Sport Vincent Hogan

Saturday 16 November 2019

Vincent Hogan: New lease of life has made this great game blossom

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Sean O'Brien was last down the sheer steps from dressing-room to team bus on Saturday night, each one negotiated with a weary stagger. A burgundy swelling around his right eye had been decorated with some needlework and, through the top of his open-necked shirt, you could see the beginnings of a deep welt. O'Brien is as hard as any man playing rugby today, but he looked profoundly tired.

One by one the heroes had descended, most a little subdued and vacant-eyed. Some carried beer cans, others bottles of water. Jonny Sexton nibbled a sandwich.

Outside, a stupendously drunk Cardiff was already falling into amiable chaos, but these men were heading home. Next Saturday, they face unfinished business at Thomond Park and it isn't the professional way to be careless.

So O'Brien spoke of the looming collision with old friends as "another exciting challenge" and said that the team would have to "regroup" quickly. Munster, he knows, will have a reliably primal Limerick welcome for the new European champions.

Another day to survive in the foothills of exhaustion.

Great rugby gatherings are giant tureens of spent testosterone. Even the club grandees, the old guys in their blazers, look faintly mangled. Having stopped beating one another up on the field, they now become hopeless masochists, subjecting their vital organs to an irrationally heavy shelling.

The breakfast buffets on Saturday morning brought to mind exhausted buffalo happening upon water. Heads were down, minds preoccupied with the business of replenishment.

The game may have changed remarkably since the arrival of professionalism, yet the science of the collision remain its bottom line. Hence crooked noses, misshapen ears and slightly tilted shoulders are handed down the generations like heirlooms.

I read Brian Moore's remarkable book 'Beware of the Dog' last week and, quite apart from the darkness explored in areas like sexual abuse, adoption and mental health, the reader is left with a sense of incredulity that so many blows taken to the head didn't reduce him to a dribbling, incontinent loon.

Moore admits candidly that his personality always had an "element of rage". He was small for a front-row forward and, if anything, that handicap licensed the subversive in him. So, in much the same way a certain Corkman terrorised Premiership midfields for a decade, Moore chose to wear his toughness like a badge.

Virtually every action photograph in his book depicts him in snarling, confrontational mode. Even singing the national anthem, he looks over-emotional and unhinged.

Yet, he admits that his real psychological difficulties emerged only when he stepped away from the pathological kindergarten that the game had become.

For so long his life was framed by brutal engagement on the field and social delinquency off it, that walking away from rugby left him deprived of an outlet for his natural belligerence.

Little snapshots of his story brought to mind a close acquaintance of this column who happened to play rugby for a junior club in London during the 1980s. We met for a drink in '87 while I was en route to the inaugural Rugby World Cup and, as the night ebbed to a close in the residents' bar of a hotel in Leicester Square, he thought it would be funny to let off a few fire extinguishers.

Argument

An argument ensued, me suggesting that such behaviour might be acceptable to the firm or crew of some notorious soccer following, but civilised society should really expect more from any mammal capable of communicating with more than a grunt. His response is, to this day, seared into my cerebellum.

"At least rugby people pay for any damage they do."

Moore, I don't doubt, would have supported that thesis. His story is littered with tales of Olympian drinking bouts, dodged taxi fares, outbreaks of jolly japes like "the punching game" and, of course, the obligatory player court sessions. You get the sense of bold boys who just happened to be built like barges.

'Beware of the Dog' was deemed last year's William Hill Sports Book of the Year because of its candid recall of abuse suffered at the hands of a school teacher and a lifelong wrestle with the caustic alter-ego who Moore christens Gollum.

That apart, though, it stays numbingly faithful to a clichéd genre, the "aren't-we-hilarious" foot-soldiers of entitlement. And, in doing so, it reminds us of the journey that rugby has travelled.

The great fear of professionalism was that it would harden this kind of elitist mindset when, in actuality, all it did was decommission the idiot. True, the club game took a hit too, but rugby met its obligation to grow up the moment its players became salaried.

You can worry legitimately for the long-term viability of franchises like Munster and Leinster, especially if either stops making finals. But they enjoy a demographic of support just now that would have been unimaginable in the past.

In Bristol on Saturday morning, I met Aidan Fogarty over breakfast. The former Offaly hurling great confessed himself to be a Leinster season-ticket holder. Wexford's George O'Connor is a regular with his children at the RDS too.

Leinster, today, represent a community far beyond the moneyed private schools. Just as with Munster before them, they have been adopted by people with no rugby ties, no history.

Why? Because they are so unequivocal in what they pursue. Great sport is defined by a commitment to absolutes. And, right now, rugby meets that commitment at every turn.

The curry houses may be the poorer for it. But the rest of us are in thrall.

Irish Independent

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