Tuesday 16 July 2019

Kate Rowan: Forget ‘D4tress’, Leinster belongs to us all now ... and what a weekend to feel that sense of belonging

Leinster's Cian Healy runs through to score his
side's first and only try of yesterday's Heineken
Cup semi-final in Stade Chaban Delmas,
Leinster's Cian Healy runs through to score his side's first and only try of yesterday's Heineken Cup semi-final in Stade Chaban Delmas, Bordeaux

IF you have attended a Leinster Rugby fixture during this potentially historic season you may have noticed some of the banners displayed on match days. There are some particularly catchy slogans adorning the Anglesea stand; "Sexton’s on fire" and "In BOD we trust" pay homage to two of the side’s biggers names.

There are another two signs that spark one’s curiosity on the fan base and image of the province. These are “12 County Army” and “D4tress”. The idea of a love for Leinster rugby across the entire province as being universal is an image that is looking to become true, while the concept of the club being a Dublin 4 based entity harks back to dated stereotypes of goys in deck shoes with their collars up, probably just as outmoded as the players being described as lady boys!

Yet of course, Leinster’s home is in the heart of Dublin 4 but how many of the faithful would claim that postcode as their address? Now it would seem this province wide support is working together successfully with the Dublin base.

There has been an exponential but organic growth in the fan base over the last number of years as well as it becoming more diverse. Any casual observer will see the increased number of children, teenagers, women and a broader range of accents cheering on their team over the past number of years.

The obvious answer as to why this has happened is that success breeds success. Patently, two Heineken Cups in three seasons with the carrot of a third in four this weekend is going to attract supporters. However, the reasons for this current love affair with Leinster are much more complex and fascinating if we scratch below the surface of simply victory as the draw.

This Easter weekend, the Saturday showcased Leinster’s European triumph against the Cardiff Blues, almost filling the Aviva Stadium but more interestingly was that the night before in the RDS almost 5,000 people turned out to see Leinster A lose in extra time to Munster A in the semi-final of the British and Irish Cup.

After that long weekend, I heard somebody remark, “It wasn’t too long ago when you would be lucky to get 20 people at a Leinster and Munster A match”.

So, why this interest in the less glamorous side of Leinster? Well, any pundit will tell just what incredible strength and depth Leinster have. They virtually have two top class teams; their Heineken Cup elite and the equally exciting stalwarts of the Rabo Pro 12.

One of those who togged out against Munster A on Good Friday was Dave Kearney. It is now quite possible that he could start against Ulster in the Heineken Cup final in front of 80,000 fans in Twickenham or at least make an appearance from the bench.

This shows just how young talent can now climb to the top in Leinster. The Louth man is not the only young player to make his mark this year. Ian Madigan and the now unfortunately injured Eoin O’Malley are two more young Leinster players that have excited.

The emergence of young stars is important as it keeps the province in good shape competitively building a legacy and it adds to Leinster’s already dizzying star power, which has always been magnetic in attracting fans that currently includes Brian O’Driscoll, Isa Nacewa, Jonathan Sexton, Jamie Heaslip, Leo Cullen, Seán O’Brien, Gordon D’Arcy, Mike Ross, Cian Healy, Kearney the elder and of course Rugby World Cup winner Brad Thorn to name but a few.

However, the up and coming players acts as a huge draw to a teenage and a younger demographic as they are closer in age and obviously more relatable to a young person. Seeing young players work their way up through the ranks and make it amongst the galaxy of stars also keeps fans rooting and interested.

Even back in Leinster’s pre Heineken Cup glory days there was always the lure of star players including some of the aforementioned current leading lights as well the now retired Shane Horgan, Denis Hickey, Girvan Dempsey and Malcolm O’Kelly and the now departed Felipe Contepomi.

Now, then and hopefully in the years the come, you can regularly see International players, who are household names playing in either league or European action. In the greater Dublin area this affords Leinster a unique position, as Dublin is one of the very few European capital cities not to host Champions’ League football year in year out.

Shamrock Rovers fans may chastise me, for the Hoops brought Europa League soccer to Dublin last year but there is still a gulf left by the absence of a Dublin based club reaching the glitzy pinnacle of Champions’ League with exotic and celebrated foreign sides playing competitive club football on our shores, even in the group stages.

