Rightly or wrongly, alcohol is taped around rugby’s wrists in an unbreakable bind, fixed to the game’s culture as securely as the All Blacks, Six Nations and the Warwickshire town that lent the sport its name.
Booze is everywhere – 360 degrees of sponsorship, a congratulatory crate left in the middle of a dressing-room floor, the constant game-day availability for supporters, team-bonding exercises . . . the list goes on. It’s nothing new, but it’s a complex relationship that deserves our attention.
It’s rare that a season passes without some alcohol-related scandal, the advances of technology giving almost everyone the tools to break stories about the game’s star players.
I don’t envy them in some respects; there were enough heavy nights in my Shannon, Munster and Ireland days that were best left shelved away from public view.
Yet some of the fondest memories from my 15-year career are of nights out with club, province or country, bonding with team-mates or making peace with opponents you had been cursing and driving into the turf only hours before. Boxers touch gloves with their opponents after brutal bouts, we clinked pint glasses.
My path to professional rugby had not been well worn, remember, it was no gradual progression towards elitism, with best practice – on and off the field – drilled into you from U-8s.
Club rugby was rough around the edges but soft and welcoming at its core; my first teenage taste of the adult game was served up alongside pre and post-match pints. That was the culture players of my vintage came from and for the most part, we were no worse off.
Some nights are clearer in my mind than the matches they succeeded, such was the craic. Thankfully we had plenty to celebrate at Shannon in the mid-to-late ’90s, and there was many a colourful night spent in Ted’s on Limerick’s O’Connell St.
Club battle lines were clearly drawn around the bar before the festivities began, Garryowen players congregating in one spot, Young Munster lads elsewhere, Old Crescent and Bohemians too. As the music grew louder and the pints flowed, the tattooed boundaries faded and unlikely bonds were forged.
Even at Munster, in the early days of so-called professionalism, the adhesive powers of alcohol were helpful at times.
A 41-24 thumping by Perpignan in October ’98 immediately comes to mind. It was only my second year playing in Europe and they were one of the competition’s top sides, illustrated by the 118 points they had racked up in their opening pool games against Neath and Padova.
We were not short on confidence ourselves though, heading to the south of France on the back of four successive wins. Chartered flights weren’t budget-friendly back then, so leaving first for London on a Wednesday, ahead of a Saturday game in France, you couldn’t escape the sense of adventure. Unfortunately, we never snapped out of holiday mode and were destroyed at the Stade Aime Giral.
Thankfully only 5,000 people saw us trudge out of the place, our pack heavily wounded after being taught several harsh lessons by a powerful forward unit containing France skipper Raphael Ibanez at hooker and classy No 8 Thomas Lievremont.
Declan Kidney was apoplectic on the bus back to the hotel. Getting bullied up front was the biggest sin in Deccie’s eyes. The veins were popping, foam building at the mouth as he roared into the microphone in full teacher mode.
The limp performance had earned us an 8am fitness session on the beach the following morning, any hopes we had of sampling the local bistros' offerings vanishing with Deccie’s final directive.
Most of us sheepishly put the heads down, until Peter Clohessy – the one player even Deccie probably feared – strolled towards the front of the bus, as cool as you like, picked up the microphone and announced that previous instructions were to be ignored; every team member was to be ready for a night out within five minutes of returning to the hotel.
Deccie didn’t know what to do, but thankfully he kept schtum because we ended up having an incredible night in Perpignan, one I’m convinced tightened our rag-tag bunch for plenty of the challenging European days ahead.
That was a group that had relative old-timers like 'Claw' and Mick Galwey, who were 32 at the time, leading the way for the next wave of 20-somethings like myself, John Kelly and 'Axel', and a couple of 20-year-old pups in Peter Stringer and Mick O’Driscoll. A night on the French tiles was exactly what we needed, even if it didn’t feel like such a sharp idea when the fitness session started on the sand two hours behind schedule the following morning.
It wasn’t all about the alcohol either, it was a rare opportunity to relax and develop a better social connection with the people you were working with, something most people can relate to. Sure Stringer and Donncha O’Callaghan never touched a drop in their lives, and they were often among the last to call it a night.
The mixed messages that emerged in the wake of the Finn Russell saga paint a much more complex picture than the initial rumblings that Scotland’s star man had simply gone AWOL on a late-night drinking session.
There are clearly long-held grievances between the head coach and fly-half, and this appears to be the culmination of that simmering heat.
The main difference, however, whether he was unaware or not of player-imposed drinking limits, was that Russell appeared to defy the orders of his team-mates and followed that up by missing training the next morning, a droppable offence in its own right.
Players were generally judge, jury and executioner when it came to booze in my day too; it was the team leaders who largely set the rules around drinking, the management simply didn’t have to.
I was never a particularly big drinker anyway, I didn’t go near it in pre-season or when rehabbing an injury for example, as you even knew then that it would impede your development or recovery.
The messages around alcohol and its dangers are more prevalent than ever now and players are well educated on its effects, but it remains a source of many social problems within rugby and beyond. And the Russell incident raises some wider questions about alcohol’s impact on the game.
Personally I don’t have a problem with the alcohol-heavy sponsorship of the Six Nations, PRO14 and Champions Cup, particularly when you see the ‘Guinness Clear’ campaign sharing a more balanced message.
For most supporters, having a few drinks with friends or family is merely a refreshing accompaniment to a match-day experience.
When the rugby becomes a sideshow to a drinking game, however, and supporters are late into their seats for the start of both halves, up and down to the bathroom and the bar disturbing other fans, it isn’t fair on those who have paid a lot of money to watch a game. Closing the bar while the ball is in play would be a good start.
There’s a place for alcohol within rugby but, appropriately enough, ‘moderation’ remains the key word.