It’s 4pm on a late summer afternoon in a sports ground on the south side of Cork city. An intake of breath and … referee Robert O’Sullivan’s whistle cuts the balmy air. Eoin Lacey of Sundays Well Rugby Football Club clips the ball high into a September sky. And Midleton and Sundays Well return to rugby.
The uncertainty of the five-month odyssey to this moment was brought home to me last week by Tom Mulcahy, the Midleton head coach. From March to late July, rugby was a non-entity, he ruefully explained, just a matter of keeping in touch with players as much as possible without any certainty that there would even be a season ahead.
And the long break took its toll on players, too, Tom told me, with a few younger lads — to use their own words — falling out of love with the game. In fairness to them, I thought, in the midst of those awful fearful April/May days, it must have been hard to imagine a day like last Saturday. Hard to imagine the raft of IRFU protocols and procedures necessary on Saturday, too.
All this with families and fans unable to enter the ground, watching instead on phones, tablets, or laptops at home.
Tom was happy to give a lot of young players their first experience of senior rugby and to develop them for the future. “We have to put this season into perspective and in Division 2C, that’s definitely true,” he said.
The plan is to let those young players play with the ball, enjoy their rugby for the year and test themselves against experienced and talented opposition in the games ahead, looking forward to the ‘real thing’ again in 2021 and 2022.
The real thing on the pitch is progressing well at a deserted Musgrave Park with both teams exchanging penalties and converted tries, so that, by the first water break (another Covid convention) the scores are levels at 10-10. The game is open and flowing, thoroughly enjoyable.
When I spoke to Denis Corridan, the director of rugby at Sundays Well, he went out of his way to praise the club’s Covid officers, Tony Mulcahy and Jess Dwyer, who volunteered to undertake that thankless job of telling players and supporters what they can and can’t do — mostly what they can’t do. And to take on the responsibility for safety in the club and for Saturday’s fixture.
It struck me that clubs up and down Ireland have such volunteers without whom any games would be impossible. It struck me too that sporting heroes come in all shapes and sizes, not just with a number 10 on their back, gifted with silky hands and golden feet.
The 3G pitch is shining in sunlight at half-time and both teams assemble at the sideline, dressing rooms being out of bounds these days. Sundays Well are leading 20-15. The referee and the players gather their breaths while the coaches and medical staff work hard to put minds and bodies right for the second half.
I must admit to a feeling of privilege as I look on amid the serried ranks of red seats reaching out around me; almost the sole witness in a stadium built to hold 8,000 people. I think of all the games this old ground has seen, the stories it could tell, the memories it holds. And now it’s hosting games again in defiance of a pandemic.
Denis Corridan had been looking forward to blowing away the Covid cobwebs and getting back to rugby with a local derby. “That’s what it’s all about,” he said, “allowing the players to express themselves on the pitch.”
He was excited about new ’Well coaches David Corkery and John O’Neill and some exciting new players. A new captain, too, Conor O’Brien, who had come up through the ranks. But, win, lose, or draw, the priority on Saturday was to make sure everything was done right.
“The rugby will take care of itself, but we have to take care of everybody present,” he said.
Tom Mulcahy spoke passionately about looking forward, too, driving on his team and players towards the light at the end of the tunnel and what comes after the return into that light. He spoke of the impacts of the lockdown and the absence of sport on young people and hoped that the return to rugby would counteract those.
In the second half, the Midleton inexperience is taking its toll, even if they are playing most of the rugby with most of the possession. Despite occasional excellence (Stuart Lee being consistently brilliant) and constant endeavour, they can’t quite breach the Sundays Well line. The ’Well are implacable in their focus and resolute in their defiance. Amid long bouts of defending they manage to eke out a try, the only score of the second half.
The match grows into its intensity, the exchanges becoming fiercer. All sport demands a level of trust — a social contract — but the level of trust in their team-mates and opponents being displayed by these players is humbling.
Spent and fresh bodies are ferried incessantly to and from the pitch towards the end and the score remains Sundays Well 27 Midleton 15.
In the evening sunshine and shadow, I can’t resist imagining the gnarled old gods of rugby sniffing their approval from above. The rightness of it all: rugby players playing rugby again, and playing the game the way it was meant to be played.
The referee blows his whistle for the final time. He exhales, the game is safely spent. The players exhale, they played their part. They make their way quietly to the line, and on to waiting cars. The coaches, medical crews, and Covid officers exhale, their charges have come through in one piece, the protocols have been observed. The fans and families at home exhale and switch off their live feeds. I exhale, and as I make my way out on to the Tramore Road, I’d swear that great old sports ground exhales too.