Sunday 22 September 2019

Ewan MacKenna: 'The most important rugby match this weekend isn't in Dublin - and it says a lot about the sport'

'This weekend will show how many have clambered aboard the rugby bandwagon primarily due to contagious popularity.' Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
'This weekend will show how many have clambered aboard the rugby bandwagon primarily due to contagious popularity.' Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

On Saturday afternoon, the biggest game of rugby among the end-of-year internationals lies buried underneath a weighty pile.

So if this is rugby country - as we are constantly force fed, as if saying it enough will actually make it true - then how many even know about it?

A hint. It's not in Dublin.

Another hint. You likely won't be able to name a team involved, never mind a player.

That is telling around the artificial nature of the game and its true reach within our patch.

The match-up itself is tucked away in a small back-up ground in the shadow of Marseille's stunning Velodrome as Germany take on Canada, with the result going a long way to deciding who grabs the last spot at the World Cup.

Indeed during the week, Mike Ford, once Ireland's defence coach but who is now the Germany boss, spoke about the reality.

That there's no interest in the country; that the game isn't growing as it cannot break into schools; that he's only met some of the players recently; that one works as a cable car driver by day and bouncer at night and trains with his country at 7am; and that in the lead-up to this four-team repechage they couldn't even afford a real warm-up outing.

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This is the depth rugby has, and it ought to put Ireland's efforts in the sport into context as it is also the level you need to be at with genuine ambitions to make it into the 20-team showpiece. It's not just this though, for the repechage game also puts Ireland's interest and passion regarding rugby into context, showing how many have clambered aboard the bandwagon primarily due to contagious popularity.

Everyone else is at it, so you better get into it too.

Being the number two side in the world is an historical high - and there is no denying that that takes serious going from a set-up that have been superb - and thus facing the very best in New Zealand on Saturday brings intrigue, although it's not a true barometer either.

That's because the real test of any wannabe great team, and we've had over a decade of hearing about great Irish teams, is the pinnacle of competition. The Six Nations wins were damn good and won't be forgotten, but how often is the failure to just once get beyond the last eight in what amounts to a nine-team World Cup used as an asterisk beside, and an anchor attached, to the memories of recent seasons?

In real time we've seen this self-deception play out as if mirror, mirror on the wall.

The acceptance and lack of criticism of Brian O'Driscoll's excitement at a mere pool win over Australia in 2011, as Ronan O'Gara described that as a "great" team that would go on to do the bare minimum.

Ian Madigan's premature tears on the field after a group win against France last time.

In a way, our deifying for so little has hindered these sides, giving them a free pass rather than demanding more from so many groups laced with potential. This one has arguably the most potential, but can only deliver in 2019.

That sadly is bypassed though, for everything has to be bigger and better this instant.

It's why we again let ourselves be whipped into a frenzy around what is not quite a friendly against New Zealand, although it isn't a whole lot more, for consider what should be the diminished status of these so-called tests. While once the only opening to tog out against the southern hemisphere due to the historical fact that there were no World Cups before 1987, there have been World Cups for 31 years now and there's a de facto European Championship literally every season. That leaves enough competitive encounters to put this in its place.

It's also worth considering the place this Irish team now holds in the nation. Perspective has long been lost as this has become about perception, an idea that's been marketed so well because the product is so valuable.

This area is more interesting and more telling than any weekend result from Lansdowne.

The rugby wave that has crashed across Ireland this past 15 years is fascinating from a sociological standpoint for it surmises so much. This isn't passion in the the traditional sporting sense, via a person who follows their county nationwide or the club rugby fan standing with two men and a dog on the sideline. Instead, it's no different to a meal and play, or a night in the club. It's shallow, brief entertainment.

There's nothing wrong with that, but what is wrong is pretending that it's something more.

Like so many have gone from Yankees baseball caps to the Dodgers, like top soccer clubs are traded by many based on what's in vogue, our rugby team is often another accessory that's fashionable to be associated with. Don't underestimate that, as we've learned people are increasingly willing to buy what they are sold, and to accept easily what they are told.

A decade ago in his book 'The Dumbest Generation', Mark Bauerlein, who is an English professor at Emory University, penned his tome about how people are thinking less and less for themselves. Recently speaking to him, he told of how in his mind, this phenomenon has accelerated. To a degree, Irish rugby's popularity is this exemplified in the sporting sphere.

That's not to say there aren't genuine lovers of the game, and for those who merely want a day out and some fun, more power to them. But again, it's about telling the truth and being honest.

And that truth is there's an awful lot of people who don't like rugby. It's often not the game itself, but what's associated with it that causes such unease.

The elitism.

The hush around Munster and their scouting and signing of South African talent given what we know of how they go about their business down there.

A bending of the rules with the likes of CJ Stander and Bundee Aki purchased and proclaimed Irish for weeping to a Phil Coulter song.

And then there's that idea that this is rugby country.

That grates most for it's proclaimed with a smugness and a presumption from on high, and with a straight face when it's false. It's easy to disprove of course, as nobody is showing up for AIL games, the provinces average under 14,000 each per Pro 14 game, and who even knew Germany were playing Canada in the game of the weekend in a contest that has big World Cup ramifications?

That's perspective though.

And remember, this is all about perception.

It's why next year is all that should matter around the national side. But it's also why Saturday is all that will matter, as sponsored flags need waving, the marketing pitch cannot wait, and the profits from it aren't for another day. We are sold the hype and hysteria right now.

And those who can see through it are forced to endure it.

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