Also, our soccer internationals are almost without exception based abroad, so rugby as a professional sport can hold an unrivalled position. Leinster have capitalised upon this particularly, with European success and now with Aviva Stadium used for big occasions.

With increased capacity means more fans can enjoy the spectacle and this can bring along people who may rarely if ever attend live rugby but could open the door for them to attend more regularly. This season’s European visitors to Lansdowne Road Bath and Cardiff Blues may not have had the same Gallic allure of Clermont Auvergne and Toulouse but it does not seem to have dampened the province’s eagerness for their team.

Traditionally, rugby lagged behind soccer and Gaelic games in the popular Irish imagination. It would seem that through the clever marketing of Leinster as a province wide source of pride has added some of the tribal identity that has made Gaelic games such an important part of the Irish psyche.

The fact that one of Leinster’s current luminaries Rob Kearney grew up playing Gaelic football along with rugby helps huge swathes of Gaelic playing youngsters identify with him. That now much celebrated drop goal in Bordeaux showed a hint of the influence garnered playing for the Louth Minors and the many years before that.

When a young boy or girls sees the fullback playing rugby but with touches of his Gaelic days evident, they empathise and see someone who played their sport. Then of course, there is the plain fact that rugby is a professional sport and with it trappings that GAA may not have, that may convert some young fans over.

Nevertheless, many choose to support both with equal ardour and Leinster still does not have the same roots for many as supporting one’s county would. Yet this is where the concept of the 12 County Army comes into play.

By having high profile players such as the Kearneys from Louth, you are giving Leinster fans from that corner of the province a real sense of belonging. An early torch bearer for this would be Horgan from Meath, who also grew up playing Gaelic football.

At various points of this season during the half time announcements in the RDS, I have heard of a hen party, a 21st and a Confirmation all from County Carlow being celebrated by attending a Leinster rugby match. I wonder if this has anything to do with last year’s European Player of the Year, O’Brien? Often fondly referred to as “The Tullow Tank” in reference to his home place and thunderous ball carrying abilities.

As well as endearing his home county, O’Brien also has appeal in the fact that he did not attend a traditional “rugby school”, which makes him relatable to large numbers of fans.

Although, Newbridge College may have a rugby heritage, it is not one of the major current contenders in Leinster schools rugby, so in a way Jamie Heaslip from Naas, County Kildare stands for his county and those whose schools were not the dominant or traditional forces in rugby!

This week the number eight and prolific tweeter has promised fans that tweet the tag “12 County Army” along with a Leinster themed photo, that he will follow them on Twitter. Heaslip is doing his bit to spread the “Leinster love” across the province.

Players interacting with fans on social media is something prevalent across Irish rugby. Leinster players certainly do their bit in this regard with many, for example, personally wishing fans a happy birthday through the medium of Twitter, when requested. This plainly makes the players more accessible to fans. This personal touch strengthens the bond between the fan and the team.

Then there is the reality that Leinster players share the same city as many of their supporters. It is not just in glitzy nightspots or a steak restaurant owned by a certain back row player that you are likely to spot a star of Leinster rugby in.

You can come across one anywhere from the supermarket to your college. I am not in any way advocating stalking! However, you are more likely to empathise and therefore support someone who shares aspects of your lifestyle.

Moving away from the concept of supporting something home grown, the Internet has given voice to a new brand Leinster fan. Much in the same way an Irish person may choose to support a Premiership outfit, that he or she has no connection to the place and it may be based upon a style of football or certain superstar players, something similar is starting to very slowly take root in the world of rugby with the emergence of Welsh and Scottish Leinster fans.

It would seem these fans support their own countries in international competition but choose to follow Leinster. The much-publicised decline of the Welsh regions compared to the recent bountiful spell for their Irish counterparts, would seem to be one obvious attraction.

Add to that there is also accessibility as each year Leinster will play a minimum of four fixtures in the Principality and two in Scotland, meaning these new fans can watch their team live without having to travel too far.

This new phenomenon may seem somewhat bizarre and could be perceived as a niche trend but look at the transnational appeal of soccer teams such as Manchester United, Liverpool, Barcelona and Real Madrid and many more.

This could be a whole new frontier in the Celtic rugby world and even beyond, that would see support for Leinster in hopefully future Heineken Cups come from far further than the D4trees or even 12 counties in the east of Ireland.

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