An anatomy of the success of Irish Rugby: “Spread out, but stick together…”

Sam McBride’s opening paragraph on Sunday captures something that is both puzzling and miraculous about Ireland’s commanding win over England (forty fifty years after England came to Dublin in the teeth of the worst days of the Troubles):

The most remarkable aspect of another thrilling and historic Irish rugby success yesterday was not that an island of seven million people has produced the best team in the world, but that the team represents a country which doesn’t exist. [Emphasis added]

“A country that doesn’t exist” generating so much passion, skill, commitment and unity of purpose? Before looking at the politics of this, let’s figure just how immense this Irish rugby team has been over the last twenty years.

This was the second Grand Slam in five years and, incredibly to me until my mate Steve pointed it out, the seventh Triple Crown since 2000. That’s more than half the Triple Crowns Ireland won in the whole of the existence of the tournament before.

When you consider that the 2009 Grand Slam was only Ireland’s first since the great team of 1948, you get a measure of just what a sensational journey rugby’s only binational representative team has been on over those twenty years.

The genius move, in my own rugby undereducated view, was the deployment of the provinces (which were once just representative sides themselves) as modern clubs in the professional era with the right gearing for Ireland’s limited player pool.

Add to that a series of coaches who each built on the successes of their predecessor (Gatland, O’Sullivan, Kidney, Schmit and Farrell). Before that, we lost to Italy three times, at home (29–37) and abroad (12–22 and 22–37).

The change enhanced the status of rugby in each one of the four provinces, taking the sport to places where it had always been second to other football codes like GAA and Soccer. Ulster winning the inaugural Heineken Cup in 1999 transformed Ravenhill.

The other part of the story is cultural. In 1995 the IRFU commissioned Phil Coulter to write an anthem in recognition that the strength of the team drew from the binding of two traditions (and two countries) with one love of their own shared island.

It wasn’t very popular nearly twenty eight years ago when it was played not as a replacement of “Amhrán na bhFiann” (or “God Save The Queen”: in the unlikely event international rugby should ever return to Belfast where the 48 grand slam was won).

That was until a few years ago, when a documentary went out entitled “Shoulder to Shoulder” (a line from the “new” song’s lyric) which followed rugby hero Brian O’Driscoll on a tv journey into the history of this bi-jurisdictional rugby miracle.

Since then, some peace seems to have been made with this awkward third song in what is at home games in Dublin a trilogy of three songs. That peace owes much to that documentary, which recalls some of the past heroes of Irish rugby to current duty.

The programme covers how three Ulster players in the great team of the 1980s were caught up in the IRA bomb which killed Sir Maurice Gibson and his wife Cecily as they were making their way to a Irish training camp ahead of the World Cup in NZ.

A team talk from former Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll, presenter Craig Doyle and one of those players David Irwin before the French match this year in early February seems to have effected a real change in the players’ attitude towards Ireland’s Call.

YouTube video

It was an experience on Saturday to hear Ireland’s Call finally become an overnight success after nearly thirty years. But it’s a form of generosity we’ve seen many times. In the RUC men who, whilst hunted in the north, came south to play for this Ireland.

In the GAA who gave the IRFU Croke Park to have Ireland show a more than handy England team how it’s done when the Aviva was being reconstructed. And the opening of the ranks of rugby to a genuine “team of us” regardless of colour, faith or birth.

In the Irish Times Fintan O’Toole notes:

Farrell’s team has been hypnotic in its enactment of a version of 32-county Irishness that gets things done. It is immune to the narcotic allure of “if only”.

But it conjures another “if only” – if only more things about the way Ireland organises itself could inhabit this excuse-free zone.

Irish Rugby is just the most visible example of this. In fact this is the way over 200 civic institutions do get thing done on our miraculous island. We already know how to do things better than in the past, and there is plenty of experience we can turn to.

At the same time, the quiet, undemonstrative and undemanding fealty of generations of players from an Ulster Protestant background has served our shared Ireland team well and helped build one of our most resilient and successful institutions.

If we have the will (and the humility) we can follow such examples and get whatever needs doing done together whenever it’s needed. As one Irish coach (Noel Murphy) told his players at half time, down to England at Lansdowne, “Spread out, but stick together…”

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