The Ireland rugby team are Irish sport's real Stepford Wives
Rugby doesn’t produce mavericks, possibly because it distrusts individuality
Irish rugby players really do look like their mother still buys their clothes. To a man they exude respectability, responsibility and reasonableness. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
There are some questions to which no is the only answer. Like can the sun set in the morning? Is it possible to live without oxygen? Can you name a cool rugby player?
Seriously, come up with one – I dare you: not just here, anywhere.
And if you’re asking for a definition then the old jazz response comes to mind – if you gotta ask then you’ll never know.
None of which matters a damn really, apart from the context of Ireland’s World Cup campaign and the uncharitable satisfaction provoked towards rugby’s whole “Team of Us” vibe after defeat to Japan.
Apparently quite a lot of us aren’t so much indifferent to the national side as actively enjoying how expectations of winning the thing have had to be dialled down.
A lot of reasons have been put forward to explain such a disconnect, elaborate socio-economic theories that provoke enough outrage to suggest such insubordination isn’t so much crude as treacherous.
However, until other emotions join hate on the “verboten” list it’s tough to try and tell people how to feel. The reality is there’s a visceral response to rugby in this country that always makes it a hard sell to many. And I reckon much of that isn’t down to the civic so much as boredom.
Park to the side for a moment those chippy prejudices about the expensive schools the Ireland squad mostly went to and all the cartoon stereotypes that go with that.
Just examine this group of supremely fit, gifted and impressive athletes on their own merits and consider how overwhelmingly square they seem.
Forget the Kilkenny hurlers of old: Irish sport’s real Stepford Wives are the rugby team.
Admittedly that’s just a perception and maybe a grossly unfair one. Maybe in private they’re mad for it, although that’s doubtful. Elite professionals don’t get to the pinnacle of international rugby by visiting the wild side too often which might partly help explain this eerie homogeneousness.
It’s an old line but Irish rugby players really do look like their mother still buys their clothes. To a man they exude respectability, responsibility and reasonableness.
Johnny Sexton could be on the cover of Father In Law magazine. And if he can’t make it, Josh, Jacob, Joey, Jordi or Jordan might step in: all of them a credit to rugby’s unshakeable sense of itself as an oasis of sporting probity.
It’s a self-consciousness rooted in the collective which helps explain the rather embarrassing martial vernacular employed sometimes.
And lurking in it is probably the explanation as to why rugby hasn’t come up with a single charismatic individual determined to plough their own furrow and who patently and gloriously doesn’t give a flying f--k what anyone thinks about them.
Almost 150 years of Irish rugby must have seen God knows how many grudges. Yet there hasn’t been a single Saipan-style blow-out by an individual bucking the traces. How’s that possible?
Now, Roy Keane is still a divisive figure. There are those who’ll never forgive him. But crucially no one can accuse him of being boring. Even now the country hangs on his every word, entertained or offended, but definitely in thrall to this middle-aged rebel.
In comparison rugby always seems so middle Ireland, middle of the road and middle class bland, prim enough to fit in at any golf club dinner.
Over the years even golf managed to conjure someone cool, recognisable worldwide by just an abbreviation of his first name – Seve.
Fuelled by defiance, Ballesteros changed the face of the game and not an emotion wasn’t obvious on his face as he did it. And if you think Tiger is in the same league then you probably also have Coldplay’s Greatest Hits in the Audi A3.
The real thing doesn’t have to come from resentment or an anti-authority streak. It’s certainly not about some attention-seeking opportunist covering themselves in ink and trying very hard on social media.
That’s why Zlatan is a self-obsessed joke, and Pirlo might just be the coolest footballer on the planet.
The great soccer midfielder once said “sometimes a pinch of sadism is the ingredient that makes victory taste that little bit sweeter”.
It’s a line so self-possessed it makes one want to burst into applause. Maybe it’s an Italian thing although Sergio Parisse mostly manages to sound like he’s quoting from a motivation manual.
Because you know when you know. It’s why 32 years after he retired that Jimmy Barry Murphy remains the one truly cool figure in GAA history. And why Pep Guardiola is just a little bit too cool for school.
Even racing’s stuffed-shirt culture conjured Lester Piggott. An isolated individual in many ways, he still cut a swaggering figure in the public consciousness, effortlessly and irresistibly attracting attention in proportion to his obvious contempt for it.
Viv Richards in cricket had a touch of the same outlaw poise. His pal Ian Botham tried and failed.
George Best’s vulnerability meant overwhelming public affection throughout his life, of a sort the ridiculously mannered Ronaldo will never know.
Rugby doesn’t produce such mavericks, possibly because it distrusts individuality. After all, much of its identity revolves around another conformity. Fitting in is more important than sticking out.
And given Irish rugby’s successes in recent years it can be argued what is there to kick against. It’s fashionable, on-trend but, crucially, always seeming just that little bit too pleased with itself.
So it’s no surprise some recoil from such conformity, holding out for a touch of devilment rather than this veneer of rectitude. It’s not hatred or even jealousy, just a difference of taste, and what kind of big tough sport can’t tolerate a little dissent from time to time.
In fact failure to suck it up gives off a needy vibe, enough maybe to suspect that the oval game really is for squares.