Going Back To The Things I Learned So Well In My Youth

Last week I happily packed off my two eldest (Aaron (10) and Lochlan (8)) to the Leinster rugby summer camp. The venue was the Clontarf rugby pitches on Castle Avenue on the northside of Dublin. To give some personal context to this I grew up within a stones throw of these pitches and spent a large part of my childhood sneaking through a gap in a hedge (that formed the external boundary at the time) in order to play rugby, soccer, gaelic football, hurling, cricket, hell we even gave frisbee a try. When the rugby pitches became too muddy or waterlogged to use we would simply shift to the adjacent cricket pitch instead. This did cause some consternation for the club groundsman particularly when he discovered us playing five-a-side, using kegs for goalposts no less, on his well manicured grass. As a kid I loved going to Tarf to watch rugby matches of all types and standards with my dad. I would spend my time running up and down the touchline trying to figure out where the ball was likely to be kicked out of play so that I could catch it (or more likely chase after it) and kick it back. From what I can remember the ball would spend an awful lot of time being walloped into touch back then so it was a pretty good way to get some exercise and also develop a bit of tactical knowledge around positioning, game management, etc. Although this probably left me ill suited to the ball-in-hand strategies / keeping the ball in play tactics of the modern game!

Given my proximity to the ground (and the fact that my dad was a rugby coach) it was pretty natural for me to sign up for mini-rugby at Clontarf from an early age, probably around 7 years old. Apart from the usual benefits of playing a team sport this also had the bonus of giving me an early lesson in south Dublin geography for this was where rugby was predominantly played at the time (and still is to some extent). Every week we would pile into some coaches’ car in a non health & safety focused way (well before the era of rear seatbelts) and head to an exotic location such as Seapoint, Terenure, Churchtown or if we were going to get a hammering Blackrock! Hey the only thing exotic on the northside at the time was the opening of Artane Castle, I mean a Quinsworth and a Penneys under one roof it didn’t get much better than that! One thing that always struck me about these highly cramped journeys was that it always seemed colder on the southside which appeared positively mountainous when compared to the lowlands of the northside. Perhaps this is a throwback to a particularly cold journey to Palmerstown when I can definitely remember getting frost-bite (or at least very numb hands which was the same to an 8 year old). On another southside trip I can remember playing a team who called themselves Guinnesses (“come on Guinnesses” was a frequent refrain) which I subsequently learned is a rugby club founded by staff at the brewery but at the time I knew of no such things and was just very confused by how often the letter “s” could appear in a name. God help anybody with a lisp.

Anyway back to the rugby camp and I couldn’t help noticing how much the place had changed. The hole in the hedge has gone and while the senior pitch looks pretty much the same the second and third pitches (as we used to call them) have been transformed into an all weather pitch complete with blue run off area. When I saw it first it instantly reminded me of Last Chance U on Netflix but without all the swearing! All the memories came flooding back to me, the thrill of spotting a gap and scoring a try, the pleasure of the deft offload, the satisfaction of the well executed tackle quickly followed by the pain from the poorly executed one! Clontarf are now one of the top clubs in the country (having won the All Ireland League “AIL” twice in the last decade) while in my day they were still struggling in the Leinster league and could never quite make it to the nirvana of the AIL. The best thing the club had going for it back then was that it was close to the airport so the Irish team would train there before heading for a plane to bring them to the location of their next 5 Nations match. Of course this brought out all the local kids searching for a brief glimpse of these amateur heroes. I even remember buying a notebook for autograph hunting purposes. I have 5 squiggles on it and to this day I have no idea as to the identity of the squiggle writers, probably some reserve forwards from Ulster or Connaught who weren’t quick enough to avoid the onrushing masses, unlike Ollie Campbell who was the main target.

This is my boys’ first experience of playing rugby given they have very much been indoctrinated in the church of GAA until now. You see Glasnevin is certainly not a stones through from Castle Avenue, and while the journey by car is not an overly long one it is on a different level compared to my own childhood jaunt to those pitches of dreams. Indeed on arrival at camp on Monday I was surprised by the number of kids from the Glasnevin Drumcondra area who were in attendance at the camp. I suppose Clontarf has become a rallying point / Mecca for rugby on the northside of Dublin. To capitalise on this they probably should have thrown in a guided tour to the childhood home of BOD (Brian O’Driscoll, Ireland’s greatest rugby player and former Clontarf resident until his head was turned by a southside lass). His Dad was my doctor don’t you know!

