A bloke I know, who’s one of the cycling cadre I hang out with these days, played for a very good CI rugby team in the 70’s and scrum half for Ulster.
Recently I asked him would he be watching the 6N as it unfolded. He was quite scathing about how boring rugby had become to watch. The average rugby player probably knows how to maul and ruck a ball but they can’t pass it, was his conclusion.
I found myself in agreement, as part of a growing band of disillusioned and disenfranchised rugby followers who are beginning to lose touch with the modern evolving game.
Whilst my cyclist friend may be at the extreme end of the spectrum with his bitter denouncement of modern trends in rugby he does represent the tip of the iceberg that conceals a growing detachment from the modern game as presented mainly through the medium of TV.
Tony Ward, whose bread and butter or at least some of it, comes from reporting on rugby touched on his disappointment with the shape the game is taking. Alan Quinlan of more contemporary playing stock noted the spectators at a recent Ireland game consuming their chips whilst the chips were down for Ireland.
In other words it wasn’t about the rugby it was more about being at an event at which there happened to be a game of rugby ongoing.
This gets to the nub of the modern rugby game and for the moment focussing on Ireland. It’s all about success as it swells the coffers and in turn earns the IRFU more money to sustain the corporate brand Team Ireland.
In essence, Paddy Jackson kicking his penalties isn’t about his career developing as an international player, although that is a subtext. Rather the primary mission is about him sustaining the corporate brand that is Team Ireland and ensuring it is commercial viability by creating success on the field with his kicks at goal.
Likewise Luke Marshall played a second game in a row after sustaining a head injury and suffered yet another concussion. It was a necessity he played, as Team Ireland needed him on the pitch. Not to develop his career primarily but to create the circumstances that would sustain Team Irelands commercial profile.
I watched RTE on Saturday after the Italy match and felt a growing anger at the manner in which young players and in particular Paddy Jackson was scapegoated by the panel.
Not that there is something new and genuinely novel about this approach by the broadcaster, more it was an accumulation of my mounting concern about the altar of entertainment that demands there must be puffed up indignation, condemnation and scathing contempt expressed as a vehicle for a nation’s sporting loss.
George Hook can write a decent column and articulate his point through a computer keyboard but when he’s planted in a TV studio, doubtless with the producer egging him on, it brings out the very worst in TV punditry that sits well with a mediocre level of intelligence amongst RTE watchers.
A common denominator here is to level criticism at Ulster players and by subtext the Northern Irish which panders to a basic and sub conscious inferior view of Northern Ireland by the population at large in the Republic.
There is of course agendas at work which are not just about feeding national paranoia but also centre around an inherent belief that they are guardians of Irish rugby and that sport can and will be manipulated by the national media.
Perhaps most galling is that a young player making his way in international rugby and achieving his dream of playing for his country finds himself an unwitting pawn in a bigger and more disingenuous game.
A pawn on the altar of national entertainment, and in the branding and commercial viability of Team Ireland.
I am sure many of the players lining out for their respective Schools cup sides will dream of playing for Ireland some day but then again mightn’t some of them pause to reflect and wonder do they wish themselves to be Paddy Jackson’s position.
Ridiculed for his kicking performance against Scotland and not in a traditional ha, ha manner but by the subtle means of mature adults narkily commenting that he shouldn’t have been placed in this position by other mature adults.
Having sorted out the kicking problem the agenda moved on to his game management and the production of a stalking horse, who is touted in the manner of political leaders having their position challenged by a candidate put up as a litmus test of their ability to lead.
It does Ian Madigan’s career as rugby player little good to be egged on by the media, not necessarily as a means of unseating Paddy Jackson, but simply as a means of sabre rattling at Kidney and his selection of Jackson as outhalf replacement for Sexton.
Pawns in the game they should not be but then this is sport in the modern era and it’s not just about the bike but it’s the whole corporate conglomerate that swirls around sport globally.
The bean counters call the tune, from behind the computer screen and the minions face each other on the field of play while the crowd gives their thumbs up or down depending on the quality of the entertainment.
This is gladiators of the Roman Coliseum in a modern day context with contestants richly rewarded for their ever more physical efforts. The blow by blow is softened by the amount of money in your pocket and cushioned by the comfort of the back slaps of people entertained by your physical commitment.
The downside is when your physical commitment does not reap the reward of success and the spectre of losing is reflected in the amount of money you might earn for the money men. Then it dawns how much of a pawn in the game you are.
The commercialisation of sport as entertainment and its participants as willing players in a bigger game is not just a phenomenon of this or the latter stages of the twentieth century, it is part of a global manipulation of all aspects of life.
You need fuel to sustain your everyday existence. There is the basic price of extracting fuel from its source, mainly from the ground. Then there are middlemen, the speculators who sit behind a computer screen and earn huge sums of money for themselves and their owners at the expense of you and me.
We are willing and unwilling participants in this game. We are obliged to pay the piper who calls the tune because we know of no alternative to being manipulated by faceless people who control our destiny.
For our young sporting stars such as Paddy Jackson, they have set themselves en route to a kind of superficial stardom which comes at a price to their dignity.
Sometimes no alternative is visible; the cost is being a vehicle for others failed dreams, ingratitude and dubious agenda. It is price they are willing to pay.
For me, I watch in appalled silence knowing I too am a participant.