Irish rugby’s perception problem

The sport’s biggest challenge lies off the field

Coming off the back of arguably the greatest year any Irish sporting team has ever had, Ireland’s rugby team were on the crest of a wave entering 2019. A chance to defend their Six Nations crown before carrying that momentum into a World Cup had fans justifiably giddy with excitement. Would the team achieve historic back-to-back Grand Slams? Would they repeat their landmark victory over the All-Blacks when it counted, and lift the Webb Ellis Cup in Yokohama in November? The sport stood upon the summit, amid rarefied, hitherto-untasted air for an Irish team, and now reached for a yet higher plane.

And yet one missed step, in the opening game of the Championship against England, saw a sharp, painful slide from grace. Gerry Thornley in the Irish Times spoke of a “serious reality check”. The Guardian heard “the eerie thud of Irish reputations crashing back down to earth”. That 32-20 loss in Dublin immediately eliminated any chance of another Grand Slam, while also rendering the possibility of retaining their crown remote. The nation’s public were quick to put the boot in. The outsized, gleeful response of many to the pricking of Irish rugby’s bubble speaks to a perception problem, which the sport has long endured domestically.

Despite the undoubted growing success this team has enjoyed, they have never been embraced by the entire nation. A Six Nations win, even a Grand Slam, has never been met with the euphoria and widespread praise of the soccer team’s qualification to the knockout stages of an international tournament. For all its achievements, rugby in Ireland remains the fourth sport, behind soccer, hurling, and Gaelic football. The GAA’s prominence is obvious for cultural and nationalist reasons, and it permeates every parish in the nation. The divide between soccer and rugby is a class issue.

Soccer is the game of the majority in Ireland, it is the historic game of the working class. This is true for almost every country on earth, and not unique to Ireland. The popularity of the Premier League in Ireland adds to the phenomenon, as a much smaller fraction of the Irish sporting public attend a League of Ireland game with any regularity. So it is certainly true to say that rugby is competing in this country with an absurdly rich behemoth, with the star quality and global attraction to dwarf any domestic game. Despite this, one cannot ignore the role played by class in the tentative support, and the readiness to condemn in defeat, which rugby faces.

While just about every school child will have played soccer either recreationally, in organised form, or both, far fewer will ever play a game of rugby. The sport is the preserve of the private school, played by the financial elite and is often associated with a greater degree of respect and intellect. The stereotype is as strong as the tabloid version of the soccer player: loutish, ill-educated, and, almost-invariably, from a poor background. It is not difficult to see why a majority would identify far more with a game they actually feel part of, and a background more similar to their own. The rugby stereotype arrives in the mind with the unspoken implication that it is not for everybody.

In this way rugby suffers many of the same associations as Trinity does within Irish society. It is the preserve of the “elite”, it is uncomfortably symbolic of Englishness, it is filled with South Dublin accents. To truly be embraced by Irish society as a whole, these barriers will need to cleared. It does not help, of course, when something happens which seems to confirm these stereotypes to the public. Take as an example the recent controversy caused by Trinity’s refusal to allow a fan zone on campus for soccer fans, when Dublin hosts games for the European Championships next year. This in itself would not have been too noteworthy perhaps, if not for the news that College had granted permission to the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) for fan zones, if the association was successful in their bid to host the Rugby World Cup. That this story made headlines during the same week in which Trinity announced plans to add two new entrances to the historic campus, in order to open it up to the wider city, conjured an air of insincerity.

It seemed as if College was still eager to govern exactly what “kind” of people it wanted within its walls. Fine Gael TD Noel Rock attempted to highlight this “double standard” in his comments on the story, saying: “How can they say they’re happy to host a rugby fan zone but won’t host a soccer fan zone? I would call on Trinity to reconsider and I’d call on the public to put them under pressure to do so,” before memorably adding, “Trinity College is coming across like ‘Trumpety’ College – when it comes to soccer fans, they want to build a wall.”

Rock’s comments demonstrate the perception of Trinity and Irish rugby as institutions, they are linked in the public consciousness. This is not to say that the public is hostile to either on a grand scale, merely that there is undoubtedly a sufficient otherness to both which stops them from being fully embraced.

Rugby will perhaps bridge the divide gradually if its success continues to mount. Such a run is unlikely to be sustainable however, and it is doubtful if success alone would ever be enough. There are positive signs, of the three most watched television broadcasts in Ireland in 2018, the rugby team’s victories over England and New Zealand ranked second and third respectively, trailing only to the Late Late Toy Show. Success can certainly draw attention, but the public need to identify with the team and the sport in order for this to be more than simply bandwagonism.

Perhaps, in the wake of Brexit, the team may take on an unforeseen symbolic significance. As the only all-island team of the major sports, the rugby team is a shining example of the success of inclusivity and cooperation north and south of the border. Sport has shown many times its ability to unite, even across geographical boundaries, and in the wake of the current political climate, this may be one way that the team can appeal to the wider imagination.

Whether this will come to pass is impossible to say at this point. For the time being, the IRFU must continue to open up the sport to a greater number of people, and the team must continue to set the benchmark for success in Irish sport. Usurping soccer’s popularity is a pipe dream for now, but changing perceptions shouldn’t be. People will embrace a team they feel represents them, even if they’re not successful – for rugby in Ireland, the success isn’t the hard part.

Dean Hayes

Dean Hayes is a former Sport Editor of Trinity News. He is an English and History graduate.