I should have known something was up at half- time in Shizuoka.
Nothing to do with Ireland’s evident wheezy discomfort with the humid conditions, mind you. I wasn’t even watching by that stage. No, Dublin GAA Juvenile Board CCC1 bends for no man in its fixture-making rigour, so off we went on the serious business of U8 hurling Go Games. Sorry Joe, duty called.
One of the other dads spilled out of a car with a scatter of kids and a jumble of hurls, helmets, Cúl Camp trackie tops and all the other paraphernalia of a Saturday morning.
“Were you watching the rugby?” I asked.
“Hah,” he shrugged, “sure it doesn’t matter, they’ll all get good jobs at the end of it!”
We laughed, but I was taken aback. It had been a while since I’d heard that kind of talk. I thought it had gone away, another of the old prejudices swept aside by Ireland’s gradual transformation into one great, liberal, middle-class suburban monoculture.
This is not Rugby Country, I knew that, but wasn’t a mild appreciation of rugby just another feature of the modern Irish lifestyle, alongside patchy broadband, overpriced childcare and Nespresso machines?
Remember those are-we-really-talking-about-this arguments that raged for about half-an-hour last year about whether rugby was ‘the people’s game’? Wasn’t it accepted that while the actual playing of rugby remained a marginal activity, somewhere below tennis but above Zumba and tenpin bowling, that the support of our various professional rugby outfits, even in a loose, excuse-to-go-to-the-pub kind of way, was a widely popular and highly agreeable pastime?
Was this not where we were going into this Rugby World Cup, all of us pulling in the same direction, though admittedly some of us not pulling very hard?
I dismissed yer man’s comment. There was bad hurling coaching to be done.
But then Ireland’s latest Rugby World Cup catastrophe unfolded and it all came pouring out. What we were dealing with here was nothing short of complete societal breakdown. Well, for a couple of days anyway, until the Champions League came back on.
Broadly, we can filter the haters into a number of categories. There were those plain fed up at Ireland bombing at another World Cup despite being talked up as potential winners. Others raised that old chestnut about the rugby team not being criticised for a poor performance with as much venom as the soccer team would be. Some still just couldn’t get past Ireland’s Call.
For many the defeat released pent-up rage about the saturation advertising campaigns around this World Cup. Team of Us. The Eimear-nator. Jonny Sexton’s bloody sandwiches. Billboards with Keith Wood and some imaginary mates watching an imaginary rugby match while holding imaginary bottles of Heineken.
This was culture wars, rugby-style. The clanging of the Shizuoka gong was the cue for all-out attack.
To hell with your private schools and your impenetrable breakdown jargon! No more vox pops in Japan with cheesy couples who work in Singapore so just decided to head over! Enough talk about Joe having something up his sleeve, I’ll show you what’s up my sleeve [pulls out phone to reveal snarky tweets about CJ Stander]!
It turned out that Sarcastic Hurling Dad was Gavrilo Princip in this conflagration, firing the first shots of a conflict that raged, oh, well into Monday.
Tomas Ó Sé waded in on Twitter: “Question....why don’t Irish rugby pundits call it out for the poor performance it was???...If it was soccer or Gaa they would be ripped apart!”
The polemicist Ewan MacKenna raged that with their privately-educated backbone, Ireland were not a team of us, but a team of them. This was the trope of rugby-as-privileged-other, not subject to the same hard-scrabble rules as the rest of us.
How quickly the bonds of society can fracture. One minute you’re collecting Aldi rugby stickers for your kids’ school, the next minute you are burning your treasured copy of Trevor Brennan: Heart and Soul. Memories of afternoons watching Hooky and Popey seemed to fade. Was it for this that John Hayes cried salt tears on the Croke Park sod?
Once it had all died down a shirtless, bloodied Alan Quinlan surveyed the wreckage. “I’ve seen a lot of stuff online and there’s a lot of negativity towards the team, which sometimes baffles me,” he said on Newstalk. “Because my own mentality is I support all of the other sports. And I love to see Irish people doing well. Some people say the team is full of posh, schoolboy rugby players. But you couldn’t meet a more grounded group of people.”
We cast down our eyes in shame. Of course they are Quinny. We’re sorry. You’re right. We picked up the smouldering remains of big Trev’s life story and wept.
The truth is that rugby’s popularity is indeed linked to its perception as an aspirational, middle class pursuit. But then Ireland is an increasingly aspirational, middle class country. The CSO tells us that in 2016 there were over a million more people in this country who were classified as professional, managerial and technical or non-manual workers than was the case in 1991. Rugby went professional in that time. A lot of these people decided they quite liked to watch this slick, well-marketed, rather enjoyable thing that we turned out to be quite good at.
Sure, the private schools where rugby dominates remain exclusive, but then relatively few of us are actually bothered about playing the game. Normally we are quite happy for these schools to pump out battalions of meaty killing machines for our viewing pleasure.
And maybe the team do flatter to deceive. But that’s just an optical illusion: Because there are so few top nations in the sport, the pinnacle always feels a lot closer, even when it shouldn’t.
This week the jagged blade of social media pierced the comfort blanket of shared jollity that rugby normally provides, amplifying, as it does, the things that pull people apart rather than the things that bring them together.
There is enough division in this world, so a lukewarm, non-committal passion for something only harmful to those actually playing it is something in which we can all share.
Let’s declare a truce in rugby’s culture wars and hold on to the things that unite us, even if they come with really, really annoying ads for mobile phone companies.