Rugby has made huge strides but GAA is still the people’s game
Rugby – or specifically the Irish rugby team – has become a national pastime
Ireland and Wales teams line up before the Six Nations Championship match at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Inpho
So if not the “people’s game”, then, where exactly does rugby fit in the Ireland of 2018? If you go through the streets of Cork, Galway, Kilkenny – any of the great Irish cities – or wander into the pubs of those steadfast GAA towns where you’d be hard pressed to even find a rugby ball – when Ireland are playing Scotland today, then this is going to feel like a country in which the game matters.
The evening that Ireland robbed France in Paris coincided with a round of GAA national leagues. The Kerry footballers met Mayo in Castlebar. In the Breaffy House hotel, every television was tuned to the rugby match; the commentary was up loud and people were riveted to a game in which Ireland were, for the most part, criminally conservative in their play.
In MacHale Park, the club house bar was also showing the rugby and it was sardine-can time as Mayo and Kerry folks squeezed in to witness the nerve-wracking drive forward and Jonathan Sexton’s deathless drop-goal. The reaction was euphoric as the Mayo and Kerry-ites then raced through the turnstiles minutes before throw-in: they were thrilled for Ireland.
Not that lastingly – they’d probably half forgotten it by the time their county stars were in the thick of it on a marshy west of Ireland night, but still, the team, the country, the auld sod – won.
There’s an advertisement doing the rounds now that everyone I’ve met seems to love, regardless of whether they care a hoot about rugby. It’s by Vodafone; a cinematic short tracing the journey of players like Rory Best, Conor Murray and Tadhg Furlong from wide-eyed little boys to Ireland stars. It does the thing that the creators of Grey’s Anatomy patented years ago and which the advertising world has copied; set some evocative scenes to a moody soundtrack and watch the people swoon.
So we see young Tadhg sternly supervising a herd of cattle in a laneway and using a tractor tyre for tackling practice and generally looking like he’d be nobody’s fool at the mart. Across the country Conor Murray is sellotaping an Ollie Campbell-era Triple Crown poster to his bedroom wall (although Murray was born in 1989, four years after that ’85 success).
On it goes until their combination of boyhood dreams, dedication and talent brings the real players together in the Irish dressingroom. The only words spoken are “who we are is how we play”.
Those two minutes of advertising genius probably offer the best explanation of precisely where rugby in Ireland is at right now. Who knows if there was a lightning rod moment – maybe the unexpectedness and carefree energy of Brian O’Driscoll’s three tries in Paris in 2000 – but there has been a seamless intertwining of the rise of Irish rugby as a feel-good story and the corporate merchandising and shaping of that story.
Something definitely kicked in those years when RTÉ had access to Munster’s European games and Tom McGurk, Brent Pope and George Hook would stand on a gantry in apocalyptic weather in Thomond and respond to the latest exploits with the rapturous acclaim of apostles who had just then seen the equivalent of Jesus himself walking on water. Scarcely a season this century has passed without either an Irish provincial or international rugby moment to remember. And the tide began to rise.
See Connacht now, for instance. See the incredibly varied profile of the crowd and the efforts the clubs goes to in order to make the kids feel as if they belong and the genuine gratitude of the players towards the crowd. See the dramatic improvement in the grounds and see the lines of cars outside the clubs on Saturday mornings: playing rugby is aspirational and attractive activity for young families; at least until the contact and concussions kick in.
It’s not all that long since it was very different in Connacht, as anyone who attended games there when the future of the club was in jeopardy will remember. Even then, the teams punched above their weight but there were nights there when the whole enterprise felt incredibly perilous: that nobody beyond the few thousand souls present would care that much if the lights went out forever. We say “lights” – back then, the Sportsground felt as if it was lit by a single 60 watt bulb that Michael Bradley had managed to fit just minutes before Newcastle or whatever flashy visiting team would arrive for their hellish night in Irish rugby’s last outpost.
The feel in the Sportsground then was East Berlin circa 1978 and the mood seemed to move between losses either heartbreaking or heavy. Bernard Jackman was lining out for Connacht then and it was painful just to watch the ferocity with which he charged into huge French and English props and locks with little regard for his own wellbeing. Sometimes you felt like leaving your seat and telling him to take it easy.
Jackman was one of those on the RTÉ panel when the infamous “people’s game” conversation struck up. It can’t be that, not when its pedigree is still so firmly rooted in the private schools’ culture. But as a sport, rugby has made huge strides into the popular imagination and is becoming more democratic and reachable to those outside the traditional strongholds. On Friday night, the Ireland Under-20s team included Joe Dunleavy, a player who was raised and who learned the game in Letterkenny: his cap is a first for the club and county and a brilliant sign of what is possible in the future.
Nothing will supplant the Gaelic games as the people’s game in Ireland. But what rugby – or specifically the Irish rugby team – has become is a national pastime. Rugby has proven to be a game made for television and social occasions are built around Six Nations days. The Irish team offer tailor-made excuses to hit the pubs early on a Saturday, to cut loose, to feel good about the country, about whatever it is to be Irish. The Ireland rugby team has become a potent blend of slickly marketed product and authentic soul and it’s an intoxicating combination.
All they have to do now is keep on winning.