Thursday 13 December 2018

Neil Francis: The people are embracing rugby as our new national sport - and rightly so

The Ireland team celebrate with their trophy after winning the grand slam during the NatWest 6 Nations match at Twickenham Stadium, London. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA
The Ireland team celebrate with their trophy after winning the grand slam during the NatWest 6 Nations match at Twickenham Stadium, London. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Is it too easy to pen an 'aren't we great' article the week after collecting a Grand Slam? Ill-considered or ill-conceived to speak plainly about what we have witnessed - not just last Saturday but say since 2006 about where the oval ball game sits in the nation's affections. Is it stretching it too far possibly to say that rugby, now, is the nation's game?

The island follows because the team delivers. The base attraction on the island is because we consistently punch above our weight and win. The appeal in following the rugby team is that when, for instance, they went out to take on the English last Saturday they were primed to win. It has become a dependable consistent. When it is raining soup our rugby team take the field with a soup spoon.

It takes some getting used to but Ireland in one international team sport are no longer semi-attached to the rack of the heroic loss or last-second upset. We have to wean ourselves off the Indiana Jones last-second drop goal and believe that winning, and winning well, is achievable and normal.

If nothing succeeds like success well then rugby is the standout game on this island.

There are many levels and reasons why the Grand Slam was so edifying. If you take the English game in isolation, you don't have to hold the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge to see how the occasion draws the people of this island. Beating England in ­England will always captivate the nation. If there is something tangible at stake, well that is irresistible. You watch, not as a dispassionate viewer, each and every one of us has flesh in this game - about 800 years of it. If it doesn't get the juices flowing - check your pulse.

The cherry on the top was that the whole weekend was a pantomime of good versus evil - Joe Schmidt doing battle with Dylan Hartley and Eddie Jones. Hartley, England's captain, a player who loiters around rucks with the air of a man who is about to assist the police with their enquiries. He has a bigger rap sheet than Jay-Z. Eddie Jones has taken over from Warren Gatland on the pre-match unpleasantries. Wazza's rantings ranged from clumsy to uncharitable. Jones? Whenever he wrestles with his conscience Jones always wins. Some of the things he says are unpalatable and in his quest for media gold he has overstepped the mark too many times for everyone's liking. Nobody likes him, including, it seems, his own team and the sporting world feels better in itself when he is put back in his box.

Joe Schmidt is not exactly the personification of good, but his quest is vocational and altruistic. He plays and coaches the game in the right manner and he is humble and gracious in the right amounts. The perfect alter ego to Jones. Is it not pure theatre when the two end up in a dog fight together and the good guy wins? It is why the win fixated the nation and why so many took time out to watch and support the team.

Strange that a 'minority' sport in this country can command a television audience in excess of 1.3 million. Maybe it was a coincidence that the parades were all finished that half the nation was in a pub watching the game, which just happened to be on at the time. Every pub the length and breadth of the land was packed to the rafters to watch the game. A great day's trade except that we Irish drink more when we drown our sorrows rather than when we toast our success. I met the publican who owns my favourite pub outside Twickenham. The biggest day's trade of the year - the pub jointed but he had a spare ticket - how could he resist?

I meet hundreds of people from ­diverse socio economic backgrounds each week. Every last single one of them watched the game, watched all five games, watched the win in Chicago.

On Wednesday a Polish waitress had to go back to the kitchen because she talked the heat out of my toast speaking about the game. Johnny Sexton's drop goal to Jacob Stockdale's try at Twickenham. She had watched the game with all her mates on Saturday.

The number of women who watch rugby union in this country is incredible. The number of women in the Aviva on match day. The number who travel. Their knowledge and ability to speak authoritatively is impressive. Mná na hÉireann find the game attractive and entertaining. The social aspect is good too.

The 32-county aspect of an all-Ireland team is not a cross-border political experiment. It is just the way it has always been. Hockey and cricket work with it as well, minority sports too!

Rory Best captains the side brilliantly. Iain Henderson is well on the way to becoming one of our best ever players. While our round ball confrères quibble about the religion of some Northern players who opt to play for the Republic of Ireland, Jacob Stockdale, the son of a Protestant clergyman, dazzles in Dublin and anywhere else he travels with the team. As the Vodafone ad says - 'The team of us', Rugby is inclusive and all-Ireland. Rugby union transcends.

The humility and grace of all of the players when they represent Ireland is reassuring. One of the reasons there is a connect with their growing fan base is accessibility and visibility. The geographical spread around the island is a good fit and the provinces work hard to say what county each player comes from

Having all of your players based in Ireland is a player-management concept first and foremost but having your players living amongst the population is huge. Playing for home-based clubs on the island. Successful franchises that beat strong European clubs and do it with style. Why would you go to watch Burnley play with two or three Republic of Ireland players in their ranks when you can stay at home and watch international-class players do their stuff in Dublin, Belfast, Limerick, Cork or Galway?

I watch the FAI struggle with their player supply. Some obscure 20-somethings born in England of Irish parents playing fitfully and inconsistently for second division clubs. Jack Grealish of Aston Villa and Liam Kelly of Reading. Why are the FAI battling with the FA for the loyalty of these boys if they want to play for England? Nobody on this island knows who they are. A majority of our soccer team live and play for English championship sides. A minority play for Premier League sides - a tiny minority decent Premier League sides.

Ireland, given the talent at their disposal, do remarkably well in the round-ball game. Gritty and competitive but just truly awful to watch. The match against Turkey on Friday night was only a friendly. Who watched? Who cared? I am as patriotic as the next guy when it comes to interest in any team wearing green. The extent of my interest though is tuning in after the final whistle to listen to Eamon Dunphy and Liam Brady. Soccer is a world sport but we cannot compete with any of the top sides and we never win anything, nor are we likely to either.

I look at hurling, which is a great game to watch, but for the last 50 years Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary have won practically every All-Ireland. Hurling is a parochial sport, what are the other 29 counties doing when these counties are strutting their stuff? How pleasing is it for the rest of the country when Kilkenny win another All-Ireland? How inclusive a sport is it that no more than seven counties in total can ever hope to win an All-Ireland? What percentage of the population is that? Can we say right now that hurling is the people's game on this island? I don't think so.

The big advantage that rugby has over the GAA is the international dimension. Watch how many Irish people turn up in Australia for the three-match series in June. No longer a focal point for the diaspora. Ireland travel to win this summer. A major attraction. The international rules series? Give me a break! How many travelled to Chicago in November 2016? A sea of green in Soldier Field.

I look around and see what is happening and I see what the kids are interested in, I see the national interest, I see the television figures, I see the sell-out crowds and the evidence of the sustained and broad appeal and it suggests strongly to me that rugby suits the Irish psyche and its attraction and success have more than just caught the imagination. We are now following suit with New Zealand in welcoming it as our national game.

PS: A new entry into the Oxford concise dictionary - cramp break. A period observed after 50 minutes of a Leinster schools game where half the 30 boys on the field fall to the floor in agony. This happens five or six times a match - you wouldn't want to be catching a plane immediately after the game. Quite how these incredibly fit 17-year-olds cannot go through a game without cramping is beyond me. Maybe it could be down to the five-hour warm-ups.

The conveyor belt continues to produce phenomenal quality for Leinster and this year's semi-finalists will undoubtedly produce at least half a dozen prime candidates for Leinster's already overflowing extended squads.

Congratulations to my Alma mater Blackrock College on a stunning first half of rugby in the final. Congrats to Belvedere, worthy champions over the last two seasons. Special congratulations to Glenstal on winning the Munster senior schools championship - an incredible achievement. There is a story in that one.

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