Monday, February 26, 2007

Fans with Typewriters - How the Irish Public is Settling for Second Best

Sonia - not content with second bestAs An Spailpín Fánach wades through indeterminable acres of rubbish about the rugby on Saturday, he can’t help thinking back to when Sonia O’Sullivan was in danger of becoming a national pariah for disrespecting the flag.

Do you remember? Sonia had won some race or other – she used to win plenty of them, you know, back in the day – and some gnu fired a tricolour at her during the lap of honour, or when she was off somewhere for a sneaky Woodbine. But Sonia continued on her way, without stopping to drape the flag around herself and give the nation a vision of Cathleen Ni Houlihan made flesh.

Heresy. Cue the usual suspects, spluttering their outrage on Liveline and like fora. The dirty Cork jezebel, thinks she’s too big for her britches. Who does she think she is? If I had won that race, I’d have carried the flag, and been proud of it, because I love Ireland more than life itself. And so on.

The nation, you see, was outraged that Sonia had refused the nation’s love. The nation had been feeding off this notion that Sonia O’Sullivan was the best runner in the history of running, and that she was one of us. And now the haughty bitch won’t carry the tricolour, for which patriots fought and bled and died? Shame! Boo! Hiss!

And from there on in, Sonia had to take the flag everywhere she went, in order to keep the home fires burning – and to stop getting Joan of Arc’d herself on her next visit home, of course. That was the price of being the nation’s darling.

An Spailpín remembers something O’Sullivan herself said at the time, that wasn’t taken up much in the media. It hadn’t been taken up because the media had divided into two camps – those that thought any mention of the flag business was infra dig, dear boy, and those who, in Burns’ words, nursed the hate to keep it warm.

What Sonia O’Sullivan said about the flag business at the time was that she didn’t take the flag because the other girls on the athletics circuit would think “oh look, there’s Sonia thinking she’s somebody again.”

Sonia O’Sullivan, whatever else one may say about her, was a winner. She won, and did not accept failure. And the time of the flag controversy was 1994, one year after her being stunned by those Chinese girls who, on a diet solely of hill-dwelling caterpillars, as I recall the cover story at the time, shot by Sonia in the 1993 World Championships. So Sonia was not feeling much like a winner, as she had lost on the grand stage, and losing was deeply, deeply unacceptable to her.

But that’s not good enough for the Irish nation. The nation wants to have its party, and hell damn and blast anyone that lets the truth get in the way of that. So the flag story was quietly left to die, while Sonia had to pack a tricolour with her toothbrush for the next ten years and the OCI even had her carry the thing at the Olympics, as a final act of penance.

All that was meant to have changed after the national trauma of Saipan, which grows more and more difficult to understand as the years go by. The media promised the nation that its days of being fans with typewriters were over. From now on, they would shoot from the hip and damn the consequences. Fiat justicia – let right be done.

Until the Irish rugby team played at Croke Park of course. Then all that old slobber went out the window. Come on Ireland! We love you! Very, very much!

Brian Moore, former hooker for Harlequins, England and the British Lions, is the only commentator who is not letting himself get caught up in the propaganda being cynically churned out by a craven media. Writing in this morning’s Telegraph, while acknowledging the intense atmosphere surrounding the game, Moore points out – cruelly but truly - that the Irish win “wasn’t quite like beating Stephen Hawking at arm wrestling.” This English team aren’t very good, and haven’t been very good in four years. It’s 2003 since England last beat Ireland, don’t forget. Moore goes on to point out that what happened on Saturday against England only puts Ireland’s failure against France the Sunday before into harsher perspective, finishing with the words “The quality of the win actually exacerbates the failure against France; and as one who knows about this, the gut-wrenching regret will actually increase, not fade.”

“As one who knows about this”: how Moore must still bitterly regret his England team’s Grand Slam loss at Murrayfield in 1990 and the World Cup Final loss at Twickenham in 1991, won by David Campese before a ball was kicked.

And well he should regret it, because Moore, like Sonia O’Sullivan and Roy Keane, was a winner. He was not interested in making up the numbers or uttering inane pieties.

It’s possible that Ireland may win the Championship yet. If France lose to either England or Scotland and Ireland wallop the Scots and Italians, it’s certainly possible. If not, then every other competing nation bar Italy will not only have won the Championship, but have won a Grand Slam, since Ireland last won the Championship in 1985. Scotland and Wales have won a Slam each, and a Championship to go along with the Slams; the French and English have won multiple Slams and Championships.

And not only have Ireland gone without a Championship while everyone else has had their days in the sun, this Golden Irish Generation, the greatest combination of players to have ever worn emerald green together, has come second in three out of four years, and third in the fourth. And when they are old and grey and look back on their careers, will they ask what might have been? Settling for the odd win against the old enemy and the once-off days of glory was all very well for the amateur era, but that time is over. When the All-Blacks tour now, they most certainly do not play Munster any more. And it’s not because they’re frightened of 1978; it’s because they couldn’t be bothered. Rugby has moved on, but nobody seems to have told poor forlorn Paddy. Take that, you eight-hundred year oppressor! Hurrah! Where’s me pint?

An Spailpín Fánach looked at the tears streaming down the faces of John Hayes and Jerry Flannery during Amhrán na bhFiann and felt sorry for this generation of remarkable talent, whose kind will not be seen again. Their chance of glory in 2007 has gone, there may be few enough chances left in the future, and here they are crying because they think this still means something? That it’s not just another game? Shame on the management for being so easily sated, and shame on a craven rugby media for not calling them out over it. Content with second place – what would Sonia O’Sullivan or Roy Keane think?

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