Johnny Watterson: Time for the many naysayers to give Irish rugby its due

Inverse snobbery may be difficult to shake off but All Blacks game is one of the sports events of the year

If the eyes are the window to the soul, Twitter is peering into another entirely different anatomical gateway.

The Ultimate Fight Club of social media – in weeks like this with the arrival of the All Blacks, a suite of inclinations against rugby are laid on the table, all preferred and long-standing stereotypes.

In the lithium world of retweets and likes, the view exists that the rugby package comes with a directorship and personalised parking space. In Ireland that is an extension of the school system.

Bias is a difficult thing to pick up on especially if the bias is coming from you and inverse snobbery is a difficult thing to shake off, again, especially if it’s coming from you.

This week that disdain around rugby was rinsing around. While people prefer some sports over others for many reasons, rugby draws a simmering kind of animus. It has nothing to do with preference but has something to do with resentment.

If you don’t agree with the concept of fee-paying education, you probably won’t love a rugby team populated by those same people. Eleven of the starting team against Japan came from three or four Dublin schools. Plenty there for some to get all riled up about.

From that social bias others have multiplied. The game receives more coverage than it deserves not because people like watching but because the media and the television networks kowtow to those people who have influence, the graduates of those same schools. Rugby, apparently, is their go-to game.

A few weeks ago the ululating began with the price of tickets for the visit of New Zealand, the cost of an Upper Stand seat set at €125 with a premium level ticket €165.

Amidst the frothing and accusations of elitism there was little thought or commentary given to the €306 tag for some of the top-priced seats at the Bellator MMA event that took place on Friday in Dublin’s 3Arena.

Was Showstopper and Strabanimal worth it? Sure they were. Ringside tickets for world championship boxing matches run into the thousands.

An aggressive pose was also struck against the traditions of the sport and a history which elevates tour matches into serious and consequential contests.

The bias is cooked into the contention that the game on Saturday is ‘just’ a friendly meeting and should not stand alongside a proper competitive match such as a World Cup qualifier in another code played two days earlier in the same stadium.

Best team

But that bias misses the point that like MMA and like boxing, rugby, a full contact sport, doesn’t do ‘friendly’ matches. It does Test matches and Saturday’s game against New Zealand is just that, and happens to be against the best team in the world.

Within that there are other prejudices and a contention that rugby is not a truly global game. It is, like cricket, played largely in former British colonies and therefore can’t make such claims on its reach in a modern world.

Did Britain have over 100 colonies? Jeez probably. But it begs the question how many countries must play a sport before it can be called global. No, rugby is not as global as football, not close.

The confirmation bias is a process that helps you justify your beliefs. It involves favouring information that supports what you believe and downplays or ignores information to the contrary.

With the decline of mass media over the last decade and the rise of niche media and social media it is easy for people to become surrounded with stuff they agree with. In fact they chose it by largely following or contracting themselves with those whose views they share.

This week the pile-on question of bias was with the composition of the Irish team and why it had so many Leinster players instead of the ordinary decent blokes from other provinces. Where was Craig Casey? Why did Conor Murray not start and where the hell is Jacob Stockdale.

Farrell, an English former rugby league player who converted to union, his assistant, Mike Catt, a South African-born England centre and Simon Easterby, a Yorkshire-born former Irish backrow, somehow favoured Leinster players for reasons other than that they were the best available for that job.

Twelve of the starting team play with Leinster. Irrefutable evidence then and justification for the accusation that one province had positioned itself as the entitled premier brand.

The confirmation bias ignored the reasons why Farrell would jeopardise his job by selecting a different team to face Japan for an irrational love of one group. Either that, or, a conspiracy theory that there is something bigger, more sinister at work in Irish rugby.

Slipping into bias is as simple as disliking Velcro shoes or elastic waistbands. It is easy to accept the stereotypes and not think about rugby as an Irish cottage industry that produces players and teams that shouldn’t but do win at European events.

At provincial level it works to market itself, not as a collision-based, risk sport but free of crowd trouble, child friendly and inclusive. The inverse snob read is rugby thinks it is superior.

Far from perfect, it can be stuffy and there’s an uncivil war going on with the women’s team. But the All Blacks game stands on its own as one of the Irish sports events of the year. And that’s not a biased opinion.

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