Friday, 10 February 2012

Six Nations, Five Games, Four Provinces, Three Pointers, Two Anthems and One Island: Rugby Season in Ireland

"All visitors enjoy a taste of Ireland", or so the promotion man at Lansdowne Road told me. But lying face down, battered and bruised, at the business end of a muddy field in south Dublin isn’t quite what tourists to the Emerald Isle are expecting from this vague idiom.

Unless, of course, they are here to play rugby union.

Rugby days in Dublin are special. They are lively events; spirited spectacles of camaraderie, exchanges of wit, and good natured misbehaviour. The city is adorned in green and white, with random splashes of colour of whoever the day’s opposition might be. The bars are full, the music is loud and upbeat, and if you look carefully, you might catch some poor bugger falling into the Liffey.

And if you so happen to be one of the select few who hold a ticket, there is nothing more thrilling and self-satisfying than leaving the bar at 12.45 to make the pilgrimage to the hallowed ground, leaving two thirds of your heretofore new best friends wallowing in emerald green envy.

The approach to Lansdowne Road is along the eponymous narrow boulevard of the same name, a straight strip of tree-lined tarmac with a dog leg bend in the middle. Grinning faces, half-cut and rosy from all the Guinness, leisurely crowd and jostle along the road; getting increasingly excited and boisterous as the stands rise into view.

100 yards from the ground is the territory of ticket touts, burger vans and sellers of match day tack, and this just serves to add to the infantile excitement. Fully grown men in wax jackets, hunter wellies and green shirts abandon wholesale their daytime guise of city executive and become giddy children clamouring for scarves and programmes.

Ireland v. Scotland 2007 photo by Conor Lawless, unaffiliated.

Once inside, greeted and seated, fans from both sides of the argument have the chance to debate their respective chances in close proximity, exchanging long-drawn drawls concerning provincial and club scores, player myths and secret tactics known only to the yarn-spinner in question.

"Aye, while your number 10 might kicked four conversions against the All Blacks, Ronan O’Gara hit six against the Bokkas AND scored a try, and I’m saying this as an Ulsterman."

And that’s the beauty of Irish rugby; it is genuinely Irish. Fans from all four provinces unite under a single, island-wide banner to celebrate something all-defining but positively non-political. There remains the issue of anthems, when players of Northern Irish heritage awkwardly remain silent during the Soldier Song, but are invited to dismiss the divisive legacy of history by singing the all-inclusive Ireland’s Call; some might point to this as a negative, but its quite the opposite. Ireland’s Call disengages from the problems of secular division, reminding us all that there is more to being human than the intangible implications of geo-political borders and debatable tribal loyalties. 

Rising from this is Irish rugby. One identity, one fan base and one voice, but drawn from the mixed heritage of four provinces. There is surely something good to be taken from this.

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