by Frank Schnittger
Thu Jan 31st, 2008 at 01:12:34 PM EST
Tomorrow sees the start of the annual Six Nations Rugby Championship in Europe - regarded by many as the best annual Rugby competition in the world. This diary begins by chronicling my exciting career as a rugby player, continues with a short exposition of some of the political geography of the game, and finally indulges in the armchair fan's favourite pastime - speculating on who will win this years tournament - France (heroic conquerors of New Zealand in the World Cup), England (World Cup Finalists), Scotland (quarter finalists), Wales, Italy and, of course Ireland - my home team - who had a dismal World Cup.
My rugby career began as a frail and very light 11 year old thrust into the brutalities of 1960's boarding school life. Rugby seemed to me to be a glorious opportunity for older, bigger, and stronger boys to bully guys like me in an officially sanctioned and organised way. Worse, it was a great opportunity for those boys with greater social skills to gang up on the loners like me. To cap it all Rugby was compulsory, so there was no escape into the gentler joys of agonising cross country running through mud, rain sleet and snow.
My one saving grace was that I was quite a fast sprinter over short distances - an attribute that had often gotten me out of the numerous scrapes that my somewhat sarcastic wit and acerbic tongue had gotten me into with bigger but slower school "mates". However, there was always the real fear that I would get caught up in a ruck or maul where those I had offended could practice their black arts on my prone body out of sight of the often witless coach/referee.
One such "coach" was anything but witless. He was a thoroughly nasty piece of work who ruled by fear rather than respect. During one practice match I finally got my chance to make my mark. I was given the ball in a bit of space and set off on a mazy run utilising all the speed that naked fear can instil in you. The try line beckoned when the "coach/referee" stuck out a leg and tripped me up causing me to spill the ball. My chance of rugby stardom and the respect it would have engendered in my peers was gone. That was the last time I played rugby in school and no amount of "compulsory" rules were going to make any difference. I satisfied the demands of the sporting ethos of the school by becoming the no. 1 table tennis player and playing some hockey (badly). It was little consolation to me that the said "coach" later became an international Rugby Referee whose career was cut short by some rather inept refereeing performances.
My next encounter with the Gods of Rugby was even more humiliating, but this time the misfortune was entirely self-imposed. As Captain of my College Table Tennis team I was invited to take part in a "celebrity" mixed tip rugby match on the main pitch in Trinity College in the centre of Dublin as part of the annual "Fresher's Week" celebrations. The "mixed" refers to the fact that girls were also selected, and the "tip" meant that you could only tip a player (who then had to pass the ball immediately) rather than engage in a full blooded tackle. It seemed like it would be a lot of fun and a very good idea at the time.
A crowd of what seemed like thousands of people gathered to watch the novelty of girls (albeit serious athletes in many cases) playing on the same pitch as serious rugby players two of whom were Irish internationals at the time - the 2 metre behemoths Michael Gibson and Donal Spring - the latter a brother of a future Tanaiste (Deputy Irish Prime Minister) and now a distinguished solicitor. Very early on in the match my pride and curiosity got the better of me. I knew that Donal Spring was 10 times stronger than me, but was he as fast over a short distance? Given he was the star player on the opposing team I set about chasing him the moment he got the ball. After all I only had to tip him, not tackle him, so his strength and size were largely irrelevant. Once again, Rugby glory beckoned!
Unfortunately, I had failed to warm up properly before the match (the warm up may have consisted of a couple of pints) and I pulled both my hamstrings in the sudden effort and acceleration of trying to catch Donal Spring. He never even knew that I had targeted him. There were no substitutes available, so I spent the rest of the match hobbling around with girls running rings around me to the boisterous cheers of the enormous crowd. That kind of experience can scar a man for life! Girls (mainly my own daughters) have been running rings around me ever since.
So why am I now (albeit an armchair) rugby fan? Firstly, the game has cleaned up its act a lot. The quality of refereeing, respect for player safety, the skill levels, and the attractiveness of the game as a spectator sport have all increased dramatically since the game went professional. Gone are the endless mud baths of rucks and mauls, the "bite, boot and bollocks" of egregiously violent behaviour, the blatantly biased "home town" refereeing, and the appallingly snobbish behaviour of the "blazers" who ran the game (famously referred to by former England Captain Will Carling as "50 old farts").
There are still problems, of course. Argentina (World Cup Semi-finalists) struggle to gain any meaningful competition outside of the quadrennial World Cup because they are excluded from the only two meaningful annual international tournaments (The European Six Nations) and the Southern Hemisphere Tri-nations (New Zealand, Australia and South Africa). The Pacific Islands struggle likewise and most of their best players end up playing in, and for, the New Zealand All Blacks. Rugby isn't really a world game like Soccer or Golf, but it is beginning to catch up with them in terms of global appeal, and the Rugby World Cup ranks third behind the Soccer World Cup and the Olympics as the biggest sporting occasions in terms of spectator and TV viewer numbers.
