I hadn't intended pouring cold water on Ireland's historic win against England yesterday but a quote from an Ireland rugby fan in today's L'Équipe resurrected a few of my pet peeves. He said that God Save the Queen was never going to be booed because 'Irish rugby has always set itself apart from politics. If it were a football match, it would have been a completely different matter.' I said as much on my posting earlier on today. However I didn't intend to say that rugby was morally superior in this matter, as that person obviously did. Once again I am sick to the back teeth of rugby being compared favourably to football.
I have no animus for the Irish rugby team; their performance yesterday looked superb (I only saw the last twenty minutes) and rugby is a sport, like cricket, that I can say I admire without being really that bothered about it. But this valorisation of rugby players at the expense of 'overpaid' footballers is something that I cannot stand. Every time I hear this lauding of the moral virtues of rugby players vis à vis footballers, usually enunciated every time there is a tabloid-friendly spit-roasting scandal, it makes me sick. Such pundits make it sound like the choice between football and rugby was something that was made for games in 1st year at Belvo or Wesley. Or between Geography and German for Junior Cert. Never is there any reference to the social background of the various principles involved. The reason that God Save the Queen was thankfully not booed yesterday was not because rugby folk are more decent than footballing people but simply because their sport is for the most part divorced from many social realities. Rugby is followed in places like Donnybrook, the Malone Road and other well-heeled areas of Irish towns (yes, I know about Limerick, but this exception has been wheeled out far too many times for it to be relevant anymore); there aren't many hardcore Republicans in those parts. And so be it, I'm not hoping for a surge in support for Republican Sinn Féin in Dublin South East any more than I am for one for the PDs.
But this is the case for rugby with regard to football the world over. The rugby World Cup later this year will feature twenty countries, when one would be hard pushed to find half that amount where most people know they even have a rugby team representing them. Rugby is a minority sport (and even in Ireland this is very much the case) whereas football is not. By that information alone one might glean that professional footballers are drawn from a wider pool than professional rugby players, and therefore might be spared the condescending stereotypes that they are subjected to.
Rugby players generally benefit from a better education and more privileged upbringing than the majority of footballers do, and I don't begrudge them that, and neither am I salivating for the downfall of Brian O'Driscoll or Paul O'Connell in a tabloid sting. But I would like a bit of balance when comparing the two sports. When one hears rugby being lauded at the expense of football one hears the ugly resonance of class prejudice. Rugby and football are not rival sports; there is scarcely an overlap in personnel between the two. It is Gaelic football and 'soccer' that scramble for the talent, the two most popular sports in the country (yes, sorry, hurling is an exotic curiosity confined to the southern part of the island); and that, rather than anti-English bigotry, was the real reason for the GAA's infamous bans.
There are not many Irish sportswriters who have pointed out that the Irish rugby team is an irrelevancy for most Irish people, though Paul Howard, creator of the hilarious Ross O'Carroll-Kelly is one, as is my fellow Sligo man Eamonn Sweeney, who has this great piece in the Sindo today about Craig Bellamy. Not saying that I agree with him about Bellamy but he sums up what I've been saying; don't damn all footballers on the strength of a few muppets.