When I went to Twickenham on Saturday to watch the legendary match between Ireland and England there was one thing that really struck me, and that was the amazing banter that was sparking off between those 82,046 souls who were lucky to actually be at the match. It did not matter if you were either Irish or English the banter, the humour, and the goodwill were a joy to behold. And it got me thinking about why is it that at this great match people can actually get along with each other irrespective of their differences and national pride.
What was even more impressive was the fact that historically maybe more than any other of the nations within the United Kingdom the hostility between these two great neighbours has been plagued with strife and conflict for generations. Indeed when I reflect on my life and times the UK was basically at war with the IRA for over twenty years. And now post the peace that the Good Friday agreement facilitated although it might be tenuous at times, it was at least peace all the same. And here for a couple of hours all of those who had lived through all of that were now herded together in the very tight confines of the Twickenham seats where we all shared one common goal. the appreciation of the game of rugby.
Where we were sat was completely mixed to my right was an Irish lady, to me left an Irish man, below 2 very funny Irish lads were enjoying seriously funny banter with three English gents. They had very fast wits on both sides, it started off with the lads suggesting that because one of the officials was called O’Neil then clearly he must be Irish and therefore could not be at all biased, especially on Saint Patrick’s day. What was also noticable was that when the singing broke out on both sides the participants all joined in. The English including me were busy enjoying Sweet Chariot which clearly was not going to be carrying me home in the knowledge that England had won. The Irish lads and lasses were very vocal as they banged out their songs to encourage the heroes on the pitch.
And here is the thing, the sheer physicality of the massive men who were playing for their nation was extraordinary, when you watch these fit, strong, giants flying into each other with full blown ferocity time after time. It is amazing how they actually manage to stand up ever again. Let alone carry on like nothing happened, when I used to play rugby at school I was a tight head prop, this means that you have the weight of the hooker to support, as well as the massive force of both sets of the scrum, basically meeting head on with the props taking the brunt of two opposing forces. The pressure on the neck was horrendous, indeed I noticed that at this level the props do not actually have necks they are just balls of muscle with torsos like tree trunks.
And maybe this is the thing about rugby, all the aggression is played out on the field where there is no compromise or quarter asked for nor given. It is quite gladiatorial as individuals take each other on face to face not giving up an inch of the hallowed turf. And as the excitement swirled amongst the crowd depending on the passage of play, not once did any of the spectators get angry or abusive indeed if anything they mutually applauded good play on both sides. So, it just goes to show that maybe unlike football matches where these days segregation is a must to avoid crowd trouble as they used to call it, at this International level the mixing of supporters seems to be positively encouraged, in the knowledge of appreciation of the shared experience.
There is a famous expression that says ‘ football is a gentlemen’s game played by hooligans, and rugby is a hooligans game played by gentlemen”. When reflecting on my experience at the match it struck me that there may well be some truth in this. What was also very apparent to me was that the crowd was made up of mostly middle aged people of a certain disposition, who were together to enjoy the history and excitement of the occasion, and they all did, irrespective of the score. A truly unique human experience that I look forward to repeating some day, but maybe next time with an England win.