Fair play to the lads, they’d the uniforms down. Dubarrys, chinos, Polo t-shirts, the lot. But the act went above and beyond. There they stood at a bar on Baggot St, tipsy from an Ireland win in the Six Nations, and with more celebratory shots at the ready. Then, suddenly, they lurched forward, touched glasses and bellowed, “Crouch… touch… hold… engage,” before emptying the contents. The journalists watching avoided game-nights thereafter but there was no escaping. Indeed the morning after that scarring, you took a stroll only to see billboards proclaiming ‘This is rugby country’ and had to double-check you were still on Thomas Street in the heart of the impoverished Liberties. Anecdotal – amongst many – but it’s the stench many get when it comes to Irish rugby.
That was a handful of years back but the idea that this is rugby country remains shunted on top of us by marketing. Only it’s not. And it never was. And it never well be as big-bucks promotion doesn’t transfer to passion amongst the masses. Sure enough, a game against England might occupy Irish minds for a few hours but the reality is that it’s a game that has never gotten near most hearts. In a place where sport has been intertwined with struggle and strife, rugby is still in many ways a bastion of continued elitism.
Let’s get to some facts first. Sure enough, Ireland-France was the most watched sporting event last year but rather than highlight rugby’s popularity, it pointed to its fickle, bandwagon nature. Other than that day, only one other rugby match made the top 10 while more people tuned into Cork-Mayo than Ireland-Wales or Ireland-South Africa. Indeed the 891,000 that looked on at celebrations in Paris wouldn’t have had made the top five in previous years. In 2013, Ireland-England was the only rugby in the top-five, only one other rugby match made the top 10 amidst seven GAA encounters, more watched Ireland-Austria than Ireland-France and more watched Ireland-Sweden than Ireland-New Zealand. And in 2012 only Ireland-Wales from a rugby perspective was top 10.
But mainstream games garnering attention doesn’t make a sport mainstream. Indeed it’s away from the big days where it’s best to see the imprint of a sport on the national psyche. In 2013, research amongst over-16s showed that just 2.3 per cent said they’d attended a rugby match in the previous week yet three times more were at a Gaelic football game, two-and-a-half times as many had been at soccer while even hurling with its shrinking strongholds came in at 2.9 per cent. In terms of club membership, while 21 per cent of the country is a member of a GAA club and golf claims nine per cent, rugby lies at around 3.5 per cent, not dissimilar to swimming and athletics. This is not to run down people’s interests or a popularity contest, but it is about reality and disproportionality. And it’s about rugby being taken out of context via hype and hysteria.
Where GAA is engrained in parish building blocks, where John Delaney is still in a job because he can point to the numbers playing soccer at the bottom, rugby’s pyramid is inverted and top-heavy. That makes it misleading in terms of its place in Ireland, and while there’ll be no shortage of fur coats at Lansdowne Road today, ask the clubs about undergarments. Where once 10,000 watched Garryowen beat Young Munster in a provincial Senior Cup final, now you can barely get the numbers because no one is there to count. Rugby country? A house of cards more like, held up only by wins.
Of the major sports on this island, arguably only hurling is more skilful and there’s a case to be made that rugby needs the most complete athlete but none of that washes away what it remains to many. Today the old enemy shacking up in Dublin 4 will be the predictable talk, but so much of our rugby is representative of the new enemy within. And if the pitch is surrounded by Celtic Tiger classes and others desperate for association with a fad, on it is still the preserve of the chosen few. In fact of the 21 players schooled in the south that have taken to the field for Ireland in this Six Nations, 66 per cent went to fee-paying schools. Not surprising when you look at the supply lines…
Fourteen of the schools in the Leinster Junior Cup are fee-paying, while one of the two exceptions, Kilkenny College, noted: “If day students want to partake in a range of activities including sporting, there is a charge of €2,500.” In Munster, since Rockwell became fee-paying, the top three winners of both junior and senior titles are from a certain sector of society only. CBC in Cork charge around €3,000 per year, Rockwell is up to €12,500, Castleknock have a Director of Rugby. All the while there’s an attitude like that of Ken Whyte, principal of Pres Cork, who said of the €3,500 fee there, “We should be delighted there are people out there who are taking their after-tax income and putting it into education as opposed to going on the beer or going on holidays.”
In Clongowes it can cost closer to €17,000 and a couple of years ago amidst the bust they were sending their senior team to Portugal for warm-weather training. Coach Noel McNamara even penned of those teens: “The hotel at Monte Gordo was excellent. It’s location near to the town, across from the beach and its proximity to the training facilities made it an ideal place to stay. The food was excellent, in particular the variety and the quality made it a lot easier to satisfy all pallets. The fact that there were only two players per room was much better than three to four and this made quality of sleep much better.” Little wonder many will never give themselves over to rugby.
Yet still it punches above its weight and the reason is uncomfortable. Back in the 2000s, while working with a now defunct newspaper, key players in the boardroom had attended rugby schools and a combination of their old alma mater and new advertising money forced their sport top of the pile. Pages wouldn’t be held for key Irish soccer games but presses stopped for minor rugby matches. One journalist paid his own way to the World Cup in South Africa yet three plane tickets were reserved for what amounted to a second-string rugby team heading to Argentina. As for reel and ink devoted to schools rugby, everyone in the media knows why as wealth looks out for wealth.
Quantity is pawned off by this rationale and so is quality. Neil Francis – one of the nation’s most talented sports writers – left a lifetime of rugby dressing rooms with the notion that homosexuals like ballet and not sport and a year later wonders why people got worked up over his attitude. Meanwhile what other main sports anchor could get away with joking that the Irish front-row is “the greatest national disaster since the potato famine” as Tom McGurk did. Yet as two key commentators, they add to the sense of them-and-us many find with the game. Of course all this is only ever whispered but a gently spoken and uncomfortable truth isn’t a lie.
As for a nation holding its breath as England come to town? Be honest, most are breathing as usual.
Abridged version, Sunday Business Post
1 March, 2015