Well, it’s been a while since I’ve hit the blog. Generally I need to feel fairly wound up about something in order to bother and, legally, there’s not been so much of late. Maybe when the Supreme Court and Privy Council deliver their judgments on the subject of joint enterprise at some point in the New Year?
But, hey, blogs are the playground of the opinionated uninformed, and right now there are a few things on the rugby front I’d like to give vent to. I could make some feeble attempt to try to link this to something of legal relevance. I’ve watched the England coaching wrangle rumble on with the whingeing about people being approached in improper ways and breaking contracts etc. and it strikes me it might get interesting if there was the slightest chance of anyone going for, and getting, an order of specific performance but we all know that can’t happen so, as usual these days, it’s all just about the cash. Boring…
Frankly, I don’t much care what happens with England. I think Eddie Jones is good, so I’m sure he’ll do well but, as a team, I have always found England difficult to love. Sassenach I may be but, the team for me has always been Ireland, ever since the first time I sat down and really watched them somewhere at the start of the nineties. They were thrashed, of course, but there was something in the way they came out like absolute mad men for about 20 minutes that had me on board. Forever. I still break off marking law assignments just for the joy of watching the mad octopus himself scampering across the computer screen at Twickenham in 1994. Go watch it on YouTube. A true thing of beauty and a joy forever:
Let’s make this clear from the start. I don’t have any informed knowledge about the game. My own sporting prowess is decidedly lacking, and I’m perfectly happy for it to be that way. At 11 I realised that hockey boots were extremely unattractive and just made your legs look fat and from there it was all downhill for me. (It’s not as though I was much good before 11, but at least I used to try. Actually, having a big brother, I reckon I wasn’t all that bad at football. Back in the day when I was at Primary school, girls were not allowed to play ‘properly’. As I recall, in the playground you could play football quite comfortably in a pretty frock whilst wearing a nice pair of shoes. The dark side of me reckons you probably still could, which is maybe why I have more respect for the rugby.) Anyway, I digress. All I really mean to do is make it absolutely clear that this is the uninformed opinion of someone who hasn’t quite grasped the offside rule but does enjoy eating chips with curry sauce in the stands and also has a tendency to shout at the telly a lot. When I was in early adulthood and still living at home, I used to wonder why my Dad did that. Now I know – if I shout loudly enough the referee will hear me and he will know that he’s getting it wrong. Very wrong… especially if he’s about to card John Muldoon. This is a Universal truth, even if I’m watching it on the Sky box after the game has finished. OK? At least I keep my trolling for the privacy of my own lounge. I don’t like to read it on public blogs or forums and I don’t like to hear it in the stands at games.
Anyway, to the rugby. Like so many people, I absolutely loved the last World Cup. To be honest, I didn’t really expect it to be all that great, but it was, a thousand times over. I don’t think a game will ever feel quite the same to me, not being in the company of bouncing, singing Argentinians or passionate Georgians. I digress here, but do the Primary schools in Argentina teach synchronised bouncing? I think they must. That brings me to one of the great unanswered questions of the Universe… just how does one bounce up and down on a tip up seat? I was so caught up in the moment I didn’t think to check out the technicalities of it but, afterwards, I found myself wondering about it. Can anyone enlighten me? Those games just felt fabulous. They felt joyful, they felt fun, you had a sense that the teams and their supporters were truly happy to be there. I don’t mean that winning wasn’t important, far from it, but it felt as though there was a joyfulness in taking part and not just some snotty sense of entitlement… which leads me neatly into the subject of the European Cups.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the Pro 12 this season. I would, of course – my beloved Connacht have been just fabulous. Beating Munster at Thomond Park was worth the long wait and a delight to watch (even though Ben Whitehouse and his TMO were clearly not receiving the help and guidance I was offering via my TV screen). The same is true in the Challenge Cup. My only worry is whether they are able to field enough players to put out a team at the moment. However, grit and determination have never been in short supply out West, and long term I really have no worries there. Ulster, too, are looking pretty good. Very happy in this household to see Andrew Trimble back on top form, and Les Kiss looks to be a very positive influence there. Connacht v Ulster is lining up to be a real St Stephen’s Day treat, although Connacht could do with a few festive miracles on the injury front… either that or persuade Eric Elwood to ditch the suit and put his boots on again. Wouldn’t that be great?
