however the likes of Katie Taylor has excelled as both brawler and 'baller though the former tag does a disservice to her classy technical prowess in the ring.
And so it was that on day 3 of the European Golf Croquet Championships, the trio of ógánaigh (youths) met to discuss tactical warfare over some Colombian coffee beans, hot water and Portugeuse tartlet. Confidence levels rose as the custard treats impacted sugar levels, an outline of match approach and strategy was sketched on the back of an eggs shakshouka-stained Book of Common Prayer hymn booklet which had been left in the clubhouse of Budley following the afters of a nuptials between an Egyptian golf croquet starlet and a local association luminary in early May. Halal meat had been served along with mead, an Irish beverage described as 'nectar of ye Gods.' It was from this starting point that the Irish team plotted their day's play with the enthusiasm of an elected official on the take. "Many men want to die for their country but how about living for your country ?" asked a passionately eloquent Mark Stephens, his mind focused on the task at hand. "Last refuge of the scoundrel or something more...?" offered a contemplative Murphy. Their collective will was strengthened by the arrival of a surprise visitor: an Áras an Uachtaráin emissary who had come bearing gifts: three Galway United FC jerseys and a copy of the epoch-defining tome: 'When Ideas Matter - Speeches for an Ethical Republic.' It was clear that the three represented more than just a hat trick of superb players, they offered a cerebral take on the challenges of our time - how to improve a begorrah statelet without haemorraging public finances in the manner of a Charlie Mc-Bartholomew A double hander budget giveaway.
In the morning opener, Castilian hoopman Andres Alvarez-Sala was too strong for Robert O'Donoghue, triumphing by 2 games to nil. The match was top quality, subtle bouquets of McInerney with a finishing floral Cunningham twist. RO'D will be the better for it, each outing forging what former All Black Scott Robertson likes to call a 'test match animal.'
Mark Stephens beat Latvia's Robert Stafeckis 7-4 in his day 3 opener following some quite superb boundary hoops from Hail Mary territory. His oppo rallied to take the next game on a cliffhanger at hoop 13 before Stephens found his rhythm again in the decider, winning by 7 hoops to 3. It was a day of vacillating vicissitudes for the Irish, the fast lawns a perfect stage for the beery-voiced whooping of the local spectating populace. Thinking clearly under pressure is the maxim that made performance coach Dave Alred a few bob. This week we have seen some outstanding exponents of the TCUP philosophy as Europe has come together to rejoice amidst the dissemination of the gospel of croquet.
Karl Murphy faced a 3-way playoff in order to advance to the last 16. Alas, two 7-2 defeats cost him passage to the knock-out stage proper. Mark Stephens emerged from his block to face a familiar adversary, England's Stephen Mulliner. Stephens won the opener 7-6 before Mulliner took control with some silken play. The young Irish man, a Carrickminder of immense promise who came to prominence in his Transition Year, has translated this early potential into the elite operator of today. He, like his compatriots O'Donoghue and Murphy, will now devote their summer to honing hoop-running; clearing shots and technique. The future of Irish croquet is very bright indeed, particularly now as a major heave into the GAA heartlands begins.
Former athletics doyen - the deceased chalkman Jerry Kiernan, once lamented that our best athletes spend each weekend flaking each other with sticks. Croquet is not known to produce emotional states conducive to acts of violence but it is envisaged that a concerted CAI feacthas naisiúnta (national campaign) to promote the game (backed by a few bob from state coffers) could result in the sort of impact that has seen egg-chasing becoming dans la mode across Cúige Laigheann. For Stuart Lancaster, read Fiachra Carroll. The Carrickmines Director of Croquet has the coaching nous of a young Jose Mourinho. Unlike the combustible Portuguese, his demeanour is pleasant, his temperament agreeable. With the CAI's new game promotions figurehead working hand-in-hand with the capable Carrickminder, it is clear that Irish croquet is on the cusp of something truly suntasach (remarkable).