Monday 9 December 2019

Kate Rowan: Rob Kearney is certainly a bit of a dish, but that’s not the reason I think he’s the best player in Europe

THERE was some grumbling from Leinster fans a few weeks ago when the ERC announced the long list of nominees for European Rugby Player of the year. This was due to the omission of the currently highflying full back Rob Kearney.

The Louth man’s seven minutes of rugby heaven against Clermont Auvergne in the Heineken Cup semi-final, in which he made that intuitive pass to Cian Healy followed by that brute of a drop goal will certainly add to his case for inclusion in the final shortlist. This can include players omitted from the long list, who shone in the knock out stages.

Add to that the 26 year-olds two-try performance and overall sharpness against the Cardiff Blues in the quarter finals, which further highlights why, as well as he, should make the short list, he should be considered to be one of the leading contenders for the accolade.

Now, the cynics and sceptics amongst you will read my name and see that I am a woman and may presume I am highlighting this point due to Mr Kearney’s aesthetics! Honestly though, he has had a great season with his precision under the high ball and overall consistency. That is why he deserves a nomination.

The fact that I had to defend myself for praising Kearney brings up an interesting area of discussion. The same reason some eyebrows may be raised if I was applauding Tommy Bowe’s position as this year’s Six Nations leading try scorer. Why?

The media and the general Irish rugby public would consider both players as particular favourites with female fans or being blunt; the eye-candy of the oval-balled game!

Since rugby has caught the imagination of the Irish public from the early noughties, there has been a considerable increase in the amount of female fans and general female interest. So, is this all down to the ladies enjoying a gawk at the boys in shorts?

From a feminine perspective, I would say most definitely not. I would not deny that an eye-candy factor does play some part in attracting female fans but it is not the whole story.

The added role of being sex symbols along with sporting heroes to our rugby stars’ duties has become a popular topic in the media for creating a light hearted titter.

Since 2009, popular Irish beauty blog has run the annual Fifty Fine Things Poll, to search for whom Irish women find the easiest on the eye.

Rugby stars topped the charts for the first three years. Of course, you guessed it, the boarder counties duo of Kearney and Bowe.

This year the egg chasers were knocked off their perch somewhat bizarrely by Jedward and more predictably by the new house wives’ favourite and Irish media darling du jour Niall “Bressie” Breslin, who in a former life was contracted to play for Leinster.

Kearney and Bowe still reached the top ten along with Jamie Heaslip. A selection of other players populated the top 50, with 17 rugby players named in total.

It wasn’t just the traditional cliché of pretty boy backs who received the women’s seal of approval, as there was a fairly even split between backs and forwards with nine and eight respectively.

The likes of Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Seán O’Brien, Healy and Stephen Ferris represented the pack. While names such as Jonathan Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Conor Murray and Andrew Trimble stood for the backline.

Rugby utterly eclipsed any other sport; with Gaelic football picking up two mentions (Bernard Brogan and Bryan Cullen, who now works as a strength and conditioning coach for Leinster) and soccer’s sole representative was Shay Given.

With luminaries of the rugby world hogging so much of the lime light in this particular popularity contest, the spread of appeal across the provinces and how the appearance of the majority of the current Irish international starting 15 shows just how favoured the sport is amongst’s female demographic.

Although this was a poll that was seeking Ireland’s most attractive men, the overwhelming dominance of rugby demonstrates how it would seem it is more prevalent in the Irish female conscience than competing sports.

When one starts to consider this point, you can see that “the eye-candy factor” is a one-dimensional approach of viewing rugby’s particular draw for the fairer sex. In another poll conducted late last year, it was revealed that soccer was the nation’s most beloved sport but when one isolated the genders, rugby and Gaelic games were the equally most favoured with women.

Sociologists have often said that women when choosing cultural activities to participate in will favour those that would help elevate one’s social standing.

This may seem like a somewhat dated point but perhaps it may ring true with women and rugby in Ireland? As has often been recognised; outside of Limerick, rugby traditionally has been tied to the middle classes.

As a fan of a wide array of sports I have often suggested different sporting events to attend to female friends and rugby always gets the most enthusiastic reaction and rather than cries of “Ooh Tommy Bowe!” many girls I have spoken to have remarked “Oh, you get lots of nice guys with good jobs going to rugby matches.”

Again, this could be seen as an antiquated and slightly sexist view but how come you see more women looking glamorous in the stands at rugby matches, particularly internationals than the corresponding soccer fixtures?

