The Six Nations is getting under way and my entire weekend is planned around it. My heart and my throat will again scream allegiance to the Boys in Green, even though I don’t consider myself to be a particularly patriotic person. Not in the popular sense.
I am proud of where I come from, and the people who made me, in as much as one can ever be proud of something for which one can claim no credit, but the brand of patriotism that sees mobs pitted against one another, draped in flags and dripping in anger isn’t something I am naturally drawn to.
I realise this is how many view sporting allegiance, at least from the outside, but as a child of the bloodiest period of our recent history, quaintly referred to as ‘The Troubles’, patriotism only ever brought problems in my formative years. Not to mention confusion and disorientation, where usually it offers comfort.
It’s probably ironic that it was in this place of confusion that my deep love affair with rugby was born. For me, it’s a sport that just hits different. Allow me to explain. When I was little, even more so than now, being Northern Irish meant swearing sporting allegiance to either the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland. Never both.
As a product of an almost entirely Catholic community, our Irish identity was at least as strong as for those born across the border, who never had that identity questioned or challenged.
Croke Park, the high seat of Gaelic sports, was our spiritual home, and a love of ‘soccer’ was only indulged if you supported Liverpool, Man United, or Jack Charlton. Obviously.
However, maybe because I grew up in this tiny corner of the world, othered by the rest of the UK as an outlier, an outpost, where problems belonged ‘over there’, I had a deep connection to my homeland as Northern Ireland. It got me in trouble.
I remember in school, chatting about an upcoming Republic v Northern Ireland match and being rounded on for daring to suggest we could have some allegiance to those from our side of the border. ‘How could you? They hate the likes of us’, with ‘they’ being the Protestants who made up the majority of the team.
Most Catholically minded players opted to use their Irish citizenship and declare allegiance for the Republic, and to suggest support otherwise was to be a traitor in all but name. All of which was why, when I fell for rugby, I fell hard. Here was a sport where I didn’t have to choose.
I could sing my Irish allegiance loud and proud, and I could finally be proud of my northern Irish brethren. Here we were, playing as one.
Except, growing up is a continual peeling back of the layers of understanding, isn’t it? When the now beloved Irish rugby song, Ireland’s Call, was first introduced, there were those south of the border who resented the deviation from the national anthem Amhrán na bhFiann.
My excitement at a proverbial call to arms, untainted by bloodshed and division and belonging fully to this sport, was tainted by the players who refused to sing. The divisions on this island are multi-layered and run deep.
All of which is why I am not embarrassed to admit I was brought to tears before our World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand last year. I watched those men belt out Ireland’s Call with the passion and pride of a team of warriors, a team who now hail from all corners of the globe, but who are as Irish as the rest of us.
I cried because of everything it’s taken to get here, because of the power of sport, of the pointlessness of the suffering of patriotism but the glory of a shared endeavour that unites in joy. Or disappointment.
My heart slowly shattered over the course of the next 82 minutes and 19 seconds, in a way I haven’t allowed it to since Toto Schillaci sent us home from Italia 90. Except this was worse, unexcused as it was by childhood naivety. I’m an adult now. A grown woman. And worse, one who works in sport and witnesses the futility of dreams dashed and hopes shattered on a weekly basis. But I was heartbroken all the same. And still am.
I dared to believe, I needed the win for reasons much bigger than ‘just’ sport, but it wasn’t to be. Because life doesn’t work like that.
In sport, as in life, we dust ourselves off and go again, and my reasons for getting excited about this Six Nations are more plentiful than simply the chance to support the national side again so soon. Amid a turbulent time in English club rugby, I have been fortunate enough to witness some incredible displays in the Gallagher Premiership with TNT Sports.
There is much to cheer if you are an English rugby fan. Even with the blow of Marcus Smith’s injury and Owen Farrell’s absence, the fly-half debate of George Ford and the hugely exciting Fin Smith will keep us talking. Henry Slade has been playing for Exeter like a man unshackled from the pressure the privilege of World Cup duty would have brought and George Furbank’s captaining of Northampton has been as impressive as his moustache.
Then there’s the steal of Immanuel Feyi-Waboso from under Welsh noses. Will the promising winger face the side of his birth? As if the atmosphere for an England v Wales clash wasn’t charged enough. The latter are in a rebuild under the prodigiously young captain Dfydd Jenkins, which makes them somewhat unpredictable.
Scotland have been sensational in recent years, with the self-proclaimed Messi of rugby, Finn Russell, firmly back in the camp and co-captaining Gregor Townsend’s side. Factor in a France without Antoine Dupont, off chasing Olympic glory, and an Italy team hoping to gain from the form of domestic side Treviso, for whom many of the squad play, and we have a truly fascinating tournament in store.
So yes, I may still be smarting from the World Cup, and no, I may not consider myself to be overly patriotic, but I’ll apologise to my neighbours in advance all the same. It’s set to be a noisy few weeks chez Chennaoui, and I can’t wait.