More ey up lad than what’s the craic

Rugby League
Ireland v Russia (World Cup qualifier)
The Carlisle Grounds, Bray
Saturday 29th October (5pm kick off)

“Get at ’em, hard at ’em,” shouts one of the Irish players as his team retakes its positions. Russia are about to kick off following the first try from Ireland. I can’t make out if the accent is from Wigan or Wakefield or somewhere in-between but it’s decidedly Northern (English).

As the game progresses, and Ireland rack up the points, those Northern accents are pretty much all I hear from the boys in green.

A family walks past me on the way to their seats in the main stand of the neat little Carlisle Grounds, home of Bray Wanderers football team, and recently the home of Irish Rugby League. The woman stops, not caring that she’s blocking the view, and shouts in a Mancunian accent: “hit him Will, hit him, go on hit him.”

I never heard Will Hope’s accent so I can’t tell you where he grew up, but he plays for Oldham in the English Championship, the second tier of Rugby League in England. Considering there are only three countries in the world that are any good at this sport (England, Australia and New Zealand) that makes him pretty decent.

Hope is just one of a bunch of players representing Ireland who play with English teams in the Championship or the Super League (the top-tier). Although neither are featuring in the match the programme also list a player (James Hasson) as representing  Parramatta Eels in Australia and another (Haydn Peacock) as with Carcassonne in France. They were born in England and Australia respectively.

“Ah, it sounds like another Jack Charlton to me,” says the guy at the bar in the Hibernia Inn when I tell him about the accents. I’ve managed to sneak out to this nearby pub at half-time for a pint of Smithwick’s as there is no bar in the ground. The guy’s referring, of course, to the Jack Charlton football era, from 1985-95, when, it was often joked, anyone with a green jumper qualified for Ireland.

What Charlton, did, of course, was use a number of players who were born and brought up in England but who qualified to play for Ireland through parents or grandparents. But despite the accents it did the Ireland soccer team no harm at all, with Charlton presiding over the most successful period in the country’s history.

And, it’s doing the Rugby League boys (called the Wolfhounds by the way) no harm either as they are number six in the world rankings, which incidentally, is the same as their much more well-known Rugby Union counterparts.

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The Field of Dreams in Bray – but maybe not for these Russians…

The qualification rules to play for a country in international sport leave a lot to be desired for many people. In football, the great Alfredo Di Stefano played for the country of his birth Argentina, squeezed in four games for Colombia, then later represented Spain. Mozambican-born Eusebio excited World Cup crowds in 1966 – playing for Portugal. In the 1990s Tiaan Strauss first played for South Africa, then moved to Australia and won the World Cup while representing them. The Japanese rugby team owes much of its recent rise in fortunes to the number of New Zealanders who qualify through residency, while few players from neighbouring islands can resist the lure of the All Blacks – or the Pacific Select XV as a friend calls them – if the call comes. Elsewhere we have (fast) East Africans representing (rich) Middle Eastern nations, an Irishman (Eoin Morgan) captaining England’s cricket team, and brothers (Jerome and Kevin Prince Boateng) representing different countries in football. It certainly puts things into perspective next time someone shouts “we won!” or screams, “we lost!”

The crowd at Bray is a few hundred strong, which is decent enough for a sport few people in Ireland know anything about and being played in a small coastal town. But it’s a good choice of venue and there are great views across the sea on the 35-minute train ride from Dublin, with the train hugging the coast and passing through a lot of  small places which seem to have little else but a harbour, a yacht club and a few houses. Maybe they’d have attracted a few more in from the capital if there weren’t bigger rugby (union) games being played the same day? I suspect the numbers at the match are made up of people connected to the sport, the families of players and a few vaguely interested locals. I meet a family from Doncaster who are on a weekend break and have wandered in to see what’s going on. The afternoon has got that sort of feel to it.

A two-for-one online ticket offer has probably helped to boost the attendance. After all, there’s few other sporting events where you get two adult tickets for a tenner. Although not everyone is interested in a bargain it seems. I have a spare voucher so I wait near the ticket booth, hoping to save someone the price of a pint. But suspicions win the day among the people I offer it to and I can’t even give it away. “I don’t want anything,” I tell them. “You can have it.” But, alas, they all seem determined to pay full price and avoid human contact. I give up and go in because I can hear the first national anthem striking up and can smell the curry chips wafting out from the van inside the ground.

Russia score the first try, somewhat to the surprise of even their own players, who only half celebrate. Maybe they know what is to come. The previously mentioned Will Hope scores the first try and the much more experienced Irish side run in 13 tries in total to win 70-16 and qualify for the World Cup Finals next year. Alan McMahon (2), Casey Dunne and James Kelly, who play for the locally based sides Galway Tribesmen, Longhorns and Dublin City Exiles respectively, all score. I go into the clubhouse to buy an Ireland shirt but they are sold out. They only brought 12, I am told, but even so I suspect that’s more than they usually sell on a chilly Saturday.

The win over Russia (ranked 16th in the world) concluded a busy period for the Wolfhounds. Games against Malta (ranked 18th) and Jamaica (ranked 27th) gave a run out for more local players in Bray, while there was also a trip to Valencia for a World Cup qualifier against Spain (ranked 21st).

Back in the Hibernia Inn with the family from Doncaster after the game, and we are discussing the game. But it’s noticeable that most of the people in the pub are more interested in the Liverpool football match on the TV. I feel like telling them that following a match just a few hundred metres away from where they sitting Ireland have just qualified for the World Cup Finals and will be off to Australia and Papua New Guinea next year. But somehow I suspect they’d only be interested if the players had Scouse accents and wore red.

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Ticket: general access for €5 (thanks to an online 2 for 1 offer).
Drink: pint of Smithwick’s (€4.30) from the Hibernia Inn.
Food: curry chips (€4) from the van in the ground.
Getting there: Bray Station is on the DART line heading south from Dublin.
Score: Ireland 70 Russia 16.

 • The Rugby League World Cup takes place in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea  from 27 October to 2 December 2017.