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Ireland's Grand Slam? Update: Ireland 17 Wales 15

by Frank Schnittger Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 04:31:48 PM EST

[Update] Despite a remarkable 17 to 4 Penalty count against them, the Irish team scored the only 2 tries of the match and won in a nailbitingly tight finish... cue national celebrations...Match report to follow. [End update]

The Irish economy is still in free fall with retail sales down 20% in January on the same month last year, the biggest annual drop since records began. GDP is expected to decline by 6% this year, the public sector deficit is expected to be over 10% of GDP, and a really nasty emergency budget is planned for a couple of weeks time.  Whilst the rest of the world is spending Trillions stimulating their economies, the Irish Government is planning to take Billions out of the Irish economy in tax increases and public service cutbacks.

But yet the biggest current news story by far is the possibility of Ireland winning only its second grand slam ever in the 6 Nations Rugby Championship, and the first for 61 years.  Just why this would be such a big deal requires an understanding of the importance of sport in general and rugby in particular to the Irish psyche particularly at a time when just about everything else is going seriously wrong for the country.


First we need to put the whole thing in some perspective. Rugby is still largely an elitist middle class sport in most parts of the country and ranks some way behind Gaelic games (Football and Hurling) and Soccer in terms of popular participation and player numbers. The professional Rugby game itself involves only about 150 players in four Clubs - the four provinces of Ireland - Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connaught who compete in the Magniers League and the Heineken or Challenge European Cup competitions.  Ireland used to be the poor relations of the five, now six, Nations European Championship with a history of big defeats, "moral" victories, and very few Championship or Triple Crown victories to their credit. So why all the fuss?  

Firstly, sport is still the glue that binds many disparate communities together. The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) is one of the finest (largely voluntary) community organisations in the world with an active club in virtually every parish and local community.  Inter-Parish and Inter County rivalries are fierce and there are huge traditions and strong community links surrounding each local and county team.  It was founded in the late 19th. century as part of an Irish cultural revival and in resistance to British imperial rule.  It has retained a strong nationalist ethos, and not many years ago it still disbarred members of the British Armed forces and Northern Ireland Police Service from playing its games.

This nationalist ethos is partly also because of an incident which occurred on Bloody Sunday in 1920 when the British Army entered Croke Park, the National Gaelic stadium, in armoured cars and fired into the crowd and at the players killing 14 in retaliation for Republican assassinations of British secret agents earlier in the day as depicted in the film Michael Collins. It was thus a major event of huge symbolic significance when the GAA agreed to rent the Croke Park stadium to the Irish Rugby Football Union (seen as promoting a "foreign game") over the past couple of years whilst the Lansdowne Road Rugby Stadium (the oldest international Rugby Stadium in the world) is being rebuilt.

Many worried that the appearance of English players and fans in the stadium would result in unpleasant incidents, but those who worried simply didn't understand the Irish Rugby tradition and culture. Irish Rugby Crowds have always been scrupulously respectful of even their fiercest opponents, and trouble between rival fans is almost unknown. Almost uniquely, opposing kickers taking a penalty are accorded complete silence whereas crowds in other countries frequently jeer and boo kickers in an effort to distract their focus. Moreover, England will always receive a special welcome because they fulfilled their fixture with Ireland in 1973 despite alleged death threats from the IRA. They were accorded a prolonged standing ovation both in 1973, and when they arrived to play in Croke Park for the first time in 2007. Even the playing of "God Save the Queen", the British National anthem and anathema to Irish Republicans is always scrupulously respected.

I achieved considerable notoriety on that occasion by writing a preview of the match on a Timeonline Blog stating that:
Wicklow rugby fan's forthright letter does the rounds on e-mail - News, frontpage - Wicklowpeople.ie

Ireland may well be missing Brian O'Driscoll as well as Shane Horgan and don't have the resources in depth to overcome such losses. However neither will England have the armoured cars and machine guns they had the last time they entered Croke Park,'

Whist obviously an informal tongue-in-cheek blog comment, it was soon elevated in popular mythology to the status of a formal letter to the Times and quoted in numerous other papers and e-mails doing the rounds all over the world. (Many extended family members were forced to deny all association with me and my brother in Zambia was questioned as to my Republican sympathies. I received many indignant responses from British readers claiming that it was very bad form of me to mix politics and sport. I'm afraid in Ireland it was ever thus!)  For the record, Ireland beat England by a record 30 point margin in that match and Irish Rugby fans would never have been allowed to hear the end of it (from GAA fans) if they had allowed England to prevail in their shrine to Irish nationhood!

