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January is an interesting time of year in the UK and Ireland. The mad rush of the holidays has past and everyone is, frankly, hungover. Financially, socially, literally. Dry January is embraced by many as a way of getting ‘back on track’. New budgets are drawn up, resolutions are made and ignored. Everyone hits the gym. And in England, travel plans come roaring to the foreground.
It's been said that more sun holidays are planned in January and February than any other time of the year. I’m no expert, but it does rather feel that way. Brits spend a great part of January moaning about January, as if it’s a surprise to them that it’s cold and dark this time of year. Suddenly, life is Grim. There is nothing to look forward to but 2 months of darkness and cold.
But for most Americans, January means Football. It’s College Bowl time. It’s Super Bowl time. It’s something to get us through January with a bit of enthusiasm. (You’re on your own for February, however.) I grew up watching football with my brother and father. While they both supported Denver, I choose San Francisco. I watched as Joe Theismann turned into Joe Montana who turned into Steve Young. And then I went to architecture school where time was at a premium and football took a backseat. When I finished, I tried to garner some enthusiasm for the game again, but honestly, when it came to the Super Bowl, I was just in it for the commercials. And then I ended up in Ireland, where I discovered rugby.
My first brush with it was decidedly odd. One bright Saturday afternoon, I stumbled upon a street party of sorts. Fathers buying balloons and cotton candy for their children. A gypsy band was playing while a trio of men dressed as grapes, a bottle of wine and a baguette danced in the street. There were food stalls and people milling about contentedly. The whole atmosphere was happy. France was in town for the Six Nations.
For those unaware, Six Nations is a rugby tournament played by Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, France and Italy. It begins early February and finishes around St Patrick’s Day, usually with Ireland playing at home. And in the bleak mid-winter, it is a beacon of enthusiasm.
My days in Dublin were the glory days of Ronan O’Gara and Brian O’Driscoll. Back when Paul O’Connell had hair and Joe Schmidt was still in New Zealand. Wayne Barnes taught me the technical aspects of the game by wearing a mic while he was refereeing, and that mic taught me about the manners and respect the players brought to the pitch. That aggression is quite strictly controlled and you’ll often hear apologies from the players. It is a manners forward game for all it’s chaos and testosterone. In the pub, my friends taught me to be silent and still when Ireland was kicking, I might have held my breath, and to be gracious and friendly to the other team’s supporters. We celebrated raucously when anybody beat the English, unless it was the English in the pub with us, because that would be rude. Manners, remember; there is no place for rudeness in rugby.
Admittedly, what drew me first were the players. Yes they have wonky ears and smashed up noses. But they are huge, linebacker-sized, and they play without pads, so you can see all those muscles. And, yes, occasionally, there was the brief flash of a shirt being raised or some shorts coming slightly too far down. Finally, here was a sport where women got the occasional eyeful! But as the years passed and I learned more and more about the sport, I became a fan. I love the skill of it, the finesse. The physicality of it astounds me. I watched with glee the year Ireland’s pack was heavier than all the others and used it to advantage by literally picking up the scrum and walking them backward to the goal. I watched them play one match with 2 full overtimes. And I’ve seen many people try to imitate Rob Kearney by kicking the ball forward and then sprinting to catch it themselves. He is still one of the only that can do that.
When I left Ireland to return to the US, it was difficult to find someplace to watch the matches. We’re just not a rugby nation and the broadcasts were a bit too early in the day to be having a Guinness. I tried to get enthusiastic about football but just couldn’t muster it. The constant breaks in the action, all the commercials, the ridiculous end zone dances. Why are cheerleaders still a thing? Why does the last 30 seconds of the game take 2 hours? I missed rugby dearly.
My first year in London, I lived with Caroline, who introduced me to her group of friends. While sports fans, they weren’t particularly big fans of rugby, but they watched with me anyway. Slowly, her friends became my friends and slowly, they became rugby fans. I dragged them to the pub a few times for matches but cheering for the team that’s beating your host country is a tricky proposition. And maybe because London is so large, that feeling of camaraderie, of being a host nation and welcoming others, it just wasn’t there. So we gathered at Caroline’s house instead. She’s a staunch English supporter. My (now) husband is a Scottish supporter. But after 10 years of watching, Laurent is still waiting for France to win big. At least he’s not Italian.
So I will watch, thrilled each weekend and hopeful for Ireland. I will cheer and groan and smack-talk my friends. I will not gloat. I will drink Guinness. Each weekend will give me something to look forward to as the dark of February turns to weariness. Each match played will get us closer to spring.
Come on Ireland!
When she’s not writing, US import Beth Erskine can be found designing great homes for her clients in London and the Cotswolds. A seasoned architect and interior designer, she has introduced Design In A Day as a way of helping her fellow Expats feel more at home in the UK. Her work can be seen on her website: www.elizabetherskine.com
The Six Nations will be widely available on UK TV – check out listings and stations via https://www.sixnationsrugby.com/tv/