This story is definitely true, it’s just the details that might be a little skew-whiff. It was years ago, no idea how many. England were playing somebody in football, no idea who. And they were doing unexpectedly well, no idea what the score was. The only thing that myth, legend and apocrypha has preserved is the punchline, wherein one of the scrotes in the press box turns to another and goes, “Christ mate, how do we knock this?”
Over the years, it has passed into the vocabulary of all sports hackery, a sort of glib throwaway to be used when things are going just that little bit too well. We do it ironically, of course, for we are people of full and generous heart.
But we all know, too, that there’s an entirely useful sentiment behind it. Everything should be knockable, basically. Can’t be happy-clappy all the time. Spare the knock, spoil the sport.
It came to mind last week watching the RTÉ panel fillet the Ireland women's rugby team after their close win over Australia. Lynne Cantwell, Fiona Steed and Rosie Foley were so thoroughly unimpressed by Ireland's display in their first game of the World Cup that they didn't just knock it, they knocked seven shades out of it. Not good enough. Basic errors. We need to see more.
“There didn’t seem to be an awful lot going on in the backline other than passing it and trying to catch it,” said Steed at one point, with a half-grin on her face that told you she knew she was sparing nothing and nobody.
“Without being too simplistic about it. We didn’t see them trying to isolate defenders, trying to create space.”
Cantwell played in the last World Cup and has friends for life still playing in the Ireland team. But she didn’t put a tooth in it either.
“Ireland made it very hard for themselves. They didn’t play at a standard that they can play at. Their defence and their defensive line-speed let them down, they turned over the ball, their set-piece was poor . . . Yes we can talk about complacency, some first-game jitters, fine. But there’s some serious work-ons before the next game.”
Watching on, you couldn’t but be struck by the total absence of cheerleading. There was no prevaricating either, no support-the-girls leavening of the criticism.
Neither, GAA folk might like to note, was it mentioned even once post-match they the team is made up entirely of amateurs, as if that might be a reason to go easy on them. Instead, Cantwell, Steed and Foley dissected the performance with cool, critical precision and it made for compelling television.
This is what normal looks like. A national team putting in a flawed performance but coming through it in the end. A TV panel clearly wanting them to do well but giving it down the banks to them all the same. A TV audience learning a little more as we go, forming opinions on it all along the way.
So often women’s sport gets covered in the media in big picture terms. Half the time we talk about how it’s covered (or not) in the first place, the other half we talk about sprawling, amorphous topics like participation levels or funding or, God help us, whether or not some of it is suitable for girls.
Most of the time, the subjects are broad because the media's knowledge is general. It's easier to fill a 10-minute radio slot with a to-and-fro with David Corkery over the watchability of women's rugby than it is to do almost anything else on earth. The text lines buzz away merrily with that kind of thing and literally nothing is achieved other than bridging the space to the next ad break.
But we all know that nobody experiences sport in big picture terms. Even when we mean well, treating it that way is often just a clumsy form of trying to make up for not doing it right in the first place.
Nobody knows this truth better than the women who are or have been on the inside. You could tell watching Lynne Cantwell the other night that she was determined not to give this Ireland team the same treatment hers received after the last World Cup.
They came home from that tournament mightily pissed off after getting a hammering from England in the semi-final and losing the third-place play-off to France, only to find that they were apparently heroes now because they’d beaten New Zealand in their pool game.
In its own way, it was as wounding an insult as all those years when nobody paid them the slightest bit of attention. It was the danger of a little knowledge, the downside of big-picture sports coverage. Nothing makes failure worse than a half-interested media telling you it was a success.
Sport is a million small moments, each of them lived in that moment. The more we examine those moments in and of themselves, rather than wringing our hands about the over-arching meaning of it all, the better for everyone. Even – especially – if that means knocking it.