As the dust was settling on Ireland’s 12-6 Six Nations loss to England on Sunday, everyone I chatted to that evening agreed it was a shocking performance.
We weren’t discussing the team, although their efforts clearly left a lot to be desired as a Grand Slam slipped from grasp for another year, dashing hopes fuelled by a famous victory in Wales the previous week.
No, it was the Aviva Stadium crowd that left me disgruntled and judging by the collective agreement of friends and colleagues, this is a view echoed across Ireland, wherever rugby fans gather. At least it should.
Perhaps it was the Sunday afternoon kick-off. Maybe it was the miserable weather but the atmosphere at a sold-out Aviva Stadium at the weekend was atrocious.
I first got a sense of it when Ireland jogged off the field following their warm-up. Traditionally an opportunity for a crowd to roar its encouragement to the players as they complete their pre-match routines and rituals, there was barely a peep out of Sunday’s audience as Jamie Heaslip led his players back to the dressing rooms, save for a spirited effort from a small section of supporters gathered around the tunnel. Elsewhere around the stadium there were thousands of empty seats, just 10 minutes before kick-off.
Remember that Ireland versus England has perennially been the biggest date on the rugby calendar in this country. New Zealand, South Africa and Australia will always be greeted with enthusiasm in November but the biennial visit of the auld enemy to Dublin for a championship Test is the one to be at, the must-have ticket, with France a close second.
That was certainly the gist of the pre-match build-up as players from both sides spoke about the cauldron of passion they expected to be greeted with on Sunday afternoon.The theory, supported by this writer, was that it would a positive factor for Declan Kidney’s players as they were backed to the hilt by their compatriots while serving to intimidate the visitors, forced out of their Twickenham comfort zone.
Instead, a few minutes after Ireland had jogged towards the changing sheds, my suspicions that there would be no such outbreak of Aviva Fever were confirmed when England ran out for the match to be greeted by swathes of still-empty seats.
Where was everyone? I’m guessing still in the bars and food outlets on the Aviva Stadium concourses that keep the IRFU coffers brimming year on year. Without sounding too Munster-centric, this nevers happens at Thomond Park, where the red army’s roars just before kick-off lay down a marker to visiting teams listening back in the dressing room under the stands and exhort their heroes to the required levels of intensity.
On Sunday at the Aviva, the low-key pre-match atmosphere perhaps was a contributory factor to Ireland’s flat start to the game.
I say ran out but the English actually sauntered onto the pitch. Intimidating it was not and their efforts to appear as if on an afternoon stroll on Richmond Common proved to be a portent of the match to come.
Thankfully most of the seats were occupied by the time the anthems were played and immaculately observed but then a strange thing happened, something I've never previously witnessed or heard at an Irish rugby stadium.
Strangely muted, given the importance of the fixture between two unbeaten sides, both with ambitions of Triple Crowns, championships and Grand Slams, Ireland fans started whistling and jeering when the English supporters started singing their traditional rallying cry “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”.
It happened four or five times during the game in an effort to drown out the visitors. Now, all’s fair in love and war and I’m a child of the English football terraces where such actions have been all too commonplace, and, shamefully, much worse thanks to a lunatic fringe, not least at the old Lansdowne Road.
But this is rugby, at a Test on hallowed turf, wouldn’t it have been better to actually sing Ireland’s songs louder than our guests rather than merely try to silence them with barracking? I think a rousing rendition of the Fields of Athenry would have been far more effective yet I only recall hearing that once during the whole game and it not exactly spine-tingling.
The low point, for these ears, was when England fly-half Owen Farrell was teeing up a penalty and his supporters chose to sing “Swing Low”. It’s not usually the done thing on these shores as Irish rugby supporters are renowned in world rugby for maintaining silence during goal-kicking attempts but it was their prerogative. Shamefully, the Aviva masses broke with long-standing tradition and jeered and whistled their way through Farrell’s entire kicking routine and execution. He missed and Irish rugby’s reputation went down a notch as a result, not least because there was no stadium announcement to remind supporters of their duty to uphold such traditions.
It left a sour taste. Never mind the task of head coach Kidney in getting his players to bounce back for the remaining three games of the 2013 Six Nations, Irish supporters have one last chance to redeem themselves, against the French on March 9. Let’s hope they take it and not only restore their reputation but also give their team an atmosphere in which to raise their game.