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Eamonn Sweeney: More viewers are interested in Irish rugby team than All-Ireland Finals - This is everyone's team


'Rugby has always stood in an unassuming way for a practical, decent form of unity between Irish people on both sides of the border'

'Rugby has always stood in an unassuming way for a practical, decent form of unity between Irish people on both sides of the border'

'Rugby has always stood in an unassuming way for a practical, decent form of unity between Irish people on both sides of the border'

Here's a number for you: 956,600. And another: 875,300. One more, this is like Countdown isn't it? 739,600.

The first number is the average viewing figure for Ireland's Rugby World Cup match against Italy this day last week. The second is the average viewing figure for the All-Ireland football final which was previously the most-watched programme of the year. And the third is the figure for the All-Ireland hurling final.

Think about it. A pool game in the Rugby World Cup attracted almost 100,000 more viewers than the football final and over 200,000 more than the hurling final. This is where Irish rugby is right now. It is not just the biggest show in town, it is on the verge of becoming the biggest show there's ever been in town. And that's why today's match against France is as important a game as there has ever been for the sport in this country.

I have to admit that those figures made me do a double-take. For starters, they give the lie to the notion that the World Cup has received too much hype and coverage in the national media and that rugby remains a middle-class game to whose charms the Plain People of Ireland remain largely immune.

Instead, it turns out that the nation is wholly captivated by the odyssey of Joe Schmidt and his warriors. And people would really want to give this 'middle-class game' stuff a rest. For one thing this faux streetwise nonsense is a relatively new development. When Ireland were winning Triple Crowns in 1982 and 1985, I remember jubilation being, as the man said, general all over Ireland. I grew up in a place which was as far from being a rugby heartland as you can imagine but I can't remember anyone carping about or even being interested in the backgrounds of Ollie Campbell, Moss Keane, Michael Kiernan et al. They were an Irish team and we loved them.

That, despite the chatter of the odd sociologically-inclined pundit, is also how it is today. But on an even larger scale because right now Irish rugby is probably at an all-time high in terms of public affection. After two Six Nations titles in a row and a decade of the most extraordinary heroics from Munster and Leinster, this affection has reached critical mass.

Rugby is on the verge of the same kind of explosion in popularity at grassroots level that soccer experienced in the wake of the Charlton era. Should Schmidt's team continue to produce the goods the chain reaction will change the shape of sport in this country. Today's game is absolutely pivotal to that process.

It is possible for Ireland to lose today and turn around a week later and defeat the All Blacks in the quarter-final. But it's not very likely. Ever since the draw was made today's match has been pinpointed as the key encounter. It is D-Day. Should Ireland fail today, it would be almost impossible for them to pick themselves back up sufficiently to trouble the tournament favourites.

Like England after their defeat against Wales, the players wouldn't be able to escape the conclusion that the jig is pretty much up. Lose today and our World Cup will end with two defeats on the trot within a week and that fever of national expectation will be cruelly and comprehensively dissipated.

It would mean another let-down in a tournament which has sometimes seemed expressly designed to banish the feel-good factor from Irish rugby. Because the fact is that France are a team which Ireland, playing at their best, should beat. We didn't just beat them pretty well in this year's Six Nations championships, we beat them in their own backyard to win last year's title. France are without a win in their last four matches against Ireland.

You have to go back to February 2011, before the last World Cup, for their last victory against the men in green. So, notwithstanding the fact that France are World Cup experts with three final appearances in a tournament where we have never even graced the last four, Ireland will start as favourites. And should they justify this favouritism they will face Argentina in the quarter-final. That match wouldn't exactly be a gimme but the fact remains that Ireland have won their last five meetings against the Pumas and beat them twice on their home turf last year.

A place in the last four seems infinitely achievable and that's part of the reason why World Cup fever has taken hold as never before.

Should Ireland make those semis, it will represent a great progression into previously uncharted territory. And the spectacle of an Irish team just one match away from a World Cup final would make the semi, no matter what the result, a red-letter day in our sporting history. The boost for the game here would be incalculable. Schmidt and his players won't be thinking about any of these consequences but they are there on the horizon all the same.

Some may cavil about the leisurely pace of the group stages but the viewing figures indicate that as far as spectators are concerned the tournament is coming nicely to the boil. From now on every match will have a huge amount riding on it. Ireland's struggles in the Italian game might have quelled somewhat the wild optimism engendered by the easy victories in the first two matches and there was a nervousness about the performance which you often see in teams who know they're on a hiding to nothing against inferior but sticky opposition.

It will be a different type of game today because Ireland know that they will have to play to the very peak of their ability to get past France. Despite the customary laments for the lack of traditional Gallic élan in their play, Les Bleus have been extremely efficient so far. They have a familiar cast of grizzled hard men, Dusautoir, Pape, Picamoles, in the pack and a couple of potential game-breakers, Michalak, Bastareaud, in the backs.

Yet there are no big changes from the team which has won just six games out of their last 15 in the Six Nations. The Irish management can do their best Kerry footballer impersonation and say, 'Yerra, sure we won't be favourites at all', but the truth is that defeat today would represent a significant regression and the spurning of a magnificent opportunity to go deep into the tournament.

Victory on the other hand would further cement this team's hold on the affections of the nation. Why so much love for this particular team? Perhaps because it's a team that looks like Ireland. Players from 11 different counties took the field against Italy, a much more generous geographical spread that you'll ever get on a GAA All Stars selection.

The squad encompasses the rural Munster grit of Paul O'Connell and Mike Ross and the city boy flair and flash of Simon Zebo and Johnny Sexton. Robbie Henshaw is there to represent the once-condemned rugby province of Connacht and Seán O'Brien flies the flag for the oft-overlooked little county that is Carlow. Jamie Heaslip is the product of the Irish military tradition, Keith Earls of working-class Limerick rugby and, importantly, Iain Henderson and Rory Best represent Northern Ireland and remind us that on an island where we too often focus on the stuff which divides us rugby has always stood in an unassuming way for a practical, decent form of unity between Irish people on both sides of the border.

That's why those who criticise the playing of Ireland's Call rather than the national anthem of the Republic miss the point entirely. Ireland's Call is an anthem, an anthem of an ideal Ireland, and perhaps that's why it is sung with such gusto by both players and fans. It also, as I learned last week, sounds very fetching when played by your children on the tin whistle.

There was some scoffing when those 'this is rugby country' ads came out first. But TV3's Ireland-Italy viewing figures show that there's a certain amount of truth to the statement. Four more victories and the process will be complete. Today could be the first day of the rest of Irish rugby's life.

Ireland expects. Shoulder to shoulder, North and South, we stand together. This is everyone's team.