Tommy Martin: Can we still say we’re truly rugby country?

Tommy Martin: Can we still say we’re truly rugby country?
The Ireland team stand for Amhrán na bhFiann prior to the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and Scotland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

One of the strengths that Niall Quinn brings to his new role as FAI Interim Deputy Thingummyjig is that he reminds many people of one of the happiest moments of their lives.

There are very few people you meet in everyday life about whom you can say that, unless you happen to be married to one of them, and even then there’s no guarantees.

Regardless of all the things he has said or done in the years since, most people encountering Quinn will immediately be taken back to the sultry summer of 1990 and a hyperextended right leg poking the ball past Hans Van Breukelen.

Think about it. How unusual must it be for high-powered people to come face-to-face across a boardroom table with someone who immediately conjures memories of unadulterated bliss.

In the realm of tense business negotiations, this puts you very much on the back foot, which is presumably what happened last week when the FAI secured what was definitely not a bailout — no siree Bob! — from the Government.

Perhaps Department of Sport officials were intent on driving a hard bargain, to make the Abbotstown delegation sweat a little, to force the penniless football body to beg.

But enter Big Niall and suddenly the grey mandarins of Kildare Street are conga-dancing around the corridors of power, chanting Olé Olé Olé and waving inflatable bananas. Exit Quinn & Co. with a wheelbarrow full of cash.

When we give our love to our sporting heroes in this country, we give it truly, madly, and deeply. Nobody stole our hearts quite like Quinn and his buddies from the Jack Charlton years, but you can add the likes of Sonia O’Sullivan, Katie Taylor, Pádraig Harrington and various four-legged, Cheltenham-conquering types to the list who are forever in our hearts.

This select group are above reproach. Shane Lowry went to play golf for the sportswashing Saudis and few people cared. Joe Brolly may infuriate us, but we can’t stay mad at him for long.

Kevin Kilbane did Dancing On Ice … actually, still not sure about that one.

The place of the Irish rugby team in our affections is also a very special one, particularly in the years since we actually got good at the game.

Brian O’Driscoll, every man’s dream son-in-law. Peter Stringer felling giants with a tiny-fingered tap tackle. Shane Horgan’s go-go-gadget arm reaching into the corner at Twickenham. O’Connell soaring high. O’Gara’s nerves of steel. O’Callaghan’s underpants.

Irish rugby’s golden age reached its zenith under Joe Schmidt, when we were the best team in the world for about a fortnight.

The wins over New Zealand and the Grand Slam season were the absolute pinnacle, the best any Irish rugby team has ever played the game.

So why, just 15 months since they beat the All Blacks a second time, and as we trudge into week two of the 2020 Six Nations, does it feel like we have fallen out of love with the Irish rugby team just a little?

The observant among you will note last year’s calamitous meltdown in the team’s fortunes, including several gubbings by England, a shambolic World Cup campaign, and a rancorous dénouement to Schmidt’s tenure which, by the end, saw the previously infallible coach held responsible for everything from the rise of fascism to the plight of the Sumatran Orangutan.

So no wonder we approached last Saturday’s opener with Scotland with a sense of duty rather than excitement.

This is, after all, the first Six Nations in quite some time in which Ireland aren’t among the leading contenders to win, while hopes of an electrifying surge for a Grand Slam seem as groundlessly optimistic as a Fine Gael election rally.

Thankfully for my employers, who have the TV rights to the tournament, the springtime ritual of the Six Nations persuaded 1.1 million viewers to drop in at some stage of the scrappy fare at the Aviva.

People are still invested in the team; they are intrigued to see the new era unfold, they are hoping for the best. They would love to be swept off their feet again.

But the stadium’s default soundscape seemed to sum up the prevailing mood. Out with moments in which actual tries or goals are being scored, the Aviva Stadium gives off an echoey murmur, as if 50,000 people are asking each other if they have any holidays booked or how the new car is running for them.

Matches like Saturday’s — error strewn, stop-start affairs that are hard to get truly engaged with — only fuel the sense of going through the motions.

If it seems astonishingly quick how the colour has drained around the Irish rugby team, perhaps that reflects what went before. Joe Schmidt’s team were rarely exciting to watch: if you ever need to explain to someone unversed in rugby how his team played, take them to a building site and point to the heavy machinery clanking through the rubble and girders.

But they were winning, and people were drawn in to this great, sweaty heave towards the World Cup, when it would all, finally, have been worth it.

You know the rest. Maybe it will take time to invest in Andy Farrell’s team because of the great letdown last year.

The coach said last week that he wanted his Ireland team to stand for ‘true grit’, undoubtedly an important quality for the grim, arm-wrestley bit of modern rugby, but not something Shakespeare wrote any sonnets about.

While many have called for more expansive rugby, it probably wouldn’t even require that. It’s not like Irish rugby has deep traditions of snake-hipped, silky back play like French teams of yore.

It will just take a few magic moments to win us over again, a bit of derring do; the thrill of a green jersey emerging improbably from a clump of Saxon meat, making an exhilarating dash towards the line and straight into our hearts, forever.

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