Playing for our lost generation
Brisbane June 26, 2010. Ireland versus Australia. The warm--up. Jonathan Sexton looks up at the thousands of young Irish cheering in the stands. He wonders if there's anyone left at home.
There were some who doubted Sexton's loyalty to club and country. There were more who doubted that he had received a big offer from France. Soundings from so-called well-placed sources implied that such a huge French salary might well be a figroll of someone's imagination.
The offer was genuine.
Sometimes I have to hold off when it comes to writing about Jonathan (he is my godson) but it grates when misinformation is disseminated for whatever reasons. Here's the truth: Sexton has given up hundreds of thousands by staying at home.
Jonathan sees himself as one of the lucky ones who had a choice. Stay or go. And he had to think it through. His pals are heading for Australia, and everywhere. Some want to go, more don't. Some will come home in a couple of years, more won't. One thousand a week are leaving.
This young lad wanted to stay. He's a home bird.
There was another reason. Jonathan is still the same small boy who pretended he was playing for Ireland in the back garden. That's all he ever wanted. If he left it might have adversely affected his Ireland career. And God forgive him, he's loyal to Leinster too.
The southern hemisphere players leave for foreign climes in the year after the World Cup when their careers are ever so slightly on the wane and the four-year gap between tournaments ends at a time past their sell-by date.
It's different here.
The time to leave is when you are a young lad. The reasons are all to do with tax. Charlie McCreevy introduced a tax break entitling professional sports people to a substantial rebate if they finish up their careers in this country. But the part nobody saw coming was the temptation for young players to leave in middle of their careers and then return home for the last few seasons of their playing life.
Sexton, Heaslip, O'Brien and others have committed for two years. They may leave then and hopefully the financial sacrifice will have been rewarded with trophies.
We just wanted to clear all this up before we go to the Eternal City and the Six Nations opener against Italy.
There was a walkabout a few years ago for the Agri Matters programme at Listowel Races with the erudite yet bubbly Donna O'Sullivan.
A fortune teller was prophesying in The Square. She was a lovely woman and her demeanour demanded respect, which meant I didn't ask her any smart-assed questions like, "come on Madame X, tell us, will David Casey win the 2.30?"
I declined her generous offer to have my fortune told for free. At the time there was no fear of the findings of an imprecise science, but more like 'even though there's no such thing as ghosts, I wouldn't sleep in a haunted house' sort of attitude.
We said goodbye to Madame X, and as we left her homely caravan she whispered "Son, do not go to Rome until you pass 55 years of age."
Rome remains the only Six Nations venue we have not reported from.
It's an easy place to write about. Perfect for 'here's one I prepared earlier' metaphors from a hungover columnist, auto-piloting through the dense cerebral fog of the morning after. If Ireland win it's 'veni, vidi, vici' and if Ireland lose --'we were lambs to the slaughter in the Coliseum.' Although, come to think of it, lambs were probably not much of a draw in the Coliseum.
Definitely Rome is no place for lambs. The Italians will be full of early season 'this is our year.' Big, huge, sallow, hardy handsome lads with hairy faces and doleful Padre Pio eyes will do their utmost to rip our pack up like election promises. Their backs will mess up most of the possession and we will eventually take over near the end.
That's what usually happens, but as Rome's own vestal virgins used to say, there's always a first time.
We respect Declan Kidney's judgment in this column. The scrum-halves he has chosen are excellent players and will not let Ireland down, but going to Rome without Stringer is like going to Vatican without the price of a mass card.
I just checked the spelling of vestal virgins. Tommy O'Connell, perennial desk partner, and yours truly used to talk a lot to each other in class through a series of winks, nods and telepathic signals honed since Babies. We laughed our way through school. Consequently, there were times when we missed the minutiae of the detail. For years I thought the keepers of the eternal flame were vested virgins.
In the innocence of first year I was sure the vests the virgins wore were winter woollies. I still scratch when I think of the Matt Talbotite torture. Those tickly vests must have been made from the fleece of a mangy dog.
Drive you nuts if you had short hands and a long back. Did you just itch right there? Bet you did. Shove a barbecue fork down your back but don't scratch too hard or herself or himself will think you were playing away from home.
Ireland have the disadvantage of an away game. We should win with a few spectacular tries, but Italy will edge the possession stats. Thankfully there are no marks for stats. That 1,000-a-week stat is one that will motivate our boys.
Brian O'Driscoll spoke to our Vincent Hogan of his sadness at the haemorrhage of the brightest we ever reared. He said he and his men were the lucky ones. I'm not privy to the theme for this season but I would suggest it could be Ireland are playing for our lost generation who have been shipped out to foreign shores, almost secretly. We need someone to fight their fight.
O'Driscoll and his squad have the moral authority others can never claim due to their complicity in the exodus.
For this Irish team put love of country before love of money.