Is Rugby Ireland’s New National Game ?

Has rugby supplanted Gaelic Games and Soccer as the favoured sport of the Irish nation ?

A break in play popped up and I decided to make a burst for it. Opened the fridge with mug in hand, ready to splash in the bainne and rush back to the sofa, but it was no good. No milk.

The occasion was the Six Nations game between Ireland and Italy. The match was delicately poised at half time with Ireland down four points 16–12. I decided to make a burst for it , so I grabbed one of the dogs (the good one) stuck the lead on and headed down the hill. As I got through the park, I stopped and looked around. It was a Saturday, middle of the afternoon, and there was not a sinner about. No kids in the park, no-one on the roads, eerily quiet, like Christmas day. I booted it back up the hill and the Boys in Green put in a big shift in the second half and left Rome with an away win.

Next up were the Scots. I was a bit better prepared this week and the fridge was well stocked. I decided however to take myself down to the same park for the same experiment, and had the same result. Abandoned. Everyone, it seemed, was watching the rugby. In an area of South Down with no particular rugby heritage, it struck me how since the O’Driscoll era heralded a new decade of excellence, rugby now occupies a totally difference piece of real estate in the Northern Irish sporting psyche.

“ Becoming a citizen, I thought it helped gel the squad together “

In 1990, Schmidt did the Kiwi equivalent of a gap year, doing an ‘OE’ Overseas Experience, where he ended up as coach in Wilson’s Hospital, a Church of Ireland Boarding School in Westmeath. The impact was immediate, with Wilson’s winning their first ever trophy for rugby, the ‘A’ section of the Senior Cup, that same year.

Joe Schmidt during his first Irish Coaching stint in Mullingar in the 90’s. *Pic / Westmeath Examiner

There was also a GAA related trivia-generating event, where Schmidt even managed to sneak in a game for Mullingar Shamrocks’ third side, after a year of curiously looking over the fence at this other 15 a side ball game.

In 2015, on the eve of the last Rugby World Cup, Schmidt took the unusual step of becoming an Irish citizen. A move he himself said “helped gel the team together”. It was a heartwarming pledge of allegiance to the country he has called home for almost ten years.

When it comes to the players, it is interesting to observe the public’s willingness to accept non-Irish players into a squad, and how that attitude may change from sport to sport. There are few questions asked when a Declan Rice or a Jack Grealish is asked to play football for the Irish Republic, as the public has been de-sensitised to this since the Jack Charlton heralded era of Cascarino, Townsend and Aldridge. There is no Granny rule in Rugby, but a qualification through residency recently reduced from 4 to 3 years by World Rugby. Players like Jean Kleyn, CJ Stander and in particular Bundee Aki have all received an extra level of scrutiny over their declaration, and their acceptance as Irish players have been at best mixed, at worst, vitriolic. The harsh words of former International Neil Francis were absolutist on this issue and seemed to cloak a sneaking sense of discrimination when his focus seemed to laser in on the player whose skin was darker than the others.

The reality is that the movement of people around the globe, and indeed our ideas of nationhood itself have evolved dramatically, and World Rugby to their credit have moved with the changing times. Particularly in this sport where there are only a handful of places around the globe that support a top level league. The three year qualification rule will move to five in 2020, time enough for another Kiwi James Lowe to qualify for the squad, who recently described it as ‘weird’ that he would be Irish eligible in such a short time.

It’s ironic that more questions are raised over eligibility to the Irish first fifteen in rugby, as at least on the surface, these men appear to have much more right to their new assumed nationality than those of other sports. The players are not only inhabiting a jersey, but actively participating in civic life through their employment with the provinces. It’s not hard to argue that Bundee Aki as a New Zealander of Tongan descent, living and working in Connemara, has done more to enrich the lives of his Galway neighbours than say, a Premier League soccer player who moves to England before he is 18, and never returns home. Have these players not earned the right to represent the place in which they have made their home, and indeed, feel they belong to ? It is certainly a million miles away from the apparent bidding process for the services of elite East African runners, many of whom who have switched flags for better conditions.

That’s not to mention the issue of Irish identity, that nettle that no-one ever seems to want to grasp.

