Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Croke Park - 24th February 2007

I was at the Ireland v England game at Croke Park last Saturday. I've quite a lot to share as a non-committed Scot; but I'm starting with someone else's words, a professional, who I think accurately describes the most important elements of what was an unforgettable experience. The words are Patrick Collins' and the piece was published in the "Irish Mail on Sunday" and then in the UK. The link to the original article is here

This was sport as it ought to be ... a force for healing

On a damp, squally evening on the north side of Dublin, a game of rugby was played and a page of history was turned. England came to Croke Park; the Union flag was flown and the British anthem was sung. And, somehow,the sky did not fall nor the walls of the stadium crumble to dust.

This was sport as we dreamed it might be, a force for healing rather than division. It was fierce, passionate and committed, as it should be when Ireland meet England at rugby. But it was also honest and respectful, because the people of Ireland, in this citadel of Gaelic games, had set the impeccable tone.

That tone was set before a ball had been kicked or a pass delivered. Ever since Irish rugby moved from its home at Lansdowne Road to the place they call ‘Croker’, this was the day which the nation had awaited with a mixture of pride and dread.

The history of Croke Park has been told and re-told these past few weeks; of the murderous assault by the Black and Tans and the deaths of innocent civilians back in 1920. And still there are those who believe that Ireland is ill-served by entertaining such visitors in such a place.

The rumours had rampaged across the nation for weeks and months. There was talk of disruption, of protest, of nationalistic gestures.And the fears would not evaporate, despite the wealth of preparation. Yesterday was the testing time, when the ordinary sporting citizens of Ireland would show the world that the nation has moved on, or would take a long stride back to the old ways. And you could sniff the nervousness in the Dublin air as the hour grew close.

The English team were congenially applauded as they trotted out in track suits, seven minutes before the scheduled kick-off. Not quite a hundred thousand welcomes perhaps, but as warm as anything they normally receive at Twickenham. There were the usual nervous smiles as the teams were presented to President Mary McAleese. There was an anguished longeur as the President returned to the official tribune. And all the while, we sensed that both the stadium and the nation were holding their breath. Would demonstrations erupt? Would ancient grudges find raucous expression? The answers followed swiftly and impressively.

The announcement that the anthems were about to be played brought a sustained clatter of applause. Then the combined police and army band struck up the familiar air and the English fans cleared their throats and bellowed God Save the Queen.

Why, high in the stands you could actually make out the words: "Send her victorious, Happy and glorious". And here’s the strangest thing, so widespread was the singing that you could almost believe that Republican voices were joining in that request for the deity to preserve the monarchy. None will admit it in the bleary dawn, of course, but that was the way it sounded.

Sure, the real passion was saved for the Soldier’s Song, that trenchant assertion of pride and purpose,and the sheer vastness of the great stadium made it resound as never before. But the respect shown to England and the English was deeply moving, the decent gesture of a civilised people. And that decency simply endorsed the view expressed by the Irish historian, John A Murphy.

"When our English neighbours are made welcome in such a splendid stadium in the capital of a mature and sovereign republic, the innocent Croke Park dead of November 21, 1920, will be honoured, not insulted."

Naturally, the Irish mood was not harmed by the fact that England were then beaten out of sight. All the pre-tournament fears that this was an England side destined to suffer now came to miserable fruition. And all the promise, all the hope which had attended the men in green came to a glorious conclusion.

After a briefly nervous beginning, Ireland were simply immense. Stronger and more disciplined at the front, infinitely more resourceful among the backs. Driven forward by the thumping boot of Ronan O’Gara, they dictated the terms, devoured the points, put an immense distance in class and attainment between themselves and their hapless visitors.

And, as beaten teams do, England slowly, unmistakably, disintegrated. These are still the world champions, still men with apparently authentic expectations of defending the title.But that was not how it looked in Dublin last night.

While Brian O’Driscoll and his inspired band simply reeked of elegant class, Phil Vickery’s side looked as dejected as if they had already seen the reviews and witnessed the inquests.

It was not remotely good enough, not nearly sufficient for the daunting task ahead. And as they dragged themselves off the field, they wore the air of men who know that worse, far worse, may lie in store.

And yet, dejection was by no means the prevailing mood of this Dublin day. Sure, the victors began their celebrations long before the stadium had emptied. Sure, the Irish rugby brotherhood would mark down this triumph as a victory to stand with the best.

And, certainly, the prospect of another Triple Crown is some consolation for letting the Grand Slam slip. But the real triumph had been delivered far earlier, when a band struck up a familiar yet foreign anthem in a place where terrible events had occurred.

And, as one, the people had stood in affectionate respect. The stadium announcer,in those ponderous tones which officials employ, somehow made it official. "To every person in this 81,000 crowd, I want to say thank you very much," he declared. There was more applause, more approval.

For on this historic day for civilised sport, he spoke for us all.

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