How rugby launched my career and prepared me for war reporting

In Limerick, where rugby grounds had nicknames like the Killing Fields, one needed a robust personality
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The Independent Online

There are more frustrating things than being an Irish rugby supporter... but not many. Especially in the age of the English imperium. I am not a sporting tribalist. I cannot understand the kind of Irish or Scottish supporter who cheers for whatever team happens to be playing England. But there is something so all powerful about the current English team that I truly long to see it beaten. Perhaps it is less the team than the post-World Cup crowing of my English friends. They now take victory as their due. I have had to follow V S Naipaul's famous advice to Paul Theroux after their estrangement: "Take it on the chin and move on."

There is nothing as unpleasant as an English supporter with his tail up. Humility? Generosity of spirit? Forget it. The imperial rugby boot has been trampling over Irish pride for too long. It is time for me to be defiant and make a declaration: Ireland are going to win today. So England are world champions? So what. They can be humbled. Ireland's performance against the Welsh is one reason. But England's faltering against the Scots is another. The last time I saw Ireland beat England was at Twickenham back in the 1980s when Ginger McLoughlin tramped to glory over the prostrate English pack. We went on to defeat the Scots a fortnight later and clinch the Triple Crown. There were trebles and more all round. For weeks and weeks. Today I plan to watch a similar triumph.

What Irishman wouldn't want to watch the post-match interview with Clive Woodward giving credit to the performance of the "men in green". Or to see the disconsolate faces of the English crowd as Brian O'Driscoll goes over for his second or third try. I am levitating with anticipation. Thanks to a generous English friend I will be sitting in the stand and cheering my heart out. I will be generous enough to console him when the final whistle blows. But on the off chance that Ireland get beaten I have enough mental reserves to see me through.

This is because I learned my rugby the hard way. I was never what you would call a good player. In fact, I was terrible. Week after wintry week I slogged my guts out to a chorus of sniggers from those on the sideline. In the process I smashed my ankle. The old wound still troubles. I played to impress my girlfriend who came from a strong rugby family. She was not impressed. But I did grow to love the game. Soccer bored me rigid. It was a game for narcissists and whiners. But I loved the team solidarity of rugby. We are all useless together.

Rugby was also the spur to one of my earliest business enterprises. I once organised an expedition from school to Dublin for an Ireland vs France game. There were about 40 of us. I arranged the match and train tickets. What I could not plan for were the alcoholic excesses of my schoolmates. Somewhere between Cork and the capital several of my charges vanished from the train. They found themselves amid an alien people and wandered drunk and forlorn until they found a train returning to Cork. Some others had to be carried from the train in Dublin and left to sleep off their intoxication in the waiting room of Connolly Station. I think of this whenever I read horrified accounts of modern teenage drinking. Ireland lost the game as they always seemed to do in those days. The French captain, Jean-Pierre Rives, rioted about the pitch and a future Irish foreign minister, Dick Spring, played at full back. Afterwards I spent an age rounding up my schoolmates.

This was the same year as the Great Unisex Game at Wilton Fields. I have forgotten the reason we organised a match against the sixth-form girls of a local convent. But we took trouble to keep the whole business quiet from the nuns. They would have been assumed into heaven with shock at the sight of their young charges rucking and mauling with the young gentlemen of Presentation College. Halfway through the proceedings a chap called Hoss (short for "Horse" because of his wide girth) produced a bottle of poteen. It was my first taste of the illegal pure spirit. After this my memories of the day begin to recede into the Celtic mist.

I also have rugby to thank for helping my journalistic career. My knowledge of the game helped to land me a choice job on the Limerick Leader newspaper. Twenty-three years ago I became the rugby correspondent of that fine newspaper. It was wonderful training for becoming a war reporter. It was preparation too for the sectarian conflicts I would find myself covering. For in the eyes of the Limerick rugby fan a Cork man writing about local rugby was like a chimpanzee composing a sonata. It might look funny but it could never amount to much. The Limerick people regarded Cork rugby as a genteel imitation of the real thing. Our game was played by nice boys who went to nice schools. In Limerick, where local rugby grounds rejoice in such nicknames as Jurassic Park or the Killing Fields, the reporter needs a robust personality.

In my early days I would be sent to cover schools' cup matches. Having gone to a Cork rugby school myself I was hopelessly suspect to the Limerick parents. No matter how much I praised the skills of the various Clohessys, Moroneys, Walshes etc I was damned because of my origins. The question was phrased in many colourful ways but it always boiled down to this: what would a middle-class eejit from Cork know about rugby? No amount of explaining or earnest goodwill made a difference.

But in those days I had not yet embraced humility. The same big mouth that has brought me grief from the Khyber Pass to Kinshasa earned me the scorn of players and supporters on grim winter afternoons. The problems arose not because of what I wrote but because of the passion that overcame me when my own school was playing. Objectivity went out the window. "Come on Pres," I would yelp.

On one occasion my enthusiasm led to violence. I was sitting in the press box in Limerick watching a club senior cup match. Late in the game a wing three quarter dived over in the corner. The crowd rose and cheered. I jumped up to follow the action. A hand grabbed my hair from behind. There is something especially traumatic about having your hair pulled, the pain but also a burning humiliation. Without thinking I swung around and landed a blow on my attacker, knocking him backwards. As he fell back into his seat we stared at one another, horrified. He too was a rugby writer. The other hacks did not seem surprised. But a few decent citizens in the cheap seats looked on in horror. To paraphrase Yeats words, we had disgraced ourselves again.

But I have matured since then. I have given up writing about rugby and am free to be as partisan as I like. At Twickenham today I can shout for Ireland without offending anybody. Those who agonise daily (and nightly these days) about BBC correspondents and objectivity can rest easy. When Ireland win I will take great pleasure in telephoning all of my English friends and gloating. But, as I acknowledged earlier, an English win is possible. If that hapens, I will remember the Gaelic saying embedded in the heart of every Irish supporter: Beidh la eile againn. We will have another day.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent