Wednesday 19 June 2019

David Robbins: It's time to tackle the old-fashioned argy-bargy between rival rugby fans

David Robbins

There were two of them, pints in hand, bedecked in their red Munster jerseys. They were slouching semi-aggressively against one of the concrete pillars at the back of the stadium.

They weren't exactly looking for trouble, but they had that air of contained belligerence that meant they wouldn't be too upset if trouble came looking for them.

It was an hour to kick-off in the 2009 Heineken Cup Final, and the supporters of the rival teams -- Leinster and Leicester -- were thronging good-naturedly about.

The two Munster lads had booked their tickets months ago, when it looked like their team would make it to the final -- and why wouldn't they? Sure hadn't Munster won it the year before, and been in four finals in the past nine years?

When Munster were beaten in the semi-finals, they could have sold their tickets, as many of their fellow Munster fans had already done. But this pair had decided to make the trip to Murrayfield in Edinburgh, and to wear the proud red of their province too.

They mixed in with the colours of other clubs -- the pink of Stade Français, the blue and black stripes of Bath -- whose hopes had died along the tough route to the final.

We had to pass by this Munster duo on the way to our seats. They looked us up and down, taking in our Leinster scarves, our pale, soft Leinster flesh and our Hilfiger Denim smart casuals.

"Just remember, lads," said the one nearest us. "Two-nil." There was a pause. "Two-nil," he said again.

Now, I'm not the quickest on the uptake, and it had to be explained to me that he was referring to the fact that Munster had won two Heineken Cup finals to Leinster's none.

The remark was typical of the rather petulant rivalry between the two sides at that time. For many seasons, Munster had flown the Irish flag in the Heineken Cup. Their fans weren't pleased that Leinster seemed to be taking over their mantle.

For their part, Leinster fans were often somewhat taken aback by the ferocity of the dislike coming from down south. Like American foreign policy-makers in the Middle East, we were left wondering: "Why do they hate us so much?"

In a 20-year rugby career, I have played against many teams from Munster. I've always been on the losing side.

Even at school, when we used to play an annual match against our sister college in Cork, we never won. The Cork lads loved to get stuck into the softies from the capital; the ball was incidental.

I've also played alongside Munster men, and I have to admit it's safer playing with them than against them.

Yet, this evening, as Leinster and Munster come head to head again in the Rabo Direct Pro 12 league, I think it is time to move on from this rather tired rivalry.

Sure, back in 2009, there was a real edge to it. That famous semi-final in Croke Park was a clash of more than playing styles. It was a clash of cultures.

But now, as the chips have been removed from the shoulders of both teams, there is a manufactured air about the so-called animosity between the sides and their fans.

The intensity of this derby is coming more from the marketing department than the terraces these days.

It has become exhausted, like a jaded Premiership fixture, with people adopting pro-forma positions and striking ritualised poses.

The senior players on each side have played against each other at least twice a year for the past 10 years. They have played together for Ireland, and hopefully several from both sides will be selected for the British and Irish Lions.

It is hard to keep hate going for so long. This evening, perhaps it's time for the players to play for the pride in their own jersey, rather than to demean the jersey of the other team.

Indo Review

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