What Brexit Britain really needs is a tactical genius like Joe Schmidt

Look. I know I’m no Donal Lenihan — even if by Saturday night I was as hoarse as he was on the telly. 

I know I’m no rugby pundit or expert but you’ve been able to read his expert analysis already in this paper. My relationship with the game has only been a lifelong love affair.

But I am one of a small — and inevitably shrinking — band of people who can say I was there twice. Not even Peadar Crowley, my oldest friend, can say that. 

The thing he shares with my missus is that they’re both died-in-the-wool hard-bitten Munster supporters. And they think Munster starts and finishes in Cork. 

I’m a bit more ecumenical, because I happen to know there’s phenomenal rugby in Limerick too.

Peadar and I were together in Thomond Park, 40 years and 17 days ago, when Munster made a history we thought was never going to be repeated. But Peadar didn’t make it to the Aviva for last Saturday night, and I did.

We texted each other a few times during the match. His last message to me, at full-time, was “Die Happy”. I replied, “After the World Cup”. (Neither of us has any intention of fading away that soon.) 

There are differences between the two experiences. We stood then — if there was a stand in Thomond Park in 1978, I was never in it. 

It was a dank, cold, foggy day back then — whereas you could be in your shirt sleeves in the Aviva last Saturday night. 

You left Thomond Park in the old days with a terrible thirst, that couldn’t be slaked in the stadium. In the Aviva, you’re never more than 10 paces away from a (vastly over-priced) beer.

Actually, one of the things that annoys me about the Aviva is the constant stream of people — always just in front of you — who feel they have to go down to the bar every 15 minutes during a match. You’d wonder sometimes why they bother buying a ticket.

But thankfully — with one exception that I’ll come back to in a minute — there was none of that on Saturday night. This was the most intense and participative crowd I’ve ever seen at a rugby match, from start to finish. We were with the team every inch of the way.

We were very high up in the East stand, in one of the corners, with a panoramic view of the whole pitch. As it happened it was the corner in which Jacob Stockdale’s try was scored and everyone at our level had a perfect view of the try as it developed.

In unison, we started to rise from our seats when he chipped the ball, to a sort of half-crouch. There was a collective intake of breath when the ball bounced, because for a fraction of a second it looked like it might swerve out of his reach. 

When he gathered it safely, those of us who were crouching rose to the tips of our toes, the better, to will him safely over the line.

The roar that went around the ground, and seemed never to end, started from our little corner. The thing we were most worried about was that the referee, Wayne Barnes, mightn’t have seen the grounding. 

He had been taken by surprise, as most of the New Zealand team were, by Jonny Sexton’s switch pass that had started the move. 

By the time he arrived at the try line, most of the Irish team were on top of Stockdale. In fact I’m fairly certain that I saw Barnes checking with Cian Healy that it was Stockdale who had scored.

That was immediately followed, of course, by a moment that only happens in the game of rugby. We were ecstatic, deafening, so loud that we could be heard from the other side of the city. 

But there had to be silence for Sexton’s conversion. It’s an extraordinary phenomenon that, the way in which 50,000 people can go in the wink of an eye from hysteria to an almost eerie silence.

I mentioned earlier that there was an exception to the generally involved demeanour of our section of the crowd. He may not have been shouting during the conversion, but for the rest of the match he hardly ever shut up.

And here’s the thing. He wasn’t really shouting about the match, or about rugby. As far as we could tell, he was shouting about Brexit. 

And he was clearly one of those people who knows, for absolute certain, that he is hilariously funny. But he was entirely alone in that view.

He was dressed in a black suit with union jacks sewn into it. A bowler hat and dicky bow completed the ensemble. 

In every lull in the play, he started roaring about how we thought we were great, we Irish, and how we should enjoy it while we could.

Despite his loudness, and his apparent uncertainty about who we were playing, he didn’t seem to have much harm in him. 

I assumed at first that he was one of those died-in-the-wool unionists you meet in places like Portadown, but they seldom trespass south of the border they still have in their heads. Besides, his accent was pure Cockney.

We decided in the end that he was a sort of Brexit parody. But then, most Brexiteers appear to be something of a parody. 

Has there ever been a political idea in the history of the world that is so implacably hostile to something without knowing what it is they’re against, and so adamantly in favour of something without having a clue how to bring it about?

Brexit has been one silly mistake after another. David Cameron didn’t have to have a referendum but he did it anyway. They all assumed remain would win, and nobody bothered mounting a decent campaign. 

Theresa May didn’t have to have a general election, but she did it anyway, and made herself dependent on the DUP.

And she’s been a lonely figure ever since, surrounded by the sort of allies that no-one in politics would ever want. At least, and it’s almost the only thing she has going for her, she’s lucky in her enemies.

There’s a brilliant little photograph going the rounds on Facebook. Designed by a regular poster called Colum McCaffrey. 

It shows the entire Irish rugby team in a straight line, clearly as they waited for the New Zealand haka. The caption reads, “This is what a hard border in Ireland looks like”.

It’s what it felt like on the night. We were proud to be Irish, because of a sporting occasion that mattered. 

Brexit was founded on fear, not pride, and it grew as a result of fear. 

The end result is a great democracy so preoccupied with its own insecurities that it is in danger of disappearing into insignificance.

The answer of course is that what Britain really needs is a tactical genius like Joe Schmidt, to take the country by the scruff of the neck and give it a vision and a game plan. 

But they can’t have him. Not until after the World Cup.

More on this topic

Brexit has left UK and Scotland relationship ‘in shreds’, Sturgeon claims

Arrangements for Irish border after Brexit ready within three years – report

€100m beef fund will have conditions, Minister says

I’m the UK prime minister Nicola Sturgeon least wants – Jeremy Hunt

More in this Section

My youthful ideals have not yet left me

"This week, the future arrived again. I booked a car on a car-sharing site"

Patient strategy could pay off and turnaround be complete

Linguistic shifts and poisoned words

More by this author

Sisters, for the love of God — tell us where the Bessborough babies are

A fiscal council without regard for society is not worth the money

A toast to Lakers, Irish Distillers spirit and Difference Days like this

Cut down on car usage, not the trees, to keep the buses moving


Lifestyle

Capturing the castle: Johnstown Castle in County Wexford is well worth checking out

How nature can work wonders for body and soul

Podcast Corner: An introduction to podcasts

Viviane Hagner all set for West Cork Chamber Music Festival

More From The Irish Examiner