Putting in the hard miles for the boys in green

Sat, Oct 8, 2011, 01:00

FOCUS ON THE BLARNEY ARMY:It’s been a costly business following the rugby team but since when did that stop the legendary Irish fans? GERRY THORNLEYmeets some of them for the craic before the big weekend clash.

THEY’VE BEEN a phenomenon, one of the stories of the tournament and the talk of New Zealand. They’ve been labelled the Blarney Army, and according to three policemen on patrol on Wellington’s dockside, have been the most colourful and noisy of the visiting fans, whatever about being the most numerous.

After likening Otago Stadium to Lansdowne Road last week, an aghast Nick Mallett ventured: “I think every New Zealander had a green shirt on tonight, because I don’t believe there are that many Irish with enough bloody euros to come over here.” No, there aren’t, and therein lies the point.

Undoubtedly there have been thousands of Kiwis adopting Ireland, which makes it harder to estimate how many Irish fans are actually in New Zealand, but all the anecdotal evidence suggests it’s well into five figures. A tad poignantly, the vast majority are émigrés or would-be émigrés, who planned their departures from Ireland to coincide with this Rugby World Cup adventure and gloriously rediscover their Irishness again.

Some of the émigrés also decided to take a shorter route by finding employment and a new life in New Zealand itself. The duty manager in the Astoria café, very like Bewleys in style, is John Sommerield from Cork. He came over to Wellington in January with five mates who are sharing an apartment and he has continued to play junior rugby with Old Boys Pink Ginners.

“But there’s not a bed to be found in the city this weekend and at the last count I reckon we’ll have 10 on the floor,” he estimates. A few minutes later he gets a text. “Make that 12. Some have hired a campervan just for somewhere to sleep.”

Last weekend, there were over 600 campervans with Irish fans in Dunedin. While the general profile of the Irish supporters has changed a little for the final pool game in Dunedin and more so again for quarter-final weekend in Wellington, Heineken bringing in 40 alone, the hardcore Blarney Army appears to be largely young male émigrés who are mostly living in Australia.

Eight lads started out on their great adventure from Auckland, four mates from Dublin (Barry Murphy, Neil Roche, Evan O’Sullivan and Gavin Slattery) and four from Kerry (Brian O’Connor, Stephen Casey, Niall O’Sullivan and Michael O’Gorman).

The coming together of this Leinster/Munster, Dublin/Kerry octet was inspired over a year ago when two of them, Murphy from Skerries, and Casey from Castleisland, met while travelling through Asia in Laos.

“I had been living in England for two years,” says Casey, “and then travelled to Asia on the way to working in Australia. Myself and Barry hired motorbikes in Vietnam and travelled 1,000 miles from Hoi An to Saigon.

“We had ‘for sale’ signs on them but on our last day we went for a few drinks and when we came back they were gone,” adds O’Connor, laughing at the memory. “Some bloke had nicked them.

“We then went on to Cambodia, to the south island for the full moon party and then to Bali for a week to recuperate,” says Casey, “but we were in a worse condition after that.” “Yeah,” says O’Connor, the two of them laughing at the memory of it now.

“That was seven nights on the tear. We were wrecked and then we went to Australia in December for our first Christmas away from Ireland. We were supposed to land in Melbourne but that was the Qantas flight that was redirected to Adelaide.”

They reckon they’ve clocked up over 5,800 kilometres already in their campervan, Megan the Motorhome, which is set down for the weekend in one of the dockside car parks. Another campervan pulls up tooting beside them with a couple of Irish fans in the front, and they ask how much it costs to stay. They’re directed to the ticket machine and told it’s only NZ$7.

All bar O’Connor travelled from Australia, where O’Connor will move on to next, while the others have emigrated there in the last year. “I’ve been saving money since 2006 with the credit union,” says O’Connor, and all of them reckon that following Ireland has already cost them over €5,000.

They started with the opening weekend ceremony in Auckland, on up to New Plymouth for Ireland’s opener against the USA Eagles on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, four long weeks ago, and have effectively followed Ireland’s route, taking in Queenstown and the myriad of outdoor pursuits in New Zealand.

O’Connor has a cast protecting the broken wrist he sustained in Queenstown with the bucking bull. “When I went into the AE in the hospital the nurse said to me: ‘Another leprechaun.’ There were three other Irish lads there, one with a dislocated toe, one with a smashed knee and another with a dislocated finger. He’d done his on the bucking bull as well, while one of the other guys had done his on the dance floor the night before.”

“Howya, lads.”

“Howya,” they said to each other, a tad sheepishly.

The Irish on tour! They have a sign on the tri-colour adorning “Megan” looking to exchange three tickets for Wellington’s other quarter-final, while some have already optimistically bought tickets for next week’s first semi-final in Auckland.

