I bought my first rugby-international ticket in 20 years for the warm-up game against Wales in the Aviva last month. It was a culture shock. Many people had asked me if I would miss working on television. My consistent answer was no, as I wanted to retire on my own terms and in my own time. What I did not realise was just how different the experience of watching a game would be as a paying customer.
This time, there was no limo to pick me up, and the new routing to the gate on the back of the ticket was a complete mystery to me. After an interminable walk, I eventually found my seat. Surprise number-one was to find the space between the seats is a repository for pints of stout, and as I made my way to seat 27, I sent copious amounts of the black stuff spilling to the ground, much to the chagrin of the owners.
The Aviva is now just one enormous drinking den. Watching the game is interrupted by people going for, and returning with, trays of drink. Interest in the game seems to be secondary for many fans. But this is not surprising when one discovers just how bad so many seats in the stadium are as viewing points for the activities on the pitch. I was seated in the Lower East Stand, almost pitch-side. Only a tiny fraction of the field was in real vision; spectators relied on the big screen. It begs the question: why go to the Aviva to watch TV?
For most of the first half, Wales were attacking the Lansdowne Road end. That was out of vision, and what was happening on the pitch was a complete mystery. Used as I was for 20 years to looking at individual performances and technical and strategic components, I found I didn't see or understand anything. Apparently, Iain Henderson had a great game. I didn't see him for the 80 minutes. Tickets should come with "caveat emptor" printed on them; and to suggest that one had watched a rugby international would be a breach of the Trade Descriptions Act. I was surrounded by Irish fans, and I yearned for days of yore when huge numbers of Welsh took time off from steel and coal production to spend a week in Dublin. The hymns and arias would ring out from the packed terraces, whether their team was in front or behind. The Irish fans were great, loudly supporting their team, but completely uncritical. Understandably so, when one had no idea of why a penalty or scrum was awarded. Even the much-vaunted referee hand-signals were invariably too far away to make any sense.
Freed from watching the match as an analyst, I found the game I love incredibly boring. The fly-halves kicked the ball high, where it was plucked from the sky by brave defenders. Although, to be honest, if I wanted to watch high fielding, I would have gone to Croke Park the following day for Dublin against Mayo.
The game that, for a century, was based on the recognition of space and overlap, has been replaced by giants going biff, bang and wallop into the opposition. Once upon a time, there were 75 or more scrums and lineouts in a match. The professional game has cut those to a third, but replaced them with interminable rucks that go on forever, with a meaningful break by a three-quarter. Hardly the stuff to make the expenditure of over €100 for my grandson and me seem like worthwhile entertainment. The coverage of Rugby Sevens at the Rio Olympics will pose a massive threat to the pulling power of the 15-a-side game.
Keith Earls was prone on the ground, yards from where I sat, and was stretchered off with concussion. The post-match utterances of medical protocols did little to ease my fears. Earlier, Wales's Dan Biggar was left dazed after a collision in the air. He played on, but if he were my son, I'd have been worried. Once upon a time, the 'magic sponge' was the panacea for all injuries. I was surprised to see an Irish player resort to a shower from a water bottle, as he stood, dazed, in midfield.
My first game in the world's oldest rugby stadium was in 1954; my last was in August 2015.
Sunday Indo Life Magazine