We're not quite back to the bad old days of rugby just yet
SIDELINE CUT:Sports people around the world are great for indulging in what they like to refer to as “a bit of soul searching” and that has been the mood in Irish rugby circles for the past fortnight.
The depressing nature of Ireland’s defeat to Scotland brought to mind a searing newspaper interview which David Walsh carried out with Simon Geoghegan in the dark spring of 1993. Ireland had lost to Scotland then too – nothing novel in those days – and the Irish journalist headed across to London to meet the winger, whose honesty was equal to the incandescence of his playing style.
Geoghegan was deeply frustrated by the limitation of imagination exposed in the 15-3 loss: after the match, he had cast his Ireland jersey to the dressingroom floor of Murrayfield, which caused little short of a scandal during the pomp-and-ceremony days of amateurism. (Unless you saw Geoghegan play, you can’t imagine just how bittersweet the experience was: it was like having George Best on your team but conspiring to never pass him the ball. Geoghegan, London born, might have had a flourishing career playing for England but was fiercely Irish in his loyalty and in his blood. Half the time, you felt like sympathising him).
Worse, he had spoken of his frustrations to Walsh with such candour that the IRFU felt they had to censure him with a one-day ban which cast him in a rebellious light and probably cost him a place on the Lions tour that summer.
But Geoghegan’s despair matched that of anyone who watched the Irish rugby team play during the period. It is a strange thing but back in the 1980s and 1990s, the very honour of the country seemed locked into the performances of the national rugby team in a way that doesn’t seem as true now. This came up in a conversation with a friend over the week who said: “Well, how are you supposed to care about the team when the captain turns up for the coin-toss wearing headphones?”
And it is true that Jamie Heaslip’s decision to attend the coin-flick while wearing a set of cans around his neck has attracted some adverse comment of the It-Wouldn’t-Have-Happened-Back-In-The-Days-of-Willie-John-McBride sentiment. Of course, it was probably just an oversight on Heaslip’s part: it has become standard for all self-respecting athletes to have their play-lists at hand.
But the old headphones controversy seemed symbolic of just how far Irish rugby has travelled since Geoghegan’s frustration. During the week, Donncha O’Callaghan, Simon Zebo and Peter O’Mahony were photographed at a healthy eating campaign organised by the noodle bar Wagamama. Brian O’Driscoll was photographed elsewhere at a launch for Adidas. The Irish players were, in other words, doing what professional sports people do when not training and resting: they were marketing stuff.
They all spoke about the disappointments of the season and there is no question that they are all privately seething and nobody can ever question that this generation of Irish players care about the jersey: their commitment and pride far exceeds professional stipulations. Nonetheless, the sight of the boys out and about underlined the simple truth about rugby – it is as utterly professional now as it was chaotically amateur in Geoghegan’s time. As Kanye West puts it: “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.”