Monday 21 October 2019

Great expectations: a family divided by rugby

Corkonian Frank Coughlan ended his own rugby playing career when he was nine. For him, the great rugby divide is all about post-colonial hang-ups

Ronan O'Gara
Ronan O'Gara

What I remember mostly are my rugby boots. They were hand-me-downs and whoever handed them down had been bequeathed them in turn.

If somebody told me that these were the original boots William Webb Ellis wore when he allegedly invented rugger in 1823, I wouldn't have been too sceptical.

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It was circa 1964 and I had been enrolled in Cork Constitution rugby club by my father, presumably on the long shot that I would exude the sort of athleticism and flair that had seemed to elude my older brothers.

I was eight going on nine and any notions there might have been of me being growing up to be a dashing fly-half like Jackie Kyle soon collapsed like a bad scrum.

All I can recall of those Saturday mornings was the oval ball whizzing around me but never being close enough that I could touch it. That and copious amounts of gluey muck. I would much rather have been at home playing with my Meccano or reading Biggles.

I lasted a season and, to be honest, I retired early so as to spend more time with my family. By my ninth birthday my rugby career was behind me.

But there was probably another reason why my father, whose interest in rugby never seemed to extend to the sport pages of the Cork Examiner, brought me along to the club's Temple Hill grounds.

Cork Con was the city's most prestigious rugby club. With deep and proud links to the old moneyed unionist tradition, it had retained its ability to attract those who saw themselves as a cut above the rest.

When it came to this sort of thing, select institutions like Con and the Royal Cork Yacht Club were the places to be seen.

Rugger has traditionally been the game of choice for the upwardly mobile as well as those desperately clinging to old respectability. This was certainly the case in Cork, a city that may not have invented provincial snobbery but certainly helped perfect it.

My father might only have been interested in his pasty child getting some manly exercise, but while he was above being a social climber, he certainly coveted respectability.

He had sent my brothers to Presentation Brothers College, a fee-paying rugby school that has produced over 20 internationals, among them Ronan O'Gara, Simon Zebo and Peter Stringer.

By the time I was packed off to secondary school, though, free education had been introduced by Fianna Fáil. Considering my perceived lack of either academic acumen or athletic prowess, paying to see me underachieve was considered a careless waste of scarce resources.

I went to a local secondary instead where we played Gaelic football in a field where cows defecated twice daily. It put me off the outdoors for life.

To this day, that choice of college matters. Both my brothers are season ticket holders at Munster's Thomond Park, and I have never been invited along. If ever I am, it will be because it's a dead rubber or one of them has died.

They rarely talk rugby in my presence as this would be regarded as a waste of their priceless tactical wisdoms and they humour me instead with condescending chatter about that vulgar Premier League, which they know is more my thing.

That's not to say that I am one of those who got some sort of perverted pleasure in seeing Ireland get a pasting in Shizuoka. In fact, I was seriously put out. Those who did suffer from a dose of the inferiors or are, more likely, simply inverted snobs.

Rugby Union's roots are essentially, a few notable exceptions aside, middle class and professional. It can often come down to something as simple to which school you went to.

There is no shame or harm in that, but it says something about our entrenched post-colonial hangs up that it seems to matter to so many.

For a society that likes to see itself as classless we spend an inordinate amount of time filing people alphabetically. Unfortunately, sporting affiliations and allegiances are a handy, if clumsy, shorthand for doing just that.

I'm looking forward to our next game against Samoa come Saturday. I will probably ring the brothers later to analyse it. They won't pick up.

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