With such a historical background, it is understandable that there is very little Protestant participation in the GAA although my late wife's uncle created history by being the first Protestant to be elected its President some years ago. Such is the prestige of the organisation that that post had an influence equivalent to being a cabinet minister in the Government.  Where other traditional organisations such as the Catholic Church have suffered a catastrophic decline the GAA remains the single most important community organisations in the country and it is rapidly losing it's identification as an exclusively Catholic Nationalist organisation.  

Whereas the GAA has remained staunchly amateur, Soccer in Ireland has suffered from the fact that the relatively small population and market is insufficient to support a fully professional league.  Top Irish soccer players play for English or Scottish clubs, and clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Glasgow Celtic have much larger Irish fan bases than domestic Irish clubs like Shamrock Rovers or Shelbourne who rarely do well in European competitions.  

And yet the country went bananas when Ireland reached the Quarter Finals of the World Cup in 1990 with a team made up largely of expatriate Irish players many speaking with English accents.  Similarly the country was convulsed by controversy when the Irish Captain and best player, Roy Keane, walked out (or was sent home) from the Irish Squad just prior to the 2002 world cup after a row with the Manager in Saipan.  You could tell a lot about a person's politics and orientation towards authority by the position they took on that dispute - and virtually everyone had an opinion.

However Soccer was also effected by the politics of its time, with Northern Ireland having a separate international team even though no one - not even the British - claims that Northern Ireland is a separate nation.  So how is it that Rugby has always been organised on an All-Ireland basis despite the partition of the Island into two states in 1922 with Northern Ireland continuing to be ruled as part of the United Kingdom (UK) of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? If it is anomalous for a small part of a Sovereign State (the Northern Ireland part of the UK) to have it's own international Soccer team, it is even more anomalous for one international team to straddle two Sovereign states and a bitter sectarian divide as well.

The reason is that Rugby was historically (except in Limerick) largely a Protestant and Middle and upper class Catholic sport played by private schools and clubs in more middle class Universities and residential areas.  One of the less documented parts of the division of Ireland and the subsequent "Troubles" from 1969 onwards is that it was largely a working class  and rural phenomenon with the middle and upper classes of both traditions (Catholic Nationalist, and Protestant Unionist) viewing the greater extremes of violent Republican nationalism and fundamentalist protestant Loyalism with some disdain.  Thus even though the Protestant population of the Irish Republic declined to only 3% in the decades following Partition, a strong upper and middle class cross border identification remained, and nowhere was this more strongly expressed than through a joint love of Rugby.

There were also practical considerations of course.  Whatever chance the relatively small Rugby playing population of Ireland, both North and South, had of competing with the Behemoths of England and France, not to mention Wales where Rugby is the National Game, there was no chance if they attempted to form two separate international teams.  Nevertheless relations at all levels of the game, from junior club and school teams to provincial regional selections remained cordial at all times - even through the worst periods of the troubles.  Occasionally one might hear - on the grapevine, rarely in the media - of tensions between some sober born again Christian Ulster players and some of the more exuberant and drunken exploits of the Leinster and Munster players, but all Ireland mourned the loss of a star international rugby player in 1987 when Nigel Carr's career was abruptly ended by his having the misfortune of being caught up in a terrorist atrocity.  

So despite it's Protestant and elitist Catholic origins, rugby has come to be seen as a central part of the process of reconciling the conflicting traditions on the island as a whole.  The advent of professionalism in 1995 has also resulted in a gradual decline in the snobbish "old school tie" element of the Rugby culture, and it is now much more widely played in all parts of the country and by all social classes than was the case heretofore.   Despite concerns that a small country with a small market would struggle in the professional game against countries like England and France with many times the number of players and resources, Ireland has done remarkably well since, winning three Triple Crowns and winning 35 out of 49 Championship matches equal top with France and more matches than anyone else since Italy made the Championship a 6 Nation Championship 10 years ago in 1999.

And yet the current "Golden Generation" of Irish players remain unfulfilled.  They have failed to win a Grand Slam (beating all 5 other countries in the Championship in the same year) and flopped terribly in the World Cups of 2003 and 2007.  This has lead to allegations of "choking" when the chips are down and the stakes are really high, and these allegations have been given widespread currency in the British Press in the build up to the Championship decider against Wales tomorrow.  After an excellent opening win against France, Ireland have played nervously and cautiously coming from behind against Italy and Scotland, and almost blowing what should have been a clear cut win against England.

