And so it is upon us: the rugby man’s season of heaven on earth. Autumn of 2015 and here we stand in the vague hope that Ireland can become champions of the world at rugby. In a tournament hosted by England! With a final held in Twickenham, scene of so many humbling days for Irish rugby. That is the hope.
There are those of us who still remember Nicky Popplewell bent over in tears because Ireland had won. Not the world cup. Not the Five Nations. No. Just a game.
Swing low, indeed.
It is going to be a slow-burning and emotional six weeks. It is also going to be an epic test of willpower for the many thousands of us who understand that there is a world of difference between enjoying rugby – bless its venerable, slightly snobbish, long-scarved but essentially benign old soul – and surviving the slick and inescapable triumph of marketing that is the Rugby World Cup.
Are you sure you are able for this? Or to channel Ciarán Fitzgerald circa 1982: where’s your f***** pride?
Six weeks! Six weeks of crouch and bind! Six full weeks of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Nobody seems to understand that we may be on the verge of England's glorious autumn. If there is a scarcely-whispered belief that Ireland might just be organised and ruthless enough to, you know, win the Webb Ellis trophy – none of the Belvo or Clongowes old boys turned pundits are nailing colours to mast but none are denying Ireland's chances either – they are onto the same wheeze over in Blighty. It is their tournament and all. It is their sport. Rugby may yet have its answer to 1966. But that's just on the field. It is the other stuff that you need to be in training for.
Have you the fortitude to put up with a month of lightly condescending critiques of the former colonies whose presence validates the conceit of a “world” competition? Can you hack the 150th rendition of Kiri Te Kanawa’s rendition of
World In Unio-n
? And just how many times in one month can a man watch the haka?
But most crucially of all: are you really in shape for six unbroken weeks of rugby chat? On the tv? On the radio? On the streets? At the dinner table?
Day two now and already we are not sure if we can stand any more references to the “gain line”. Limited patience, too, for endless chatter about the offload and we may have to execute the same on the next honcho who wanders up for a chat about the choke tackle. Enough of the breakdown and of the phases. Actual breakdown may occur at the 1,000th mention of the “physicality” of the Kiwis, the ’Boks, or whoever. This stuff is contagious. Before the month is out grand-aunt Gertrude is going to be holding court as to why the Scots have, historically, had trouble at binding. Sometimes it is hard not to worry about rugby.
Isn't there a distinct danger now that the language of rugby will kill the soul of old girl? Yes, Jean-Pierre Rives harks back to a time when The Cassandra Crossing was the last word in disaster-movie sophistication and there were Osmonds everywhere. For my money, though, Rives should remain rugby union's perpetual poster boy: small and slight for a number six, pale as a poet and psychotically brave; extravagantly blond and, in the most famous of images, disdaining the river of blood running down his face and onto the white shirt of France.
A dude, in other words.
That wound was probably limited to just one match but to children of the 1970s and early 1980s it seemed as if Rives bled constantly, through all Five Nations winters. When Rives retired, he immediately returned to his childhood passion: art. After leaving blood on most if not all of Europe’s rugby fields, he disappeared into his talent for sculpting and painting, occasionally showing in Paris and his native Toulouse. The world and the game has changed since Rives declared, presumably through a cloud of smoke: “The whole point of rugby is that it is, first and foremost, a state of mind; a spirit.”
That's precisely the kind of trippy and existential chat contemporary rugby needs more of, particularly in this congested era of statistics, facts and hard goddamn yards. (Where are the easy yards gone? You know, the ones that cats like Simon Geoghegan and Patrice Lagisquet and Christian Cullen used to skate over for fun?). Who wants to hear about the experimental law variations when you can describe the game in a way that would draw in everyone from Pope Francis to Jeffrey Lebowksi?
Rugby needs to lay off with the play-book, just chill out and remember what it is supposed to be about. The evolution of the professional era is as easy to figure as studying a standard chart of the evolution of man as found in school science laboratories across the world.
The current cast of professional full-time rugby players is simply different from the generation that participated in the inaugural professional world cup of 1995. As bodies got bigger and the scrums were made up of all-out athletes, the space on the rugby field diminished and the administrators tinkered with and changed the laws and now the game is where it is.
Where ever that is.
Sometimes, you get the sense from listening to former players, current and former coaches that even they are struggling to recognise the game they grew up with. Isn’t the essence of the game still the same as caught in PG Wodehouse’s 1930 description of rugby as a game in which “the main scheme is to work the ball down the field some-how and deposit it over the line at the other end, and that in order to squelch this programme, each side is allowed to put in a certain amount of assault and battery and to do things to its fellow-man which, if done elsewhere, would result in fourteen days without the option, coupled with some strong remarks from the Bench”.
That still sounds like rugby to me. We should not forget that rugby is, at heart, a very strange game. It is intrinsically suited to the wilder moods of autumn and winter.
It is one of the few sports where the teams habitually kick possession away and the only sport to dream up a feature like the scrum, which is at once fascinating, boring beyond belief, arguably perverted and without question just plain weird.
There was a time when there was talk of doing away with the scrum, that it slowed down an already slow game, that it was both pernickety and dangerous, and that it encouraged cheating (the dark art).
Rugby has not only preserved the scrum, it has managed to create for it a law book approximate in density to the Magna Carta. It has made the scrum hip. Repackaging and reissuing the scrum as not just an essential part of the game but a popular pub-talk theme has been among the master strokes of world rugby.
But then, rugby has never enjoyed such a profile. For the next six weeks, it will own the stage.
We can only hope that the Rugby World Cup remembers to live up to the game.