Saturday 16 December 2017

Vincent Hogan: Aviva like a drop-in centre for sides needing comfort

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The trouble with the silver bowl at the bottom of Lansdowne Road is it's beginning to feel like a big, beautiful repository of bad news. What on earth did they build it upon? A bombed orphanage?

An abattoir for guide-dogs? A witches' coven? It's not a fortress the Aviva is becoming, but a drop-in centre for big teams needing comfort.

The first months of its life have created all the tumult of Barry Manilow fingering a shirt button to 'Can't Smile Without You'.

To kick things off, a League of Ireland selection got nuked by Manchester United (who were still in pre-season). Then Russia played Trap's boys off the park at what looked like a motorway cruising speed.

The stadium is drop-dead gorgeous, but our only hope of excitement seems to be someone setting off a smoke alarm.

Maybe the players, like the rest of us, have been too busy oohing and aahing to actually remember why it is the IRFU and FAI chose to build it in the first place. It's as if they're going to work in smoking jacket and slippers.

The old, gap-toothed Lansdowne never made anybody swoon. It was functional as a fish-gutting depot, the only concession to refinement being a few boxes squeezed into the East Stand as an afterthought. And the wind could reach down the field with great, unimpeded fingers, turning the world's best footballers into clowns.

A smattering of ivy on the outer walls might have given it a faint illusion of grandeur, but nobody ever mistook it for the Guggenheim.

Now we're not saying we exactly miss it, but ... The new place still has a fresh-paint smell and the sense of staff with walkie-talkies rushing about, trying to figure out where it is the tea-bags are kept. Everyone is armed with nice laminated badges and grins of blissful confusion.

It's like being on an Apollo deck, people in jump suits fiddling with the start button.

And they've installed so many bars and food stalls that, on Saturday, most of the crowd actually forgot to come back out for the second half. It was surreal. When Victor Matfield reappeared with the Springboks, he must have wondered if there'd been a bomb scare and those in charge neglected to send word to the dressing-rooms.

Most people returned eventually, but the stadium was still tattooed with so many green sprigs of empty seats, you had to suspect that Drico and company were being forsaken for Mary Byrne. Which isn't good.

"Irish rugby is home," bellowed that irritating man on the tannoy, our ears beginning to seep blood from the ridiculous volume. He sounded like a circus announcer, trying to distract the audience from a botched trapeze act.

No question, the vibe was a small eternity from what would have been envisioned when the cement mixers first moved in. True, it wasn't helped by the fact that -- bar the closing 10 minutes or so -- Ireland played like a team communicating by fax.

But the cack-handed ticketing strategy that would eventually trigger an unprecedented outbreak of IRFU humility just resonated with the greed that now has international bond markets playing puppeteer with our futures.

Never before has rugby needed the goodwill of ordinary people more, yet it took whispered anarchy in the clubs for that penny to actually drop.

So there was an odd, uncomfortable dynamic to business.

Autumn Internationals always ache with a conflict of interests anyway, the southern hemisphere teams generally pitching up depleted and fatigued at the end of a long season to play against teams still trying to slip into the infant rhythms of theirs.

The games are first and foremost about revenue streams and no end of fanfare can rouge them up as anything different.

But this was even more stilted than the norm. You watched Matfield in his nice 'Hi-de-Hi' blazer afterwards, shuffling from interview to interview like a prize heifer getting another rosette, and it was hard not to smirk at Roy Keane's concept of exploitation.

If a quarter of a million pounds a week for a tubby footballer who -- mid-season -- must fly to America on a 'conditioning programme' constitutes being treated "like a piece of meat", rugby's big names are in need of humanitarian aid.

What we got on Saturday, then, was a 10-minute curiosity. Matfield and his men are bigger than anything David Attenborough has encountered in the wild but they looked a little spent of natural aggression here.

So they just rolled through the gears and, without conspicuous drama, found themselves 14 points up and being serenaded by an all but silent stadium.

Then a late brace of Hallelujahs from Ireland gave the night an artificial pulse and, if you closed your eyes, you could imagine yourself sitting at some epic gathering.

Except, of course, you weren't. You were pulling your collar up against the refrigerated night and wondering if you might make it home in time to see that check-out woman from Tesco's.

Next up, it's the bish-bash merchants of Samoa, which should be exciting. Especially if anyone lights a cigarette.

Irish Independent

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