‘WHAT a great start to the Six Nations: Ireland win and England lose!’
That was the gist of a Tweet sent out by a former Ireland rugby star - no less - when the annual tournament kicked off last month.
Oh gawd, was my reaction. It’s that time of year again: The Six Nations. How I have come to loathe the bloody Six Nations. And that Tweet summed up why.
There’s a quote that goes ‘It’s not enough to succeed, others must fail’, which gets to the heart of my dislike for the rugby tournament.
The point behind the quote is that people can be mean-spirited, and won’t just be happy with a personal victory, they secretly (or not so secretly) get a kick out of watching others fail.
That sums up the Irish attitude to the Six Nations competition in a nutshell. Fans cheer on Ireland fervently - which is perfectly fine and dandy, of course. But, in line with the other Celtic nations, they also want England - nasty, horrible beastly, perfidious Albion - to fail dismally.
And, as an Englishman, living in Cork now for 21 years, I have to say it has become tedious, and, of late, more and more venomous and potentially corrosive and damaging.
The bitter enmity at Six Nations time is universal, inescapable. And if the intention is to be funny, then the result is more often the opposite - about as welcome as a fart in a scrumdown.
We’re not talking about harmless jokes here, a bit of ribbing and rivalry, the type that makes the world go round - we’re talking about lame, idiotic, unfunny ‘banter’, which is often merely an unpleasant strain of virulent nationalism dressed up with a fig leaf of patriotism.
It was Samuel Johnson who said that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel - and scoundrels abound in Ireland at Six Nations time.
Let me give you some more examples of the type of toxic ‘banter’ I’m talking about.
There’s been a radio ad for the past few weeks offering tickets for today’s England v Ireland match at Twickenham - an annual encounter always billed as ‘David versus Goliath’, even when David and Goliath are neck and neck in the world standings.
Now, every England v Ireland rugby match is an opportunity for Irish patriotic fervour to register on the Richter scale, which is perfectly fine, but the bile against England and its people rises accordingly, which is perfectly not fine.
“Watch the Irish bash Boris’s Boys,” goes the tagline for that ad.
It’s the type of alliterative, flag-waving, tabloid fodder I thought had died out in the 1980s, but somebody decided it’s perfectly fine to tarnish the England rugby team as ‘Boris’s Boys’ - with all the baggage that comes with it.
Does anyone describe France as ‘Macron’s monseiurs’, or Scotland as ‘Sturgeon’s Sons? Of course not, if an English tabloid used the latter term, it could easily lay itself open to a charge of stoking up unpleasantness.
Here’s another particularly egregious example of how Irish ‘banter’ and jocularity oversteps the mark at Six Nations time.
Apparently, staff at an Irish pub in London mute the TV when the English national anthem is played during the rugby tournament.
I know: side-splitting stuff. There you go - Michael Collins didn’t die in vain after all.
Seriously, though, is that kind of jingoism in any way acceptable?
When this juvenile stunt was revealed on Irish social media, almost all the comments backed it up. Some wags said they knew of pub staff who muted the national anthem to play the Sex Pistols’ punk version of it, or the East- Enders theme tune. Be still my splitting sides.
One bar worker said he always mutes God Save The Queen - a burst of patriotism by him which was partially let down by the fact the badge he favours to identify himself to others on social media is, er, an Arsenal one.
There is a serious point to be made here about all this childish clowning. The majority of English people will not be personally affronted by the muting of their anthem in a pub, and most that did feel it was a slight too far would be too polite to cause a scene.
But stunts like that can only encourage the type of nasty, nationalist English person who think the world is out to get them and is always looking for an axe to grind.
Presenting this small but vociferous cabal of idiots with a prima facie case of anti-Englishness like this is only going to give them succour.
Of course, it’s not just the Irish that love to see England fail at Six Nations time: The Scots and Welsh unite with them in their dislike - is hatred too strong a word? - of the English, hiding their nasty inner prejudices behind a wall of sport and ‘comedy’.
But the jokes stopped being funny a long time ago.
Some of this bile relates to the fact that England are cast as the perennial favourites to win the Six Nations, and - hey! - everyone loves a sports giant-killing, right?
It’s true that England have historically had the best record in the tournament, with the Celtic nations in the role of underdogs, but recent history shows that all changed a long time ago.
Since it went from a Five to a Six Nations at the turn of the millennium, France and Wales have won most Grand Slams, and England and Ireland have won two apiece. It hardly justifies the David versus Goliath codology, does it?
Ireland are marginal favourites with bookies to win in Twickenham today - most experts expect them to win comfortably - but if they do, the ‘plucky underdogs’ tropes will assuredly form part of the response. Why let the facts get in the way of your ‘truth’?
Who’d be an England rugby fan? Having to put up with constant jibes from rival supporters about 800 years of occupation, or the Battle of Bannockburn, or the castles policy of King Edward I, as though modern-day English people had a hand in such ancient history?
I’ll hold my hands up and say there is another reason I dislike the Six Nations Championship: I just don’t like rugby union, I find it a dull, stop-start spectacle ruined by a surplus of rules that even some of those playing it must find hard to keep up with.
I’m happy enough to leave them all at it, apart from the constant England-bashing that attends it, like a tumour on the body politic.
Have your fun today, Ireland fans, and good luck. But if you do win, maybe remember the old maxim: If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.