LARRY RYAN: Exiles in Rugby Country

On days like this, we must spare a thought for great men like Eddie Butt.

Specifically, we must think of Eddie — a man who contributed more than his fair share to the gaiety of the nation playing bass for the Emperor of Ice Cream — on the day he found himself estranged among his own people.

We join Eddie in a Cork bar on March 21, 2009. Ireland are playing Wales. Eddie is on a stag but his personal celebration must wait. Being a man of infinite and varied talents, Eddie is on call to design a ‘commemorative poster’ for the Irish Examiner if Ireland win the Grand Slam.

It seems as though Stephen Jones has got him off the hook. But then the ball is fed to Ronan O’Gara and the commotion alerts Eddie to look up in alarm.

As all around him erupt in jubilation, Eddie sadly puts down his orange juice and traipses to Lapp’s Quay.

The poster was produced, marking — some would argue — another landmark in the shifting priorities of the paper that ultimately led to this week’s mammoth 48-page World Cup pull-out magazine (we don’t tend to use the term ‘supplement’ for a rugby publication).

Soon Eddie, and the rest of us, lived in a place called Rugby Country.

A national rebranding which, incidentally, has gained some traction, as they might say, internationally, judging by a chat, for future publication, with three-time Stanley Cup winner Ken Daneyko, over here last week for a bit of golf.

A tough sport, ice hockey, noted Ken, “a bit like your national game, rugby.”

Stanley Cups or no Stanley Cups, Ken had to be set straight.

Of course, Ken may soon be right. Before we go any further, it is appropriate to acknowledge that the supercharged media and marketing interest in The Ugly Game has proved entirely justified. We must accept now that many people have taken great pride and joy and revenue in the exploits of our rugby heroes.

But we should also examine where the hearts and minds of men like Eddie were lost. How is it that a Cork man, a Liverpool fan, of a vintage that means he has known great joy and great sorrow, found himself somehow divorced from this moment of local and national triumph?

Why will a substantial minority of sport enthusiasts take no interest in this World Cup?

There are many out there like Eddie, just a bit detached from it all. They will walk into a bar this afternoon looking for the second half of Chelsea v Arsenal and they will walk back out swiftly, inconvenienced. Eggnostics.

Others will simply turn off out of aesthetic preference. They would find as much appeal in watching a farmer dose a recalcitrant sheep as they would some hard yards being gained at breakdown time.

But then many of the same people are able to tap into a rich seam of national pride when other bandwagons leave the station, for instance when somebody that might be Annalise Murphy is bobbing up and down in the distance in a bay. So aesthetics may not entirely cover this distaste.

For many, no doubt, there is still the inevitable reality that it wasn’t so much they didn’t choose rugby, but rugby didn’t choose them — as a consequence of somebody’s inability or reluctance to fund their secondary school education.

For these people, there may be the sense, unfair or not, that by supporting the rugby industry, you’d be bailing out the same folk you’re already bailing out with much of your hard-earned.

But then chances are sailing didn’t choose many of these lads either, so we may need to look further again.

Since the imprecise nature of rugby’s core skills means the standard of surface isn’t vitally important, the game does tend to be played on moral high ground.

From the people who brought us Rugby Country, we are currently hearing that the game ended apartheid and homophobia. We also learned this week that rugby referee Nigel Owens would end all dissent in football, given the chance. Whether Nige would spare the energy for this clean-up if he had to run up and down a pitch, rather than stand, scolding, over a writhing mass of whey, we don’t know.

That kind of thing can become wearing, as can the popular belief that each Ireland international is an apocalyptic occasion that will test every human reserve of fortitude. As we saw in a TV3 documentary this week, these limits may be tested during the performing of Ireland’s Call alone.

But still I feel there’s something else.

Many of us recall early flirtation with the game in those rainy days of little choice, when Noel Reid’s Racing Stadium provided the curtain-raiser.

In the build-ups, they would show these magnificent jinking tries of 25 passes, usually scored by Welshmen. And while none of this stuff happened during Ireland games, unless we were playing France, there was always the impression given that it should be happening.

If I recall right, all Irish rugby punditry, in those days, involved lamenting Paul Dean’s reliance on “the boot” or Phil Danaher’s penchant for the “straight burst” instead of moving it “through the hands”. I believe, in later years, this segued into dissatisfaction with Kevin Maggs’ fondness for “crash ball”.

The poster boy for doing things right was the mythical Simon Geoghegan, who some claim existed, but may be rugby’s Mr Snuffleupagus. And there was the sashaying Brendan Mullin, who could glide through defences while taking a position on a bull market. If anyone would give him the ball.

Nowadays, it turns out there is only the boot, the straight burst, and the crash ball. In Ireland matches and every match.

But instead of lamenting this, rugby people have devised complicated jargon to describe the booting and crashing and bursting. So we hear about phases and recyling and exit zones and tackle reloads and jackaling and crocodile rolls. It is all about destructive ball carriers and the need for a strong collision focus.

And maybe, just maybe, there are people out there who have been exposed to this kind of thing before, this confusing language at a time when the fundamentals weren’t sound. Maybe they even heard it from some of the very same people.

Not everyone is willing to be fooled again.

Heroes & Villains


James Horan:

For too long, Gaelic football’s creative minds have been working on a lexicon that focuses on the game’s more negative aspects; blanket defence, swarm tackling, puke football. So credit to James, on Off The Ball this week, for hailing the Dubs’ “runability”.

Joe Hart:

Is there any more authoritative drinker of water having conceded a goal?


Steven Gerrard:

“Rafa made a lot of decisions with himself in mind,” is a standout line in the new book from Stevie Me.


Aping the Rugby Country playbook with the World Cup hashtag #RugbyIsOurGame.

One day, when he is dead, Georgi Kinkladze will shimmy in his grave.

More on this topic

Jacob Stockdale hoping for more good memories of Twickenham in bid for World Cup placeJacob Stockdale hoping for more good memories of Twickenham in bid for World Cup place

WADA compliments Rugby World Cup for zero failed drug tests

Stuart Lancaster steps down as England head coach 'by mutual consent'Stuart Lancaster steps down as England head coach 'by mutual consent'

VIDEO: Why the Rugby World Cup 2015 was the greatest rugby tournament everVIDEO: Why the Rugby World Cup 2015 was the greatest rugby tournament ever


From Turkey to Vietnam, here’s where the chef and food writer has fallen in love with on her travellers.Sabrina Ghayour’s top 5 cities for foodies to visit

Dr Dympna Kavanagh, chief dental officer, Department of Health (University College Cork graduate)Working Life: Dr Dympna Kavanagh, chief dental officer, Department of Health

Like most Irish kids of our generation, chillies, spicy food, heat were never really big aspects of our formative eating experiences.Currabinny Cooks: Getting spicy in the kitchen

Timothy Grady is in Bantry this week to host a concert, and read from his classic book about the Irish in London, writes Don O'Mahony.Giving voice to the emigrant experience

More From The Irish Examiner