Making an exhibition of ourselves

An Irishman’s Diary about rugby supporters and the sense of fair play

‘Home crowds can  intimidate referees. Or at least they have to try. A big theme of the run-up to last Saturday’s game, in fact, was Ireland’s historically difficult relationship with the English referee, Wayne Barnes, who was portrayed as a whistle-blowing microcosm of the 800 Years of Oppression.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne

‘Home crowds can intimidate referees. Or at least they have to try. A big theme of the run-up to last Saturday’s game, in fact, was Ireland’s historically difficult relationship with the English referee, Wayne Barnes, who was portrayed as a whistle-blowing microcosm of the 800 Years of Oppression.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Wed, Feb 12, 2014, 01:00

Is it just me, or are there any other Irish rugby fans out there who struggle to keep a straight face during the silence for opposition kickers?

I mean, I enjoy the solemnity of the ritual as much as the next man. It has become a sort-of sporting version of the Angelus, as the noise and turmoil of a match in Thomond Park or Lansdowne is interrupted periodically by 60-second intervals of quietude. All that’s missing is people taking their caps off and gazing into the distance, in apparent reflection.

In fact, I sometimes have to do that myself, apart from the cap. During the more profound silences at Lansdowne Road, as at funerals, I often worry that I’ll laugh inappropriately. At such times, I find it helps to gaze out over the Havelock Square end towards Dublin Port, until the danger has passed.

The exaggerated respect for kickers is of course admirable in its own right. My problem is its sheer hypocrisy in the general context. After all, in just about every other situation that arises in a rugby match, the home crowd is allowed – even expected – to influence the outcome, unfairly or otherwise.

They can howl in indignation at the slightest transgression by opposition players. They can make mock-nervous noises as a snow-capped ball descends towards the visiting full-back. They can cheer like small-minded begrudgers as what was nearly a brilliant, try-scoring move is ruined comically by a pass sailing over the head of the winger. All that is usually filed under “atmosphere”.

Home crowds can also intimidate referees. Or at least they have to try. A big theme of the run-up to last Saturday’s game, in fact, was Ireland’s historically difficult relationship with the English referee, Wayne Barnes, who was portrayed as a whistle-blowing microcosm of the 800 Years of Oppression.

As a result, early in the game, he was booed like a pantomime villain. Any decision favouring Wales was greeted as grounds for appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. The animosity only eased when, gradually, it became obvious that the home team’s orchestration of the game extended even to the ref, who was being played like a violin.

Music is not the most apt analogy here, I know. The big buzz-phrase in rugby lately comes instead from another branch of the arts. Hence, before the game, coaching staff referred repeatedly to the need to “paint the right pictures” for Barnes: ie let him see that the Irish players were complying with the rules at all times.

The theme continued afterwards, when Paul O’Connell singled out Peter O’Mahony for the brilliance of his brushwork. Commenting on one early ruck, as our reporter paraphrased it, O’Connell spoke of O’Mahony getting “in over Danny Lydiate to give Wayne Barnes the perfect picture”.

Clearly, the referee was swept away by the home side’s art exhibition. Even the scrums, which were a bit of a mess, were messy in a beautiful way. They were like Monet’s haystacks – he just had to stand back a bit, scrunch his eyes a little, and admire them.

The Welsh pictures, by contrast, were mostly failures. Yes, you could see the effect Scott Williams was aiming for with his early-Cubist attempt at breaking Brian O’Driscoll up into his component parts and reassembling them in random order. On another day, that might have expressed a deeper truth. Here it backfired badly.

As, for another Welsh player, did the incident after Paddy Jackson’s try. It was a minor assault, really. But because Jackson has the facial features of a choirboy, it also looked like an assault on a minor. So naturally, the art critics in the crowd chose to view it as Rubens’s Massacre of the Innocents.

All right, I’m overstating that last point. The truth is, with the score at 26-3 and replays lessening the incident’s apparent gravity, there was no need for the home crowd to feign outrage, even though helping match officials to interpret replays “correctly” is also normally part of our job.

In the end, it was the perfect game. The solitary Welsh score only added to the sense of satisfaction. It gave us an opportunity to exaggerate our sense of fair play to the world, as usual, while, just for once, our outer silence didn’t even have to compete with inner turmoil.

It was no harm either that, after one of Johnny Sexton’s successful kicks, a few rowdy visitors had to be reminded of the “long-standing” local tradition of silence. Thus, it was with even greater solemnity than usual that we composed ourselves for Leigh Halfpenny’s penalty, presenting an idealised self-portrait to the world, while keeping an almost-straight face.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

Follow Frank McNally on Twitter: @FrankmcnallyIT

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