Tuesday 15 October 2019

Neil Francis: 'Irish rugby has gone from a joke to the gold standard in 20 years'

Decline of Irish soccer contrasts markedly with rise of pro rugby players in the Joe Schmidt era

The Ireland rugby team celebrate their Six Nations Grand Slam success
The Ireland rugby team celebrate their Six Nations Grand Slam success
'A world record 82,000 crowd for a club game of rugby. A parameter was set that day'. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Simon Geoghegan is the only man I know who can sing Amhrán na bhFiann in three languages - Irish, English and South Clapham. The Mad Ferret is quite musical and when the mood takes him he runs off a medley of West Ham numbers which would leave the PC brigade on ventilators and under heavy sedation.

I went to see the Hammers play at Upton Park in the late '80s and found the whole experience traumatic. I am confident of being able to hold my own in any company but the violence I witnessed at Green Street Tube Station had a lasting effect on me. I had never seen someone getting stabbed before. The options were pretty stark - hop out onto the track, hope a train came quickly or just wait your turn to get filled in. There's not much that you can do when a dozen of them launch into you.

A District Line Tube barrelled through the tunnel providing temporary relief. After a dozen stops I would be out the gap but a platoon of goons had just begun steaming the carriage. Ritual humiliation and a beating or whatever you had in your pocket.

I had been in Australia for the previous year and I thought an Aussie accent would be best here because if they detected a Paddy accent I was really going to get it. The guy on the other side of the carriage put up some resistance and they lost interest in me and I hopped off at the next stop which mercifully came quickly.

On the way home I thought, that crowd were English, they spoke English but they were from a parallel universe a different class of Anglo-Saxon to what I had ever encountered. Who in their right mind would go along every second Saturday to that place and consort with these people? To my mind, it wasn't a few rotten apples that Saturday it was the whole fucking barrel. There were a few Irish people at the ground that day and I wondered what possessed them to hop on a plane and give patronage to this club or these people.

Every week I see all our national newspapers give acres of room to this young boy called Declan Rice of West Ham United. A peripheral figure to most people on this island but to some, it seems, he is the Messiah.

The boy Rice was born in Kingstown-upon-Thames to English parents who themselves were born and raised in England and happened to have an Irish parent who spent all of their life in England and were assimilated into the English way of life, with possibly one or two throwbacks to the auld sod.

The boy Rice has just signed a shiny new contract with West Ham which will earn him over £30k a week. If you compare, on a like-for-like basis, with a player of roughly the same age, he is earning around €1.5m per annum more than, say, Jacob Stockdale. Rice earns €1.8m for stroking the ball around the Olympic Park in mid-table obscurity, neither going up nor down. The only thing he is in contention for is a bigger salary on the half chance of joining a bigger club. How could you put your hopes and aspirations on this equation?

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Imagine the scene when the boy Rice, after numerous unanswered calls from Mick McCarthy and Robbie Keane, gets a call from his mother. 'There is a gruff man from Crumlin and an even gruffer man from Barnsley and they want to talk to you about playing for, you know, the Island of éire.'

The FAI humiliated themselves over the boy Jack Grealish and to compound that error they have spent the last year trying to tempt another English boy into playing for Ireland.

Grealish has already declared for England and Rice will assuredly do the same, both knowing they will never even get close to the England squad. In this instance this is not about the better offer or the more attractive prospect, it is about avoiding the least attractive offer - the prospect of playing for the Republic of Ireland. It is patently obvious that neither has any real interest in playing in green and the Irish governing body begging them to reconsider could only be considered a humiliation if it had a sense of self-worth.

How did it come to this?

I remember being at an end-of-year sports awards in the early '90s and being brought into the VIP room before the event. Our round ball cousins were there in clusters around the room and a cabal of us engaged a bunch of them for a few minutes. It took me about a minute to realise none of them had a clue who we were.

Further humiliation arrived when we made our way to the foyer where the cameras and the press waited, asking us to move out of the way. I remember thinking, 'OK, this is the way it is. We play in front of 60,000 or 70,000 people in the Championship and millions of people watch on television but it's rugby and we are sucking the hind tit here. We are also amateurs whereas these guys play professional soccer in one of the biggest leagues in the world.'

Another thought crossed my mind that day: 'We are shite and we don't win that often and the brand of rugby we play is . . . well, shite too.' The football players that night were the nucleus of the Italia '90 and USA '94 World Cup sides and that night was an object lesson in observing the maxim that nothing succeeds like success.