The camp itself is very well organised with the usual plethora of multi-coloured cones and enthusiastic coaches. The appearance of the Pro14 trophy and a visitation from two members of the current Leinster squad added a bit of glamour to proceedings. Although I did have a chuckle when I asked my boys to divulge the owners of the autographs on their jerseys and they responded with the same blankness that I had experienced 35 years previously! Apologies to Scott Fardy and Joe Tomane!!

They Don’t Know They Have It So Good

In the true spirit of the grumpy old man that I have become, I am constantly comparing my kids’ experiences with those of my own childhood. In particular I look back at the performances of the sports teams I supported in the 80s and 90s and compare it (enviously) to the very same teams in the present day who are now supported by my sons. Let’s start with the most obvious candidates for improvement, “The Dubs”. Now I have many great memories from my time supporting the Dubs in the 80s and 90s, and I still have a certain nostalgia for the old wooden benches in the Cusack Stand where you would be crunched up against god knows whoever. But the boys have never known what it is like for Dublin to lose a Leinster Football championship match, well technically Aaron was alive when Dublin last lost in 2010 but given he was just a year old I don’t think it has scarred him too severely. They recoil in horror when I recount year after year of defeat to Meath (and occasionally Kildare or even Westmeath) and the whoops that used to emanate from the Hogan Stand. Six All-Irelands in the last eight years compares to five in my previous thirty-six years (with three of those sandwiched into my first four years on the planet). They laugh when I say that the Jacks used to have “problems” defeating Kerry and that they had issues around taking penalties (I used to fear Dublin being awarded a penalty as it would inevitably lead to a switch of momentum in favour of the opposition) and generally closing games out. Since I started having kids, Dublin have gone from being a team that finds ways to lose when playing well to a team that finds ways to win when playing badly (maybe I should have started having kids earlier). Take last September’s All Ireland Final as an example, I spent the entire match fidgeting and fussing, a big bag of nerves, particularly at the start and the end (post the sending off) while the boys were calm as you like, sure Dublin always win Dad. Oh to be blessed with such a blase attitude towards winning Sam!

In relation to our other team in blue, Leinster, the contrast is even more pronounced. The inter-provincial rugby scene was very different back in the 80s, in fact you would be hard pressed to see a game involving Leinster from one end of the season to the next. The only footage to be seen would be on the BBC Norn Iron results show as part of the dregs of Final Score. Every year we would be treated to overly long highlights from a dull and dreary Ravenhill of Ulster triumphing as Nigel Carr, David Irwin and the boys laid down another marker showing who wanted it more. Quite often there would be a drop-goal scored by somebody I had never heard. But then the unbiased and indignant commentator would inform us that it was a travesty that the player in question had only received one Irish cap as a replacement on a tour to Canada the previous Summer. Ulster won or shared every Irish inter-provincial championship from 1985 to 1994 and boy were they proud of it. Fast forward to 2009 and the arrival of Aaron, Leinster win their first Heineken Cup and they are now the ones who invariably win trophies year in, year out. Add on to that fact, that they play a great brand of rugby in top quality facilities. No wonder I set an extra alarm for 12pm last Friday to get tickets for the semi-final vs. Toulouse!

Last but not least is the Irish rugby team. Now at least the 1980s had a couple of Triple Crowns to sustain the ardent Irish rugby fan, but by golly the 1990s were a grim time for the men in green and those who followed them. The main highlight of this period was the five minutes between Gordon Hamilton scoring his try vs Australia in the 1991 world cup and Michael Lynagh scoring at the opposite end at the death to defeat us. Five minutes of joy in an unrelenting period of dire results plagued by dire rugby. I was actually at the 1996 France vs Ireland match in Paris due to being on Erasmus at the time. It was our last game played at Parc des Princes and we got a thorough hammering, the only bright spot was Ed Morrison (the English referee) giving us a consolation penalty try at the end (mainly because he took pity on us at 45-3 down) thus becoming the first Irish / Englishman to score a try in Paris since year dot! The turnaround in fortunes since Aaron’s arrival is even more astounding. Now technically Aaron had yet to make his appearance into the world when we won the grand slam in 2009 but he was certainly kicking hard in his mum’s belly. The fact that in the 2009-19 period we have won four Six Nations championships including two grand slams is remarkable, not to mentions two victories over the All Blacks. I do however wonder if the fact that my boys expect Ireland to win means they don’t value success as much as somebody like yours truly. Take the grand slam match versus England last year as an example. I was a bundle of nerves throughout and was almost in tears by the end, the boys were just “ah sure we were never going to lose to England Dad”, no memories of Chris Oti to haunt them!

I suppose on the opposite end of the spectrum there is the Irish football team, I had a team full of talent from Liverpool, Man Utd, Arsenal, etc. McGrath, Whelan and Keane spring to mind. They have, well they have, hmm let’s leave it at that then.