Peacetime is over.
If an average Six Nations fixture takes place on the day of the apocalypse, a Rugby World Cup is a declaration of war.
The sports scientist and World Rugby consultant Ross Tucker noted, during the last Lions Test series, that “watching Sky coverage, you’d think one team is playing a rugby match, the other is playing for the survival of the human race”.
A Rugby World Cup levels that battlefield.
England’s official tournament promo depicts players visiting a Japanese hamlet on horseback, emblazoning the red rose all round them, before riding off to battle in bespoke samurai armour. It plays like a rousing cinematic tribute to colonial ‘persuasiveness’, to bringing the locals around to your way of thinking. And yet, they may not have it all their own way against the Tongans tomorrow, as England attack coach Scott Wisemantel warned.
“Historically, it’s called the Kingdom of Tonga for a reason — they’ve never been defeated in war. So they’ve gone to other islands and smashed them up, but they’ve never been smashed up and they’re very proud of it.”
That is the kind of collision focus that will be needed at the breakdown.
Lest all of that is a touch too subtle, former Ireland international John Robbie recalled a Springbok legend when teeing up this morning’s big one.
“The Great Boy Louw said that when South Africa play New Zealand, consider your country at war.”
The tournament will feature four war dances, from the All Blacks, Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga, while the Russians are already more or less on their shields.
Today, 18 more nations stand proudly ready to smash each other up. To answer the call. The generals have drawn up their strategies and they are fixing their bayonets in the trenches, as Neil Francis once said of the build-up to a Leinster Schools Cup tie.
Forty pool matches over three weeks will test every human reserve of fortitude, stretch mankind’s boundaries for intensity and bravery — even if it’s all to whittle nine contenders down to eight, a process which will effectively be settled this morning, when France play Argentina.
No matter. Even if it is only by achieving ‘scoreboard separation’ against the Russians, we will all be celebrating rugby values.
By winning our arm wrestles and earning the right to go wide, we will be taking our place on this high moral battleground. Where authority goes unquestioned and dissent is not tolerated. Because this is not soccer.
And yet, there’s a nagging sense that our brave boys could be playing for stakes even higher than usual.
Blackrock College’s dismissive attitude to yesterday’s ‘climate strike’ suggests that fine institution is not yet desperately concerned about the survival of the human race. But might some of its graduates just be playing for the future of Rugby Country?
Too alarmist? On the face of it, the fundamentals still appear to be sound.
All the right people are still on board. If you find yourself unexpectedly required to make brief small talk with the CEO, in the lift of any office building across the land, you will almost certainly still reach for the obvious gambit: ‘Will they have too much up front for the Scots?’
And sure, the grand traditions of Rugby Country are still being observed. Plays are still being staged celebrating friendly wins. ‘Soldier Field’, marking the victory over the All Blacks in Chicago, is lined up for the Mill Theatre, Dundrum in October.
Most importantly, the corporate world is still standing shoulder to shoulder. The inextricable link between war and commerce remains strong.
Land Rover is “celebrating what makes rugby, rugby”. Guinness is “sponsoring belief”. Vodafone is “celebrating the inclusive nature of rugby”, a belief which may itself be backed by strong drink.
In all, the IRFU has 23 corporate partners, anxious to touch the hem of the green battle tunic, to stir the stew of hashtags.
And yet, something feels a little off.
It needn’t be taken as a bellwether vote, but when Jamie Heaslip asked Twitter should he start a podcast, we mightn’t have expected 81% of the first 15,000 replies to tell him ‘no thanks’.
And when the man with his finger firmest on Rugby Country’s pulse — Ross O’Carroll Kelly’s creator Paul Howard — talked on RTÉ’s recent documentary about Ross of “that glorious 10 to 15-year period of rugby”, we mightn’t have expected him to use the past tense.
Perhaps there’s a certain nostalgia out there for Ryle Nugent roaring ‘release the dogs’ at kick-off. Or Tony Ward shouting ‘Made in Clongowes’ when somebody ‘dots down’.
Ross’s Munster counterpart, Ronan O’Gara, warned earlier this year that “rugby is in dangerous territory”. He had been watching a European Cup semi-final in a half-empty ground.
This is a sport mired in global ennui, no nearer to resolving the health and safety issues around smashing each other up. That is still counting the casualties of war.
Worse, with a top coach sent home already, and concerns about doping, conversations are drifting into the kind of areas that bluechip sponsors may feel aren’t in line with their brand values.
Even more pressingly, the impatient reaction to Ireland’s 2019 struggles suggests it may be difficult, this time round, to shrug off the brief period of recrimination that typically follows a World Cup quarter-final defeat.
That it might be hard to go back to regarding Scotland at Murrayfield in February as the end of the world.
All of which suggests Joe Schmidt may just have a fighting chance of taking us all the way. After all, when is a soldier braver in war than with a civilisation at stake?
Or as Tom McGurk famously put it, on the eve of a Six Nations, “We’re not without hope, I hope.”
Putting Corkness into practice
We shall be studying Adrian Russell’s book The Double carefully over the coming weeks for indications that history is about to repeat, as long prophesied here, on the 30th anniversary next year.
For now, the Kindle edition reveals one important detail about the great men of 1990. A quick text search confirms there is not one single mention of ‘Corkness’ in the hefty tome.
It didn’t need to be talked about in those days. It was a state of mind as natural as breathing air.
Instead, we see Corkness in practice and learn that Frank Murphy wrote, in his 1989 annual report, that the double could be on the following year. This after the hurlers had shipped five goals to Waterford in the Munster Championship.
In those proud days on Leeside, confidence in your own destiny was a birthright. In others, it was regarded as a deep character flaw.
So it was Cork captain Kieran McGuckin who trotted to centre-field for the 1990 Munster final coin toss, saw that Tipp’s John Kennedy was smiling, and decided that “Tipp can be arrogant”.