The onward rolling PR machine of Ireland's niche sport, rugby

The onward rolling PR machine of Ireland's niche sport, rugby

First things first, I don’t like rugby.

Even if Ireland are playing or Munster or whoever, I don’t like rugby. It is not a game I find in anyway aesthetically pleasing.

After all, let’s be honest, no one has ever called rugby the beautiful game. As a rugby-playing friend once said to me, you play rugby if you haven’t got the skill to play football.

Another friend here told me that, growing up in Cork, Munster rugby was irrelevant and then everything changed. Rugby, whatever else it did, began to market itself superbly. During the Celtic Tiger years, that most bizarre of Irish times, the likes of Munster were suddenly everyone’s favourite team. Or brand or whatever it is called in those circles because, hats off to Rugby, if there is one thing it is good at it, it is marketing.

The Irish Times, for instance, gives pages of its sports section over to schools rugby.

To put this in context it gives lots of coverage to the global, multi-million pound business of football. It gives lots of coverage to the global, multi-million pound business of golf. It gives acres of coverage to the hugely supported and popular, essentially Irish, GAA games.

And then it gives pages of coverage to a competition between a very short list of fee-paying schools largely based in south Dublin. Odd, isn’t it? But then those old pupils of those fee-paying schools tend to be people with influence, with say, and with spending power, don’t they?

Maybe not so odd after all.

Of course, to point such things out in Ireland is to be branded as churlish because, as we are told again and again, Ireland doesn’t have a class system. Which also means the workings of class in Ireland are that much more insidious because they are invisible.

How can class affect Irish life if there is no such thing as class in Irish life? We are all in this together. We were all poor. We all got on the boat. But is that true. Were we ever all in this together? Were we really all poor? All of us? Did we all get on the boat? Well, thank God, for rugby. Thank God for what it shows us about Irish life. Thank God for what it shows us about influence and power and who gets to do what and who doesn’t.

I once got in to half an argument with someone about my distaste for rugby and when I trotted out my posh boys’ game jibe he trotted out Keith Earls because he’s from the Moyross council estate in Limerick and I trotted out I knew you’d say Keith Earls.

Yes, I admit, that kind of oneupmanship gets us nowhere. But the clever and astute marketing of rugby as some kind of national game with media coverage to mirror that, is a little indicator of how power and influence work, for the fact is that rugby is not in any way representative of the Irish.

Indeed rugby’s roots as a game invented on the hallowed playing fields of England’s public schools is reflected even now. As an example of this there is an easy contrast between the Irish international football team and the Irish international rugby team. In the last game the Republic men’s football team played, guess how many of the starting eleven attended a fee-paying school?

Answer, one.

In the last international game the Ireland men’s rugby team played, guess how many of the starting fifteen attended a fee-paying school?

Answer, fourteen.

All but one of the football team went to a school like the majority of us and all but one of the rugby team didn’t.

Now, around 7 per cent of Irish males attend a fee-paying school meaning, obviously, 93 per cent don’t. In the men’s football team this 7 per cent was slightly over represented by a figure of around 9 per cent. In the men’s rugby team this 7 per cent is represented by a figure if around 93 per cent of the team. The Irish rugby team actually turns the statistics upside down. This team representing Ireland actually turns the 7 per cent into the 93 per cent. And yet, as international sport is supposed to be, they are supposed to be ‘us.’

Classless Ireland? Well, rugby, even if you don’t like it, is good for some things.