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Official Ireland falls in love with rugby


Illustration by Jim Cogan

Illustration by Jim Cogan

Illustration by Jim Cogan

In that final hour before some massive, massive game calls the nation indoors, you may be rushing towards your destination with the fever building up inside you, when you see him - the guy who doesn't have much interest in the game.

He may be clipping the top of his hedge, or just walking the dog, and he may wave to you, and you may wave back at him, and you will be thinking, "how I pity that poor guy, who will never partake of life's banquet".

He's always there, it seems, not getting it. If you look at one of those pictures of O'Connell Street deserted during Italia 90, you will probably even see him there, a mysterious figure stretching his legs down the empty boulevard, enjoying the novelty of all that space.

I think that some day soon, I am going to be that guy.

During the Rugby World Cup this autumn, there will be a day on which Paddy is playing in the quarter-final, or better, and while my thoughts will be with him, in this as in all things, I will not feel a desperate need to watch him out there. Indeed, I may take that opportunity to clip the top of my proverbial hedge, or to walk my proverbial dog, and to hear the result on the News. Indeed, if anything my case is even stranger than that of "the man who has no interest in the game", because essentially he is someone who just does not like sport in general - I would say, in contrast, that Rugby Union may be the only sport that is played by trained professionals that I do not like. I would like to like it, because liking is good, and not liking is not good, or at least not as good. But something always seems to be stopping me.

So obviously, last Saturday afternoon I was watching Newcastle at home to the Arsenal on Setanta (I have Setanta, that is how much I like sport), flicking back to RTE to catch a few moments of Paddy stomping all over Scotland, then flicking to the BBC commentary because I couldn't listen to Ryle Nugent any more, he just wanted it too much.

Something in Ryle's voice reminded me of times I've listened to the Marian Finucane Show, and heard the voices of Official Ireland saluting such great days, confirming rugby as their official game - Official Ireland loves the rugby.

So that's one of the things that gets in my way - just as I am rejoicing in Paddy's onward march, a vision forms in my head of various representatives of professional bodies and of the financial services sector and PR consultants and political advisers, and they're telling Marian what it means to them.

You can see such people in any section of the crowd at a rugby match, enjoying what to them appears to be a social occasion - they may be raising a pint in a plastic cup, as merry in adversity as in triumph, oblivious to the fact that this is not how actual sports fans behave during a game. Or before a game. Or after a game.

Conveniently, the rugby internationals are played in London, Paris, Rome or Edinburgh ("and you know, I think I like Edinburgh the best"), so you can get away with about five matches a year in the most salubrious surroundings, and still pretend that you are as committed to the cause as some actual sports fan who will travel to Ukraine mid-week to watch Everton getting beaten - yes there are such people, and no, they don't see their sport as a social occasion, they see it as the thing that gives meaning to their lives, and they are right.

Such people would reject the Six Nations for all the shallowness that attends it, regarding it as a sporting equivalent of the Last Night of the Proms, this weird circus of middle class culture with scenes of completely disgraceful violence thrown in - and then a couple of turkey-shoots last weekend, creating these crazy mood swings set against a background of much debate on the issue of "medicalisation".

Your Official Irelander may have no idea what is going on down there on the park, but in that he is not alone any more.

Historically there was always the matter of whether a sport which effectively excludes the overwhelming majority of the human race in a way so structured that it must be deliberate, can be called a sport at all. But being rigorously honest I couldn't really stand over that one, considering that every year I watch almost every minute of the Masters golf, broadcast from the Augusta National club, which stands there as a kind of World Heritage Site for the over-privileged. I am also aware that Robbie Henshaw actually went to the same school as I did, the Marist in Athlone, and I'm sure that he is proud of that.

So I will be supporting him at least at the World Cup, and I believe that all the players are deserving of our consideration - when they have given everything, and they are stretched on the ground in the agonies of defeat, back in Official Ireland their fervent followers are looking forward to an excellent meal, and wine, and have already forgotten all about it.

Sunday Independent