Sunday 16 June 2019

David Robbins: The sporting life -- it ain't as simple as coaches would have you believe

David Robbins

You often hear professional coaches or analysts propound that their chosen sport "is a simple game". And, at one level, they're right: success is usually as simple as scoring more points than your opponent.

But really, sport is never simple. There are so many cultural factors at play, so many variations of technique and approach as to make any sporting contest a rich and textured occasion.

Does anyone really believe that the great rugby clashes between Leinster and Munster were "simple"? That they were just about sport? Or that today's match between Ireland and Scotland is merely a sports fixture?

George Orwell reckoned that sport -- and professional soccer in particular -- was "war minus the shooting". For him, sport was a watered-down version of a faction fight or the outbreak of local hostilities.

For me, this seems applicable to some sports more than others. Rugby, for instance, with its objectives of occupying "enemy" territory, of organising defensive lines, can seem almost military.

Sport and culture are very closely aligned, and certain sports appeal to certain national or regional characteristics. Rugby, for instance, found traction in some surprising parts of the world. It just seemed to suit the local psyche.

It took hold among the small farmers of the French interior, among the working classes of Limerick, in Ceaucescu's Romania and in the islands of the south Pacific.

In each case, something about the game appealed to the locals. Often, rugby thrived in communities with a grievance, a kind of "us-against-the-world" attitude.

Looking at the teams that have done well in, say, the Heineken Cup, many are from smaller cities with tight-knit communities. The relationship between the fans and the players is strong.

Munster, Biarritz, Toulouse, Leicester -- they all have this attitude. "We might not be the capital city," they say, "we might not have the money and the facilities that you guys have, but come down here and we'll knock seven bells out of you".

Many of the sports that came with British colonial rule have a middle-class air about them: rugby, hockey, tennis. For a knarled forward from the heart of the Auvergne or the fields of west Limerick, beating the bejaysus out of the city doctors and lawyers at the weekend was an added attraction.

Cricket is another example. It took hold, despite being associated with a colonial power, because it suited certain local temperaments.

On the Indian sub-continent, it seemed to appeal to a sense of grace allied to power. The locals like the subtlety of it, the arcane laws and rituals. Of course, they also liked to gamble on it as well.

In Ireland, too, cricket was popular. Before the foundation of the Gaelic Athletic Association in 1884, cricket was by far the most popular sport in the country.

The early days of Irish cricket were recalled last week when an old scorebook from a club in Co Laois was discovered in a skip.

The book details the exploits of the Ashbrook club near Durrow from 1846-1848. Founded by Viscount Ashbrook, the club was popular with the local Protestant gentry, but also drew players from the Catholic population.

This was typical of the development of the game in Ireland: it grew up around the great estates and was played by estate workers. It still survives in the places were great houses stood, in north Dublin, around Birr in the midlands, in rural Cork.

Around the time Ashbrook CC was reaching its zenith, there were more than 80 cricket clubs in Co Tipperary alone. So something in the Irish psyche at the time took to cricket, just as it took to hurling and Gaelic football after 1884.

So what was it about cricket that spoke to the Irish? There are many theories, but I prefer the simplest. It brought together two great Irish passions: sport and tea.

drobbins@independent.ie

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