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Dublin: 12 °C Saturday 16 February, 2019
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TV Wrap - Matt Williams' harsh words leaves a nation finding solace in the GAA

Nobody saw defeat against England coming, which made it all the worse.

Matt Williams spitting harsh truths post-game.
Matt Williams spitting harsh truths post-game.

IN THE WEEK that a Michigan town called Hell was literally frozen over, perhaps we should have considered the possibility that the Irish rugby team might lose a game.

Not that anyone was attentive to the potential for another cosmic aberration ahead of kick-off on Saturday, with the pessimists reckoning we might only beat England by a single score.

A pre-game Volkswagen ad, meanwhile, featured a series of Irish tries from last year’s championship, set to a smug incantation:  “the same thing, again…and again.. and again”.

Then….thump.

On Virgin Media, Matt Williams delivered a series of post-game haymakers to a startled, reeling people.

KRUNCH! – “We just gotta put our hands up and say we got our bums smacked by a superior team”.

THWACK! – “Let’s not dodge the truth.  We were out-thought and out-planned”.

ZONK! – “ I’ve seen milk turn faster than Robbie was turning today.”

POW! – “England kicked us off the park.”

Please, Matt! It’s too soon! The body’s still warm!

Defeat was made all the worse by the fact that nobody prior to the game had entertained it as a remote possibility.

“We probably needed a bit of grounding. The nation, the boys, everyone”, said Matt.

And he was right. It was a weekend to show that not even Rugby Country can escape the Irish unease with confidence and optimism for too long.

Such self-assurance is reckless for us all.

The Irish football team, for example, have long since exhibited their allergy to it all and have consequently spent most of the last decade drawing 1-1 with Georgia.

If Kipling’s invocation to “meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same” articulates a kind of essential, doughty English character, for us it’s perhaps better just to meet with triumph as disaster and make the two imposters entirely indistinguishable.

Approaching any big sporting occasion while fretting over our unique ability to make a total hames of it softens the impact of defeat; it works as a kind of emotional insurance policy.

For more than a year now, however, Rugby Country has spent so long winning that it could party without the insurance.

This was largely because of Schmidt, whose finicky, fastidious genius meant we had no reason to fear anyone. Not even ourselves.

Schmidt’s unprecedented success led to predictable calls that we should just put him in charge of everything, and if we had done so last Spring there’d now be a children’s hospital on the side of Croagh Patrick, built under-budget with access to instant fiber-optic broadband and a staff of happy, well-paid nurses.

But even Schmidt could only grant us an illusion of total confidence, and our putative leader became another man spurned by losing in the “corridors of power”, as Matt Williams termed something or other to do with collisions. (Further proof that a lot of rugby punditry is just a series of different ways of saying that the fellas who hit the hardest will probably win).

“A reality check” was what Schmidt called Ireland being hauled ruggedly down to earth.

Then it was time to flick between RTÉ and eir Sport for the truest reality check of all: GAA games played in front of sparse crowds in the final, lingering days of the bleak winter.

On eir, Dublin’s slow and predictable hacking through Galway’s thick defence at a near-empty Croke Park was a kind of dull performance art reflecting the gloom general over Ireland.

While Limerick v Tipp on RTÉ was quite good, it constantly hovered on the precipice of being engulfed in the thick, freezing fog and being lost to us forever.

Capture A screengrab from RTÉ's coverage of Limerick v Tipp, live from the Yorkshire moors.

This was fitting, as the notion that all could vanish at any time is one of the governing principles of the GAA.

This is, after all, the organisation that took the virtue of vigilance and turned it into a committee.

Such an acknowledgement of the inherent precariousness of happiness was oddly absent in the heady build-up to the Six Nations, but not so with the GAA.

RTÉ’s half-time analysis from Limerick lingered on the handpass, as Derek McGrath and Donál Óg fretted about the stricter refereeing of the rule perhaps leading to the permanent extinction of the skill.

This abiding attitude appeared in Tom Ryan’s debrief over the Liam Miller Tribute Game in Páirc Ui Chaoimh earlier in the week, too, as the Director-General complained that the GAA were “bullied” into their decision.

Ryan said it was neither “factually correct” nor “morally defensible” that the GAA should be obliged to provide their facilities to other sports just because they received public funding, and however fair this may be, it was another example of the GAA’s long-held fear of having their facilities hijacked by competing sports.

Only the GAA could have spent the past decades anxious about a stealthy and careful coup orchestrated by the FAI.

As misplaced as this paranoia might be, however, it is also an insight into how sport in Ireland is linked with the nation’s brittle self-esteem.

It sometimes feels like we invented the GAA just to try and prop up our perishable self-confidence, using it as something to show to foreigners as proof of our essential genius and our essential modesty.

“See that fella out there in front of 80,000 people of a Sunday? Well, you could as easily meet him on a Monday morning as your local Brand Ambassador for a major gambling corporation!”

Nonetheless, the GAA’s flinty pessimism articulates a national truth, and if Rugby Country had perhaps heeded some of its lessons ahead of Saturday, Matt Williams’ lashings might not have stung so sharply on our ears.

- Originally published at 10.00 

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About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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