Neil Loughran: Rivals – you may think you hate them, but just be glad you have them

Neil Loughran

Neil Loughran

Neil has worked as a sports reporter at The Irish News since 2008, with particular expertise in GAA and boxing coverage.

The pre-tournament focus on Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed helped drive both towards the top of the leaderboard at the Dubai Desert Classic. Picture by PA
The pre-tournament focus on Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed helped drive both towards the top of the leaderboard at the Dubai Desert Classic. Picture by PA

WHEN Patrick Reed flicked that tee in Dubai earlier this year, Rory McIlroy should have stood up, extended his hand and thanked him. Never mind the LIV stuff, the Christmas Eve subpoena, or the fact Reed has never been the most popular person on tour.

Already returned to world number one and in brilliant form, the Texan did McIlroy a favour by handing over that extra bit of bite in the days before a driver had been drawn. Perhaps he thought it would work the other way. Perhaps he thought it was something of nothing.

McIlroy played the incident down, describing it as “a storm in a teacup”, but the shoulder shrugs and bemused head shakes didn’t quite ring true.

The Holywood man is a born competitor – competitive with himself, competitive with those around him. You can see it in his body language, what he says, even the manner in which he became the unofficial voice of golf’s establishment against the rebel, Saudi-backed tour.

There is an edge to McIlroy that separates the good sportspeople from the great.

The tee toss might have been small fry when weighing up the reasons, the various twists and turns that led to McIlroy winning the Dubai Desert Classic, but it was in the mix – just as it was for Reed as he saddled up alongside, challenger-in-chief.

When both were among those to hit the front by the end of round one, it provided the kind of soap opera storyline television networks can only dream of - one that ran on through the weekend before birdies at the 17th and 18th eventually saw McIlroy shake Reed off at the death.

As the post-mortem got under way, the McIlroy mask slipped just a touch as he described how that one-shot victory was “sweeter than it should be”.

“Did I want to win? Yes,” he said.

“Was there added incentive because of who was up there? Absolutely.”

Sweating on who is over your shoulder can make or break the best – where some wilt, those destined for the top rise to the challenge. The list of examples is endless.

During the Noughties, Tyrone and Armagh thrived off each other’s insatiable lust for success.

No cut could come any deeper than watching the Orchard end their wait for Sam in 2002 – 12 months later it was the Red Hands who had snatched the upper hand, the pendulum continuing to swing back and forth.

“Any game you played against Tyrone, there was an intense rivalry and a hatred that brought both teams to new levels. It brought Gaelic games to new levels at that particular time,” former Armagh forward Steven McDonnell told Niall McCoy in his book, ‘Kings for a Day’.

“We knew we brought them to new levels, they know they brought us to new levels. Only for that rivalry, who knows where those teams would have been…”

Tennis stars Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal pushed themselves to levels previously unseen, while the rivalry between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier came to represent something beyond boxing by the time of their bruising third encounter.

“What it came down to in Manila,” said American sportswriter Jerry Izenberg, “wasn't the heavyweight championship of the world. Ali and Frazier were fighting for something more important than that.

“They were fighting for the heavyweight championship of each other.”

In doing so, they brought the eyes of the world along with them.

The same can be said of middle distance runners Sebastien Coe and Steve Ovett, whose bitter battle is best encapsulated by the events of Christmas Day, 1979.

The story goes that Coe got up and did a hard 12 miles that morning, even in the midst of a particularly grim winter, so he could enjoy the rest of the day. By the afternoon Coe, relaxing with his family, started to feel uneasy.

It wasn’t the sprouts, but the suspicion that bitter rival Steve Ovett was out doing his second run of the day. Coe couldn’t settle and out he went again to do some hill reps in the ice and snow, determined not to be outdone by his nemesis.

When the pair reminisced after their careers ended, Coe recounted the story to Ovett, meeting with a bemused response.

"You only went out twice?” 

And while so many rivalries are backboned by fear of failure, or losing face, some can open the door to a world of possibilities.

Would Amy Broadhurst have swept all before her last year had it not been for Kellie Harrington? And vice-versa, considering the key role Broadhurst played in Harrington’s preparation for Tokyo 2020?

When I sat down with Broadhurst last year, she outlined the complexities of a rivalry that would come to draw the best from both. Before Covid-19 intervened, the Dundalk woman had designs on challenging Harrington for the lightweight spot in Tokyo.

Their only previous meeting had come in the 2017 Irish elite final, when Harrington was too slick and smart for her 20-year-old opponent. Much had changed in the time between.

Bad blood and a few verbal slaps back and forth through the media fuelled the fire for a time until the pandemic, followed by surgery to her wrist, marked the death of that dream.

Yet Broadhurst did end up travelling to Tokyo, invited out to help sharpen the skills of those going into battle. When it came to choosing their final spars before moving into the athletes’ village, Harrington requested Broadhurst - weeks later she was Olympic champion.

But it didn’t end there. Broadhurst believed Harrington was about to turn pro, paving the way for her to step in at 60 kilograms. The Dublin woman had other ideas, revealing her intention to go for gold again at Paris 2024 on the Late, Late Show.

“We’re sitting laughing away at her interview, then bang,” said Broadhurst.

“I was just… I actually got up, bust out crying and went for a drive. I got pulled over by the Guards at a checkpoint, me crying and everything. That was a very difficult time.

“Going to Tokyo and before Tokyo, me and Kellie got very friendly, having a laugh with each other. But last year I had a sour taste in my mouth.

“Some of the spars, it’s on video, we’re taking lumps out of each other - I had so much anger towards her then as well, you can actually see [Irish coach] John Conlan walk away from the ring and put his head in his hands, like he was done with the two of us.

“None of us were listening, we were just trying to hurt each other.”

The storm would eventually subside and, when it did, Amy Broadhurst was all the better for it. Having barely boxed in the two years previous, 2022 brought World, European and Commonwealth Games gold medals and a slew of personal awards. More importantly, the mental resolve to battle back will be in her corner for as long as she laces up gloves.

For sportspeople, the double-edged sword of having a rival stir the blood is - and forever will be - an essential part of the game. So no matter how much you may think you hate them, just be glad you have them.