Sunday 25 August 2019

Sinead Kissane: Ireland teams aren't just about who we are but what we stand for

Joe Schmidt has no doubts that Bundee Aki deserves chance to play for Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt has no doubts that Bundee Aki deserves chance to play for Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

As Conor Murray sat down to do a press conference at the Ireland team base at Carton House earlier this week, Roy Keane was doing the same over at FAI HQ in Dublin.

Keane must have decided to dial down the usual controversial quotes which deflect attention off the Republic of Ireland team but he still managed to get under the skin of Peter Schmeichel.

When the Dane arrived in Dublin a few days later to do interviews his agent initially warned that Schmeichel would walk out of any interview if he was asked about Keano.

Of course, Keane typically spoke his mind when he said he would say "f*** all" to Schmeichel if he met his former Manchester United team-mate, before mentioning his infamous fight with him on a pre-season tour in 1998.

The Corkman would give you the impression he was an avid reader of the work of that other famous Dane, Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Emperor's New Clothes' with the moral of the story being that we should never let fear or pride stop us from speaking out. Keane certainly stands for that.

While questions have been raised over what exactly Keane does with the Republic of Ireland, besides making "lots of tea", there is something comforting about seeing him on the sideline with Ireland.

When footage was posted on social media of the coaches' celebration of James McClean's wonder goal in Cardiff last month, it felt like we were watching Keane in all his rawness. He showed what Ireland meant to him and it felt like all was right with the world.

Because, irrespective of your opinion of Saipan, if Keane is part of the coaching team which helps bring the Republic of Ireland to a first FIFA World Cup since 2002, there will be something striking about that.

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Somewhat justifiably considering some of their more frustrating performances, the focus on this Republic of Ireland team has been more about what it isn't rather than what it is.

No, it's not the most talented Irish team. No, it isn't stacked with household names.

But, dammit, this team has courage - as Martin O'Neill pointed out after that win over Wales.

And it is this value which the Republic of Ireland have come to represent as they carve out their own place in the history of Irish soccer. It's also so easy to connect with the team when they display that kind of character.

How we connect with the Ireland rugby team and their 'Irishness' has come under the spotlight this week with Bundee Aki becoming the ninth player to play for Ireland under the residency rule.

While Keane was reminiscing about his favourite Dane, Murray was defending his new Ireland team-mate last Tuesday.

"I know people have different opinions on that (qualification process) but if you're just looking at calling a player and singling a player out like that, and giving someone abuse or a hard time about it, I think it's really unfair," Murray said.

"It's tough on a player like that. Bundee hasn't done anything wrong."

When I saw Mayo manager Stephen Rochford watch the Ireland rugby team train at Carton House a few days later it was a reminder of how relatively straightforward it is with the GAA, which is all about where you're from.

It's what makes the GAA special as a person's playing career is essentially decided by county and parish bounds.

The flip side is you don't have much choice - besides obvious exceptions with transfers - as you're essentially tied to your place of birth and most people wouldn't want it any other way.

The main point of a national team is also to reflect who we are. It is something for kids to strive for growing up, to represent their country should be the pinnacle of any career.

World Rugby diced with the integrity of international rugby before finally deciding to extend the residency rule from three years to five from 2020.

The club game is there for players to play anywhere they want in the world but international teams should not have the same access and criteria as club teams.

But there is also something essentially anti-free will about that.

Surely sport isn't just about playing with the cards you've been dealt.

Surely there should be space made for players to play for their adopted country, for a place they call home without ignoring the obvious fact that it was a business arrangement which brought project players here in the first place.

"I think sometimes where you're born is less relevant to where you've invested over the last period of time," Schmidt said about Aki on Thursday. "And I think Bundee has invested incredibly well in the west".

What's been informative about the past week has been the reaction to the reaction of Aki's inclusion.

Everyone has a right to an opinion on this because it is our national team. To some, a national team should be protected for those who are solely from that country, while for others it's about inclusivity.

Maybe the moral of this story is it has reminded us just how important our national teams are to us and those who represent us.

But maybe our national teams aren't just about who we are but also what we stand for.

The courage the Republic of Ireland team showed in getting to the World Cup play-off with Denmark is a value which creates our national identity.

Our national rugby team have showed values like hard work and determination. If Aki fits into that with Ireland as much as he's done with Connacht then he deserves to be part of this Ireland team as much as anyone else.

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