United in Rugby

Recently, rather belatedly, I saw Brian O’Driscoll’s documentary, Shoulder to Shoulder. The film is superb. It tells the story of Irish rugby’s paradoxical, unique ability to unite Irish people of all backgrounds, including during the darkest days of the Troubles, with the intense hatred and division that reigned in those times.

If you haven’t seen it, Shoulder to Shoulder is essential viewing. And its relevance extends way beyond rugby. The documentary has many highlights, but the interviews with rugby heroes, from very different backgrounds, confirming how their differences were set aside for the common cause, are both inspiring and thought provoking.

This is surely Irish rugby’s greatest strength: the ability to unite in a society that’s  historically been divided and polarised along sectarian lines. Many organisations purport to unite Irish people, but how many actually do it in a genuinely inclusive, unifying way? What else unites men and women of the island, from all traditions, on the same terms? I can’t think of any other organisation or sector of society that does it in quite the same way as rugby.

Catholics, Protestants, Unionists, Nationalists, Loyalists and Republicans all buying into the idea of a 32-county Irish team and prepared to support that team on an equal basis. It’s a truly fantastic thing. Rugby leads the way. That’s before we even get to the unique concept of the Lions, an international sporting team whose fans wave tricolours and Union Jacks in unison. Honestly, where else do you see anything like that?

Now, I’m not one that idealises rugby. The sport has a legion flaws and is far from perfect. We all know the historical problems with social exclusion and the perception that the sport exemplifies a certain type of snobbery. Although, even that idea has always been somewhat of a myth. Try going to Limerick, for example, and claiming rugby as a purely middle-class preoccupation.

Furthermore, we can talk all day about the dangers and risks associated with a contact sport increasingly obsessed with size and violent collisions. Yes, rugby is far from ideal. We know that. But it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate rugby’s unique ability to bring people together. That trumps everything else.

Shoulder to Shoulder tells how members of northern security services played together with those from Nationalist and Republican backgrounds during the height of the Troubles. If that sounds remarkable, it’s fair to say this fact was never the issue it could have been within Irish rugby. In the oval ball game, there was always a keen sense that what unites us is much more important than what divides. They were all Irishmen, united in common cause. The politics was left at the door.

Brothers spilling blood, sweat and tears for the green shirt. The IRFU has made provision for the diversity of identities within the sport in Ireland with the introduction of Ireland’s Call. While the song itself is far from great, it symbolises something much more: the ability of Irish men (and women) from different community backgrounds to come together for the good of Irish rugby.

However, long before the introduction of the unity anthem (brought in for the 1995 Rugby World Cup), many unionists and Protestants from Ulster played under the tricolour and stood respectfully for Amhran na bhfiann. It happens to this day. One of the proudest facts about Irish rugby is that many of its key men throughout history have been from the northern, unionist tradition. Think of Willie John McBride, Mike Gibson, Syd Millar and Jack Kyle. True giants of Irish rugby.

But the truth is (and Shoulder to Shoulder shows this perfectly) that none of that actually mattered. Religion, political beliefs, allegiances, community backgrounds. These labels were wholly irrelevant. Because, in Irish rugby, we’re all in it together. From all corners of the country. North, south, east, west and everywhere else in between.

It’s a weird phenomenon: this predominantly middle-class sport that unites Catholic, Protestant and dissenter. As we move forward, many desire to unite the people of Ireland, from all backgrounds, peacefully and are looking for novel and workable ways to achieve this aspiration. Those in need in inspiration should look no further than Lansdowne Road. Because the IRFU did it years ago.


P.S. So, the inevitable has happened and Boris Johnson has acceded to his lifelong dream and become British prime minister. Comparisons are, of course, being made with Trump but Bojo is different; a much more complex and nuanced character. I don’t buy his buffoonish persona for a second. Johnson is clearly an extremely intelligent and knowledgeable man. A driven operator, whose ambition is matched only by this opportunism. A master orator who will compel many to his cause.

However, it’s hard to see much in his colourful past that remotely qualifies Boris for the job at hand. Indeed, Johnson’s elevation tells you all you need to know about his relentless ambition. Surely there has never been a worse time to be British PM? Just ask Theresa. The gloves are off. The most febrile and ugly of debates has begun. Stand by for a frenzy of virtue signalling, faux indignation and extreme polarisation. I’m bored already!

