I watched Ireland playing Wales in the Six Nations on Saturday, when we were up staying with my mum and step-dad for the weekend. It was really enjoyable. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down to watch a game before in my life! I went to see Scotland play Western Samoa at Murrayfield when I was at university, but that was *gulp* about fifteen years ago. It obviously didn’t make a great impression on me. The tickets were free and I don’t recall who I went with.
We had to play rugby in school. In primary school we played football. It was a small school so I made the team, despite any discernable (sorry, make that ‘discernible’) talent on the field. It’s amazing how important sport is in the life of a young boy. The social order was very much decided by (or certainly greatly influenced by) ones ability to control a ball of some shape or size. I did derive a lot of pleasure from kicking a ball up and down our garden, reenacting World Cup matches I’d just watched on TV or whatever it might be.
One of my poignant memories of my dad is choosing which teams we’d ‘be’ one afternoon when he suggested we play. I opted for my beloved Liverpool, and he opted for Leeds United. I was scornful, as they were currently languishing in the second division, whereas my Liverpool were enjoying a golden period (this would’ve been the mid 80s) on top of the first division – at that time there was no “Premier League”. Of course, I can see now that my dad was way ahead of the curve, summoning the spirit of a heritage side that had laid waste to all around them in the early 70s. (Here convincingly beating the Manchester United side of George Best, Bobby Charlton and co. in 1972, for example.)
That lesson – the one about respecting history and understanding people’s choices, not the one about the arrogance of youth – is perhaps one of the most valuable that sport can teach. It’s also, naturally, the most difficult one to learn.
When I got to secondary school at the ripe age of 11, we had to play rugby. As I watched the Irish and Welsh players lining out at the Millennium Stadium, I was reminded of afternoons spent discovering my aversion to the whole thing. I don’t really remember being instructed in the rules that much. But, of course, I had no interest in learning them, so our PE teachers’ accomplishment of teaching me to pass – and to not pass forwards! – and kick the oddly shaped ball is a testament to their diligence.
It strikes me that, compared to football (‘soccer’, as we never called it), rugby is a rather more war-like game. And more strategic, too. And more obviously a team sport. The dramatic portion of the game on Saturday where Ireland pushed forward right up to the Welsh goal post (and, after all their effort, were denied a try) was unlike anything you’d get in football. The ball was advancing so slowly as wave upon wave of Irish players drove the play forward inch by inch. In football, the ball moves much more dramatically and you don’t get that relentless, pounding attack so easily. I say easy but, of course, the fact is that it’s incredibly hard work and those massive guys are using every bit of strength they have to try and overpower the opposition.
Thrilling stuff! Next I need to actually go to a game at the Aviva stadium at Landsdown Road here in Dublin…
The Irish captain, Paul O’Connell, won his 100th cap from that match. Here’s a video that was made about him as part of the sponsor’s series about the team: