We're not quite back to the bad old days of rugby just yet


SIDELINE CUT:Sports people around the world are great for indulging in what they like to refer to as “a bit of soul searching” and that has been the mood in Irish rugby circles for the past fortnight.

The depressing nature of Ireland’s defeat to Scotland brought to mind a searing newspaper interview which David Walsh carried out with Simon Geoghegan in the dark spring of 1993. Ireland had lost to Scotland then too – nothing novel in those days – and the Irish journalist headed across to London to meet the winger, whose honesty was equal to the incandescence of his playing style.

Geoghegan was deeply frustrated by the limitation of imagination exposed in the 15-3 loss: after the match, he had cast his Ireland jersey to the dressingroom floor of Murrayfield, which caused little short of a scandal during the pomp-and-ceremony days of amateurism. (Unless you saw Geoghegan play, you can’t imagine just how bittersweet the experience was: it was like having George Best on your team but conspiring to never pass him the ball. Geoghegan, London born, might have had a flourishing career playing for England but was fiercely Irish in his loyalty and in his blood. Half the time, you felt like sympathising him).

Worse, he had spoken of his frustrations to Walsh with such candour that the IRFU felt they had to censure him with a one-day ban which cast him in a rebellious light and probably cost him a place on the Lions tour that summer.

But Geoghegan’s despair matched that of anyone who watched the Irish rugby team play during the period. It is a strange thing but back in the 1980s and 1990s, the very honour of the country seemed locked into the performances of the national rugby team in a way that doesn’t seem as true now. This came up in a conversation with a friend over the week who said: “Well, how are you supposed to care about the team when the captain turns up for the coin-toss wearing headphones?”

And it is true that Jamie Heaslip’s decision to attend the coin-flick while wearing a set of cans around his neck has attracted some adverse comment of the It-Wouldn’t-Have-Happened-Back-In-The-Days-of-Willie-John-McBride sentiment. Of course, it was probably just an oversight on Heaslip’s part: it has become standard for all self-respecting athletes to have their play-lists at hand.

But the old headphones controversy seemed symbolic of just how far Irish rugby has travelled since Geoghegan’s frustration. During the week, Donncha O’Callaghan, Simon Zebo and Peter O’Mahony were photographed at a healthy eating campaign organised by the noodle bar Wagamama. Brian O’Driscoll was photographed elsewhere at a launch for Adidas. The Irish players were, in other words, doing what professional sports people do when not training and resting: they were marketing stuff.

Privately seething

They all spoke about the disappointments of the season and there is no question that they are all privately seething and nobody can ever question that this generation of Irish players care about the jersey: their commitment and pride far exceeds professional stipulations. Nonetheless, the sight of the boys out and about underlined the simple truth about rugby – it is as utterly professional now as it was chaotically amateur in Geoghegan’s time. As Kanye West puts it: “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.”

That refrain is at the heart of the recent debate caused by Alan Quinlan’s pertinent observations about the atmosphere in the Aviva Stadium in a recent column for this newspaper. He made some strong points and opened up a bigger debate which provoked a strong response. Suddenly, everyone missed rickety old Lansdowne Road and it was the IRFU’s fault for huckstering more money out of punters with all the concession stands.

The criticism of the IRFU just proves they are damned either way: if they had left Lansdowne Road untouched, they would be considered a laughing stock and probably in contravention of every health and safety rule in the European Union.

More atmospheric

But still, those who insist that the old Lansdowne was louder and more atmospheric are right. Of course it was. That is because the concept of the Aviva – like all modern stadiums – is based on an entertainment experience. Just as rugby became a “product” and this country became “Ireland Inc”, attending a match has become a leisure pursuit with all the attendant opportunities to eat and drink.

Like the practice of athletes wearing music gadgetry, it all came from America. The late George Kimball always vowed that his favourite sports venue was the old Boston Garden precisely because it was a dive defined by the aroma of what he identified as “circus shit and booze”. It was dingy, uncomfortable and disdainful of creature comforts or half-time entertainments: it was all about the game. Of course, it was razed and replaced by a modern arena which consultants recommended. It took about 15 years for people to realise what they had lost. Much the same has happened at Lansdowne Road. The new stadium is a fantastic looking place but for it doesn’t have the same aura as the old place did. How could it?

Irish rugby has gone through a thrilling decade. In retrospect, it will be tinged with regret at the fact that the period didn’t yield more than one Grand Slam and that an Irish team has yet to make it past the last eight in the World Cup. But to have regular expectations of beating France and England would have been madness 20 years ago. In addition to a series of excellent players, Ireland were fortunate to have a natural-born leader in Paul O’Connell, a number 10 of limitless moral courage and healthy arrogance in Ronan O’Gara and a sporting genius in O’Driscoll. That combination gave Ireland an edge that few teams had. Maybe that is why the fallout from the latest Scottish defeat has been so heavy.

There is the sense of an era slowly coming to an end and of a possible return to more modest expectations and grimly puritanical battles against the Scots. The problem is that after a decade filled with wonderful rugby memories and expectations, nobody wants to go back to that.

It’s just not entertainment.

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