Almost time to smell the roses ... and stand up and fight like hell

Fergus Finlay take some to reflect and looks forward to what could be an exciting year ... on the rugby field at least!     

Almost time to smell the roses ... and stand up and fight like hell

I had an amazing run-in to Christmas. I encountered enormous generosity, and very considerable hardship and suffering. I met hundreds of kids, and learned every day about the importance of resilience.

I worked alongside people who were doing everything humanly possible to make sure that families were warm and nourished, and that Santa Claus missed no-one.

It may be just me, and something I should have noticed before but hadn’t, but it seems to me that one area of unnoticed and terrible hardship affects mothers of families whose husbands have abandoned them and their responsibilities.

Many of them have been plunged from what you would call middle-class lifestyles into situations where they struggle to feed their children and heat their homes. They’re in pain in all sorts of ways – and often alone. And it’s impossible to reach all of them.

We’ve all done what we can. And of course, none of that means that Christmas isn’t a time of joy. When you’re surrounded by the people you love, everything seems possible, and trouble can be set to one side, even for a day.

It’s over now, for another year. Now it’s time for my life-long love affair to start kicking in.

I’ll be tense at times in the next couple of months, waiting in anticipation, groaning in disappointment, exhilarated with happier outcomes. Yes, it’s time for the Six Nations, the only sporting tournament that really matters.

My grandkids look at me in awe when I tell them I never saw a television until I was 13. Surrounded as they are by every conceivable device, they can’t come to terms with the notion that there was a time when people used to spend their evenings listening to a radio that had to be carefully tuned in, or playing records on a thing called a gramophone.

I can remember the pride in our house when my father brought home an electric record player — complete with a little packet of needles.

There were even two long-playing records, that we listened to over and over again. To this day — many, many years later – I can still sing many of the songs from The Mikado — I do a mean Wandering Minstrel — or Carmen Jones, the Oscar Hammerstein version of the Bizet opera.

That’s not to imply that I can actually sing, of course — but I know the words, and as they used to say, sure can’t you get the air outside. My favourite song from both LPs was the Toreador Song — Stand Up and Fight — but we’ll come back to that in a little while.

But then John F Kennedy came to Ireland, and everything changed for thousands of families, including mine. We got our first black and white television for his visit, and we watched every minute of it.

And of course I remember exactly where I was  — in our sitting room in Bray — when Charles Mitchel, RTÉ’s first great newscaster, announced that Kennedy had been assassinated. I don’t think I’d ever heard the word Dallas until that moment.

But it was early the following year, on our grainy tv set, that I saw my first rugby international. Ireland against England from Twickenham. My father was gloomy at the prospect. We hadn’t beaten England there for years, and most of the experts expected us to be hammered.

But we started well. And then, in the middle of the second half, Ireland’s new outhalf Mike Gibson (my father hadn’t approved of his selection — a bit flashy, he thought) produced the greatest dummy the game of rugby has ever seen.

He split the English defence and tore down the centre of the pitch before executing an immaculate reverse pass to Jerry Walsh, whose angle of running changed the direction of the attack.

He in turn passed to Pat Casey who seemed to be running almost in the opposite direction again and went in under the posts in front of a befuddled English team.

It was one of those “how did they do that?” sort of moments. Gibson’s dummy, and the criss-cross running that followed, plunged me head over heels in love with the game, and it has been that way ever since.

I was a useless player. I’ve often told the story about how Brother Malachy, a man who didn’t have a bad bone in his body, put me in the second row for Pres Bray because, as he said, “with a behind like that you can surely push”.

I could, but I was too slow and lumbering to be any use at anything else. I always seemed to be in the way of someone else’s elbow or knee — it’s why I still have a broken nose, and missed a bit of a front tooth for years.

But none of that stopped me being in love with Irish rugby. Other dimensions came later. I did my Leaving Cert in Pres Cork, and it was there I discovered the passion — the unbridled, heartfelt passion — that Munster Rugby evokes. I was in Thomond Park in 1978, when Munster made history.

And although I couldn’t be there, three of my daughters were in the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff when Munster beat Biarritz to win their first Heineken Cup. I was at home, blubbering like a baby.

I cried again when Paul O’Connell, the greatest Munster player of them all, soared 10 feet above the entire English pack in Croke Park.

The thing about Munster Rugby is that they never let you down. As my son-in-law Ger says — and he sometimes says it after Munster have ground out an unlikely one point win with a last-minute drop goal in the muddiest conditions you’ll ever see — “is there any team, in any sport, anywhere in the world that you’d rather follow?” I don’t get to Thomond Park often, because it’s just not practical.

Conor Murray at training for Munster
Conor Murray at training for Munster

Nowadays, when I can, I go to watch Shannon playing on the back pitch there. I joined the club as a member, and I derive huge pride from the fact that they wear the word Barnardos across their chests — the two passions of my life coming together. And by the way, this season, with Barnardos as part of the team, they’ve won 8 out of 10 matches so far and sit on top of Division 1B of the league.

So, you’ve probably realised I can’t wait. Munster play some crowd called Leinster this afternoon, then it’s off to France in a fortnight and back to Thomond Park to wrap up their group before the Six Nations starts.

Not for the first time, I’ll realise that it was destiny that taught me the words of Stand Up and Fight long before I ever saw a rugby match.

The Six Nations starts in the first week in February. This is the tough year for Ireland. Although we have three home games we start away against France and we finish away against England. But hey, we’ve never won a Grand Slam in Twickenham.

Last year, we stopped England from winning the Grand Slam when they came to Dublin. Wouldn’t you give your eye teeth to see them trying to prevent us from winning a Grand Slam in Twickenham?

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