This year’s Six Nations fixture against Wales was held on a Sunday. I was speaking to a hair stylist who works in one of the few salons in Dublin that was open on the day and he explained how they were completely booked up with blow dries before kick-off and remarked “we are always mad busy on the rugby days but when there is a football match on it would seem the girls who go are happy just to tie their hair up in a pony tail!”

Mind you, there would seem to be just as many girls and women casually dressed as those looking glamorous at rugby fixtures.

So, whether or not social promotion is the reason for attending rugby matches it would seem to warrant the same beauty preparations as a night out for some female fans, which leads to the point that watching rugby is considered as an important social occasion.

One interesting point to note can be the difference in the female fans attending international fixtures, Heineken Cup games and Rabo Direct Pro 12 matches. Just from personal observation, the internationals seem to attract the most high heels and salon fresh hair, with many female fans opting not to sport green. While on a wet and windy evening in the RDS, there is still a mixture of styles on offer but there are more women donning the home team colours.

At Ulster’s wonderfully atmospheric quarter-final victory in the Aviva Stadium, I saw one of the widest ranges of ages of female fans I have seen at a rugby match. Also, our Northern sisters were certainly not shy to done their team colours and had some of the most vibrant match day paraphernalia including wigs and face paint.

The provincial sides are tapping into the concept of female fans. Leinster’s ladies night held in February had a pre-match questions and answers session with Kearney and Sexton (ticking the eye-candy box), beauty experts and blind date for male and female fans (ticking the socialising box) and competition for the best dressed female fan (not in a ladies’ day at the races way but in the most imaginative and creative way of displaying the Leinster blue!) but what about the on field action against the Scarlets?

One could have fallen for the stereotype of the giddy girls getting excited over the hunky players when a collective scream was heard as Dave Kearney’s name was called over the PA in the team announcement. Then, more shrieks when an image of his big brother absent from the game due to his Six Nations obligations was flashed up on the big screens!

However, that evening I overheard several conversations between female fans that would have been just as at home argued around a pundits’ desk. After Fergus McFadden scored his last minute penalty to seal the game, a mother and daughter sitting in front of me discussed the centre’s somewhat unorthodox kicking style with a distinct fade and its similarities to the technique employed by New Zealander Stephen Donald!

To me these conversations are not out of the ordinary, I was brought up watching everything from snooker to skiing with my mother and grandmother, two of the keenest armchair sports fans and also most ladylike women I have ever known while my dad would walk out of the room mumbling he would rather watch Heartbeat!

In the wake of Ireland’s mixed Six Nations campaign and the comparisons with Leinster’s form and particularly their scintillating back play, I have had a number of conversations with female rugby fans of all ages about this situation. The conversation when the Kearney brothers’ exploits were mentioned has never veered to “Oh God, aren’t they gorgeous?” It is more like “well, you can tell they played GAA growing up when you see how well they kick or control high balls.”

When you think of the multi-faceted nature of rugby and its components, from gritty set pieces to searing back play and back again in a matter of minutes as a spectator sport it may suit the feminine mind, so famed for its ability to multi-task!

Then of course there is that age-old reason for becoming a sports fan; the passion and the pride of where you are from. This was particularly evident last Saturday in Lansdowne Road. Just behind the press box, there was a group of fans. Their clapping and chanting of “Stand up for the Ulster men!” was raucous and they remained long after the final whistle. The two most vocal in the bunch were middle-aged women with jerseys and gigantic flags.

I somehow doubt this pair travelled to Dublin because they harboured crushes on Trimble or to meet eligible men (they looked as if they were with their husbands) or they just wanted a nice social occasion. They were for the same reason everyone else was; to cheer on the team they loved towards the Heineken Cup Final.

In Ireland much of the broadcast media presenting or reporting on rugby are female. Look at, TG4’s Máire Treasa Ní Dhubhghaill, RTÉ’s Clare MacNamara, Joanne Cantwell and TV3’s Sinéad Kissane. These are all women who can speak well and are deeply knowledgeable and passionate about the game of rugby. When young girls see women working and excelling in a male dominated environment, it can inspire you to follow your love of the game.

Like so many things in life the Irish female support of rugby is not black and white. There may be an eye-candy element but, fair enough that can be a gateway to gather new fans, the same applies to the social aspects of the game, then there are those who admire the technical aspects and those whose passion for their team drives them and many who love rugby for a combination of these factors.

This diversity in the female fan base adds colour and entertainment value to the game in Ireland and no matter what the motives are, our interest looks set to continue to grow.

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