But what of Munster and Leinster? Not so good there, unfortunately. That, in itself, is disappointing but times change, form ebbs and flows and it’s pretty unreasonable to expect any team to be on top every year. I don’t like to see fans walking out of stadiums before the end of the match, booing (be it aimed at the kicker or the coach) or the pretty vicious invective that pours out on the forums and the comments section of the newspaper. Some of the Munster players and management commented publicly about their disappointment over the jeers that a small pocket of ‘supporters’ aimed at Ian Keatley a week ago and, boy, did they get a blast back from some of the alleged ‘faithful’ for daring to criticise. I hate that. I applaud the players past and present, and the coaches who stuck up for their man and made it clear that that sort of behaviour wasn’t wanted. No one forces any of us to go to a match. As grown ups, we make a choice as to what we want to do with our time and money. We think the game will be good, we think we will enjoy it, we think our team will play well – and so we take that gamble. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. If you can’t take it, most stadiums sell really awful wine that can bring about a relatively anaesthetised state quite quickly (as I discovered when London Irish beat Connacht 75-5 at the Madewski a few years back), stay respectfully in your seat until the end and, if you really can’t take it, don’t bother to go next time.
I hate to see the relentless slagging of Ian Keatley after the past couple of games. All I can say is he was great at Connacht. Remember that time they beat Leinster at the Sportsground? Keatley scored most of the points as well as making a sensational tackle on Rocky Elsom. For the good of Irish rugby as a whole, I’m inclined to wish that Munster could borrow Eric Elwood from Connacht for a few weeks of one on one with the lad. I’m sure that would do the trick. Alternatively we could just chuck a few stones, and consign him to the alarming scrapheap of promising Irish number 10s who seemed to simply fall off the radar – Niall O’Connor springs to mind and don’t even get me started on Jeremy Staunton. That’s a whole rant in itself, believe me…
The wider Munster picture doesn’t look any better. I have always liked Anthony Foley. It has long been my opinion that he was a hugely intelligent player and, with all due deference to the great Paul O’Connell, I have always sworn that the Irish lineout never functioned as sweetly as when Foley was calling it. However, I do think the head coach of Munster is a huge job and I think appointing Foley to the post when they did was a wrong move. I’m not at all sure about players moving from playing with a team to coaching in the same team to being Head Coach of that same team. I will, of course, make an honourable exception in the case of Eric Elwood at Connacht but then exceptional is the word for Elwood, and it’s patently clear that the man has ‘Connacht’ written right through him like a stick of rock and probably wouldn’t be prepared to go anywhere else. As with so many things in life, it’s the exception that proves the rule. Foley at Munster and Cullen at Leinster simply strengthen my conviction that for the top job you really need someone who’s worked at different levels in different places and has more of a breadth of experience.
Now, if tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappers are to be believed, the powers that be at Munster are also wondering whether experience might just be a tad useful and may be looking in the direction of Michael Bradley. (At this point I should simply put my cards on the table and admit that I am biased. I have always held my favourite Irish half back pairing of Bradley and Elwood very dear, especially as they then went on to put in a goodly stint coaching (and in Elwood’s case playing for) my favourite province. The only way either one of them would fall from grace in my eyes would be to do something manifestly evil… and by that I mean something really bad; like coaching Wales.) I have seen it suggested that there may be thoughts of bringing Bradley in as a number two to Foley. That has to be a joke. If that really is the case, one wonders whether the same bright sparks are thinking about upping attendances at Thomond Park by recruiting Raymond Blanc to help out frying onions for Billy in the burger van. If the Munster branch, IRFU or whoever is responsible for these things have the brass-faced nerve to offer Bradley anything other than the top job, then I reckon the estimable Mr B would be well entitled to point them in the direction of a large, festive packet of Paxo together with the suggestion that they utilise it in some imaginative way that leads them to more than a degree of personal discomfort. Bradley probably has more class than to say that, but then he probably doesn’t hiss like a Komodo dragon and rain down acid on the TV whenever Edinburgh appear on BBC Alba. I do. I can’t help it; it’s just part of my naturally warm and forgiving nature.
