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Reverse snobbery about rugby is every bit as nauseating as plain old snobbery

Everybody knows rugby is an elitist sport in Ireland. But you don’t achieve an egalitarian society by throwing stones at athletes who are representing your country

A pleasurable journey to south Kerry was rudely interrupted by a begrudger last Sunday. The radio had been serving up a banquet of sports coverage from the Irish Open at the K Club, the first weekend of the Rugby World Cup in France, horse racing at the Curragh, a smattering of GAA contests and postmortems on the Republic of Ireland’s most recent defeat on the international soccer plains. For our self-proclaimed sports-mad country, it was a veritable Super Sunday – until a listener went and spoiled it all by saying something really mean.

Mr Begrudger contacted Newstalk’s sports programme to deplore rugby as an inconsequential minority sport played by rich kids. He said he was looking forward to Ireland losing at the World Cup. Bah humbug, he might have added, but he didn’t. What he did add was that Romania, beaten 82-8 by Ireland in their opening game the night before, was the weakest team in the competition and Tonga, the country to face Ireland tomorrow night, has a tiny population. Thus, he insinuated, it’s no big deal that the Irish are the top-ranked team in the world.

His point was less than persuasive. I remember a Belfast night seething with sectarian hatred in November 1993 when Northern Ireland confronted the Republic of Ireland in a soccer World Cup qualifier at Windsor Park. First, the two tribes gathered in the Wellington Arms hotel to watch England aim to beat little San Marino by the seven-goal margin they needed to gain qualification. When San Marino scored first, Jack’s Army and Billy’s Army, Red Hands and green shirts, Celtic fans and Rangers fans, republicans and loyalists alike hugged each other in fraternal jubilation. Seldom was sport so tangibly a force for unity. For the record, San Marino’s population of fewer than 34,000 is not even one-third of Tonga’s. So much for the irrelevance of tiny states.

Mr Begrudger is not a lone naysayer. Ever before the Rugby World Cup kicked off in France, the contempt for the game that prevails among swathes of other-sports lovers, soccer fans in particular, has been a topic for discussion. Panellists on Newstalk’s The Hard Shoulder before the opening ceremony said that, in some quarters, the wish to see Johnny Sexton and his team fail to lift the World Cup is even stronger than Tadgh Furlong’s gluteus maximus.


Everybody knows rugby is an elitist sport in Ireland, if less so in Limerick. Fee-paying schools produce most of its professional players and their predominance is lamentable in a country that calls itself a republic. But you don’t achieve an egalitarian society by throwing stones at athletes who are representing your country just because of the circumstances of their childhood. Inverted snobbery is every bit as nauseating and destructive as the hoity-toity kind.

Had Nelson Mandela adopted the same disdain for the privileged, white man’s game of rugby after his 27-year imprisonment by the apartheid regime, South Africa probably would not have won the 1995 World Cup. Nor would Morgan Freeman, playing the late, great Mandela, have got to say to Matt Damon, in the role of Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, in the movie Invictus: “We need inspiration, Francois. Because, in order to build our nation, we must exceed our expectations.”

That quote resonates in Ireland, where economists have linked the soccer team’s successes in the World Cup with the financial surge in the 1990s that led to the Celtic Tiger.

Ireland’s men’s rugby squad has exceeded expectations by ascending to the number one position in an international arena that, albeit confined to slightly more than 100 countries, features such behemoths as France, England, Australia and South Africa. The players bring kudos and enjoyment to their country. To acknowledge that and to delight in it does not dilute the case for extending the game to less privileged parts of the population. Nor does it stop us debating the inequities within our education system; a more urgent need, surely.

Traditionally, tennis has been a private schools’ sport. Hockey too. Few schools have swimming pools. Golf has long been regarded as a leisure pastime for well-to-do businessmen and horse racing is known as the sport of kings. Cricket, which shares a “foreign game” history with rugby, has only four international-standard grounds in the 32 counties but since the national team advanced to the Super Eight stage in the 2007 World Cup, the playing population here has more than quadrupled.

Rugby provokes the greatest ridicule. Its fans are jeered at for their accents, the clothes they wear and for their perceived “braying” toffishness. Imagine if the boot were on the other foot and soccer fans were derided for the way they speak and how they dress.

Stereotyping is harmful no matter who you are or where you went to school. It’s a tool for creating ghettoes of the mind. It puts us in our place and keeps us there. For decades, Irish rugby was stuck in the gutter of the also-rans, the valiant losers. It fought that stereotype and now sits on top of the world. Let’s celebrate that.

Sure, the cultural traits can be irritating, what with the “Sexto”, the “Heino” and the Ross O’Carroll Kelly-ishness, but every sport has its irksome tics. There are people who go horse racing and never look at the horses. Tennis players grunt. Some GAA players have a habit of saying “lookit”. None of these is a good reason to dismiss an entire sport.

In Ireland’s ugly-rugby era, when the national team used to give it welly for the first 20 minutes in a match before succumbing to their gutsy losers’ destiny, there came a turning point in 1985. England looked poised to beat us yet again in the Five Nations championship. With just 10 minutes left, and both sides deadlocked, captain Ciarán Fitzgerald yelled at his players to give it everything they had. Those watching it on television saw his lips form the legend: “Where’s your f***ing pride?” Ireland won – not just the match but the whole kit and caboodle championship.

Those words should be printed on T-shirts and handed out to everyone who thinks it would be good to see Ireland lose at the Rugby World Cup.