RTE rugby writer TADHG PEAVOY believes a World Cup quarter-final victory for Ireland against Argentina could be a huge catalyst in unifying the sporting public on these shores
MY RELATIONSHIP with rugby goes back a long way, right back to when, as a small child, I picked up the game, while also competing at soccer, tennis, basketball and judo.
But my early experience came from rugby fields in continental Europe, rather than the playing fields of Ireland. Born in Brussels, Belgium, it was in that Benelux country that I learned the rules of the game, playing with the Royal Kituro Rugby Club – back then known as Avia.
And while Kituro are one of the traditional big players in the sport in Belgium, rugby is very much a minority sport with small playing numbers and a national side currently ranked 26th in the world.
The Black Devils have never reached a Rugby World Cup and compete in the European Nations Cup – a world away from the Six Nations and rugby championships I cover as a rugby writer.
When I first began playing, with soccer boots on and clutching a cheap moulded gum shield, I would make my way through an army base past tanks, military aircraft and army hangers to a club situated with grounds on an army base.
The beauty of the sport in Belgium – reflective of the country – was the multicultural nature. This was a minority field sport played by children and teenagers from Belgium, but also Irish, Welsh, English in addition to Africans, Asians and South Americans.
My initial understanding was of a game that the world played and loved. It was inclusive there; a sport played by those who loved it regardless of class or creed.
Moving to Ireland aged nine, I continued to play at both club and school level and continued to do so until injury meant I had to give the game up, at which point I picked up a pen to write about the game instead.
But, in truth, it was in many ways a different sport here, largely dominated by private schools at the higher levels, with clubs often struggling to keep their best players as schools took priority.
Limerick is regarded as the exception to that rule where it’s the main sport in town. I remember shipping a few punches to the face at the bottom of a ruck down in the Treaty City and thinking to myself, “This is a hard man’s game down here.”
Currently, I am covering my third Rugby World Cup professionally and, as an Irishman, I hope Ireland can break that glass ceiling of previous years, and break into the world’s top four.
I hope for that success because, yes, I want to see progress for a superb group of players that I feel are good enough and deserve and merit international success; and also because I want any Irish team to be successful, regardless of what sport it is.
But the main reason is that I would love to see the sport embraced by the entire population and see the divisions and the bitterness, the in-fighting of Irish sport put to bed once and for all.
I’ve watched Ireland games and heard Irish colleagues and non-rugby loving sports writers whooping and cheering for the opposition. I’ve even heard some shout out “Allez les Bleus” during Franco-Irish battles and say they are praying for Ireland to lose.
But success often breeds acceptance of sports in hostile environments and this World Cup represents a massive opportunity for Irish rugby.
A semi-final place for Ireland would lend the game an exposure level on this island of ours that it has never previously experienced, and potentially push the sport towards a place where it can be supported in equal measures across the country by all sports fans, and be played with equal fervour in both public and private schools and at a similar level of competition in clubs at underage level.
An all-schools rugby programme, like the one deployed in England by the Rugby Football Union, would be another superb step in that direction and would further help propel Ireland to the position where it’s a widely accepted national sport – like it is in New Zealand and Wales.
However, a very next step would be the lift that a semi-final place would give Ireland.
The benefits to the confidence of the sport in the country would be huge. That’s the hope and the dream, as they have both been since the very first Rugby World Cup in 1987 in the Land of the Long White Cloud.
And, as we all know, it’s the hope that kills you.