My darkest memory of schoolboy rugby is being isolated, petrified, deep in my own 22′, waiting for a massive “up and under” to come down in the first minute of the schools’ cup final in Lansdowne Road. I sensed the Terenure pack coming up at me like a thundering herd, intent on clobbering me. The ball took ages. The wind caught it and seemed – cruelly – to suspend it above me, swirling. And still they advanced. I could feel my Blackrock teammates looking at me.
Don’t drop it; please don’t knock-on, not now, not here.
This was the final.
Worse still, it was Terenure.
Michaels, Belvo, Clongowes, Marys – they hardly mattered. What mattered was ‘Nure. We knew it, they knew it, the crowd knew it: the greatest rivalry in schools’ rugby was ‘Rock v ‘Nure.
It was Dublin v Kerry, United v City, Kilkenny v Tipp all rolled into one. It didn’t get bigger than this and now I was the last line of the Blackrock defence, being targeted by the ‘Nure out-half. He knew I didn’t like getting hurt; they’d watched the video and they’d done their homework!
I thought about volleying it in to touch like a soccer player, which I had done before, but never in a final, and what would the purists say? I could see the lights of old West Upper in Lansdowne Road as it then was as I waited for this dot in the sky to get bigger and bigger, closer and closer.
Gravity got the better of it and miraculously, there it was, the match-ball in my hands, both hands, no fumbles, no knock-on. I could hear the ‘Rock boys cheering.
Game on. Time to fly.
School rugby was a hoot. I enjoyed it tremendously and as a back on a Blackrock team all the way through secondary school, you thought you were handy because most of the time we were going forward. Rugby is easy when you have momentum, the line in your sight and a pack of forwards who could kick 40 shades out of anyone.
Despite this be-knighted experience, I do remember one downside of playing full back or winger was having to listen to rugby bores on the sidelines. Typically, these were Dads or past-pupils who had never played and yet they roared instructions. As I was usually the closest to them and on my own at the back, I tended to get, not just a general lesson in how the game should be played, but a personal grind.
I thought these people were consigned to history but last Saturday at Thomond Park, Limerick, I had one right behind me, in my ear, all match. You know the lads with the referees’ ear thingy, the fellas who know everything and if only they were on the pitch, Munster would have destroyed Clermont. I must admit I was impressed by his extraordinary vocabulary. One of the things that has definitely changed since I was subjected to the wisdom of this class of Alickadoo, is the intricate language that now surrounds rugby commentary. Today’s rugby lexicon is a complex form of linguistic hieroglyphics, accessible to only the most committed Alickadoo. There are specific terms that can only have been perfected by decades spent in some clubhouse. Most of the terms went over my head or were describing stuff that was so obvious as not to have warranted comment.
The other thing that has changed is obviously, size.
Rugby has got bigger.
At a school reunion recently, I spoke to one of the priests who trained us years ago and he told me there’d be no place for teenagers like me on a school cup team these days. I was simply too light, too skinny and too weak.
Another thing that has changed is the money in the sport. As Ireland bids for the Rugby World Cup (RWC) in 2023, it is worth considering the numbers for the World Cup in England next year. Here are some findings in a recent report:
• The tournament will generate up to £2.2bn;
• Up to £982m will be added to GDP of the UK, with economic benefits spread across the 11 host cities;
• An estimated 41,000 jobs will be created. This includes 16,000 employees directly linked to the tournament and 12,000 along the supply chain;
• A total of £85m will be invested in infrastructure with long-term benefits lasting long after the tournament;
• Between 422,000 and 466,000 visitors are expected for RWC 2015, more than any previous Rugby World Cup, with an average spend (for their total visit) of between £59 and £3,546 depending upon their origin and profile. It is estimated that visitors will inject up to £869m of revenue into the UK economy.
Looking at the Six Nations championship, the sport generates significant revenues for each of the participating countries.
In 2013, the total revenue generated by the English RFU was a staggering £153.5m. In the same year, the Welsh Rugby Union took in £61m in revenue. The figures for unions in South Africa, Australia and Ireland were close to £42m, £55.7m and £54m respectively.
In terms of club rugby, the French are by far the richest. Toulouse tops the list of Europe’s 15 biggest rugby union clubs based on revenue. During the 2009/2010 season, Toulouse generated £27.4m (€33.5m) in revenue, followed by Clermont Auvergne at £19.5m (€23.8m) and Leicester Tigers at £18.5m (€22.6m). In total, French (11) and English clubs (four) dominate the top 15 positions by revenue.
Professional players get well paid for their enormous effort. In time, more and more players will be able to turn pro and, given what they subject their bodies to every week, these guys should be well paid.
Today, as father to a boy who, like his Dad, is a small teenager and is plying his trade up and down the wing, I worry about what is expected of these small kids in terms of tackling big lads. Desperately, I am trying to teach him the elegant and spectacular tap tackle
I was known in school as the only back who’d come off the pitch as clean as I went on. I don’t think that’s an option today!
But looking forward, rugby is a growing sport. It is wonderful to see it move away from the leafy suburbs and the largely fee-paying schools of bourgeois Ireland. As the game grows, the business and economics of rugby will change dramatically. As Ireland bids for the RWC, we should double our efforts to net this international tournament. Everyone will win.