But, back to the Munster question. Would it be the right move to bring in Bradley (I mean, of course, into the top job)? Is he good enough? No doubts there. My only reservation is that he is one of their own and Munster is looking, dare I say it, a teeny bit incestuous right now and, with that in mind, I wonder whether they ought to be looking overseas. One thing I have always admired about Irish rugby is the unity, the oneness, the way the Irish tricolour flies happily alongside the red hand of Ulster and religious and political divides have no place. If you look at the messageboards right now it is rather alarming to note that, amidst the mess that is Munster, there is something of a squabble brewing between Cork and Shannon. Oh, please! I thought it was bad enough when the turnip throwers were bashing the ladies and vice versa, but if we now have North Munster vs South Munster that really is just plain daft. I’m sure some of it is tongue in cheek, but some of it isn’t. Surely history tells us that partition, as a general idea, does bring with it a few wee problems? Anyway, with that in mind, I am quite tempted by the idea of some hard-talking Aussie, Kiwi or South African to bash a few heads together and get everyone singing from the same hymn sheet.
Whatever happens on that front, please, Munster fans, get your act together. You have much to be grateful for, even during the dips in form. You have a proud history, a great stadium, you play Bizet before a match (which is seriously classy) and you have what is probably the finest club motto ever – please make sure that you always live up to it. Other rugby supporters out there have far greater crosses to bear than you, and I think you may be in danger of losing sight of that. Just think of it – you could be eager Devonians, for example. Exeter are a really good team, but can you imagine being one of their supporters, destined to wail the Tomahawk Chop week in, week out? (I’ve only ever experienced about half an hour of it during the World Cup when the locals decided to back Namibia and, believe you me, it feels like being in the middle of dawn of the zombies. It’s awful.) You, on the other hand, have ‘The Fields of Athenry’ – it’s beautiful, it’s tuneful (whatever Neil Francis might say about it) and it has more than 3 words. (Come to think of it, it has more than 3 syllables which, over here in dear old Blighty, might be considered quite an achievement.) You do it so well that I will almost… almost… forgive the fact that you nicked it from Connacht. Should you be fortunate enough, in your coaching appointments, to happen upon another gem that arrives via the Connacht route, I beg you please do not dare to screw it up with stupid divisions in your ranks. It would pain me more than you can imagine to unleash the Komodo on any Irish province but – and I’m giving you fair warning here – I will if I have to.
Meanwhile, over at the RDS, Leinster are also having an unhappy time of it. If Foley looks a bit out of his depth, Leo Cullen is definitely not waving but drowning, and it’s not nice to watch. The team appear to be doing their best, but it’s just not quite working out. I like Leo Cullen, and Girvan Dempsey who has taken charge of the Leinster backs was always a favourite of mine but, again, I wonder whether they have quite enough experience and distance from their respective playing careers. You can never go back to past glories, only forwards, and I think it must be very difficult to achieve that if you have always been in the same environment. Being a great player does not guarantee being a great coach of the same team, especially if there has been little in between. Look at Martin Johnson. Due mention here to Ronan O’Gara who is honing his experience in France. Fair play to him. I’m sure it’s a move that will pay off for him, and indeed for Munster, at some point in the future.
Now, Michael Bradley for the top job in Leinster might be a seriously good idea. Leinster have some very talented backs who could, I have no doubt, be better utilised than they are at present and Bradley could be just the man to do it. Sadly, at this stage in the season, it appears nothing is likely to stop Ian Madigan moving on. That’s a huge shame. I cannot for the life of me think why Leinster have not been giving Madigan some serious game time at 12 in order to accommodate both him and Sexton in the starting fifteen. Madigan at 12 and Fitzgerald at 13 is something I would really like to see week on week. Whatever has been going wrong for Leinster, it has been a delight to see Fitzgerald playing in the centre both for Leinster and for Ireland in the recent World Cup (but only because of injuries). I will just mention the fact that the aforementioned Michael Bradley had the wit and the vision to play Fitzgerald in the centre for Ireland against the Barbarians (and, had it not been for injury, against the mighty All Blacks too) a good 7 years ago. Think about it…
So, there you have it. Law Tutor’s answer to the current speed bump in Irish rugby. Not that anyone will give a damn, but it made me feel better. I’ve been getting increasingly annoyed about it. Having now got all that off my chest I’m I can relax serenely into Christmas and look forward to peeling my sprouts, Prosecco in hand, to the strains of Louis Armstrong singing ‘Mack the Knife’. I shall survey my packet of Paxo and do my very best not to think unChristmassy thoughts about the Munster branch.
Here’s hoping for some great Christmas and New Year derbies and a bright New Year for all of the Provinces. I love Irish rugby. I hate in-fighting. I want to see Ireland do well. In fact, there’s only one way to end this little rant… courtesy of the great Willie John. Watch, listen and feel the hairs stand up on the back of your neck: