As they disembarked the team bus at the Shelbourne Hotel on their return to Dublin last Sunday, the heroes of Ireland’s Six Nations success were manhandled into the waiting embrace of Minister for Sport, Shane Ross.
Many looked startled, some slightly afraid. Or so their faces seemed to suggest.
You see, when you’ve won a Grand Slam everyone wants a piece of you, and not just publicity-hungry politicians.
It’s the fate of all Irish sporting achievements to have their greater significance dissected and deconstructed. Broadsheet op-ed sections, current affairs panel shows — when sport goes mainstream, the mainstream wants to prod it about for a bit.
So Jack Charlton kick-started the Celtic Tiger, Saipan symbolised modern Ireland’s break from its gombeen past and Katie Taylor sounded the feminist clarion call for a nation of warrior princesses. Or something.
Ireland’s Grand Slam winners are no different. One newspaper editorial wondered if the Government was as prepared for the abortion referendum as the Irish team were for the Six Nations. Elsewhere it was hoped that Joe Schmidt’s famous attention to detail could be replicated by the Irish representatives in the Brexit negotiations.
Perhaps we should just send big Dan Leavy charging into 10 Downing Street and be done with it.
Still, watching Saturday’s victory over England was a strange enough sensation for an Irish viewer to make one ask the big question, the one the Fintan O’Tooles and David McWilliamses get paid the big bucks to answer: What Does It All Mean?
You see, it wasn’t just the winning of this Grand Slam that was remarkable, but the way it was won.
There was no dramatic crescendo, no last-gasp heroics, no dogged defiance. ‘Clinical’ was the word that was repeated over and over again in the aftermath of the game, Ireland’s victory put in the language of surgical precision: the English heavily anaesthetised, the Irish entering their 22 scrubbed up and brandishing a scalpel. This won’t hurt a bit.
Strange, because if there was a medical analogy for the traditional Irish approach to big sporting occasions, it would be the hacksaw-wielding medieval physician setting to work on a gangrenous leg. Unpleasant to watch, extremely bloody and with little chance of success.
Such is the folk memory of any Irish sports fan old enough to remember hapless Five Nations campaigns when we travelled to places like Twickenham and Paris armed only with a Garryowen and a prayer. Even the soccer team’s great successes were borne from pluck and spirit and a sort of footballing guerrilla warfare, the great days under Jack Charlton all about the defiance of the odds.
Occasional glorious interludes were framed in the language of the underdog, the likes of Sonia O’Sullivan, John Treacy, and Barry McGuigan celebrated for their accession from small-town Ireland to the world stage as if their very nationality was an obstacle to be miraculously overcome.
So now we have Joe Schmidt’s Ireland, pitilessly disassembling each opposition put in front of them, unencumbered by any sense of our traditional place in the order of things. They have become that most feared things in any sports team: a self-motivating, self-propagating winning machine, oblivious to press conference barbs or any of the silly ephemera that surrounds big games; coldly focused on the next ball, the next tackle, the next pass.
When wounded, they regenerate themselves, with the likes of Leavy, Jordi Murphy, Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Chris Farrell, and all the rest part of Schmidt’s battalion of interchangeable ruck-panzers, trundling through the terrified villages of the northern hemisphere.
Any wonder it feels strange? Shaking off a national inferiority complex is no straightforward matter. The week before the Grand Slam decider, I happened to tune into one of those Sunday evening radio history programmes. They were discussing the Irish defeat at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 which brought an end to the Nine Years’ War and copperfastened English rule.
This was essentially a Grand Slam decider: the Irish under Hugh O’Neill and Red Hugh O’Donnell had enjoyed a run of successes and had marched south to relieve foreign supporting forces sent by the King of Spain (think of these guys as the 17th-century version of Bundee Aki and CJ Stander). Victory could have seen off the English for good, and frankly spared us a lot of grief.
Of course, it all went disastrously wrong, and the Irish were routed by the English army led by Lord Mountjoy, sort of the Will Carling of his time. The rest, as they say, is history — deeply ingrained and embittered history, battered into us all from an early age.
But a lot has changed since the days since we charged at the English with pikes or poorly orchestrated backline moves. Ireland no longer sees itself as post-colonial basket case or downtrodden peasant backwater. Even the recent recession failed to knock back the sense of a modern techy-whizz nation standing at the global crossroads insouciantly knocking back lattes.
So if we no longer see ourselves as an underdog nation, why should sport be any different? Irish people don’t approach running their businesses or working for multinational companies as if they are trying to pull off a big shock or defy the odds. They compete, and more often than not, they win.
It feels like Joe Schmidt’s Ireland are a sports team that reflects the way we would now like to see ourselves. Perhaps the general ambivalence towards Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland is not just because of a downturn in results, but because of the manager’s insistence on sticking to the tenets of the underdog: boot, bollock, and battle.
That’s not to say we would ever expect to take on Germany in a World Cup qualifier, say, as equals. Being a small country means being outgunned in most sporting codes in terms of resources. But post-Schmidt, Irish sports fans have a minimum requirement from their teams and governing bodies in terms of preparation, coaching, and analysis, and hoping for the best won’t do.
Irish rugby has a smaller pool of competitors than other sports, but even then they have been smarter than the opposition. Much like the way our corporate tax regime gives us an advantage that others feel is unfair, the IRFU has gamed the professional system to serve the national team, never more apparent than in this post-Lions season when player welfare can be precisely managed.
Sticking up for our interests even if it pisses others off — there’s a motto for the Brexit talks right there.
So maybe we could, as the chattering classes suggest, extend our rugby lessons to the greater sphere of public life.
Maybe the government should be subjected to one of Joe Schmidt’s notorious Monday morning video review sessions.
“Stop it there. Shane, about this tweet. Would you like to tell us what you were thinking?”
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