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey



The Lion King: Part 2

Where does the time go? I remember writing a piece four years’ ago about the appointment of Warren Gatland as British and Irish Lions head coach. In a very cliched way, I called it “Gatland: The Lion King.” Well, we’re all set for the sequel. This week’s reappointment of the Wales coach was as predictable as the rising of the sun. Gatland joins Ian McGeechan as the only coaches to lead the Lions on consecutive tours in what is undoubtedly the toughest assignment of them all: a tour to New Zealand. It’s not a coincidence that only one Lions squad has won a Test series in the land of the long white cloud (the 1971 side coached by Carwyn James was one of the greatest rugby teams of all-time). New Zealand is a fiendishly difficult touring destination-as seen in the Lions last visit there 12 years’ ago, when Clive Woodward’s tourists were whitewashed 3-0 by Graham Henry’s irrepressible All Blacks side. The Lions committee has deemed the irascible Kiwi as the right man to take on mission impossible-the withdrawals of Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt from the race meant that Gatland’s ratification was a mere formality. That there wasn’t a host of viable contenders shouldn’t detract from Gatland’s achievement, though. This appointment is as meritocratic as it gets. The New Zealander’s record is second to none: a Lions series victory, two Grand Slams, and a Heineken Cup speaks for itself.

Despite having amassed such unimpeachable credentials, the Wales coach remains a polarising figure in this part of the world. Much of the animosity was generated by the infamous dropping of Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll for the third Lions Test against Australia in 2013. The fact that the Lions handsomely won the encounter failed to vindicate Gatland’s controversial selection in the eyes of most Ireland fans. As I wrote at the time, while I understood Gatland’s rationale in jettisoning the Irish icon for the decisive Test, I felt nevertheless that the Wales coach missed a trick. Although changes were undoubtedly needed for the series finale, there wasn’t a compelling enough case for O’Driscoll to be omitted from the match-day squad. Gatland has complained repeatedly (as elaborated last week) that the hostility generated from dropping the Irishman tarnished the greatest achievement of his coaching career. I believe firmly that the Kiwi could have had his cake and eaten it. By making key changes, but keeping O’Driscoll in situ, the Lions supremo could have enjoyed his historic achievement without the unnecessary controversy that emanated from his contentious third Test selection.

That’s all ancient history now, but the episode tells us much about the Kiwi’s character:tough, uncompromising, ruthless and stubborn. That’s why Gatland’s a winner. Although Wales’s main man is universally respected, it’s hard to think of the former Waikato hooker in terms of affection. Yes, Gatland and his achievements are roundly admired, but liked? Probably not. Winners are rarely likeable characters in sport, though. Look at Sir Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho as cast-iron proof of that! Prodigious winners both, but they wouldn’t be obvious candidates for the diplomatic corps. I think Gatland falls into that category too. The Wales coach loves to win and he isn’t too bothered who gets offended or affronted along the way. When push came to shove, therefore, you can see why the Lions’ blazers opted for the incumbent to take on their latest crusade. For a mission as challenging as the New Zealand tour, you have to be led by the best man available. That man is Warren Gatland.

The scale of the Lions’ challenge is underlined by the lengthening achievements accrued by the world champions. The current All Blacks are majestic, a class apart. I rose early yesterday to watch them in the Rugby Championship. The best team in the world was playing Argentina and struggled initially to find its rhythm. The Pumas played extremely well for the first 50 minutes or so, competing ferociously at every breakdown and contact area. New Zealand, on the other hand, looked sluggish and lethargic for large portions of the match. The final score? 57-22 to New Zealand! The All Blacks pulled away in the second half, impressively routing the Argentinians with a barrage of late tries. It was the world champions’ 14th consecutive victory-incredibly, the All Blacks haven’t lost a home match since 2009! The win was instructive and tells us much about the relentless New Zealand juggernaut. This team knows how to win in virtually any circumstance. They invariably find a way, even when subjected to fierce pressure throughout the pitch. When they’re good, they’re sublime, but even when not playing well, the All Blacks usually get the job done. Just ask Ireland about November 2013. This is the size of the task facing the 2017 Lions, then. In order to make history, the tourists must outwit and outplay one of the greatest teams ever to play the game. Mission impossible indeed. There is a glimmer of hope, though, for the Lions have got their first big decision right by appointing the correct coach. Things are about to get very interesting. It’s time for the most eagerly awaited sequel in rugby: The Lion King, Part 2!

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey