Ireland’s Grand Slam?

The Irish economy is still in free fall with retail sales down 20% in January on the same month last year, the biggest annual drop since records began. GDP expected to decline by 6% this year, the public sector deficit is expected to be over 10% of GDP, and a really nasty emergency budget is planned for a couple of weeks time.  Whilst the rest of the world is spending Trillions stimulating their economies, the Irish Government is planning to take Billions out of the Irish economy in tax increases and public service cutbacks.

But yet the biggest current news story by far is the possibility of Ireland winning only its second grand slam ever in the 6 Nations Rugby Championship, and the first for 61 years.  Just why this would be such a big deal requires an understanding of the importance of sport in general and rugby in particular to the Irish psyche particularly at a time when just about everything else is going seriously wrong for the country.

So let’s put the whole thing in some perspective.  Rugby is still largely an elitist middle class sport in most parts of the country and ranks some way behind Gaelic games (Football and Hurling) and Soccer in terms of popular participation and player numbers.  The professional Rugby game itself involves only about 150 players in four Clubs - the four provinces of Ireland - Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connaught who compete in the Magniers League and the Heineken or Challenge European Cup competitions.  Ireland used to be the poor relations of the five, now six, Nations European Championship with a history of big defeats, “moral” victories, and very few Championship or Triple Crown victories to their credit. So why all the fuss?

Firstly, sport is still the glue that binds many disparate communities together.  The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) is one of the finest (largely voluntary) community organisations in the world with an active club in virtually every parish and local community.  Inter-Parish and Inter County rivalries are fierce and there are huge traditions and strong community links surrounding each local and county team.  It was founded in the late 19th. century as part of an Irish Cultural revival and in resistance to British Imperial rule.  It has retained a strong nationalist ethos, and not many years ago it still disbarred members of the British Armed forces and Northern Ireland police service from playing its games.

This nationalist ethos is partly also because of an incident which occurred on Bloody Sunday in 1920 when the British Army entered Croke Park, the National Gaelic Stadium, in  armoured cars and fired into the Crowd and at the players killing 14 in retaliation for Republican assignations of British secret agents earlier in the day as depicted in the film Michael Collins. It was thus a major event of huge symbolic significance when the GAA agreed to rent the Croke Park stadium to the Irish Rugby Football Union (seen as promoting a “foreign game”) over the past couple of years whilst the Lansdowne Road Rugby Stadium (the oldest international Rugby Stadium in the world) is being rebuilt.

Many worried that the appearance of English players and fans in the stadium would result in unpleasant incidents, but those who worried simply didn’t understand the Irish Rugby tradition and culture.  Irish Rugby Crowds have always been scrupulously respectful of even the fiercest rivals, and trouble between rival fans is almost unknown.  Almost uniquely, opposing kickers taking a penalty are accorded complete silence whereas crowds in other countries frequently jeer and boo kickers in an effort to distract their focus.  Moreover, England will always receive a special welcome because they fulfilled their fixture with Ireland in 1973 despite alleged death threats from the IRA.  They were accorded a prolonged standing ovation both in 1973, and when they arrived to play in Croke Park.  Even the playing of “God Save the Queen” the British National anthem and anathema to Irish Republicans is always scrupulously respected.

I achieved considerable notoriety on that occasion by writing in a preview of the match on a Timeonline Blog that:
Wicklow rugby fan’s forthright letter does the rounds on e-mail - News, frontpage - Wicklowpeople.ie

Ireland may well be missing Brian O’Driscoll as well as Shane Horgan and don’t have the resources in depth to overcome such losses. However neither will England have the armoured cars and machine guns they had the last time they entered Croke Park,’

Whist obviously an informal tongue-in-cheek blog comment, it was soon elevated in  popular mythology to the status of a formal letter to the Times and quoted in numerous other papers and e-mails doing the rounds all over the world.  (My brother in Zambia was questioned as to my Republican sympathies and I received many indignant responses from British readers claiming that I was mixing politics and sport.  I’m afraid in Ireland it was ever thus!)  For the record, Ireland beat England by a record 30 point margin in that match and Irish Rugby fans would never have been allowed to hear the end of it (from GAA fans) if they had allowed England to prevail on that occasion!

With such a historical background, it is understandable that there is very little Protestant participation in the GAA although my late wife’s uncle created history by being the first Protestant to be elected its President some years ago.  Such is the prestige of the organisation that post had an influence equivalent to being a cabinet minister in the Government.  Where other traditional organisations such as the Catholic Church have suffered a catastrophic decline the GAA remains the single most important community organisations in the country and it is rapidly losing it’s identification as an exclusively Catholic Nationalist organisation.

Whereas the GAA has remained staunchly amateur, Soccer in Ireland has suffered from the fact that the relatively small population and market is insufficient to support a fully professional league.  Top Irish soccer players play for English or Scottish clubs, and clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Glasgow Celtic have much larger Irish fan bases than domestic Irish clubs like Shamrock Rovers or Shelbourne who rarely do well in European competitions.

And yet the country went bananas when Ireland reached the Quarter Finals of the World Cup in 1990 with a team made up largely of expatriate Irish players many speaking with English accents.  Similarly the country was convulsed by controversy when the Irish Captain and best player,Roy Keane, walked out (or was sent home) from the Irish Squad just prior to the 2002 world cup after a row with the Manager in Saipan.  You could tell a lot about a person’s politics and orientation towards authority by the position they took on that dispute - and virtually everyone had an opinion.

However Soccer was also effected by the politics of its times, with Northern Ireland having a separate international team even though no one - not even the British - claims that Northern Ireland is a separate nation.  So how is it that Rugby has always been organised on an All-Ireland basis despite the partition of the Island into two states in 1922 with Northern Ireland continuing to be ruled as part of the United Kingdom (UK) of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  If it is anomalous for a small part of a Sovereign State (the Northern Ireland part of the UK) to have it’s own international Soccer team, it is even more anomalous for one international team to straddle two Sovereign States and a bitter sectarian divide as well.

The reason is that Rugby was historically (except in Limerick) largely a Protestant and Middle and upper class Catholic sport played by private schools and clubs in more middle class Universities and residential areas.  One of the less documented parts of the division of Ireland and the subsequent “Troubles” from 1969 onwards is that it was largely a working class  and rural phenomenon with the middle and upper classes of both traditions (Catholic Nationalist, and Protestant Unionist) viewing the greater extremes of violent Republican nationalism and fundamentalist protestant Loyalism with some disdain.  Thus even though the Protestant population of the Irish Republic declined to only 3% in the decades following Partition, a strong upper and middle class cross border identification remained, and nowhere was this more strongly expressed than through a joint love of Rugby.

There were also practical considerations of course.  Whatever chance the relatively small Rugby playing population of Ireland, both North and South, had of competing with the Behemoths of England and France, not to mention Wales where Rugby is the National Game, there was no chance if they attempted to form two separate international teams.  Nevertheless relations at all levels of the game, from junior club and school teams to provincial regional selections remained cordial at all times - even through the worst periods of the troubles.  Occasionally one might hear - on the grapevine, rarely in the media - of tensions between some sober born again Christian Ulster players and some of the more exuberant and drunken exploits of the Leinster and Munster players, but all Ireland mourned the loss of a star international rugby player in 1987 when Nigel Carr’s career was abruptly ended by his having the misfortune of being caught up in a terrorist atrocity.

So despite it’s Protestant and elitist Catholic origins, rugby has come to be seen as a central part of the process of reconciling the conflicting traditions on the island as a whole.  The advent of professionalism in 1995 has also resulted in a gradual decline in the snobbish “old school tie” element of the Rugby culture, and it is now much more widely played in all parts of the country and by all social classes than was the case heretofore.   Despite concerns that a small country with a small market would struggle in the professional game against countries like England and France with many times the number of players and resources, Ireland has done remarkably well since, winning three Triple Crowns and winning 35 out of 49 Championship matches equal top with France and more matches than anyone else since Italy made the Championship a 6 Nation Championship 10 years ago in 1999.

And yet the current “Golden Generation” of Irish players remain unfulfilled.  They have failed to win a Grand Slam (beating all 5 other countries in the Championship in the same year) and flopped terribly in the World Cups of 2003 and 2007.  This has lead to allegations of “choking” when the chips are down and the stakes are really high, and these allegations have been given widespread currency in the British Press in the build up to the Championship decider against Wales tomorrow.  After an excellent opening win against France, Ireland have played nervously and cautiously coming from behind against Italy and Scotland, and almost blowing what should have been a clear cut win against England.

So tomorrow takes on huge significance in the sporting history of Ireland.  Not only would a win against Wales be only the second Grand Slam in 61 years, but it would be the final vindication for a gifted generation of players who are seen as having underachieved in terms of actual Championships won despite an overall record second to none.  Brian O’Driscoll, John Hayes, Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell are coming towards the end of their careers, and many feel this is their best last chance to bring home the Slam.  More importantly, however, their performance will be applauded by all Irish people, North and South, Protestant and Catholic, Middle Class and Working class, who all appreciate that despite being a minority sport in a small Island, Rugby is one of the few areas where we have any claims to being world class at the moment.

And so my prediction?  Virtually all commentators are predicting a very tight match with most predicting a Wales victory because they are the reigning Grand Slam Champions and have home advantage.  As usual I will cast caution to the wind and predict a clear Irish win.  Rugby is still a sport where those who need it most tend to fight hardest and do best.  And we really need this win. Whoever said its only a game? Bill Shankley, the famous Liverpool manager is reputed to have said “Football isn’t a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that!”.

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