This week in your IR£1.18 – get ready, it’s coming back – Tramore Hinterland the strange circumstances that created a sense of solidarity around the Irish provinces in the Heineken Cup, and why it might not be what the IRFU were looking for.
The Heineken Cup semi-finals take place at the weekend and there has been much feverish debate about . . . whaddya mean you didn’t know they were on? I thought you were the biggest baddest rugger-supporting mutha in the land. Oh right. Only when Munster are involved.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. There was nothing pre-ordained about the success of the European Rugby Cup when it started back in 1995. The English RFU and the SRU spurned the opportunity to compete and the IRFU were presented with a quandary as to what type of teams to enter into the competition. Two years earlier, a crowd of over 20,000 watched St Mary’s take on Young Munster in a winner-takes-all All-Ireland League clash at Lansdowne Road (although a draw was enough in the end for Young Munster). Robbie Kelleher, the gaelic football-playing cuckoo in the rugby-loving stockbroker nest, was dismissive.Dublinwould get more than that at a National Football League match, he was quoted as saying. Yet while strictly speaking he was correct, he was ignoring a lot of context. This was a match between two club teams, who were far from being the most popular in their own patch, in a competition that was only three years old. It was a phenomenal crowd, and it seemed a logical progression from the success of the AIL that the top teams would get to take on their counterparts inEurope. Instead, the IRFU sent the provinces into battle.
It didn’t look like smart move to begin with. Who cared about the provinces? And where were they to get big game experience to prepare for clashes with teams likeToulouseorCardiff? The naysayers, of which I confess to being one, looked correct in the early years as the provinces and their equivalents inScotland, once they opted in, struggled to make an impact. Anyone remember the Caledonian Reds? Nope, me neither.
However, whether by accident or design, the IRFU had produced a master stroke. As the rigours of professional sport began to hit home the infrequency of matches became a help, not a hindrance. French teams have routinely field weakened teams due to a need to protect players for the Top 14 while the English clubs have carried on a never-ending war of attrition with the RFU over player availability. It was telling that during the last round of autumn internationals,Englandplayers were contractually prevented from appearing in all four games the country would play.
Meanwhile inScotlandandWalesthey found that no-one could truly be made to care for their divisional sides. The creation of Border Reivers showed that the SRU knew the teams in Glasgow and Edinburgh were remote from their rugby heartland, but even that team couldn’t attract enough enthusiasts. As for the Welsh teams, Ospreys are an amalgamation of Neath andSwansea. Can you imagineLiverpooland Everton being thrown together in the national interest? Nope, me neither. It was relatively easy for Irish sports fans to weigh in behind the provinces once they got up a head of steam. We all know the razzmatazz that surrounds Munster, but Leinster were the province that proved to be Teflon to the ridiculous attempts to rebrand them the ‘Leinster Lions’ while Ulster are the team of whom Davy Tweed spoke when he said he had been proud to have “played 30 times for my country and once forIreland”. Once again the Irish provinces stand on the brink of another success and the IRFU can be mighty pleased with the way things have turned out.
Or can they? The IRFU must have assumed that once one province went out every other rugby fan on the island would row in behind them. This has not proven to be the case. The worldview that attracts Davy Tweed to Ulster – he is a man who left Ian Paisley’s DUP for being not being extreme enough –turns off one half of the province, while Leinster’s uber-south Dublin manner turns off half of that province. The refuseniks flocked toMunsterduring the glory years, but success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan. All those people talking up the passion and the pride of Munster over the years might see that it doesn’t count for much if you have Connacht-quality players.
What brought up Robbie Kelleher’s partisan bile was the notion that rugby was about to go supernova as evidenced by that Young Munster-St Mary’s clash and trounce the culchies/hooligans in the GAA and the FAI. And despite the blarney about the Heineken Cup it hasn’t happened. It’s no disrespect to the efforts of the good folk ofWaterfordCityand Waterpark to say that there’s something wrong when the closest senior rugby club to a place the size ofWaterfordis Cashel. Vincent Browne (b.Limerick) once opined ofWaterfordthat we “fell out ofMunstera few decades ago”. Good to see such solidarity with our fellow provincial citizens.
And what about solidarity with our fellow Irish teams? Would rooting forUlsterandLeinsternot be be the patriotic thing to do? In truth, probably not. Gore Vidal said that “whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies”, and it would be particularly galling forMunsterfans to seeLeinsterovertake them on the list of winners. Still, the Golden Generation of O’Driscoll, O’Connell and O’Gara is passing into history. Can we really expect three Irish teams to be competitive in the future? And if not, will the Ladyboys and the Orangemen really look so awful if one of them is the only team left in the Heineken Cup shakedown?
This column may give the impression that it is the output of infinite monkeys bashing away at infinite typewriters, but some Woodward and Bernstein-style research goes into reporting of this quality. Contemplating a long, sticky summer of Waterford United struggling in the First Division, I went along to the RSC last Friday to have my prejudices confirmed, that it wasn’t possible to get excited about the visit of Wexford Youths and the League of Ireland would be better off accepting that we’d rather have Shamrock Rovers, Derry City or Bohemians come to town once a year rather than experience the illusory prospect of promotion and relegation.
I’ve not changed my mind on that score, but something wonderful happened that made it all seem worthwhile, something that gave you a glimpse to the delightful unpredictability of sport that continues to enthrall us all. It wasn’t that the Blues won 4-0, avenging the opening day hammering at Ferrycarrig. What was amazing was the performance of Seán Maguire. Not eligible to vote or get drunk (not legally anyway) until next week Maguire tore Wexford apart, scoring two goals and hitting the crossbar with a header from an uninviting cross. It wasn’t the first time I had gotten a taste of the Maguire magic as he showed Messi-style cool against Limerick to round the goalkeeper and score the winner only moments after coming on. Make sure you get in on the ground floor for this phenomenon. You’d be a monkey not to.