It seems certain now that rugby is about to be driven underground. Or at least back to wherever it was a couple of decades ago.
We are used to the prevailing apocalyptic coverage of the game giving the impression that every ‘Test match’ played is the last. But very soon now, that stopped clock will be correct.
When the health and safety hazard tape has roped off our grounds and when the sport’s demise is mourned, the Irish media will inevitably be called before another inquiry, to explain its willingness to heat up this monster.
And the lesson will be hammered home again, though never learned; that bullshit always claims its victims in the end.
That realisation should have dawned the moment we looked around and noted that another species lurched among us; giants inflated beyond recognition simply to sustain the rigours of a sport some of them might even have once enjoyed.
But rather than raise the alarm, Ireland’s relative success at this grotesquely mutated game seduced an industry into using hideous jargon to narrate it.
And so a foul language was born to fit The Ugly Game.
Soon, all we read and heard about were wars of attrition, bodies on the line, incredible physicality, big hits and destructive ball carriers. All of this took place “in the trenches”.
As the support base grew, and fewer of those watching had any idea what was going on, the jargon became more complicated, as if to assure the greenhorns something highly sophisticated was happening when all they could see was men colliding into one another until the nearest casualty ward was full.
Apparently, they were grenading rucks and forming pods and performing chokes and tackle reloads and jackaling and finding exit zones and executing crocodile rolls and going truck and trailer, all the while “buying into the ethos” and the “value system”.
The odd aficionado might have wondered why simpler words such as ‘jink’ and ‘sidestep’ hadn’t been used since the turn of the century. For these people, wondering why nobody was ‘pinning back his ears’ to whizz over the tryline, an imaginary gainline was painted, so they could at least watch men trundle over it.
And of course all of those hits and chokes and reloads were going to claim victims.
But if most sensible people have realised, for a while, that the end was near, it really wasn’t until this week that many began to accept how silly the game’s testosterone-heavy rhetoric was sounding.
As recently as last Saturday, the laughable words of French second-row Paul Jedrasiak were reported faithfully, without irony, and without comment. Jedrasiak vowed France would “bleed for the shirt” in Paris and “give everything to defend my land” against Ireland. Naturally, there were military allusions: “The spiked helmet is still in our blood.”
This stuff was par for the course. A few weeks earlier, the tributes to a more celebrated second row formed a well-worn pattern.
Sure, there was plenty of appropriate reflection on what a decent fellow he is, but mainly we heard about the time Paulie played on with a dislocated shoulder, about the “manic fucking aggression”, about the time he put the fear of God in the French, and about the way he inspired men to run through walls for him.
Not much of it sounded like encouragement to bring your kid down the local rugby club. But now we’ve had a week when people are beginning to realise there may be more to life than running through walls.
It began with some Paris cheap shots. Turns out the French wanted Ireland to do most of the bleeding. And the sheer mind-numbing tedium of the spectacle meant no amount of jargon could adequately disguise the futility of filling a ward with Irish casualties.
And then, in midweek, came the game-changing words of Leinster Kiwi Hayden Triggs, who bravely admitted he was scared by the prospect of concussions and puzzled over where exactly the game was going, especially in these parts: “It is just rugby, man. Everyone is getting too big.”
Crucially, Triggs turned on its head one of the more insidious pieces of jargon popularised during rugby’s great recent rise. We have often heard Ireland praised, particularly during Joe Schmidt’s reign, for “a strong collision focus”. Triggs simply wondered why there is so much focus on collisions.
Back home, he insisted, they prefer to avoid contact, if they can at all. The World Cup brought some evidence of that. Perhaps, in a place where the sport is an intrinsic way of life, they simply needed to find a way to make it sustainable.
Even as the penny drops in most places that change is needed, many of the rugby boom’s most devoted supporters are wilfully missing the point. One radio show demanded last Saturday’s referee be suspended for “failing to protect the Irish players”.
That show, and many, many others, could have offered them protection by suspending their cheerleading for a game careering out of control.
It is 16 years now since the Lansdowne Road match programme for Ireland v Barbarians contained a message from Sean FitzPatrick on behalf of sponsors Anglo Irish Bank:
“I would like to pay a special welcome to our many customers who are here at the match,” wrote Seanie.
In the end, some of those customers probably got more bang for their buck out of the rugby bubble. Perhaps its cheerleaders were more creative.
Now who’ll tell the battered unfortunates who don’t know what day it is that we all partied?
STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN
Gerard Hartmann makes some salient points on pages 10-11 about the way joy has leaked out of sport. With that in mind, may Messi, above, Neymar and Suarez be as ‘disrespectful’ as they like every week.
Olympics 2016 spokesman Mario Andrada:
Told us the Rio water won’t quite be clean in time for the rowing and kayaking because: “there was not enough commitment, funds, and energy”. The perfect metaphor for the Games themselves.
HELL IN A HANDCART
In a week Eamo, below, came down hard on Messi for disrespectful showboating, he also told us: “James (Rodriguez) cost 80 million... he’s useless.”
The Yankees chief made the Premier League look like a charitable trust as he made the case against discounted tickets for corporate areas: “Quite frankly, the fan may be someone who has never sat in a premium location. So that’s a frustration to our existing fan base.”
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