The 2023 Association Croquet Championships of Ireland started on Saturday, August 5th at Carrickmines C <C amidst biblical downpours with Lawns 1 and 2 comparable to the Glenalbyn and Newpark swimming pools of the south Dublin boomer generation.
Play on 3 and 4 showed good drainage with Duncan and Simon dovetailing superbly with the roller. Their industriousness ensured the consistency of roll and hoop running that has marked this corner of County Dublin as a sort of New Jerusalem. Playable lawns, achieved in an era of wildly vacillating weather conditions, a testament to the agronomic expertise and the deonach suntasach (remarkable volunteerism of Styles). Williams annexed the Championship Singles in 1988, 1998, 2008 and 2018 as well as on other Augustan weeks ending in different randomised numerals. That maiden victory in '88 coincided with Glasgow Celtic FC clinching the Scottish double in their centenary year. David Murray would soon arrive in the Govan boardroom with a unique take on fiscal footballing matters.
Handicap competition play comprised most of the first weekend's play. Fiachra Carroll, the club's Teuotonically-efficient Croquet Director, overcame the challenge of Sylvia Briggs 26-9. He would then complete a 26-0 shutout versus Simon Williams in a display of calm accuracy.
Williams had arrived at that point after a 'W' versus Dave McGrath, the latter dispatching Tim Furlong in a tight first-round affair that was of a mediocre East Anglia derby-level standard. Both men aspired to greater things, namely 4 ball breaks.
The most remarkable piece of croquet, for this punter anyway, came early doors in a Looney Woulfe-Flanagan doubles match when the co-gaffer made considerable progress with a remarkable 2-ball break that had an lucht féachana (spectators) clutching for superlatives. A watching Mostar native, who had come to these shores amidst the internecine conflict of his pre-Dayton Accord 90s home, opined the break "superbovic".
Nathaniel Healy, like Williams, had benefited from a first round bye in the handicap singles. The leviathans of the Irish game are treated like the Liverpools and Manchester Uniteds in the FA Cup, whereby the footballing titans enter the fray at the third round. This enables first-round aspirants to build form and composure away from baying Flushing Meadows style crowds. Healy would meet the redoubtable Robert Miller who himself had triumphed over Conor O'Sullivan in a first-round clash of Green Cup stalwarts.
Miller was too clinical for Healy with the Newcastle resident a touch weary after his campaign ar son na h'Éireann in the recent European Croquet Championships in Blighty. Anne-Marie McGowan would prove too good for Miller in the next round as she added another victory to go with her Duncan Styles dispatch in the opening bout.
Richard Douglas and Tony Allwright lost their first-rounders in the singles to Huw Spiers and Gerard Osborn Burke respectively. Douglas can console himself that Spiers cleaned up in June's Co. Dublin's in the manner of Bayern Munich in their 11 in a row this season. Tony Allwright would go on to post some strong performances later in the week. He would also serve up some magnificent cocktail sausages to the masses: a most welcome accompaniment to the traditional afternoon tea. On Friday, an orange cake of outstanding texture, taste and colouration appeared by way of Michelle who had enjoyed an excellent doubles outing with her saineolaí crícigh (croquet expert) partner, Sandy.
Talented scribe, Myles McWeeney, saw off Daniel Bennett early doors in a match that had the watching pooch Milly rapt. Milly's proud owner, the moustachioed engineering oracle Alan Looney, arrived lawnside by way of an elegant electric bicycle on Friday. The Dutch 2-wheeler is a top of the ranger and can be controlled by an app on the bainisteoir's (manager's) phone. There is a danger, of course, that the 5G-enabled handset is being spookily monitored by a Beijing official. Alan's recent internet browsing history is said to feature a plethora of www.croquetscores.com visits and a cheeky Paddy Power bet on Leeds United winning the Championship and the FA Cup double. Leeds never should have sacked Bielsa, a deir tú (says you).
