DESCENDING in an elevator – like Louis Cyphre in Angel Heart – in a hotel in Dublin, I casually remarked by way of conversion to the Scottish head coach that England had no boxers in the semi-finals of the European Championships and Ireland and Scotland had.
“Ma hart is brokan, Paddy,” growled Scotland’s chief seconds. “We’re devastated ourselves, Jock,” said I.
They don’t come much tougher than Glaswegian corner men. They’re harder than coffin nails. But our Celtic cousins would want to lay off the deep-fried Mars bars because we claimed five medals and Caledonia just one. Still, however, that was one more than the boys on the other side of Hadrian’s Wall. Scotland the brave.
But what is it about the demise of England on the field of play that puts a spring in our steps? The more advanced among us insist that we should quit sneering at the back of the class when a Saxon balloons a penalty over the bar. Going all Freudian on poor old unreconstructed Paddy, the enlightened ones liken our unrestrained glee at John Bull’s capitulation to post-colonial issues – or something.
But the most joyous days of our lives were spent watching “Engerland” crash out of the World Cup on penalties, invariably to Germany. Only last week, the England U/21 side exited the European Championships to Fritz on spot kicks. You’d want to have a heart of stone not to laugh. Vorsprung durch Technik!
And who can forget when they lost to Sweden and the headline in The Sun read “Swedes 2 Turnips 0”. Or more recently when they were beaten by Iceland, who had to name a penguin and an arctic puffin in central midfield because there are only 17 people living in the entire country!
However, a degree of sympathy exists for England’s multi-millionaire footballers. Sympathy because a season must end at some point so we can all repair for a few months until hostilities resume in August.
Do the stars care about being eliminated from top tournaments? I recall an ex-pro footballer writing that when a squad was confirmed that some were disappointed to see their names in the panel because it interfered with their plans for the weekend.
Likewise, you’d get the impression that some players don’t exactly mind going out of major Championships if it means they can begin their holidays earlier. Which brings us to the current British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand, which is dragging on longer than the invasion of Visigothic Hispania by the Moors of the 2nd Caliphate.
The Lions impressed on the undercard, beating a number of teams including Crusaders, who don’t, for some reason, tour the Middle East, but when it came to the first instalment of the main event they fell asunder in the second half against the All Blacks who have, amazingly, won 77% of their test matches since 1903.
In another proud moment for Munster rugby, Peter O’Mahony was named captain for the first test by coach Warren Gatland, who is indulging in more trash talk than Tyson Fury with his equally opinionated New Zealand counterpart Steve Hansen.
Paul O’Connell’s deoxyribonucleic acid – or DNA for short – entered the conversation when O’Mahony was handed the armband.
Graham Rowntree, assistant coach to the Lions, said: “He has that Paul O’Connell kind of DNA in him, being a Munster man.” O’Mahony, in an emotional interview after becoming the 11th Irishman – and the second Munster player after O’Connell in South Africa in 2009 – to do the honours, cited the influence of Anthony Foley on his career, adding that he hoped the late Munster coach would be proud. He certainly would.
But is the tour an anachronism, a remnant from the age of amateurism? It has a grand tradition stretching back over 100 years, but since the advent of professionalism some object to hauling ass around the southern hemisphere and increasing the risk of injury at the end of a physically demanding season.
Elsewhere, Hugh McIlvanney, has written a piece titled ‘The Tortured Morality of Little Wars’, which should be prerequisite reading for anyone involved in pro boxing, but which is mostly ignored for exactly the same reason. He reasons that arguing that injuries in prize fighting are lower – thus pro boxing is safer – than a lot of other sports is a red herring.
The problem with boxing, he explains, is its morality, in that it’s a sport where the primary purpose of a fighter is to render his opponent unconscious. The Scottish wordsmith cites the tragic example of Johnny Owen, a Welsh bantam who was chronically shy outside the ropes but whose personality underwent a dramatic transformation when he stepped into the squared circle.
The “Merthyr Matchstick” met Mexico’s defending champion Lupo Pintor in Los Angeles in 1980 for the WBC bantamweight title and was stopped late in the fight. He remained in a coma for seven weeks after being brutally KO’d and died in November of that year, aged 24.
Meanwhile, in Ireland this year, Dr Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist cited for his work on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (the brain disease caused by concussion), has called for a global ban of contact sports at underage level (U/18).
“When you play high impact sports, and by that I mean American Football, ice hockey, boxing, mixed martial arts, wrestling and rugby, your head is exposed to repeated blows,” he told the Irish Times.
Pro rugby is now inhabited by a species which has never walked this planet before. They’re over six-foot tall and built like the front door of King John’s castle; 18 stone on the hoof as the great Billy McLaren might say. Some of the premeditated collisions in the sport, even at AIL level, could be likened to articulated trucks gathering speed on a roundabout and repeatedly ploughing head on into each other.
“It was his tragedy that he found himself articulate in such a dangerous language,” wrote McIlvanney after Owen died. Rugby lacks the primal violence of pro boxing and it does use a ball, as a metaphor, so to speak, but young men, and women, are hammering each other to get over the game line.
“The brain has no capacity to regenerate itself,” warned Dr Omalu. “These games, you can never make them safe. You can never take away the head from rugby or boxing or American Football.”
But the physicality and the big hits which create the space for creativity are amongst the main attractions of rugby.
Remove the battle for the “hard yards” and all you’ll have left is a glorified version of tag rugby. Leave in the big hits and you risk permanent injury and a visit to a neurosurgeon’s ward, according to Dr Omalu. The tortured morality of rolling mauls.