Try as I may, I just don't get it

Cavanman's Diary

Sunday afternoon, resting my weary head on the couch, no football on and the hurling being covered by the Celt’s esteemed camán correspondent from Cootehill, I reluctantly decided to watch the rugby.

Maybe it’s the contrarian in me but, uniquely among my friends, I am not a follower of the Irish rugby team. I’m not even one of those “if it’s on, I’ll watch it” types. If it’s on, I’ll probably turn it off.

I’ve nothing against the sport itself - it’s a great game and its volunteers at grassroots level are on a par with any code - but when it comes to the hype around the pro game, it’s not for me.

This is rugby country, we are told, which means I am, like the classic American Civil War short story, The Man Without A Country. That was written to inspire patriotism, to rile up the people, ‘warriors are we’ kinda thing… which I soon discover is quite fitting.

I switched over at 2.20pm so I missed the start of the build-up; I am quite certain it was heavy on montages, sweeping drone shots, slow motion footage of players and fans looking variously elated or devastated.

Soon enough, the camera lingers on an Irish player who has split his head in the warm-up, the blood running down his cheek.

“I don’t think he’ll even notice that. It’s just a bit of claret,” remarks analyst Eddie O’Sullivan, channelling his inner Reggie Kray.

After that, it’s montage time again. Shots of current players are interspersed with grainy black and white footage as a piano plays sombre notes.

And then, the hour is almost upon us. I check in on Twitter to see what people are saying about this battle of the hashtags. Ireland’s is #TeamOfUs, Scotland opting for #AsOne. Ireland actually used to have two; the other was #EverybodyIn.

I consider launching my own - #CallToArms, maybe, or #RiseUp or #WeAreBrave or #DareToDream, something like that, but decide to hold fire.

Ireland are favourites but this is said to be Scotland’s best team in 20 years. Who’s going to win then?

“Despite Ireland’s record being so good, it always comes down to the 80 minutes, who gets the job done,” Eddie reckons. Stating the bleeding obvious there, guvnor, as they might say in London’s East End.

The abomination that is Ireland’s Call is belted out with passion by the players, who are lined up in front of the stand. How they can muster such gusto for a phony ‘anthem’, I don’t know, but it seems genuine and isn’t that all that matters in this production.

The hosts retort with a rousing rendition of Flower of Scotland, a lone piper sited on the roof of the stand, like a sniper. One-nil to the Scots if you ask me.

Now, we are in the capable hands of two of the best sports broadcasters in the country, Hugh Cahill and former international Donal Lenihan. Ireland start well, are unlucky to have a try ruled out, but then start to fade and, by the midway point in the first half, Scotland are on top.

By the 34th minute, Ireland have been forced to use three subs due to injury. Then, Mack Hansen goes over for a try and the camera cuts to the crowd, where a woman with a leprechaun hat and a can of Magners waves her fist in the air in defiant delight.

“What a first half of rugby, helter skelter stuff. Both teams giving it everything, oh my God!” signs off Hugh at the break.

A quick word from Jacqui Hurley and the lads at pitchside and then it’s off to the first half-time ad break but the line is so blurred in pro sport now, the commercial bombardment so constant, that it just feels like more of the same.

For example, who is doing the voice-over in the first ad only Donal Lenihan himself? Is this the game or the marketing of the game? It’s hard to tell. And does it even matter?

“The pride that you see when your province takes on the best of France, the best of England, it’s taken it to another level,” Donal enthuses. That not many share his feelings - Champions Cup attendances have plummeted - is moot.

“We’re now in a position where we can dare to dream,” he adds, at which I silently curse him for stealing my line.

It turns out to be an ad for RTÉ sport itself. “However far they go. You’ll be there too,” is the slogan. To be fair, I probably won’t be.

More product-pushing and then, back to the pitch, part of which, in a nice touch, is an actual ad itself, a gigantic TikTok logo emblazoned on the hallowed grass.

“Well, no doubt about it, it has been a dramatic first half in Murrayfield,” says Jacqui. Eddie, Simon Zebo – who looks like he is taking style tips from Cavan’s own TV pundit, Cian Mackey - and Jamie Heaslip shoot the breeze and then it’s time for the second break.

Another RTÉ house ad, a TV Licence ad, one for the Irish Independent’s rugby coverage ensue. There are more rugby-themed ads - one for accounting software featuring South African Bryan Habana - and then, it’s back to the biggest rugby-themed ad of all, live from Edinburgh.

Eventually we return for the second half - and Ireland are not exactly humming.

“That pass from Jonny Sexton to Andrew Porter was so unsympathetic, it nearly knocked the nose off him. There’s no doubt that Ireland are rattled,” Donal comments.

“Everything that could go wrong for Ireland is going wrong,” says Hugh after a knock-on.

“Ireland have shown incredible character,” Donal later remarks, an evergreen observation.

The key moment is a try from one of Ireland’s three New Zealanders, James Lowe. His fellow countryman Jamison Gibson Park boots the ball forward to the brilliant Mack Hansen – Aussie-born but with a Cork mammy – and that man Sexton finds Lowe for the finish.

Suddenly, Ireland are rampant and when Jack Conan goes over in the corner, Donal produces a yelp: “Wow!”

The final whistle sounds and Ireland have slaughtered the Scots – not literally, although you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

“They drove the sword straight through the Scotland heart,” Jamie muses, while Eddie praises them for their ruthlessness “in the kill zone”.

The battle won, Sexton collects the spoils. On this occasion, it is the Centenary (or Century) Quaich, a traditional drinking vessel.

Later, online, I discover that there are nine trophies up for grabs in this annual six-team tournament, which takes 15 matches to run off: the Calcutta Cup (for the winners of Scotland v England), the Millennium Trophy (England v Ireland), the Giuseppe Garibaldi Trophy (France v Italy), the Auld Alliance Trophy (France v Scotland), the Doddie Weir Cup (Wales v Scotland), the Cuttitta Cup (Scotland v Italy) as well as the Triple Crown and the championship itself.

(Idea: Maybe the Ulster GAA Council could look at this to increase interest in its eight-match Senior Championship. Cavan v Fermanagh for the Leggykelly Pint Glass could add some lustre to that particular contest .)

The only one that doesn’t seem to have any silverware attached is the most prestigious of all, the Grand Slam. That will be the prize for Ireland in a few days’ time. They will meet England, in Dublin, on St Patrick’s weekend. Imagine. I think I may emigrate for a few days.

Interviews over, Fontaines DC play us out with their cover of Nick Drake’s Cello Song.

“In the cold of the night/ When the armies of emotion/ Go out to fight…”

I sink deeper into the couch. Everybody may be in but, sorry to say, I’m out…