independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Kate Rowan: Can Ian Madigan’s hair tell us how professional rugby is changing in Ireland?

Leinster's Ian Madigan
Leinster's Ian Madigan

What does Borussia Dortmund coach Jürgen Klopp have in common with Leinster’s Ian Madigan?

Both are facing European club finals in their respective sports this weekend. Yet something else crops up when either’s name is typed into Google – hair.

You will see that hair related issues are a popular topic connected to both, above footballing tactical savvy or the future of the Leinster number 10 jersey.

In the case of Klopp, the 45 year old caused quite a stir in his homeland when he came out of the hair transplant closest last month.

Wayne Rooney and Stephen Ireland have both been there done that, got the hair transplant t-shirt. So, Herr Klopp’s revelation was not particularly earth shattering.

When it comes to footballing hairstyles, we just shrug our shoulders at this stage. It wouldn’t be professional football if there weren’t highlights and Alice bands beneath headed balls.

Rugby is different. Only a decade ago Brian O’Driscoll elicited quite a bit of tutting with his highlighted hair-do. There of course have been mullets à la Shane Byrne or the caveman look à la Sebastian Chabal but the shaggy long hair looks were always there, even in the amateur era when if you wanted to impress selectors you shined your boots and got a good haircut.

Perhaps, those final vestiges of that old ethos caused rugby hair in Ireland to remain rather staid. Madigan’s creative hair topiary does not seem to be causing much disapproval, maybe some good-natured mocking from teammates involving photos of llamas with fur growing in similar quiffs being posted on Twitter!

Whether you consider this good or bad publicity for Madigan’s gruaig – it has become a talking point – far more than if a footballer in England had a similar style.

All this may seem frivolous but Madigan’s mop as it blows in the Dublin 4 breeze might just point us in the direction of how professionalism in rugby is evolving.

In the wake of the news of Jonathan Sexton’s departure for France, former Ireland head coach Declan Kidney, when asked if this would cause the beginning of an Irish exodus towards Gallic clubs, remarked that he had always believed it would not be until after 20 years of professionalism that we would witness the full effects.

It is now 18 years since the sport made that momentous change. We are in a pretty good place to stand back now and survey the differences in the Irish rugby landscape.

With the recent speculation surrounding the retirements of O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara, rugby and the professional game in Ireland is in an interesting position. Players such as those two and Paul O’Connell all grew up watching amateur rugby. As young boys they had no idea that they would end up earning a living from the game they loved.

Madigan for example was six years old at the dawn of professionalism, Simon Zebo was five and the current Lions Captain Sam Warburton was just seven. This newer generation of players are those starting to assume leadership roles. There will come a time in the not too distant future, when all their teammates have grown up with the possibility of earning a living from rugby.

In simple terms if you grow up with your sole focus being a career as a professional rugby player you will be much more aware of the commercial side of the sport.

I am not saying that younger players are all about the bling and bright lights, if anything they are at an advantage in seeing what is expected of them if and when they become known in the public eye as they will be more media savvy from an earlier age.

Rugby players do not have to worry about going into an office job with a mad haircut. Sport, after all is a form of entertainment, so why not express yourself?

This throws up another talking point – education outside of rugby. I remember when I was a teenager regularly reading feature articles about rugby stars that had balanced professional careers with third level studies. This was inspiring.

Players are still getting degrees. However, there seems to be less emphasis on it in the media as there had been perhaps ten years ago. Despite the rigours of professionalism, there were still the amateur values of getting a good grounding in a field outside of rugby.

Sometimes, it seems as though younger Irish society on a broader level beyond rugby and sport has become caught up in a celebrity culture. Perhaps, it is this mentality that has us talking less about player’s academic achievements?

Academies such as Leinster’s promote the idea of education working collaboratively with UCD in helping players find a field of study of interest as well as completing a HETAC recognised diploma in professional rugby. This would certainly be aiming to get the balance right and addresses the hard fact that rugby careers are short and only a very few can retire without having to worry about their finances.

It will be interesting to see in another twenty years how professional rugby changes in Ireland and if the coach’s hair will even be a talking point?

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