Monday, September 30, 2019

Schadenfreude and the Irish Rugby Team

The Irish rugby establishment suffered two traumatic events on Saturday. The first was the defeat of the national team – the No 1 team in the world, twenty-two-point favourites on the day – by hosts Japan at the Rugby World Cup. The second was that news that no small proportion of the nation were delighted to see Japan win.

It was the second event that was the more traumatic. It was like when a relationship breaks up. You thought she loved you; turns out, you make her sick. That’s not easy to get the head around.

There is a certain amount of begrudgery, of course, a defining Irish characteristic if ever there was one. There’s always been a demographic who despise rugby and all who play it.

These are the people who insist on referring to Autumn Internationals as “friendlies,” and dismiss Six Nations games as not counting because they’re not the World Cup. They’re never going to happy, and their contribution is best ignored.

It’s the public that took real pride in the achievements of the rugby team who are now turning away from it that should concern the IRFU. The IRFU have always been a little … peculiar in the matter of rugby evangelisation. It’s something that they may come to regret.

There is an opinion among rugby-haters that rugby is despised because only a certain class play it. That isn’t true. Irish people have always had an affection for rugby, often in places where the game is as alien as cricket or baseball.

Ollie Campbell tells a story in Tom English’s magisterial oral history of Irish rugby, No Borders, of Campbell’s car breaking down somewhere in Connemara, and of his getting a lift to a garage from a nun.

The nun had no interest in rugby, but the Ward-vs-Campbell was at its zenith at the time. Ward-vs-Campbell was part of the national conversation, one of those things on which everyone has an opinion.

This particular nun considered it shocking that the IRFU wouldn’t give that nice Mr Ward a go. She had no idea who Campbell was but Campbell did the only thing he could, and agreed wholeheartedly with her.

The eighties are far distant now, and the rugby of that era seems as dated as old black-and-white newsreel footage of FA Cup games featuring Blackpool or Preston North End from before the war. There was no need to tell the nation that Campbell and Co represented the “Team of Us” – it was written in every line of their faces.

Rugby was, famously, a game for all sizes. Irish people could look at the team and see the nation in all its complexity and diversity, before diversity became a thing.

There were tall men and short men, fat men and thin men, scrawny men about whom you worried would have violence done to them, and other men on whom you could count to do violence unto the other crowd. But only when they were looking for it, mind. Peaceable ould souls otherwise.

Rugby was enjoyed by Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter, at a time when those distinctions were matters of life and death. English’s book deals quite sensitively with those divisions, which were dealt with without any ersatz anthems having to be invented to paper over cracks.

And somewhere along the line that connection was broken. A lot of people no longer make that connection between the team and the nation.

Professionalism is a part of it. Rugby was a very easy to game to understand – you won if you hit them harder than they hit you. That’s not the case any more. Rugby is now decided in the breakdown, which can only be properly understood by watching tape with coaches and having a very good eye for body positioning and the physics of the lever.

I remember Donncha O’Callaghan talking about how much of his game – tackling and clearing out rucks – was just a job, like any other job, and I remember thinking: how sad. It’s meant to be a game. It’s not meant to be just another job.

Rugby at the moment is in a strange place in its evolution. Ireland, by luck rather than judgement, found itself perfectly suited to the professional setup when the IRFU realised that the provinces, rather the clubs, were the future.

Other countries have been less lucky, none more so than France, where the demands of the French clubs have reduced the fighting cocks of the national team to feather dusters.

And what’s most bizarre of all, in Ireland especially, is that there is no discussion of these changes. For the Irish rugby community, the people who would recognise Ollie Campbell at the bottom of a meadow, it’s business as usual, except that Ireland is top dog now, instead of cannon fodder.

Other than that, it’s all as it ever was, with clients to entertain at the England game and tickets to dump on one’s underlings when Italy or Samoa are in town.

Every year the GAA displays its anguished breast at the professional creep into both hurling and football, and problems with the game of football and with the Championship setup.

In rugby – nothing. The sound of silence permeates the halls, except for the intermittent thunk of a passport being stamped and some hired gun being handed a backstory about how much he loves Guinness’s porter, Kerrygold butter and Father Ted.

Reader, do you remember that Irish-by-birth-Munster-by-the-grace-of-God stuff we used to hear in the early 2000s? We don’t hear it so much now, with Munster not having the same schools feeder system as Leinster or Ulster and having to go shopping for players, just like an English soccer team. And that’s fine, in its way, but it is remarkable that nobody ever writes about it.

Nobody ever writes an op-ed saying that for him or her the Munster experience has been cheapened because Limerick isn’t to the fore as it was. There are some op-eds about members of the Irish team that are not Irish, but as everybody is doing it – and none more blatantly or disgracefully than New Zealand, the greatest rugby nation in the world – the writers can perhaps excused that. But ordinary people, who cheer the jersey first and the game second, really aren’t happy about it.

The amateur ethos enveloping the professional game has created a disconnect between the Irish team and the people who are not heartland rugby people. Heartland rugby people, the people who should be evangelising the game in written and broadcast media, don’t address what happened to Munster-by-the-grace-of-God or the ethics of foreign players wearing the emerald green.

Rugby pundits are far more interested in disappearing into an increasingly isolated world of jackals winning first-phase ball and dynamic offloading. The people are wondering why if Paddy Jackson or Seán O’Brien ever went on a night out with their Irish team-mates and what exactly those nights out were like. It would be odd if they didn’t, wouldn’t it?

When Ireland lost to Japan, did anyone wonder if maybe somebody shouldn’t give Paddy or Seán a bell, in this hour of direst emergency? How would the rugby world react? Would fans book tickets home? Would writers they no longer recognise the team? Or would they suck it up and parrot the parrot line?

Increasingly, that’s going to be more and more up to themselves. The nation is looking at rugby and thinking: it’s not me that’s changed. It’s you. I just don’t know who you are any more.