Boom, bust and balls: How rugby reflects our economic times

Academic paper says fortunes of Ireland’s rugby team mirrored Celtic Tiger years

When they run out to face Australia, the Irish rugby team should bear in mind that they are not just representing their country.

A symposium on post-Celtic Tiger Irishness held at Trinity College Dublin heard that over the last few years the team has been a mirror for Ireland's recent dramatic economic history of boom, bust and recovery.

In a paper entitled Smart, Clued-in Guys: Irish Rugby Players as Sporting Celebrities in an Era of Post-Financial Crisis Austerity, Dr Marcus Free, of Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, told the symposium that the failure of the much-touted Irish team at the 2007 Rugby World Cup had come to be seen as emblematic of the arrogance and entitlement of the Celtic Tiger years.

However, the hard-won Grand Slam of 2009 had created a narrative of “hubristic excess, followed by punishment and redemption”, during the worst years of the financial crisis.

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Dr Free pointed to the increased popularity in rugby coverage during those years of phrases such as “grind out the hard yards” and “get the job done” as evidence that the language of austerity had permeated rugby.

National cause

Since then, and especially under the coaching of Joe Schmidt, the use of technology for constant surveillance and feedback on performance had led to players being "relentlessly monitored" to measure their value to the national cause. This "instrumentalisation" of the way players view their stats meant physical toughness was now always combined with anxiety about the duration of careers curtailed by injury.

"The neoliberal mantra that a job for life is gone forever is played out in discussion of the Irish squad," said Dr Free, who also suggested that newspaper coverage of the multiple business interests and brand endorsements of players such as Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney, presenting the players as "smart, clued-in guys", offer "neo-liberal lessons in how to manage and control the future".

Dr Free noted the close links between rugby and the Irish corporate world, pointing out that 79 per cent of the team that beat France in 2014 are reported to have come from fee-paying schools. It was not surprising, therefore, that the sport was increasingly used as a model by business.

“There’s a form of management training that uses the scrum as a metaphor,” he said.

“It has become possible to break the game down into a series of phases. This allows for an analysis of those statistics as an intellectual exercise that celebrates the hard masculinity of the sport while thinking of it as an intellectual exercise.”

Rugby was not the only sport under consideration at the symposium, which considered subjects ranging from The Big House in Post-Crash Fiction to zombie apocalypses in Irish cinema and Serenading Nuns: Irish Soccer Fandom as Performance.

Hugh Linehan

Hugh Linehan

Hugh Linehan is Arts and Culture Editor. He also presents the weekly Inside Politics podcast