April 21, 2017
"True Munster fan that I now am, I couldn't issue the reciprocal good wish."
This is a quote from an article in todays Irish Independent. A Laois farmer and proud Lunster, Ann Fitzgerald, had been speaking to a Leinster fan who wished Munster luck on Saturday. But she couldn't bring herself to do the same for him. She sees Leinster as the D4 stereotype and Munster as the "ordinary man" stereotype. She evens admits that they are stereotypes, but she doesn 't care. As a proud Leinster fan I struggle to understand why some of the Leinster born and bred cannot support their own. After all, two of the biggest names in the Leinster side at the moment are Tadgh Furlong and Sean O'Brien, two farmers along the same lines as the great John Hayes. Leinster have done a wonderful job in growing the province beyond the traditional support base over the years and are no longer the D4 brigade they may have been seen as before. But that isn't my bug bear with this article. People are free to support whomever they wish. And if some parts of Leinster feel a greater link to Munster then that's fine by me. Sport isn't a logical thing by any means so to each their own.
However, in the last month or two I've noticed a return towards where we were back in 2008/09. That same bitterness and bad feeling seems to be seeping back into Irish rugby. When a Leinster fan wished the above Lunster fan luck for the weekends game she was unable to do the same in return. And apparently that makes her a "true Munster fan". And she's not the first I've seen expressing that opinion. But is that the way that a true Munster fan behaves? My experience is that it certainly isn't the way that a true rugby fan behaves. Ahead of our game on Sunday against Clermont I'll be meeting up with Clermont friends and before we enter the stadium we'll genuinely wish each other luck. And we're playing against each other. Do "true Munster fans" really have such bad will towards Leinster that they can't wish us luck when we don't even play each other?
Obviously the answer to that question is no. Most Munster fans are nothing like this. They are decent people with a great knowledge of the game and a wicked sense of humour (in my experience at least). So where does this vocal minority come from? And why do they get so much air time? Is it the "big smoke" syndrome where parts of rural Ireland take great issue with "West Brits"? Is there a culture of the chip on the shoulder? Reading Paul O'Connells book I was struck by how he played the game with such hatred in his early days. Local rivals, Cork Con, Dublin teams. He said himself that at times it seemed like they hated everyone. It was how they got themeslves up for games. Have some people taken that to heart too much? And is it really an acceptable way for fans to approach the game?
To be clear, I support Munster. If they are not playing Leinster (and Leinster don't need them to lose for some reason) then I back them all the way. They are an Irish team with Irish players. I cheer on Peter O'Mahony in green, why wouldn't I cheer him on in red? A strong Munster is good for Irish rugby. I'll admit to having an element of envy around the identity that Munster have created for themselves over the years. It's been a fantastic success from the point of view of the club and is something Leinster are still struggling to do in the same way. It's fostered a wonderful connection between the team and the fans. But we've also seen an almost rabidness about it at times too. Of course it isn't just limited to Munster fans. I've seen Leinster fans behave in the same way. But for some reason the Munster angle seems to make it into the media which in itself perpetuates the problem and the culture around Munster rugby seems to allow for it.
This kind of thing is a poison to Irish rugby. Several years ago the IRFU and Guinness set up a Facebook page where players from each province interacted with fans. It didn't last very long as each player was subjected to abuse from fans of other provinces. And while the rivalry is a great thing in the main, and the banter we have with each other can be excellent, there are elements who take it far too seriously. Articles like the one in todays Indo actually celebrate the negative elements to the rivalries. Do we really want this behaviour to have a place in the game? I don't. And wouldn't it be great if, in response to articles like these, we had other articles calling out how unacceptable this behaviour is? After all the more this kind of thing gets published and is allowed to circulate unchallenged the worse the problem will get.
I'll be cheering on Munster tomorrow in a pub in Lyon and I don't doubt there will be no shortage of Munster fans cheering on Leinster on Sunday. If some people don't want to cheer on another province then that's fine, but to think that you're not a true fan unless you hate someone else is all sorts of wrong and isn't in keeping with the game. In contrast to the opening quote here's one from my old man:
"The provinces are like brothers. We can beat the hell out of each other all day, but we've got each others backs as well."
And he'd know, he has 6 brothers! Surely this is the way most of us want Irish rugby to be? Shoulder to shoulder as the tagline goes.