Want to play tag?
It’s the latest craze to sweep the nation, and is proving a hot-bed for new relationships. Laura Noonan on tag rugby
Published 21/08/2010 | 05:00
He looks at me in utter bemusement and suddenly it dawns on me. My doctor thinks tag is a game where children chase each other round a park, a decidedly odd explanation for how a 22-year-old has broken her finger.
"Tag rugby," I qualify quickly.
"Tag what?" he asks, looking as bemused as ever as I explain that it began in England in 1991 and now teams of girls and guys pull tags off each other in a non-contact version of traditional rugby.
Four years later I'm back in another A&E, with yet another broken finger, and how the world has changed. "Ah, tag," the doctor says to me knowingly, before I've said a single word. "We see loads of those in here."
A poster on the wall shows just how true his statement is -- a recent survey at Vincent's found 46pc of all hand injuries they see relate to tag rugby misadventures. And that's not where the hospital's experience of tag ends.
"We've got a few teams here," my radiographer tells me, and soon we're gabbing like old friends about losses and victories, and about the slings and arrows of outrageous referees.
These days tag isn't just a semi-legitimate sport, it's a fraternity. Right across the country, tens of thousands of people are invisibly bound together by their enjoyment of the curious game, identifying each other by crooked fingers and dodgy knees instead of the usual frat-club adornments.
It's a membership as diverse as any to be found in Ireland -- I've talked tag in boardrooms with plc chief executives who've been known to turn out for the office team, but I'm just as likely to be pitted against a team of undergrads trying their hand at the UCD League.
Rumours of professional rugby players cropping up at one-day blitzes are rife, and teams live in fear of the day they'll line out in Wesley or Mary's and find Gordon D'Arcy or some equally implausible ringer on the other end of the pitch.
For make no mistake, with tag's surge in popularity has come a surge in the sport's competitiveness and the level of skill on the pitch (though even as I type this I can hear 'real' rugby types sniggering).
The beauty of tag, in the early days, was that we all thought it was a 'made-up game', a good excuse to go for a drink after matches or training (in testament to that fine heritage, one team's strip still proudly proclaims 'my drinking team has a tag problem').
Oh, we occasionally tried to take it seriously in year one, bless us, with one of my newsroom colleagues prone to turning up at training with diagrams and roaring "scissors" at random points in the match, but for the most part the sport part was a bit of a running joke. Bringing home the C League plate was the height of our achievements on the pitch -- the Tuesday night barbecues at Terenure RFC before heading on to Tramco for some midweek partying were the essence of that very first season (and the main reason we returned for season two).
By year three, when we made it to our first All Ireland finals through a beautiful back door, it was evident how far the game had come. As we tried to draw numbers on our subs' shirts with masking tape, the other teams were doing actual warm-ups. In actual matching strips. Led by actual managers and coaches.
It didn't come as much of a surprise, then, when they actually thrashed us, and we went home with our numbers hanging off our T-shirts and our tails between our legs.
Since then, many more milestones have been passed. Tag began as a weeknight summer thing; then a weekend spring league surfaced, pitting us against hailstones, rain and occasionally even snow from March to May.
Next came an autumn league, taking advantage of floodlit synthetic pitches to make games playable in even the most inhospitable of weathers. These days tag is literally a year-round event, and anyone who remains injury-free for long enough can enjoy spring, summer, autumn 1, autumn 2, winter 1 and winter 2.
The onward march of the weekend blitz has been just as striking. In year one there were a handful of one-day tournaments, and we eagerly decamped to Galway city to see what tag on tour had to offer.
Partying on the Friday night ensured Saturday's tag was towards the less exuberant end of the scale, and the post-blitz celebrations, as hundreds of tag players took over whole tranches of Galway city, were by far the most memorable part of the weekend.
These days, there are tag blitzes running almost every weekend of the summer, stretching right across Ireland's bigger towns, cities and beaches. The Pig 'n' Porter festival in Limerick is the biggie of the summer's grass events, with multiple venues needed to cater for the masses that throng the city.
The bulk of the action, though, is on the less traditional surface of sand. The beach blitzes began, like most of tag, as a laugh, with the novelty of playing in such random surrounds outweighing any serious competitiveness.
These days there's a series of five beach blitzes all counting towards a beach-tag leader board, with prize money of €1,000 on offer for the overall winner. That lure of serious beach-tag glory has spawned serious beach-tag teams.
Hardcore groups such as the Panthers submit multiple teams, and players travel the length and breadth of the country (the blitzes are on in Dublin, Cork, Kerry and Clare) to make the beach series theirs.
Then there's the Beach Bums & Babes, an entire tag troupe that sprang from the beach-tag series. The BB&Bs don't just have snazzy tag jerseys, they also have special post-tag celebration T-shirts to wear to the bar and there's even talk of hoodies.
Their level of organisation stretches far beyond above-par attire. Lining out for them one weekend when my regular team wasn't competing, I discovered the joys of folding chairs, a full-on canopy, an inflatable pineapple filled with ice to keep the drinks cool and enough refreshments to keep a gang of teenagers going at Oxegen.
As I marvelled at how they'd created their own little village on a barren beach, I thought I'd seen it all, but then this year's All Irelands -- still something or a sore spot -- proved me wrong. Pitching up at Barnhall (not nearly as "near Liffey Valley" as we'd been told), the scene was like a carnival.
What seemed like hundreds of cars were parked in orderly rows on the non-pitch grass, a PA system and DJ had been set up outside the club house, a massive barbecue was being set up for later.
"Welcome to the 10th All Ireland tag finals," a voice boomed out over the mega-phone. While I was still puzzling over whether it had really been 10 years -- turns out our team's only been going for six -- an even more surreal announcement came.
"And we'd like to say a big congratulations to three very special couples who've gotten engaged here today," the megaphone blasted, going on to name the three pairs and their teams.
I've met tag couples before -- hell, half of my team is tag couples. I've even met tag couples' tag babies, that's how deep tag's reach into Irish society has gone; Ireland has one of the highest tag participation rates in the world, rivalled only by Australia.
But tag couples getting engaged at the tag All Ireland's?
Once the surrealness fades, the poster at Vincent's immediately springs to mind. If any of the would-be brides became another hand injury statistic over the course of the day, here's hoping it wasn't their ring finger.
Irish Tag Rugby Association: www.itra.ie
Astro Tag: www.astro.ie
IRFU Tag : www.irishrugby.ie/tag