Friday, April 21, 2006

The Small Matter of a Game of Rugger on Sunday

The North Terrace at Lansdowne Road is not one of sport's more salubrious quarters. It bears no comparison with any part of the San Siro or the Bernabeu, with Murrayfield or Twickenham. As terraces go, it pales beside the Sudtribune at Dortmund's Westfalenstadion, with its space for 25,000 souls, or Hill 16 at Croker. It is even a less charming billet than the South Terrace which stands opposite it, being something of a runtish little brother to that modest facility. But as I write, someone has declared himself content to pay EUR 1,002 for two tickets to stand there for a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon.

Welcome to the Heineken Cup Semi-Final, brought to you by Ebay.

It is the 126th meeting of Munster and Leinster, and the previous 125 might as well never have happened. All those murky interprovincials down the decades at Thomond or Donnybrook, the keenly fought Celtic League matches of recent years - at the time they all would have seemed like big matches; there was always the huge rivalry, international team-mates facing up to each other, the supporters keen to secure bragging rights. There was always the contrast in backgrounds, the Dublin elite against the yeomen of the south. It always meant something.

Maybe its the hype; maybe its the RTE promos with the thumping, driving Arcade Fire soundtrack; maybe its the acres of preview inches in the papers, or the T.V. and radio competitions offering as prizes the hottest tickets in town since Brian Boru was a boy. Maybe its the omnipresence of Brian O'Driscoll, so comfy in his diplomatic-well-spoken-isn't-he-a-nice-lad skin that it's difficult to even imagine him as the ferocious tackling dervish at the centre of Leinster's finest fifteen to date.

Whatever, you will, by now, be well aware that this is - in the parlance of these things - a rather big one.

It is usually only GAA fixtures which provide Ireland with the sort of rambunctious domestic occasion which is the bread and butter of sporting passions elsewhere. International matches are all well and good, and give opportunity for the nation to unite in the cause of misty-eyed balladry and fist-clenching "passion", which in reality just means scaring foreigners by pretending to be a bit mad.

Domestic rivalry is a different and more satisfying genre. When international teams come to Dublin and get a beating, they disappear afterwards towards the airport with their tail between their legs. Fine, but where's the fun in that? Pummeling the shower of tossers down the road provides glorious hours of opportunity to practice our true national sport: The Slagging.

Until now only GAA has provided the good people of this windswept isle with the facilities, means and copious coaching in The Slagging. No son of Mayo has come of age until he has vented spleen about the Tribesmen to the immediate south; no Meathman can wear the green and gold till he was poured scorn on the scumbags of the Metropolis. There is no escape: take a beating and you suffer the lashing the following day in school, workplace or nursing home (the aul fellas are the worst, by the way). The texts come hither, the coarse email parodies thither. In effect, this is what it is all about really; for in the dank dungeon of despair in which the defeated reside, grows the resolve and malicious intent to revisit the pains of today on the vanquished of tomorrow.

And it's great craic too, is The Slagging.

So now you see why the country has gone doo-lally about Munster v Leinster, swimming in the hype and drinking it in like we've never had such a big day out in our lives. There's all the culture clash stuff, of course - the well-worn archetypes of the two tribes' rugby profiles laid against each other like it was Charlie v Garret all over again. Fascinating, and great copy. But fundamentally, everyone is just so excited that, come Sunday evening, one of Irish rugby's big two will be on the other end of what can only be described as the Champions League of Slaggings - a trophy which, for a while anyway, will make the Heineken Cup look like a rusty old chamberpot.


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