On March 1st, 2015, something strange happened at the start of a Six Nations International rugby match between Ireland and England. It was something I have never experienced before, although I must have watched several hundred such occasions since my schooldays
My story has some of the elements of a Sherlock Holmes puzzle, and I’ve described it in that spirit. Imagine, if you will, the following, as recounted in a message sent to the great detective.
Dear Mr Holmes,
I approach on behalf of a personage who holds high office in the land who has requested my help. Forgive me for disturbing you on a matter which is baffling to me. I can only hope that through the brilliance of your intellect that progress might be possible. Your success in the case of the missing Cambridge three-quarter encourages me that you will be prepared to help in this instance too.
I refer to an event that took place before the start of last Sunday’s rugby match. You will recall it was played in Dublin between the two undefeated teams in the annual Six Nations tournament. My state of agitation comes from an incident that occurred as I was watching the build-up to the match from the comfort of my sitting room, courtesy of the BBC’s televisual reporting
Rugby Union remains a highly traditional sport, despite changes in rules since its origins. We have seen the introduction of professionalism, numerous rule changes, extra opponents (France and most recently Italy), and controversial introduction of technology to assist referees. Notwithstanding, the annual tussles between the Northern Hemisphere nations have retained the glorious rituals from the amateur beginnings our sport.
For supporters, each match journey is an annual pilgrimage. The faithful gather in the various national stadia to affirm their loyalties, including the chanting of the national anthems in glorious and it must be admitted not entirely sober disharmony. And that, Mr Holmes, was what I was expecting a few minutes before the start of what promised to be a close encounter between two evenly-matched sides.
I glimpsed the players for the first time, as they were being discreetly filmed in their changing rooms, making last minute fumbled adjustments to articles of clothing and assorted protective devices. Then a struggled departure is they headed , grim-faced out and into battle.
They emerge to a crescendo of noise from the bowl of spectators. It’s Hollywood’s version of a sporting drama. It’s Hogwarts on the Liffey. It’s Anfield on the Mersey, Eden Park in Auckland, the old Arms Park on the Taff in Cardiff. It is and it isn’t a cauldron of noise and fury, a primitive roar. Forgive me, Mr Holmes, I cannot conceal my emotions.
There is brief burst of fireworks, an innovation of which I must say I greatly disapprove. The display was no more than a damp squib and it was hardly needed to rouse the crowd’s pulsing emotions.
Each player is walking out with a young mascot clad in replica shirts in the national colours, white for England, Green for the home nation. The squads of players line up, facing the stand in which dignitaries from around the world of Rugby are seated. All this is as according to time-honoured custom, except perhaps for the mascots, the replica shirts, the fireworks, and the intrusion in the dressing rooms.
Already mustered on the field are the members of a uniformed military band. They are to play an important part in my story, and I take care to recount what happened next. At approximately 3.50pm, the musicians strike up a brief few lines of the Irish anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann I did not attend to the music at the time, but now I glimpse its significance. As the music starts, the presidential party emerges, led by a bespectacled, grey haired figure, who turns out to be Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins. Looming above him and accompanying him is very large, a rugby-sized, official.
Michael D. has an air of gentle innocence. He is greeted by Joe Robson, the England captain and escorted to the English line of muscular persil-white worriers. Then the mighty figure of Paul O’ Connell, the Irish captain , collects Higgins and takes him to the Irish squad. The president shakes hands, mascots and players alike right down the lines.
Then the band strikes up the first chords of the English National Anthem. The English squad are ready and burst into full-hearted voice. Their supporters in the crowd catch up around the second line: ‘…Gor savour grayshus Quin …’. It was then, Mr Holmes, I noticed something very odd about the way the band is playing. It is an honour to play at the start of a Six Nations international. Rehearsals will have tuned up the players to peak performance. But this was a case of drums that did not roll. Nor was there a peep from the pipes. Instead there was a monotone rendition such as might be expected from a sulky School Band.
But why? It was as if the musicians were conscripted to play in an unwanted performance the pleasure of the authorities. The music ended to desultory applause.
I knew with preternatural certainty that something else unexpected was happening. It maybe was observed best if you happened to be watching the television transmission. The band struck up the music of of Amhrán na bhFiann again. Now the playing was more subtle and haunting than before, heard mostly in muted approval. But the most curious thing was yet to come.
The camera cut to a gleaming drum and drum sticks poised to begin a military beat. The previously muted pipes gave out a haunting melody. The crowd and Irish team cue in. The tones are richly harmonious. The dignified music of Amhrán na bhFiann, had been replaced by the deeply moving chant known as Ireland’s Call. The roar at the end was in contrast to the disdainful near-silence that had followed the rendition of The English anthem.
The teams peel away to prepare for combat. Ireland players buoyed up by the ceremonies, England players exuding signals of a team going to its inevitable defeat. My mind was spinning. I believe that I have discovered a dastardly plot dreamed up to get the Irish team a good start to the game. Whoever dreamed it up had to collude with others. Maybe the plot includes the members of the military, the band, all the President’s men. I dare not speak names although one great sporting figure is also widely believed to have been instrumental in the introduction of Ireland’s secret weapon of the second anthem. In doing so, they have exceeded the powerful advantage gained by New Zealand from performing the Maori war dance at the start of their matches.
It may be no more than coincidence, but a few days earlier an incident occurred half way around the world. Our new captain of England’s cricket team, himself Irish declares that he will not sing the English National Anthem at the start of games in the Cricket World Cup. England Cricket is in danger of humiliation in the tournament.
Make of it what you will, Mr Holmes. I have written down these strange events as a record of what I have experienced. I beg you to help us get to the bottom of this in order that England Rugby can complete with other international teams which have such an unfair advantage, before a game even starts.