Joe, this isn't about rugby football, it's about Oliver Cromwell
SIDELINE CUT:Joe Schmidt has always come across as a terrific guy and it is hardly his fault that he hasn’t lived in Ireland long enough to understand that the row about whether Mike McCarthy wears the colours of Leinster or Connacht isn’t really about rugby football at all. It’s about Oliver Cromwell.
In case you have been distracted by such sideshows as the Staggering Lack of Cojones in the Coalition Government or the falling star of the late great Patrick Moore, something of a civil war is threatening to erupt on the fault line of Irish rugby. You can be pretty sure that the board members of Leinster RFC will be served a lesser quality Cognac when they next sit down for a fireside chat with their friends in Galway.
Who can blame McCarthy, the ferociously competitive and versatile Connacht backrow, for deciding to pack his bags after five outstanding seasons in the west? Come next season, McCarthy will cross the Dark Mutinous and line out with Leinster. It would be wrong to call the move a defection: it isn’t quite as bad as, say, Bernard Brogan suddenly declaring for Meath or Wayne Rooney scampering across Manchester to play with City.
Nonetheless, it feels that way to Connacht fans. The mood in Connacht is that they have lost someone precious and intrinsically theirs.
It has been lost on nobody that McCarthy is a quintessential son of Connacht: born in London in 1981 with a grandfather who left Belmullet in the first half of the last century as countless others did.
Irish blood, English heart, this I’m made of, There is no one on earth I’m afraid of, in the words of one of the best songs about what it is to be an English lad with an Irish background. The choices McCarthy has faced in his sporting life illuminated the complexity of his background.
He was overlooked for the Ireland U-21 team, was duly selected by England at the same grade but ultimately won his first senior cap wearing green, getting the call in August 2011 at the age of 29. “He has a bit of an accent,” Declan Kidney quipped. “But we’ll get over it.”
This year, he has continued to impress in the autumn Tests for Ireland and particularly for Connacht. Every glowing performance was accompanied with an uneasy feeling among Connacht fans that his form was so conspicuously good that one of the other provinces – probably Leinster – would pounce. The timing of the announcement couldn’t have been worse, just days before Connacht travelled to Biarritz seeking their third European Cup win of the season.
And it served to confirm the lingering suspicions of Connacht rugby people that they are still travelling in the second-class carriage of the good train IRFU.
It isn’t too long since the future of the province as a viable rugby entity was in question. It is going to take many, many seasons before Connacht lose the feeling that Leinster are the Haves of Irish rugby. To Connacht, Leinster are, and always have been, the Establishment team; the Donnybrook set with dashing three-quarters men whose schoolboy feats are still spoken of in the corridors of the prestige schools and whose fan base includes most if not all the Ireland’s captains of industry, lawmakers, politicians and RTÉ personalities of every hue.