The England rugby team are doing their best to emulate their football equivalent. Harassing chamber maids, caught in compromising positions with local floozies, tossing dwarves in bars…well maybe not the last one. Even the footballers wouldn’t stoop so low…so to speak.
Ireland’s heroes have been making headlines for all the right reasons and in the process have raised the mood of the nation just like our football teams of days gone by. As Trapattoni’s Ireland strive to return the soccer side to the big time, they have just as big a task to re-capture the imagination of the public.
The English have also come under media fire from the start of the tournament in New Zealand for undertaking activities to break the routine such as bungee-jumping and white-water river rafting. The rugby hacks were up in arms, fearful that these madcap exercises would cause injuries that would lead to catastrophe on the pitch. In fact, nothing happened the players, but their actions on the field have been no less disastrous.
And yet, Ireland’s players were at the same thing. Bungee jumping, rafting, speed-boating. Yet, not a whimper from the papers.
In fact, the rugby lads have also been out drinking like their neighbours across the Irish sea. They’ve been mingling with the fans, sharing a couple of beers when management allowed. And again, barely a batted eyelid from commentators.
Fast forward nine months to Poland and Ukraine next summer. Imagine the gods smile on us this week, and the Republic and their army of fans are amongst the nations pitching up in eastern Europe for the continent’s big party.
The level of scrutiny that will apply to every movement of the squad will be borderline harassment. The headlines will scream blue murder: “Irish players risk injury with knife-juggling ahead of group clash with England,” “Keane and Coleman caught drinking boiling hot tea with fans ahead of crunch tie,” “Trapattoni’s bungee-jump threatens to bounce Ireland out of tournament.”
The great thing about Ireland’s rugby odyssey in New Zealand is that this time it has come to resemble those great sporting crusades of old, Euro 88, Italia 90, USA 94, World Cup 2002.
The Irish supporters have been the talk of the Antipodes. Thousands of camper vans decked in tricolours have been traversing the north and south islands of the home of rugby’s greatest exponents, the Brazil of the oval ball. It’s not so much Joxer goes to Stuttgart, as Joxer emigrates completely.
The supporter ranks in New Zealand have been swelled by the thousands of young Irish men and women who have made the southern pacific neighbouring nations their home, either on short term working holidays or longer term laying down of roots. It may have been years since they set foot at home and could be many more before they return, if at all.
The rugby team’s exploits have given our emigrant young a taste of the ould sod they will remember forever. Reports say as little as 500 fans travelled from Ireland for the World Cup in New Zealand. Some will say that rugby just cannot replicate the enthusiasm that infects the nation when the soccer team reaches a major finals. It’s probably true but it doesn’t really matter.
It’s a phenomenon of the Irish press that hacks of a certain sporting discipline see the need to educate us on why their sport is better for our souls and morally more wholesome than the garrison game of the English that frankly we’re not very good at anyway.
Yet it insults Irish sports fans to suggest that they cannot share the same pride and passion in seeing Shay Given produce world-class saves in a bid to drag his country to a major tournament with watching Brian O’Driscoll crash his way over the white line, or Derval O’Rourke, with gritted teeth, bust a lung to compete with the fastest women on the planet.
The Irish fans in New Zealand have been replicating the famed Green Army of the football team with their phenomenal support, good humour, and ability to win the hearts of their hosts. No longer able to make a living at home, followers of all codes are united in their national pride.
It’s been noteworthy too to hear how the singing and chanting in the various stadiums has at times sounded like Lansdowne Road on a soccer night. Against Italy, “Stand up for the Boys in Green” was given numerous airings and the clapping of hands to roars of “Ireland” was more back-four than D4.
The lack of critical media attention on the Irish team’s down-time, having some drinks and enjoying the company of the fans has been equally noticeable. The fact that the football fans know it would be different were the soccer crowd involved only exposes the double standards.
It’s not that we expect the same criteria for criticism to be levelled at the rugby team. In fact, it’s the very opposite. This is how it should be. No nonsense stories.
Of course, the difference is the rugby team are winning. They are performing on the world stage.
And until our footballers step back into the spotlight, they’ll remain cast in the shadows of both the press and the public’s affections.