It was February 2002. I had just returned from the States and was living in Ireland. It was Six Nations time and Scotland was travelling to play Ireland in Dublin. For those who have experienced this weekend firsthand, there is nothing quite like it. All over the city, after the match, hoards of kilted Scotsmen make their merry way through the gauntlets of jersey-clad Irish women. In dark corners of pubs, you’ll see a gorgeous Scot, eyes shut as he listens to a homely Irish girl blather on about the match, or a gorgeous Irish girl, eyes similarly shut, as she listens to the Scot with a face like the back of a bus, give his opinion of what his lads should or should not have done during the 80-minute on-pitch battle. You see, there is a unique mutual fascination with accents, with each thinking the other’s accent to be one of the sexiest on Earth.
I had been to a rugby match years before when I was dating a chap from the Southside. I wasn’t overly impressed to see these Dublin 4 women painting their nails in the stands as their boys gave their all on the pitch. It was way too poseurish, way too posh for me who had thrown her heart at Jack Charlton and his soccer eleven. But that was 1990. This was 2002. I didn’t have a ticket for the match so I watched it in Northbrook, all the while being coached by my mates so that later I’d be able to hold my own in the pub post-mortems.
We were in Dublin’s smallest pub – the Dawson Lounge – and got into conversation with some Irish lads – D4 heads who had been to the ‘Rock ‘(Blackrock college). I was doing alright, nodding in agreement as they commented on the tries and the whatnots and making all the right noises as they picked the match apart and the players likewise. Then it came time for me to show my colours and ask a question. (To those who say there’s no such thing as a stupid question, I say: you’re wrong!) So, says I, what’s the stringer’s name?
I actually heard a pin drop in the ensuing – shocked – silence. I had thought a ‘stringer’ was some sort of position – like a hooker, a prop, a flanker. I hope Peter Stringer never gets to hear of my mistake. It’s haunted me ever since and is regularly pulled out in company to show just how stupid I can really be.
As I said, that was in 2002. Since then, I’ve looked forward to spring time when the Six Nations starts again. I’ve waited anxiously for the Autumn Internationals. I’ve drank many a soda water
and cranberry or bottle of Bulmers/Magners while shouting at the screen urging my lads on. I’ve drooled over Keith Wood and cried the day he announced his retirement. (To my mind, he’s one of the sexiest men ever to come out of Ireland.) I still don’t know all the rules and I still blag my way through a lot of the half-time and post-match commentary but I enjoy it immensely. I enjoy the escapism, the patriotism, the unionism (is there such a word?) that comes with a nation united for a couple of hours with one shared aspiration – to do their best on the day. Unlike soccer, it’s not the final score that matters so much; rather it’s the quality of the game, the standard of the players, and the heart that they show.
I’ve been to some memorable matches; I’ve met some great people while bellied up to the bar in pubs in various corners of the world. I’ve even had a pub open especially for me (in Transylvania) just so that I wouldn’t miss a World Cup match). Some great friendships are rooted in a rubgy match: every year I swap anniversary greetings with a mate of mine that I met during an Ireland/France game in a pub in Budapest and ten years after the Ireland/Scotland game of 2002, I’m still talking rugby with a Welsh mate in Scotland (bloody Wales!!!).
This week, having just seen Ireland give their all against Scotland, I’m grateful for the game of rugby – for the teams, the players, the fans, and the pubs that open around the world to make sure everyone gets a chance to see their boys in action. Whether it came from the Irish tradition of Caid or the Welsh tradition of Cnapan or the French La Soule, there’s something special about its universality.