Sunday, February 18, 2007

God Save the Queen

Here's Jonny!Who says people aren’t passionate about music anymore? A bemused Spailpín Fánach has spent the weekend listening to a lot of huffing and puffing concerning the playing of the English National Anthem at Croke Park on Saturday, when England play Ireland. As a matter of fact, your on-the-pulse-of-the-zeitgeist correspondent may have even unwittingly triggered it all himself, during the course of an interview last Monday with Noel D. Walsh of Shannonside/Northern Sound Radio.

But people certainly do seem to be getting het up about it, and An Spailpín Fánach can’t quite figure out why, short of guessing that it’s another manifestation of the perpetual Irish need for having it both ways. We – the nation at one, to believe certain media outlets – are delighted to have our guests come and adore “our” lovely stadium, just so long as they’re not those beastly Tans who like to sing God Save You-Know-Who.

An Spailpín can’t fully understand why there’s a debate in the first place. Surely once you turn on the red light you concede all rights to say that you’re not that sort of girl or that you’d hate to ruin the friendship? Once you’ve taken the money, the customer is entitled to get what he paid for, and if he wants a singalong with it, a singalong he gets.

It’s also difficult to understand quite why it is that so much blather is being built up about a game that happens every year. Ireland first played England at rugby union football on February 19th, 1875 at Kennington Oval, a game which the home side won by two goals and a try to nil. It would be twelve years before Ireland managed their first win over England, but they’ve been playing happily every year since that original twenty-a-side encounter in 1875. Why is this Saturday going to be such a big deal? It couldn’t be the presence of certain nouveaux among us who like to thank the grace of God for them being the way they are, as if the Big Man wasn’t getting enough yada yada yada from Richard Dawkins? Considering the hype machine that was overheating by the Thursday before the French game, when a breathless Áine Lawlor told the nation on Morning Ireland that one upon a time, a little boy called Denis in Tipperary dreamed of playing in Croke Park, An Spailpín thinks he would be well advised to keep his head down for the week, for the sake of his own sanity.

An Spailpín is not in favour of the opening of Croke Park, as regular penitents at this corner of cyperspace are aware. That does not take from his great love for the game of rugby football, however. To those who would call this hypocritical, I would remark that my love for strong black pints of Guinness’ Porter does not mean that I’m going to start pouring the stuff over my morning Weetabix. To everything its place, and a GAA stadium is for GAA games. Not anybody else’s. But what An Spailpín cannot understand, for love nor money, is why those same learned men who call for the opening of Croke Park then start spluttering and turning red in the face at the notion of a visiting team playing their anthem? There is no more point in booing God Save the Queen when England come to Dublin to play rugby on Saturday than there was booing them when they arrived two years ago, or four, or eight, or ten, or twelve, or fourteen, or sixteen, or eighteen, or twenty. There’s nothing new about it. If people are thinking of it because the game is on “sacred” soil, look up and tell me if that red light is still switched on. If it is, then can it Agnes, and shut up.

Consultations with the weekend newspapers may have enlightened the boo brigade, although An Spailpín sadly notes the Cap’n’s prescient remarks to and concerning Cool Hand Luke that there are some men you just can’t reach. On Saturday, that quillsman semper optimus of the Irish Times’ sports pages, Keith Duggan, had a fascinating story about the last time Ireland played an International at Ravenhill in Belfast, and some last minute brinkmanship on behalf of those much derided blazers in calming the objections of the southern based Irish players who objected to the playing of the home anthem – which was God Save the Queen, of course, as the game was in Belfast. As Duggan remarked, it’ll be good crack when Ireland play Italy up there this coming August as part of their World Cup preparations.

And then Peter O’Reilly in the Sunday Times had a piece about John Pullin’s never to be forgotten bravery in leading out England at Lansdowne Road in 1973. As An Spailpín is concerned that some of these splutterers may even consider being so unspeakably boorish as to boo the visitors’ anthem on Saturday, a brief history lesson from when rugby was still an amateur game.

1972 was one of the worst years of the Northern Troubles. The second Bloody Sunday happened, the British Embassy in Dublin was burned down, Laughing Lenny Cohen sang Kevin Barry during his show in Dublin – it was hot stuff all around. A bit too hot for the Scots and the Welsh rugby football unions, who flat-out refused to come to Dublin for their games. When you consider that by the time of those games Ireland had already beaten the English at Twickenham and the French at the old Stade Colombes, this stung more than a little bit. The Welsh made a mealy-mouthed offer to play their game at the Arms Park (where Ireland hadn’t won since 1965, and wouldn’t until 1985 – thanks Taff, that is kind of you to offer) but what happened was that Ireland’s home fixtures were not played, and the Championship ended, for the first and only time, in a ludicrous five-way tie, despite the fact that Ireland were undefeated.

This put a lot of pressure on England to turn up in Dublin in 1973 to fulfil the fixture, and turn up they did, lead by a doughty sheep farmer from the West Country, John Pullin, who played hooker for Bristol, England and the Lions. Pullin famously remarked at the post match dinner that while England might not be any good – they lost 18-9 in a score that flattered them – at least they turned up. An England team got their first and only ovation at an Irish sporting ground in 1973 when they took the field at Lansdowne Road, and they deserved it. And this is the history and tradition of a team whom people are thinking of booing? The mind boggles, and the spirit is shamed by more fatuous and cynical behaviour in modern Ireland.

For what it’s worth, Ireland should win pulling up on Saturday. Brian O’Driscoll will be back, and that will make all the difference. It’s hard to see England winning enough ball on the deck against such expert scroungers as the Irish back-row and the Irish centres, and it’s also difficult to see a former League player turning into a silk purse overnight. Every few years someone jumps ship from League and is hailed as the next big thing, but it hasn’t worked for anybody yet. Hard to see it working for Andy Farrell on Saturday either.

Jonny Wilkinson is, of course, the dangerman. Daniel Carter, the New Zealand 10, has been hailed as the best in the world but for An Spailpín’s dollar that title is Wilko’s anytime he can stay out of the hospital. A player of astonishing talent and bravery, and a man of icy calm and resolve. If Ireland give away penalties inside their own half, Wilkinson can and will punish them. He has the technology.

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