The point taken was that no matter how successful or unsuccessful we were there was a cachet attached to professional sport and at that time the football boys earned their living from playing in a serious league playing for serious teams. If we as rugby players were looking for support or attention from the country we had to drastically improve, operate under a different metric and follow them into the professional ranks.

I remember meeting John Eales outside a tent on the side of a mountain in a vineyard in Cape Town. It was the official opening of the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the venue chosen was an embarrassment - the game had just gone open and in terms of professional sport this was an outlier. The dizzying prospect of professionalism had been ratified that month and Eales saw all the potential and the possibilities.

All I could think of was that these guys were practically unbeatable as semi-pros so what would happen when they became fully professional? Ireland would become the Accrington Stanley of professional rugby. If you consider that the IRFU were the only Union who voted against the game going professional, then we had to worry just what sort of a head start would they give everyone else before they clicked into gear?

I bowed out a year or two later but not before I had played two seasons of Heineken Cup. I had two thoughts: that this competition is going to catch fire; and, fuck it, I wish I was 22 again.

If we look at the scale of success and the pitch where the national side are at the moment, outside of Joe Schmidt's influence, the Heineken Cup was the biggest single factor in dragging Rugby Union in this country into a hugely supported sport with mass appeal. It was sexy from the start but got sexier when the Irish clubs started to win. The Heineken Cup was the catalyst for bringing us from no-hopers to professional darlings.

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Suddenly a professional sport was being played in Ireland. Most of the players were Irish - real Irish who lived in the country, were visible to the populace and they were amenable and approachable and walking around the streets in our towns and cities.

I thought the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final in Croke Park between Leinster and Munster was a marquee day in the sport. A world record 82,000 crowd for a club game of rugby. A parameter was set that day. Ownership of the game shifted.

No matter who you were or what you did everyone took interest. This was no longer a middle-class, private-school pursuit. Broad appeal meant everyone was included. Even in their wildest dreams the IRFU could never have countenanced a match of such scale which generated so much interest but, more importantly, meant so much.

Ulster and Munster may have broken new ground and sparked huge interest on their way to European glory but this match in Croke Park, played weeks after garnering a first Grand Slam since 1948, changed the paradigm.

Leinster, representing 12 counties and about 2.5 million people, playing against Munster, six counties of 1.2 million people, was a contest between well-prepared professional athletes. And this contest was taking place in our own country. You didn't have to hop on a plane to go and catch a glimpse of Irish players playing high-quality professional sport. Here were real Irish people with Irish accents and Irish outlooks who lived amongst us.

After that match I had many conversations with English and French media people - there were many questions but no answers. The enormity of the occasion, the colour, the noise, the sense of what it meant to the people dressed in blue and red, left its mark.

It was the nascent moment in the life cycle of the game of professional rugby in this country. It was underpinned by the availability and proximity of all the players and, most important of all, the watchability of the product.

That match was the springboard for the success of Ireland and the Irish provinces marshalled in addition by the inestimable Joe Schmidt.

Is it a coincidence that this unparalleled success just happened to occur when Schmidt was in situ for Leinster and Ireland? The attitude, outlook, fitness and skill levels honed and fashioned by Schmidt's extraordinary exemplar personality are such that now people are requesting to go and see the basis for this continuing success - 'show us these academies and centres of excellence'.

We have gone from being a joke less than 20 years ago to becoming the gold standard. English players with Irish lineage don't need to be begged to come over to this side of the pond to improve themselves, play in front of big, appreciative crowds and see if they can test themselves and force their way in to the Irish side.

Winning against Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, England or France is no longer a dewy-eyed aspiration, it is a reality. Winning Test matches and major international tournaments against countries whose demographics and playing population are multiples of ours is also a reality.

That is the foundation for success and broad and inclusive appeal. Players on the national side are very visible and comport themselves in a humble and down-to-earth fashion. They are polite, articulate and engaging - characteristics which not only have not gone unnoticed by the general population but also by Corporate Ireland. 'We would like to ally ourselves, our products and our services with these particular athletes and this particular sport.' Winners. Winning is everything! Winning with style and grace is the cherry on top.

The ascendancy of the national rugby side and the decline of the national soccer side are converse images of each other on the graph, an essay in how to get things done properly and the flip side of how to get it wrong on nearly every single count. That is why both sports stand as they are in this country at the moment.

The world of sport evolves and once Joe Schmidt leaves his post there will be no more guarantees. The systems and structures that he leaves behind will be there for the foreseeable future but there is no certainty of continued success here either. Success can be fleeting.

Bubbles burst and in this rarefied atmosphere that the IRFU finds that the challenge is to remain forever blowing bubbles.

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