So what is its appeal? The rules are almost incomprehensible to the non-aficionados and match officials constantly make mistakes because so much is happening on the pitch and there are so many rules which can be infringed by teams playing at the very edge of the law. Part of it is the extraordinary ferocity of the exchanges between players who have almost no protective clothing when compared to American football. Part of it is the extraordinary level of self discipline which must be exercised by players when they end up on the wrong end of a boot or even a mistaken refereeing decision. Sometimes decisions are so marginal even slow motion TV action replays don't offer conclusive evidence one way or the other. Also you see none of the play acting and false writhing on the ground by "injured" Soccer payers trying to get opponents sent off for foul play and who promptly stage a miraculous recovery moments later. Part of it is the sublime ball handling and running skills allied to the huge strength and stamina required to play the game for the full 80 minutes. Above all, because it is a team game with no room for the prima donnas who appear to infest other sports.
The physical nature of the game means it is all about motivation and hunger. About a players willingness to go through the pain barriers of physical effort and endurance. Frequently, a lesser talented but better motivated team can still win. There is an unpredictability to the outcome of many games which baffles even the great experts in the game. All in all it can be a superb TV spectacle when compared to Soccer (often a boring midfield morasses with few goals or even genuine efforts on goal), Golf (a waste of a good walk), Formula One racing (one overtaking manoeuvre per race counts as a very exciting race), Athletics (one race looks very much like the next and who knows who is on drugs anyway), Swimming (ditto), or Cricket, American Football or Baseball (what on earth are they all about?).
Rugby can also have enormous social significance. In Ireland, it has remained almost the sole major sport played on a 32 county basis (embracing both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, Unionist and Nationalist - and thus a very important source of reconciliation and social cohesion during the dark and troubled times. In Munster, it is the symbol of a regional identity that cuts across class and social divides. In South Africa, despite being a predominantly white sport, it became a national symbol of reconciliation, and renaissance in post Apartheid Society when Nelson Mandela put a Springbok jersey on and embraced his World Cup winning team. Although professionalism has brought with it an increasing commercialisation and a divide between rich and poor Rugby playing nations, rugby has retained much of its community spirit, conviviality and sociability, with trouble between opposing fans a rarity, and mutual respect and boisterous rivalry the norm.
Now that I have pinned my colours to the mast (and offended just about every other sports fan) what can the casual viewer expect from the Six Nations contest starting tomorrow? France and England, the two giants of the European game in terms of finance and playing numbers have made a lot of changes to their squads since the World Cup only three months ago. They have great strength in depth, but could still struggle to develop the teamwork that only playing together for a few matches can really engender.
Ireland, as usual, are at the opposite extreme, making only 3 changes (due to injury and retirement) to our team to face Italy - partly due to the innate conservatism of our coach, but also because of our much smaller playing numbers and strength in depth. It is sometimes said that it is harder to get off the Irish team than to get on it! Nevertheless, the team has a lot of experience and talent and a big incentive to make up for their very poor World Cup performance. Despite the fact that they play both France and England away in Paris and Twickenham, they are my "dark horse" tip for the title in what is admittedly a very open contest.
Wales have picked 13 out of their 15 starting players from one club - the Ospreys - so teamwork shouldn't be a problem, and I would fancy them to give a much changed England team a hard time. Scotland have been the poor relations of European rugby in recent years, but have made real progress under coach Frank Hadden and now have strength in depth in a number of positions. However you can only have 15 players on the pitch at any one time, and one must question whether their team has enough players of real class. They could however upset the much changed French team in Edinburgh.
Italy have done well in recent seasons (winning 2 championship matches for the first time last year), but shouldn't be good enough to beat Ireland at Croke Park - a magnificent 80,000 seat stadium and historic centre of Gaelic Games in Dublin. Long the bastion of Irish Nationalism, the Gaelic Athletic Association made their stadium available to the Rugby Union whilst the latter is building a new stadium in Lansdowne Road (the oldest International Rugby venue in the World).
The match, this time last year, when Ireland played England in Croke Park was an emotive moment in Irish Nationalism. The last time England had entered the stadium was on "Bloody Sunday" in 1920 when British Army Auxiliary forces entered the stadium during a Gaelic Football match, went onto the pitch and fired into the crowd killing 14 civilians including one of the players - apparently in retaliation for the killing of 14 British agents by the IRA as part of the Irish war of Independence. The occupation of some GAA club grounds in Northern Ireland by the British army during the Troubles kept that resentment simmering in some nationalist circles, and it was a difficult decision for the GAA to make their Ground available to a rival sport particularly as it would involve matches against England. In many ways that match signalled the ultimate triumph of the Peace Process, because the crowd behaviour was impeccable and English fans were treated with genuine conviviality and respect.
That defeat by Ireland at Croke Park by 43 points to 13 marked England's worst ever result in the history of the tournament, both in number of points conceded and in points difference (30 points). However Rugby is a very unpredictable game. Even a one point victory by Ireland over England in Twickenham this year would be very welcome - and who knows - it could signal Ireland's first ever win in the 6 nations Championship.