Tackle the culture that stunts our rugby players’ chances

Sport has always played a vital role in Irish society. If there is injustice we should speak out about it as we do in all other walks of life, writes Ryle Dwyer. 

The news that Ireland and Munster star Peter O’Mahony has turned down his contract offer and is considering moving to Britain or France has again opened the debate about how the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) treats players who leave our shores to play abroad.

The actions of the IRFU in how it treated Simon Zebo should be called out for what it is — a shoddy attempt to deny the fundamental rights of a young man so that they can implement their own form of indentured servitude. Yet none of our political leaders has dared to speak out on this issue.

Zebo has a relatively short period in which he can earn significant money as a rugby player to look after his young family. It is estimated that he could earn three times as much in France. At 27 years of age, he may not have many more years left in top-class rugby, even if he avoids serious injury.

One can understand encouraging rugby players to stay and play in this country, but Zebo is actually being victimised. Johnny Sexton was allowed to play for Ireland after he left Leinster to play in France, yet Zebo is being denied the right of even being considered while he is still playing for Munster.

Whether Sexton was more important to the Irish team than Zebo is immaterial; giving special privileges to one player over another is a perversion of the concept of fair play.

If this were in the political arena, and he was being denied the right to run for office, society would take a wholly different view, but it is sport and it has usually been treated differently by the authorities here. The importance of sport has been grossly underestimated.

Although Éamon de Valera virtually dominated Irish political life for decades, he did not talk much about sport during his career. This was probably because he thought his views would be unpopular.

While Taoiseach, for instance, he sparked a minor sensation in Shannon on April 28, 1957 by declaring at a dinner of the Past Pupils Union of Blackrock College that he preferred rugby to all other football games.

“For Irishmen,” he said, “there is no football game to match rugby and if all our young men played rugby not only would we beat England and Wales, but France and the whole lot of them together.

“I have not been at a rugby match since 1913 because I do not want it being raised as a political matter and having rows kicked up about it,” he explained.

“I will not deny that I listen-in to rugby matches, and I am sure I was as excited during the last 15 minutes of Saturday’s game as anybody else.”

I was in Tralee CBS at the time and the Christian Brothers were aghast at reports of the dinner, which they considered an affront to Gaelic football and hurling. It seemed they could hardly have been more shocked if the Long Fellow had renounced Christianity and proclaimed himself a closet atheist.

One of the most moving expression of Irish unity that most people witnessed in this country was at Croke Park on February 26, 2007, when Ireland played England in rugby.

A friend told me that the woman behind him — a native of the Aran Islands — told him just before the teams came on the field that she was very worried that there would be trouble over the playing ‘God Save the Queen’.

She was concerned, because she did not wish to see any protest as she and her husband had emigrated to England after getting married, and they had raised their family there. During the British national anthem my friend looked around and saw the woman in a flood of tears of joy and relief.

She was not alone. Many of the players on the field, some of the country’s hardest men, were obviously struggling with tears. Would the respect shown that day have been apparent in Belfast, or even Glasgow?

It was the most profound message that nationalist Ireland ever sent to our unionist neighbours. Ireland was more united that day than ever, and this was all the more apparent as the Irish team went on to win by its biggest margin ever over England — 43 to 13.

Sport has long played a very important role in Irish life, even if this has been ignored in our history books. It is therefore important that people should speak out about injustice in sport, as much as other walks of life.

Whatever about the argument that other countries do not select individuals playing abroad, there is absolutely no grounds for banning a player while he is still playing in Ireland.

If Simon Zebo or Peter O’Mahony is good enough to play for Ireland, he should be considered for selection. That is in the interest of fairness, justice, and sport itself.

Doing otherwise is an affront to justice and fairness, as well as an insult to the generations of Irish people who have already contributed so magnificently to this country from abroad.


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