Thursday 22 February 2018

Love and war in the city that refuses to give in to evil

This being Valentine's weekend, I thought it only right to bring in a little bit of romance

Guy Noves has been given the challenge of reviving France (Getty Images)
Guy Noves has been given the challenge of reviving France (Getty Images)
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

I know some of you reading have avoided the pages here in this paper dealing with love, flowers and underwear. But Paris on Valentine's weekend brings out the romantic in all of us.

Back in the days when the only visible display of affection from men was to buy chips for their lover on the way home from the pub, a man from our town was caught holding his wife's hand in public, in Paris.

The spotter was fairly sure the husband and wife's fingers were intertwined and bound as securely as a front-row going in to a five-metre scrum and they a point up with two minutes to play. The hand-holding was the talk of the parish and can you imagine the excitement if he had been seen giving her a bit of a squeeze.

Paris has suffered from the attacks of murderous people yet life goes on. Love always wins through and sport brings us to a place where we all join together to cheer our teams.

France is embracing a new age in rugby and the aim is to bring joy to people's hearts in this time of terror.

Guy Noves has always loved the traditional French game which is all about élan. His Toulouse teams had but one mantra and that was to keep the ball in hand. They played a game built on go-forward with flicks, crepe-tossing offloads, shifting feet hardly touching the ground like men walking on hot coals and all done at the pace and rhythm of bugles and beating drums.

For a good many years now the French players were forced to abandon the flamboyant, elegant French style of play and take up a bludgeoning, battering game. Rhino rugby it was. France have gone back to the aesthetic, which is very much in keeping with the traditional values of French rugby and a style which fits in with the French way of looking at life. The French are arty about almost every facet of their lives, whether it's cooking or clothes or painting.

There, art is seen as solid and substantial. There are those in this country who would happily paint a moustache on the Mona Lisa.

I met Guy in Toulouse. He's a polite man who has the sad face of a clown on his day off. There's a decency in him and an ability to rehabilitate, which is much needed in France right now. Noves brought Trevor Brennan to Toulouse when he was being ignored here at home. Brennan flourished in France. He was the man Noves brought in to protect his players.

There have always been hitmen in French rugby. And it still goes on. Noves is a practical man with hard side to him. Trevor describes Noves as dad-like: strict, but forgiving.

Noves wasn't one of the boys at Toulouse but he gave his players the emotional back-up they needed and he fired them up before games with passionate words. He has brought in giant prop Uini Atonio and he will trouble us with his ball-carrying near the line. It's not all about beauty, and Noves has always mixed the rough boys with the smoothies.

Ireland played with all of their hearts against Wales. This was about national pride and the only consideration in their contracts was a covenant with our own people.

Much has been said about the six-day turnaround. The day off was stolen by TV. The bruises and welts had several of our players unable to get out of bed on Monday morning and George Hook was right when he said animals would be treated better.

If a horse came back from race with all those bruises the racing authorities would ensure he would not be allowed to run again so soon. Just because the game has gone professional doesn't mean that the players are the paid whores of commercial interests.

The players will put their bodies on the line because they are young and the real damage will not show up until they hit a certain age. The IRFU, to be fair, are better than all of the other unions in terms of player welfare but they have been undermined by the big clubs in England and France in particular. The French clubs are republics within the republic and have ruined their national team and are close to wrecking international rugby.

There's a glory there too. And this is the contradiction. We rise to our feet and applaud valour even though we know this is a dangerous game.

The bravery of Jonathan Sexton knows no bounds but it could be time now for him to sit back in the pocket and pick his fights. We hope the referee minds all of our players but Sexton was taken off injured in his last three games against France.

Tommy O'Donnell had his hip almost pulled from its moorings but he came back to play as if he never suffered a blow.

They were all brave. But there is that terrible contradiction. I think of the lines of Wilfred Owen.

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.

"It is sweet to die for one's country", is the translation of Horace's Latin. Is it sweet to be maimed on a rugby field?

I do not have the answers. Fewer players on the field is one way. Maybe. Ideas need to be trialled. The injuries will stop parents sending their kids out to play. There is an urgent need for reform.


I was watching the UL first-year team eating a feed of pasta on Thursday on their way to a game and they were all bigger than our biggest player back in the day in UCC. People are getting bigger, and that is the main problem.

There is another and more sinister threat. Isil blew up innocent people who were on their way to a soccer game in Stade de France just three months ago.

Life goes on. And so too does sport. We are here to support not just our team but the brave people of Paris who have been targeted by a group of evil men and women.

There's no guarantee of absolute safety. But the fans will go in their thousands. There is a sense of a communal not giving in to those who turn sporting fields in to killing fields, whether it is Paris or the Regency Hotel.

We stand side by side with our colleagues who have been threatened by another cohort of evildoers.

And we will stand side by side with our friends in the Stade de France. We will sing together and cheer for our teams. For a game that can be so violent on the field, rugby has the best apres match camaraderie. Civilised men and women will prevail and may the day never come when the malevolent take over.

And we will celebrate liberté, égalité, fraternité in the land where these words were first spoken.

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