Ever since Rory Best was named as Irish captain, the dual nationality that has existed within the team set-up has been put under a renewed focus. There had historically been a sluggish welcome for Ulster players into the Irish set-up, with a perception they were wearing Green under duress.

Best’s steady hand on the captaincy however generated a new sense of goodwill towards the northern province, among players and fans alike. And after a while, most had forgotten about whether he was singing the anthem or not, and instead focused on his dignified stewardship of a position he clearly was very proud to hold. It should come as small surprise , as his father John despite his Unionist roots is a long time member of the Pontzpass O’Hanlons GAA club, and brother Simon’s two sons are talented members of the underage teams.

We owe a lot to our Rorys. The other one, formerly of the floppy hair, has emerged into one of the most important voices in his sport, as well as an erudite athlete, able to articulate complex opinions without completing estranging one of the northern tribes. And yet, both have been singed under the red-hot lens of Northern Whaatboutery identity analysis. McIlroy, with his will-he wont-he saga around the Rio Olympics, which had either side running to drape Rory and his sand wedge in the appropriate fleg. To the delight of many, McIlroy has already declared his intention to compete as an Irish athlete in next year’s Tokyo games.

During his tenure, our former rugby captain made an unfortunate faux pas, when attending to his children one night, inadvertently revealed that the son of the nation’s rugby captain sleeps with an England football duvet atop his leaba. It was a particularly ridiculous moment in Instagram Lore, and one which poured yet more salt (AND PROBABLY VINEGAR) into that sore of Irish — British identity wars.

And yet for the large part, this new axis has held up very well, and at a time of political vacuum and the apparent return of sectarian voting, the rugby team has probably been the most successful realisation of a dual identity community uniting under one banner. It has certainly led to a softening of the attitudes towards Ulster players. Proof is found in Jordi Murphy’s recent move north for more game time with the Red Hand Province, quickly followed by Jack McGrath. The shift was remarkable only in its rarity, and in recent times it was reported Joey Carbery, Jack Conan and Rhys Ruddock had all eschewed a move to Ravenhill. Perhaps in the future a similar move will seem less daunting, and more run of the mill.

When you get past the most basic elements of what makes Irish rugby different, the anthem, the flag, the crest, and you dig a little deeper, you find something interesting. In many ways, an Irish rugby player does not have to choose his flag. If a Unionist/Protestant player finds himself in being in the elite of his province, he knows who he will be playing for. The choice is less clear for a Catholic from Lurgan who discovers that football will be his future, but it will be played all on the ground.

A while back I was in the recently minted Aviva Stadium for a test match against Argentina. Two incidents stand out, both of which have little to do with rugby. We were in front of a very noisy Limerick Mum and Son (I was in the company of Limerick people, they should know). About five minutes into the second half, a North Down voice was heard over my shoulder and over the din, to request that our Munster friends be a little more contained when supporting the actions on the field. Perhaps the most amazing part of the interaction was the placid reaction of our Munster neighbours. I was the fellow Downman, yet I was more likely to box this fella than those he had slighted.

The second incident occurred on our way home from that same game. I have travelled many a late night up the road: from Slane, with barely humanoid corpses who have miraculously made it back up the hill into the correct field and bus. On this train, there was a similar vibe, with many of the carriage’s passengers in shut-it-down mode. Not for one well-heeled Bangor voice who called out “would anyone be interested in selling a bottle of red wiiiiiine ……”

In some way, that moment crystallised my thoughts as to what had happened with the base of rugby supporters over the island. Here was this English game, a particularly Protestant recreation, largely a reserve of the Middle Class. And yet, because of the All-Island nature of the team and the nationalist ideas it can espouse, it had been embraced by a Catholic working class who were the enthusiastic nouveau riche of this outstanding Irish team. And so when this Bangorian howled out his request it was met with an iconic response

“ Here our fella, the only wine in this carriage is Buckfast alright?”

The communities in this island, province, are not quite shoulder to shoulder, but a lot closer than before. It is difficult to argue that the sport of rugby and the new ecumenical gathering it has created, has not been positive for the island, regardless of your politics. You learn a lot about someone when you share with them the depths and despair of another quarter final defeat, or the ecstasy of a win against the All Blacks. You learn even more sharing a bottle of Bucky on the Enterprise late on a Saturday night.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store