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.
And why not: the walls of the Leinster clubhouse shimmer with names evocative of the cream of Irish rugby – Tom Crean, AJP O’Reilly, Wardie, Ollie, Hugo McNeill, Big Mal, the Hickster and through to the modern generation. Viewed from the misty west, it can easily seem as if the life of the Leinster rugby man is one eternal party on Gatsby’s lawn, drifting from a life of unruffled magnificence under the high ball to a career in international business, now spotted about town, now popping up on such and such a chat show. It doesn’t really matter that a five-minute chat with anyone from Leo Cullen to Ollie Campbell will smash the stereotype of the Leinster ‘goy’.
And in Leinster, this must sound like the usual moan from the west. The problem for Connacht is that nobody can get over the tragedy of the place. Cromwell’s infamous declarations are still echoing through the Norman towers – many of which, incidentally, were bought up and converted into summer pads by Leinster rugby fans during the Boom. Connacht is literally awash with weepy ballads and dirges lamenting the sons and daughters of Connacht sailing to America and all the rest.
And the rain . . . any meteorologist who won’t confirm that the patch of land between Belmullet and Portumna is not the wettest in the northern hemisphere is either drunk or a liar. It has never been the Land of the Fast Ball. Connacht rugby was always something of a contradiction anyhow: the posh man’s game played in the peasant’s province.
But it somehow survived and produced folk heroes like Ciarán Fitzgerald, Eric Elwood and Simon Geoghegan, the most electrifying of them all, who knew exactly what he was saying when he told this newspaper that he showed up for his first Irish training session by spilling out of the back of his Galway grandfather’s van, straw everywhere.
Schmidt is not wrong in sticking up for Leinster’s propriety in their overtures to McCarthy. But the straight-talking Kiwi is an innocent abroad. He is wading into centuries of oppression and the prickliness that all west of Ireland people possess when it comes to their province.
Hence, the indignant statements emanating from the Connacht headquarters spoke for the heartfelt disappointment of the players and fans alike. How can they build if they will always lose their best players just when they get momentum going? Trust me, someone in Connacht is writing a ballad about McCarthy already and are waiting to see if Dolores Keane is free to sing it.
Connacht play Leinster on December 29th in the citadel itself. The trains will be crowded with Connacht folk bristling with pride and indignation and determined, above all else, to meet up with the Dublin cousins and have a good Christmas knees-up.