So tomorrow takes on huge significance in the sporting history of Ireland.  Not only would a win against Wales be only the second Grand Slam in 61 years, but it would be the final vindication for a gifted generation of players who are seen as having underachieved in terms of actual Championships won despite an overall record second to none.  Brian O'Driscoll, John Hayes, Ronan O'Gara and Paul O'Connell are coming towards the end of their careers, and many feel this is their best last chance to bring home the Slam.  More importantly, however, their performance will be applauded by all Irish people, North and South, Protestant and Catholic, Middle Class and Working class, who all appreciate that despite being a minority sport in a small Island, Rugby is one of the few areas where we have any claims to being world class at the moment.

And so my prediction?  Virtually all commentators are predicting a very tight match with most predicting a Wales victory because they are the reigning Grand Slam Champions and have home advantage.  As usual I will cast caution to the wind and predict a clear Irish win.  Rugby is still a sport where those who need it most tend to fight hardest and do best.  And we really need this win. Whoever said its only a game? Bill Shankley, the famous Liverpool manager is reputed to have said "Football isn't a matter of life and death. It's much more important than that!".  

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If you enjoyed this post, please rate it at http://www.thinkaboutit.eu/2009/03/irelands-grand-slam/ where it is entered in a European blogging competition.

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri Mar 20th, 2009 at 02:07:40 PM EST
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri Mar 20th, 2009 at 02:18:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm surprised that it's not averaging at least 4. Some people must be competitive and deliberately mark opposing posts poorly -it sure deserves a very high mark.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi
by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 07:28:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yea - it started off with 5 5's and then those votes mysteriously disappeared after I edited the post.  I got on to the webmaster about a previous instance of this and he claimed it was a caching issue but with my limited knowledge of caching I can't see how this explains what appears to be happening.  

There is nothing to stop people logging in on different PC's/IP addresses and systematically and anonymously voting up their posts and down everybody else's, and as I can see little corollary between the quality of posts and their rating, this may be what is happening.  I've kind of stopped writing specifically for that site because almost no interesting discussion ensues and that is what I blog for...

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 07:47:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
so five marks of five, and every vote since then marking zero to come up with that score. some people are taking it far too seriously.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 08:20:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Nice.  Enjoyed your diary very much.  To be honest, I have had an inkling but never understood the whole Irish sport thing, so you helped me get a little better handle on it, historically and sociologically speaking.  That being said, you've got me rooting for the Irish tomorrow.  No way to see the game, but I'll be looking for the scores online.

Thank you.

by jjellin on Fri Mar 20th, 2009 at 08:21:04 PM EST
My pleasure.  I probably should have explained the intricacies of the game a bit more for an American audience but that would have been a separate Diary!

See also My (in)glorious rugby career - and some reflections on the 6 Nations Championship

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri Mar 20th, 2009 at 09:27:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, from a couple people in my family who played in college my limited understanding of rugby is that it is brutal, bloody and requires much singing when the game is over.  There is a funny shaped "ball" involved too, I think, and guys in short shorts.
by jjellin on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 07:01:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"Football is a gentleman's game played by ruffians and rugby is a ruffian's game played by gentlemen"
by det on Sun Mar 22nd, 2009 at 08:45:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
'In Ireland we say that rugby is a bogman's game played by gentlemen, Soccer is a gentleman's game played by bogmen, and Gaelic is a bogman's game played by bogmen!

That used to be true, but we are all bogmen now!

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sun Mar 22nd, 2009 at 09:21:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
For the contrary view, expressed by someone who clearly hasn't gotten over Rugby's class origins, here is the old time cynics account...
Ireland grand-slam bid fails to unite nation | Six Nations Rugby - Times Online
And then this weekend the stage is boisterously commandeered by the rugby people - big, bluff practitioners of a sport that a rabid RTE commentator asserted a couple of years ago to be the "heartbeat of our nation". It was a claim that set many of us sniggering into our skinny cappuccinos. You either love rugby or loathe rugby, but in Ireland it is also possible to ignore it, even in a week such as this.


notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 07:23:16 AM EST

the Irish Government is planning to take Billions out of the Irish economy in tax increases and public service cutbacks.

Tax increases are NOT taking money out of the economy. C'mon, that's neolib propaganda.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 01:59:20 PM EST
It depends on whether the increased tax revenue is used for productive or unproductive purposes.  In Ireland's case most will go out of the economy to pay a greatly increased interest bill to foreign creditors.  To suggest that increased taxes automatically increase economic efficiency or productivity is dirigiste conceit.  You have to analyse how effectively the money is spent.