The semi-final denouement in the handicap singles saw Fiachra Carroll and Gerard Osborne Burke emerge triumphant in displays of conviction, tactical savvy and no little skill. The final promises to be an exceptional battle of wills.
A two-life draw format in the Handicap Doubles allows for Comeback Kid permutations and the chance to play your way into some form. One half of the draw sees gaffer Carroll and his earnest mallet mate Spiers into the final proper. Simon Williams and Clare Whyms will face the hoop-happy Carrickminder pair.
Padraig Thornton and John McAuley have blazed a trail in the Alternate Shot doubles comp. Their semi final meeting agin Healy and McGowan was a classic. The tight battle see sawed this way and that before the PT and JMc sneaked home by a 15-13 margin.
Tomorrow's final will see them meet the formidable Williams/Styles double act. The impressive trophy, a wonderful gift unto the CAI from Ann Woulfe-Flanagan, awaits the victors.
In the Championship Doubles, a fire and ice combo of Nathaniel Healy and Sandy Greig did for the Johnston duo by a solitary hoop, 17-16 in an opener. The esprits de corps on display was reminiscent of the recent Dublin Lawn Tennis Council promo' knockout match (leath ceannais - semi-final) versus Carrickmines' first team and that of Malahide. The court 1 clay contest between Julian Bradley and his game Nordie oppo had the former Davis Cup home boy exhorting his teammates to show "Big Energy". Healy was positively effervescent, the win a considerable feather in the Newcastle cap for the lawman and the steely Scot. Elsewhere, McGrath and Williams bested a Looney and Osborne Burke tandem effort before a shaky win over Carroll and Harris. The Johnstons would ultimately bring an end to the campaign of McGrath and Williams. It was a convincing victory after an initial stalling at hoop 2 from Andy. Real pros get the job done. Evocative of the get it right first time Toyota mantra.
Following a libation of Albarino, Williams would join Styles in an Alternate Shot semi-final afternoon display of courage and deft shot-making, 26-3 the margin there, versus Carrickmines and Portmarnock GC clubman Nigel Werner and his metronomic sidekick, Huw Spiers.
The Championship Singles remains the top-drawer event for those with delicate, artisanal hands. There is plenty of artistry there too, of course.
Williams won through to Saturday's final and will face one of Sandy Greig or Danny Johnston. The Shankill man saw off Andy Johnston on Thursday. AJ's winning habit, multiple past champion, draws comparison with 5 time British Open winner, Tom Watson. And like the Kansas City Titleist man, he oozes class. He has a quasi-Nordic temperament that means his heart rate stays in the optimal Zone 2 ( 60 to 80% of MHR) when in battle. The Blackrock Clinic cardiological sage, Dr Paddy Barrett, won't be receiving a visit anytime soon from the Newcastle tyro.
Doing the right things over and over - it's what's made modern Germany a modern economic powerhouse and that tendency to observe optimal protocols sees Robert Miller excel on and off lawn.
The final of the Green Cup final on Saturday, August 12th will see Robert Miller face off versus Conor O'Sullivan. Miller has the savoir faire to get around all six hoops and back in regulation time. A candidate for the nicest man in croquet, he also happens to be a photographer of some standing, sharing that platform with the Dalkey snapper and USCA kingpin, Padraig Thornton.
Speaking of the latter comortas(competition), Anne- Marie McGowan will face Duncan Styles in tomorrow's final. They have both reached the climax of the event after some gargantuan battles. Test match animals are forged in the heat of battle. As Andy Farrell steers the Good Ship Éire towards the Mecca of egg-chasing next month in France, this week's croquet has also seen some brawny battles between amiable hoopsters and adversarial foes.
The Newell Candlestick boasts Richard Whelan locking horns with Clare Whyms to complete their hat trick of clashes this week. Finals' day boasts pure croquet of a type that merits spectatorial worship. Cerebral passages of play allied to a competitiveness that is innate to champions will attract both neutrals and veteran hoopsters who come to love and learn. Play starts at 9am and will run through til about 7pm.