It’s a speck high up over Pa Healy’s field. The long diagonal isn’t spinning like it does on TV; you’re transfixed by the unpredictability. The chaotic twisting is matched by the gusting Antarctic wind ripping along the Abbey River behind you. Your hands are blue and the pungent smell of other people lingers on your black and blue jersey. The tape holding the sole onto your right boot has loosened, you have no sensation below the ankle and you’re standing in a puddle of muddy frozen water. There is no suspended animation Matrix moment; you are very present and very frightened. Four people in light blue shirts are charging at you in anticipation of you catching the ball which you have not yet decided to do. The gusting wind whips it right and left and you shift your sodden feet in anticipation, but you’re hoping that the full back will come in behind and call it as his. He doesn’t. (Actually you remember afterwards, him smiling and shouting your ball). The ball arrives with the four blue shirts and in an instant; you are thrown backwards and violently to the ground. There are multiple shocks, the first dive into an early Spring Atlantic, being mugged by a gang of very big and very vicious people. You’ve dropped the ball, metaphorically too for they have it now, you are discarded and shoed and you look up from the flat of your back at where that speck first floated into your view and for a moment, you notice how nice the winter sky looks and then someone shouts Get up!
Junior rugby players are world class athletes, short some talent speed and coordination, and the junior team is the soul of rugby. You can have your Heineken cup and your Grand Slam, but until you have played in or watched the 3rd round of the Munster Junior cup, the whole concept escapes you. Yes the Munster crowd travel to Biarritz and frame their weekends with a match and a glass of Pinot Noir, but this is in the cheap seats when compared with a match against Kilfeacle and the near-death experience from exposure in the shadow of the Galtees. Paul O’Connell still remembers this place when he called it Killpeople. And as you sit in the dressing-room before the match waiting, waiting to be selected, when to be picked is the most important thing in your world because you haven’t yet found love, and the adults come by and point, tog off, tog off, tog off, fuck off and give your boots to him, you can handle any rejection in life. There are some who are gifted, who are only passing through on their way to the Senior Team, and you wish they’d hurry up and then remember that there’ll be another fucker coming down.
These days they bring their own water bottles and power drinks and are never short bandages, double sided tape, Vaseline or tear inducing wintergreen. These days they have their own shampoo and even dye their hair. I suppose these days they might even be better, but I wonder. There’s an iconic match from a hundred years ago where a Barbarian team beat the All Blacks and Phil Bennet danced around Twickenham before Michael Jackson ever played rugby, where that big poncy David Duckham with his Brideshead Revisited blond head cut through the New Zealanders, and before I knew what apartheid was we cheered for the mad paddies Willie John and Fergus Slattary. And later when we went out to play in an Under-13 match against the Cookies, when they were still called Young Munster, well for a moment we were an amalgamation of that lot until Tom Clifford’s young fella ran though us like a ten-pin bowling ball hitting a strike.
There’s a poverty escape in professional rugby which is not talked about much, where Tsunami ozone breathing South Sea islanders learn a choreographed haka and the crowd cheer and roar and yes it is some sight, but it’s a veneer and a fragile one in this part of the world anyway. The game here appears in rude health like the Irish economy did a heartbeat ago and just like the basket case the economy has become, the fundamentals in the game are being neglected. So before the hoopla re-commences in September with the unseemly scramble for tickets which reminds me of everything which is wrong with the human race, before the red and blue madness descends on Limerick and Dublin, take a stroll down the canal bank on a Sunday morning and spare a thought for Richmond or Saints as they battle manfully against giants from Clonakility or Scariff. The loved-up bubble in Thomond Park will not last forever.
There was a chess player who used to play on the wing. Dan was wicked fast, with blinding speed and brave in the tackle. The only problem was he used to work on his Sicilian Defence when he should have been working on our defence. But we loved Dan and used to shout at him constantly to tune in or cop on because no one was faster. Eventually we learned to drop back behind him cause we knew he was doing the pawn to king 4 thing. Tracy, Ryle or their own personal Jesus, George Hook, won’t understand Dan and how important he is to the game, how he contributes to the soul of the club and how he is as essential to the success of Irish Rugby as Paulie or Drico.