LARRY RYAN: Rugby Country sees small picture

Yes, there are a few stragglers still out there begrudging, but it is time to give rugby its due.

War and phoney war break out this weekend. The Six Nations and the Allianz Football League trot out together, marking out extremes on the hyperbole scale.

“Nations at War,” screamed the Sunday Independent. “Tribal passions and cross-border conflict,” roared the Daily Mail. “There’s been 20 wars between England and France – there is another one happening on Saturday,” promised England coach Eddie Jones.

“We won’t live forever, create a moment that will,” urges the RTÉ promo, mindful that every Six Nations fixture takes place on the day of apocalypse, at least until Montrose’s apocalypse, when TV3 takes over.

“You can get a lot out of the national league, all the same,” is just about the grandest claim anyone has countered with. Or “it might stand to you down the line”. And in the meantime, maybe there will be another scrap between Donegal and Kerry.

As we go about our business in Rugby Country this morning, aware that any line of enquiry at the butcher or the barber regarding “the match” is unlikely to be seeking counsel on events at O’Moore Park or Pairc Esler this evening, or even Stamford Bridge at lunchtime, all we can do is admire them, the thought leaders of The Ugly Game.

Theirs is an indefatigable positivity and a prized ability to live in the moment. Lessons there for us all.

God knows, they have their own troubles to wrestle with, not least figuring out how they can possibly fulfil their fixtures without maiming one another.

And yet they tease out these minor difficulties without ever losing sight of the small picture. That whatever is happening right now is the most important thing that has ever happened. And that whatever the occasion, a man’s ability to ‘find touch’, to welly it over a 100-yard sideline, will always be a thrilling piece of detective work to be savoured.

That is where they distinguish themselves from the Gah lads, whose sights are constantly drawn to the big picture, and the realisation that whatever they are looking at is only an oul challenge match, or is only the league, or is only Munster or Leinster. Until it is all over and they are out of it, and they realise that was only another year lost to the big picture.

It might eventually even give rugby the measure of the soccer crowd, who might have The Greatest League in the World, but who slump restlessly into existential crisis on other days, on FA Cup weekend or international fortnight, wondering how these things fit into the bigger picture.

It is that sharp focus on the small picture that packages friendlies into DVDs of ‘the greatest day in Irish rugby history’.

When the time is right, it will once again turn the PRO12 into the kind of Holy Grail that launches a library of books, even if swathes of the competition proceed unnoticed and contested by reserves.

In the middle of the week, it will persuade us that nothing at all can compare with the majesty of schools cup, where some kind of history is made every afternoon. In Rugby Country, the history book is a diary.

And on these weekends, during the Six Nations, the fixation on the small picture allows the throwing around of war metaphors without a care or a bother, in a world on the verge of chaos.

Only once the next seven weeks are done will we hear that the whole thing was really just a trial for the big one: custodianship of the Lions heritage.

And only after that’s over will they survey all they have mastered and take stock, at the midpoint of a World Cup cycle, of where northern hemisphere rugby stands.

Tonight, Eir Sport, in an attempt to inject a little razzmatazz, will screen three Allianz League matches at the same time. No doubt before and after each one will come reminders and warnings that we mustn’t believe what we are seeing. Genuflections to the big picture.

They could screen three matches at the same time on the final weekend of the Six Nations too, if they were worried about the big picture, if they got bogged down with things like fairness, rather than prioritising the small picture.

But as Six Nations chief John Feehan put it recently, discussing the introduction of bonus points: “The reality is the Six Nations is inherently unfair, in that three teams have two home games. On that basis, you could say this is adding another layer of unfairness.”

He didn’t sound too cut up about it. “The damage caused by the unfairness would be less than the positive of giving the teams encouragement to score more tries.”

What does fairness matter when every 80 minutes presents the ultimate test of mankind’s bravery and virtuosity? Why worry about structures when the world is likely to end this afternoon? Probably with Eddie Butler voicing a montage.

Meanwhile, the Gah lads can’t let 35 minutes pass without upsetting themselves over structures.

In these troubled times, we must try to figure out what it is that separates them, the rugby crowd?

Traditionally, I suppose, the game’s power base might have had that bit less to worry them, than most. Might have been better placed to live in the moment, confident that the big picture would look after itself, that things would be grand, regardless of fairness.

Whatever it is, we are never likely to hear the words ‘it is only the Six Nations’.

England’s uneasy truce

Last Tuesday night didn’t hit the heights, but there’s life yet in the old Liverpool-Chelsea rivalry.

When Frank Lampard and Jamie Carragher sat down for a chat that appeared in the Daily Mail last Saturday, it was genial, but no way was Lamps giving Carra the exclusive.

So Saturday’s “there is a part of me that wants to stay in the game” became Wednesday’s farewell.

The pair were more candid when it came to bringing club tensions into the England dressing room.

“It wasn’t that we didn’t get on, but you knew the line. You’d have dinner when we were all together at England, but you knew it was all business,” said Lampard of his relationship with Steven Gerrard.

“I know,” replied Carragher. “You’d go to lunch, have a good chat, and then you’d go back to your room and say: “I can’t stand him!”

This week, Alan Shearer echoed those sentiments about Rio Ferdinand and other England colleagues.

“You’re trying to kick each other every Saturday and two months after that, you’re meant to be a team-mate and being all nice and friendly. I found it hard.”

Shearer refused to blame the coldness for England’s failings, but the stand-offs must have played some small part in the hurt


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