Monday 23 April 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: This love affair started with a kick

Ireland’s Tony Ward brought a certain swagger and glamour to rugby in our country. Photo: Ray McManus Sportsfile
Ireland’s Tony Ward brought a certain swagger and glamour to rugby in our country. Photo: Ray McManus Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

I fell irrevocably in love with the Five Nations Championship on March 4, 1978. In fact, I can almost pinpoint the exact moment. It was during the second half of Ireland's game against Wales in Lansdowne Road - Tony Ward had hoisted a huge Garryowen in the direction of JPR Williams and a few seconds after it landed, I was hooked for good. I suppose I've watched around 300 hours of Ireland in action in the tournament. That's roughly the same amount of time it took me to finish War and Peace. I won't say there haven't been any boring bits in the Five, lately Six Nations, but Leo Tolstoy managed to fit a lot more into his magnum opus.

A few years back when Ireland were going particularly well there was a certain amount of sour-bellied grumbling about 'people jumping on the rugby bandwagon'. There were suggestions that prior to this rugby had been the preserve of a privileged elite and the results of the national team were of little interest to the horny-handed and plain-speaking common people of the country.

This struck me as nonsense. My own memory of growing up in the '70s, in a non-rugby household in a village where there wasn't a rugby club within 20 miles, was that the Five Nations was one of the central Irish sporting events of the year, something pretty much everyone interested in sport talked about, like the hurling and football championships, the unsuccessful qualifying campaigns of the national soccer team, Vincent O'Brien's assaults on the English classics, Eamonn Coghlan's exploits and the Aga Khan Cup. (Young people never believe that last one but it was that big back then.)

With no World Cup or European club competition, the Five Nations was close to being the be-all and end-all for rugby. There was something both inexorable and comforting about its arrival as we struggled away from harsh winters towards the rumour of spring. If I'm honest it's still my favourite rugby competition. I'm a stickler for tradition; in some part of me it will always be the Five Nations, just as footballers will forever be kicking fifties and horses competing for the Sweeps Derby on The Curragh.

It was a very different country then. Gardaí stopped cars at checkpoints and searched boots, power cuts were a regular occurrence and it seemed that every night on the News my Uncle Pat, RTé's Industrial Editor, would be standing in front of a crowd of men carrying placards while talking about such arcane topics as 'demarcation', 'work to rule' and 'shop stewards'. Rugby was a very different game too. Every lineout was a 50-50 free-for-all with no lifting and an awful lot of barging, a try was worth four points instead of five, there were five nations instead of six in the championship and no player got paid. If someone got injured there was usually a doctor among his team-mates to have a look before the official medical personnel arrived, Ken Kennedy providing this service for Ireland and JPR Williams for Wales among others.

I'd been aware of rugby before 1978. A great win over France in 1975 sticks in my mind because of two tries, one the first ever scored by Willie John McBride for Ireland after a long and world cap record-breaking career, the other the only ever scored by Tony Ensor, which came at the end of a long foot rush - something which seems to have vanished entirely from the game, a wild and exuberant thing which may have been the closest sport came to a cavalry charge.

Sadly, that win was actually something of a last hurrah for a generation of Irish players who'd won the championship the previous year and contributed hugely to the Lions wins in New Zealand and South Africa in 1971 and 1974. It was followed immediately by a humiliating 32-4 defeat by Wales, who added 34-9 and 25-9 thrashings in the next two championships. 1977 saw the unthinkable humiliation for Ireland of a whitewash.

So 1978 seemed a singularly unpropitious time for me to start obsessing about Irish rugby. But I did and the blame lay with two players of vastly different styles and physiques whose only point in common was that they both played with Munster and Ireland. One was Tony Ward, the other was Moss Keane.

It's hard to get across now just how different and how exciting Ward seemed when he first came into the Irish team. For some reason in those days most rugby players came across a bit like the guys you'd see explaining to Brian Farrell why they were sure the electorate had every confidence in the minister. Ward, on the other hand, had the cut of a pop star, or at the very least a soccer player, about him. He even moved in a different way, in a slightly hunched style as though he were hugging his genius to himself before springing it on the world.

In the first game of the season whitewash was avoided, Ireland defeating Scotland 12-9 after the Scottish captain Douglas Morgan disdained a last-minute penalty and instead opted to go for a try and a win. There was something essentially rugby about the quixotic nature of the gesture. Ward led the way for Ireland and was even better in the second game, a one-point defeat against a French team who'd been fancied to hammer us in the Parc des Princes. On an icy pitch, Ward glided, sidestepped and drifted past would-be tacklers, kicked with precision and had the air of a man who'd worked out exactly how this game could be played in the most attractive fashion.

Which brings us to Wales and March 4 - the day I fell in love. That Welsh team is probably the best there's ever been from these islands and they looked set for their annual cakewalk when they shot into a 13-3 lead, all the points coming from their blond-haired centre Steve Fenwick.

That was when Moss Keane took a hand. Distance lends enchantment, of course, and I am no doubt sentimental about this particular game, but I'm not sure if I've ever seen anyone play with such fire and fury in the Irish jersey. They talk about players putting the team up on their back and that's exactly what happened that day. Only in this case it was the Welsh team on Moss Keane's back, four and five of them at a time trying to stop these crazed surges forward which scattered their compatriots like ninepins.

There was something about these runs which seemed to transcend not just rugby but sport itself. The closest analogy I can think of is to a character from the 2000AD comic, the Celtic warrior Slaine, who would go into a 'warp spasm' and floor all round him. The idea of rugby as some kind of effete posh-boys' game was eternally disproved by the big Kerryman. It was as though between them Ward and Keane had combined to show all the facets of what made rugby special, its opportunities for the expression of subtlety and strength, passion and craft, heart and brain, cunning and violence.

Which brings us to that high kick. Hanging up there so long that when it landed JPR - the best full-back in the world under a high ball - got the Irish pursuers at the same time and sent his attempted clearance kick 30 yards behind himself and over his line, where after a crazed chase Johnny Moloney got there first to bring Ireland level with time running out.

There would be no fairytale. JJ Williams got a late try to get Wales, en route to a Grand Slam, home. Ward equalled the championship record for points scored that year and Moss Keane had a good few more of those runs left in him before he quit.

It was Keane and Ward for me. Maybe it was Dean and Fitzgerald for you. O'Driscoll and D'Arcy. Or O'Gara and O'Connell. God knows we haven't been short of heroes. And there'll be some ten-year-old kid today for whom something will click when he sees Furlong and Murray or Best and Henshaw do their thing.

That's the great thing about the start of a Six Nations Championship. It's not just the prospect of what's ahead of us which makes it so exciting, it's the memories it prompts of what happened in the past.

So this week I'll be thinking of Murray sniping, of Furlong charging, of Sexton probing and Toner soaring. But I'll also be thinking of Ward gliding, of Keane bullocking, of Trevor Ringland getting over in the last minute, of Gerry McLoughlin being horsed over the line, of Shane Horgan stretching his arm out that extra inch, of O'Driscoll's hat-trick and many more.

And also of a strange notion I have that every time an Irish team takes the field, they're participating not just in that day's contest but in a long, long match which has been going on ever since this championship began. What a game it's been.

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