Wednesday 18 September 2019

Fergal Keane: 'Yes, it’s a constant strain — but my love for the passion play of rugby won’t ever wane'

Jacob Stockdale of Ireland and Damian McKenzie of New Zealand take flight. Photo: Brendan Moran
Jacob Stockdale of Ireland and Damian McKenzie of New Zealand take flight. Photo: Brendan Moran

Fergal Keane

My pal, Cecilia the Swede, was bewildered. She is a writer of excellent bestselling novels, the mother of two delightful girls and a general source of wisdom in a mad world.

She is staying with me for a week, an annual escape from the niceness of her home in the Canadian Rockies, a place devoid of intrigue, spite and bitterness and all the other things which make life the fun it is in this part of the world. True, there are threats from grizzly bears and mountain lions, and the local council is threatening to sue her for thousands of dollars because she cut down a tree in her back garden, but she misses the little things: Jacob Rees-Mogg and the way he might smile at you from the corner of his mouth, the trains that screech to a halt for hours because there are leaves on the line (the same leaves that have fallen throughout the long history of locomotion in these islands) and the general air of dissatisfaction that swirls around us like late November mist. You get the picture.

But she doesn't get rugby.

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"Why the love?" she asked this morning. "What's it about?" Her husband, who is Canadian, does get it. But he has had as much luck as I have in explaining the passion which overtakes heart, body and soul when the seasons turn and the days get shorter and the leviathans of the autumn arrive on our shores: the Boks, the Argentinians and the All Blacks, marauders bristling with muscle and pace, and the rough confidence of the world's frontiers.

Why the love, indeed? In my own case, it was a love that grew out of loathing. My first experiences were alienating in the extreme.

I have detailed on these pages my inadequacies as a rugby player. I have, in fact, done so more than once. And on each occasion at some length. There is, says the man in my head (a ham-faced codger leaning against the bar), "no need to go down that road again". Except that in the great Irish annals of healing and reconciliation, you can never flog enough the story of the sensitive boy who overcame childhood misery to embrace the object of his persecution.

I first stepped onto a rugby pitch at Terenure College in Dublin. I recall thumps and pucks. I flailed ineffectually in the mud. I stood on forever on the sidelines. Joyce describes beautifully the feeling of the rugby outsider in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, recalling his days at Clongowes.

"He was caught in the whirl of a scrimmage and, fearful of the flashing eyes and muddy boots, bent down to look through the legs. The fellows were struggling and groaning and their legs were rubbing and kicking and stamping. Then Jack Lawton's yellow boots dodged out the ball and all the other boots and legs ran after. He ran after them a little way and then stopped. It was useless to run on."

It was always useless to run on. I only ever ran into the brick walls of bigger boys. I managed to weasel my way out of rugby practice through various devices, lying about my general health being the ruse most often deployed. But there was no escaping rugby in the longer story of my life. We left Dublin and moved south to Cork and I was sent to Presentation College on the Mardyke. My uncles had gone there, and two had played with distinction for the senior team. I was sent to Cork Constitution on Saturdays in the hope that something of the family passion for the game might be awakened. But again, I was the outsider.

But as my teenage years advanced and the hormones began their merry march, I began to see rugby differently. The players were demigods. They were the lads to be seen with on the saunter down 'Pana' - Patrick Street - after school. The girls from St Angela's, Mount Mercy, Scoil Mhuire and more would float admiring glances across the evening traffic. I went to Pres at the same time as Mick Kiernan, of Ireland Triple Crown glory and British and Irish Lions fame, and Mossy Finn, whose glorious tries for Ireland - while concussed - against Wales are forever ingrained in memory.

I took up the game. I was as useless a player as ever. But I gave it my body. And the heart followed naturally. I could now see the point: the honesty of that ferocious combat on winter fields, how the game demanded as much quickness of mind as it did power and pace. And, although I was not one of the three million people present in Thomond Park the day Munster beat the All Blacks in 1978, I followed ever second of Fred Cogley's commentary. And I will never forget the pride, the sheer chest-bursting pride, of knowing Jimmy Bowen of Pres had scored the vital try.

After school, I went to work as a reporter on the Limerick Leader. The ascendance of Cormac Liddy to the rank of sports editor enabled my own promotion to the post of rugby correspondent. I had previously laboured in the less glamorous role of schools rugby reporter. Liddy gave me the break I needed, and the free tickets to big matches that came with it. Being a Cork man pontificating about rugby in Limerick, particularly when I had no track record as a player, was a daunting task. Fortunately, as the sainted Liddy often observed, I had neck like a jockey's backside. This saw me through many a tough afternoon. In due time, I would see all of the world's great teams. And I became a fanatical supporter of Munster.

But I was always a pessimist. I never yet went to a big game believing Munster or Ireland would win. When we won the Heineken Cup for the first time in 2006, I turned to my son 10 minutes from the end and said: "I know we are going to lose this." He hasn't forgiven me yet.

But is there an Irishman of my generation who doesn't at some level sympathise with this faint-heartedness? We were raised to expect failure. The glorious defeat was our heritage, notwithstanding that moment of magic in Thomond Park against the All Blacks.

Coaches like my old Pres schoolmate Declan Kidney and later Joe Schmidt, among others, changed the mentality of players and fans. They taught us that before we could dream, we needed to think. Much like the country itself, Irish rugby vaulted into the modern with scarcely a sentimental glance backwards. These days, the bad results do not crush us. We know there is better ahead.

We can go on from tonight and beat the world. Lessons will be learned. Stars will return. Others will emerge. I believe. Who would not on this glad November night.

Sunday Independent

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