“They’re bloody expensive,” complains O’Connor. “I just bought one ticket, which cost me NZ$800 (€459) for category C. Ridiculous.”

All of them are rugby players and fans, either from Castleisland, “Michael Galwey country,” explains Casey, who reveals they met him yesterday, or Skerries, “Jim Glennon country,” says Murphy.

They’ve loved the way Ireland have been playing, and when bumping into some of the players occasionally couldn’t help but notice how chilled they have been.

On their travels Leinster and Munster rivalries have been put aside. “Well almost,” laughs Murphy, and while happy Dublin beat Kerry in the final, all agree they’d have swapped victory for their county in that game for Ireland’s win over Australia in Eden Park, an epic match and an epic night which finished in daylight in Danny Doolans on the viaduct.

The émigrés to Australia have to complete three months regional work before acquiring an extended visa and Casey has completed his in Perth, while Murphy did his in Darwin. Hence, come this weekend, there were only four of the original eight remaining, the others having returned to their employment in Australia. But if Ireland were to beat Wales not one of the other supporters spoken to for this research intended going home or even back to Australia until it was over.

Further up the dockland, Micheál Fitzgerald from Cork pulls into another car park in his campervan. The three travelling compadres are from hurling territory, Killeagh, between Midleton and Youghal. Indeed, his mates are Brian O’Keefe and Alan Deane, brother of Cork hurler Joe Deane, and last night they were being joined by an Aussie-based couple, Neil O’Driscoll from Mayfield and Noelle Browne from Tipperary. “It’ll be like a squat. There’ll be seven people in there tonight.”

Although Deane is elsewhere, soon Fitzgerald is joined by another contingent of Munster men; Philip O’Brien and Liam Ryan from Newport, Tipperary, George Ryall from Cashel and Michael Scanlon from Scarriff in Clare, one of whom came from Korea, the rest from Australia.

Fitzgerald has been based in Bondi for three years now, where he has his own company, Cork Racing, the sign for which, along with Honk for Ireland, adorns the back of his van. The sun finally broke through in Wellington yesterday and his campervan has a spectacular skyline view over the city’s harbour, hence his claim: “You’re missing out, man. Ocean view, a few beers tonight.”

They picked up the van up in Auckland, had some signage made up in Rotorua and, as Fitzgerald puts it: “fell in love in Auckland, Rotorua, Queenstown, Dunedin. We’ve done everything, the kayaking, bungee jumping on Ben Nevis, snowboarding in Queenstown, and milking cows. We milked 740 cows in Hamilton.

“A friend of mine, Martin Kelly (also from Killeagh), bought a small farm there,” explains O’Keefe, “out in the sticks.”

“We went to one rugby club to watch a match and it was so remote there wasn’t even reception on the mobile phones,” says Fitzgerald.

They’ve been blown away by the friendliness and hospitality of New Zealanders. Browne recalls stopping in a pub outside Christchurch, and they had the ITM Cup on display there. “It was only a small pub, with just four old guys sitting there. But the cup had the Canterbury scarf around it, and when I asked the owner if it was the ITM Cup he said it was and offered to take my photo with it.

“He says: ‘Have you a camper van outside?’ I said ‘yeah’ and he says: ‘pull up around the back there and plug in’ and he looked after us for the night.”

They all nod. “That’s sound, alright. They’ve been very decent.”

It was the same, says Browne, in Wanaka after meeting someone in Queenstown.There have been one or two bad experiences, a bunch of them having their campervan pillaged while at the Ireland-Australia game in Eden Park, and they had their laptops stolen. “But at least they left the jerseys,” says Ryall.

They reckon it’s cost them over €7,000 already, and cite the NZ$300 for a category D ticket for the quarter-final. Some have tickets for both quarter-finals.

“They’re handy to get but they’re pricey,” says Ryan, who tells of an Australian who has tickets for today’s game and a flight home on tomorrow.

“Typically arrogant Australians,” they say in unison.”

What brings them all together? “Once in a lifetime,” explains Fitzgerald, now dressed in his green gorilla suit. “This place is beautiful. Unbelievable. It’s like Ireland, they have volcanoes, we have hotheads.

“The two lads are getting married next year – one of them doesn’t know it yet. They’ve been to all the games, and the adventure has just been ticking on. It’s been unreal.

“It’s been like a five-week long Oxegen,” says Fitzgerald and all the others readily agree.

Most of them emigrated about two years ago, but however long Ireland stay in the tournament, they’re all intent on staying with them. “Rocking it until the end, to be sure,” explains one of them. “We’ve given up our jobs but there’ll be jobs to go back to.”

It’ll be a long while before there’ll be such a coming together of Irish sports fans abroad again, and supporting a team this good.

And Fitzgerald sums it up succinctly again. “Once in a lifetime.”