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 04:26:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]

whether the increased tax revenue is used for productive or unproductive purposes.

That depends on whether you believe in government or not.


 To suggest that increased taxes automatically increase economic efficiency or productivity is dirigiste conceit.

I'd suggest that dirigiste conceit works a lot better than market conceit. Or do you think that it's time to argue otherwise?

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 06:32:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Believe in Government?  Of course, but government is not a blind belief system or religion.  Its actions have to be scrutinised for their effectiveness.  There is good and bad Government.

I'd argue that conceit in anything is generally not a good idea...  A market based religion "the hidden hand" is no better than a Government based religion "the superior wisdom of the enarchist plutocracy"

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 06:37:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]

A market based religion "the hidden hand" is no better than a Government based religion "the superior wisdom of the enarchist plutocracy"

Well, one gave us the TGV, EU subsidies to previously poorer European countries (yes, that's you), cheap electricity. and the other gave us greed, Blair, and the biggest crash of al times. I know which one i prefer.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 07:04:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Good - we are united in our praise of good Government.  Ireland could have done with more of it in the past few years.

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 07:23:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Frank, and to Ireland!

"Schiller sprach zu Goethe, Steck in dem Arsch die Flöte! Goethe sagte zu Schiller, Mein Arsch ist kein Triller!"
by Jeffersonian Democrat (rzg6f@virginia.edu) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 05:42:33 PM EST
when the British Army entered Croke Park, the National Gaelic stadium, in armoured cars and fired into the crowd and at the players killing 14 in retaliation for Republican assassinations of British secret agents

"The film Michael Collins shows an armoured car driving onto the pitch. This did not happen: the armoured car in question was outside the ground and seems to have fired into the air, rather than at the crowd."

The point was used by some commentators (with their own agenda) as a stick with which to beat the film. I suspect the cinematic reason was to elevate the scene beyond other instances of indiscriminate violence depicted in the movie. I suspect that, in some ways, Bloody Sunday was more routine than it was special at the time

by det on Sun Mar 22nd, 2009 at 08:58:40 AM EST
I was aware that the precise historical accuracy of the film was disputed (and in any case would have expected many more casualties has an armoured car actually fired into the crowd). I have heard another account which said that an armoured car tried to enter the pitch but found the tunnel too narrow to negotiate.  Whatever the precise historical truth,  I didn't feel it necsesary to let such nuance interfere with what was after all only a snarky comment on a sports blog at the time!  

I should, perhaps have mentioned the disputed nature of the film's account in this diary - but again, my intention was not to write a definitive history, but rather to illustrate why nationalist political passions are so inextricably bound up with the origins and history of the GAA and why it was a major step for the GAA to rent their stadium to a rival sport's organisation promoting what many saw as an elitist and "foreign" game.

My late wife's Uncle, then a past President of the GAA, actually opposed the renting of the stadium on the grounds that one supermarket chain would not be expected to share their premises with a competitor whilst that competitor was renovating their premises.  Although the GAA has, in recent years, received significant public funding, its backbone has always been a huge army of voluntary effort, and it is understandable that those volunteers would not want the infrastructure built up on the back of their voluntary work used to promote a rival sport.

The coming together of the various Soccer, Rugby and Gaelic sporting organisations, allied to the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, thus forms an important back drop to the creation of a modern, post sectarian Ireland.  In times past, a GAA member playing soccer or Rugby would have been banned.  Now many players move from one sport to another without having to worry about any sporting ramifications, and many sports fans support all three sports especially when played at a National, Provincial, or inter-county level.

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sun Mar 22nd, 2009 at 09:37:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Nice photo.  Must have been exciting to have watched.
by jjellin on Sun Mar 22nd, 2009 at 10:26:48 AM EST
Yes, if you were a partisan because it was always very close and very intense.  However some recent rule changes have stifled the more creative and exciting play by allowing defences to dominate and putting a premium on not taking any risks in your own half.  So I could see non-rugby aficionados or partisans wondering what all the fuss was about.  Rugby badly needs to change its rules and refereeing to make it more exciting and comprehensible to the non Rugby specialist interest crowd.  As it is the laws are so complex many referees interpret them differently and a key to success is knowing how to play the referee.

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sun Mar 22nd, 2009 at 11:22:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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