‘The biggest show in town’ – how rugby united a divided Ireland

CNN  — 

During “The Troubles” – the 30-year sectarian conflict that left more than 3,600 people dead – tensions between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland were at an all-time high. But throughout this period, Ireland’s rugby team continued to play under a single flag.

In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement helped bring peace to Northern Ireland. It was also around that time 21 years ago that Rory Best first pulled on an Ulster jersey.

He was a schoolboy back then, sporting rather more hair than he does today, but unchanging throughout Best’s long rugby career has been the jerseys he wears on game days – the white and red of Ulster, the provincial side based in the Northern Irish capital of Belfast, and the green of Ireland.

Best, who will officially retire from rugby after captaining Ireland at the upcoming Rugby World Cup in Japan, played his final game for Ulster in May this year, ending an affiliation that’s endured for over half his life.

Saying goodbye was even harder than he anticipated.

“When actually the words came out of my mouth, I struggled a little bit because it has been such a big part of my life for so long,” Best tells CNN World Rugby, reflecting on the media conference when he tearfully announced his retirement.

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The notion of one-club loyalty may seem old fashioned in the current era of professional sport, but at Ulster it beats as strongly as ever.

The club is deeply embedded in the fabric of Belfast; boys growing up in and around the city dream of playing for Ulster, and players who step out on the turf of the Kingspan Stadium often do so for long swathes of their career.

Best’s teammate Darren Cave also retired at the end of last season having spent his whole career at Ulster. Alongside Andrew Trimble, he’s the club’s most-capped player with 229 appearances.

“I’m probably a little biased but from a sporting point of view, it’s the biggest show in town,” Cave tells CNN World Rugby.

“It’s not like in England where you’ve got Premier League football and all that kind of stuff. Over here, this is the biggest professional sport there is in this country.”

But it’s not just in Belfast that rugby is held in such high esteem. Throughout a country so often association with division – religious, political, and geographical – the sport has proved a unifying force in Ireland.

World Rugby Men's 15s Player of the Year award winner Johnny Sexton (L) and Irish national team captain Rory Best pose with their trophies during the World Rugby Awards on November 25, 2018 at the Monte-Carlo Sporting Club in Monaco. (Photo by YANN COATSALIOU / AFP)        (Photo credit should read YANN COATSALIOU/AFP/Getty Images)
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Building bridges

Playing for Ireland during “The Troubles” wasn’t without significant risk. In 1987 members of the Irish team were caught in a bombing incident while traveling across the border to national team training in Dublin. While captain David Irwin escaped unscathed, his teammate Nigel Carr missed the World Cup with the injuries he sustained.

“It’s a bit taken for granted for modern rugby players because thankfully we live in a time of peace,” says Best.

“Back then it wasn’t, but rugby meant so much to them that they still went, ‘Nothing’s going to stop me representing Ulster, nothing’s going to stop me representing Ireland.’”

Rugby has transcended Ireland’s divisions: “You just want the best players,” Best continues. “You don’t care where they come from. And when you get the best players, you want them to give their all on the pitch.

“I think that is the wonderful thing about sport and obviously rugby with the all-Ireland team. But also with Ulster crossing the border as well. It’s a really lovely aspect of sport that it doesn’t matter.”

Rory Best retired from Ulster at the end of the 2018-19 season.

Anthem changes

Of the nine counties in the province of Ulster, six are north of the border and three are south of it. That means a player like Tommy Bowe, who heralds from County Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland, can become a local rugby hero in the north. He played for Ulster more than 150 times.

Cave, who represented Ireland 11 times, was born and raised in Belfast during the 1990s. While his parents studied at the city’s university during The Troubles, he has only ever known Northern Ireland on largely peaceful terms.

“I never thought it was strange that somebody from Belfast or Northern Ireland would want to play for Ireland,” says Cave.

“People can walk around and hand on heart say they’re British but at the same time, go down to Lansdowne Road or the Aviva Stadium on a Saturday and cheer for Ireland.”

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One point of contention has been Ireland’s national anthem. “Ireland’s Call” was commissioned by the IRFU as a more inclusive alternative to Amhran na bhFiann (“The Soldier’s Song”), the national anthem of the Republic of Ireland.

For the past two decades, “Ireland’s Call” has been sung before games by the Irish rugby team.

“For me, when I played for Ireland, I always really appreciated when players from the Republic, or the likes of players from Dublin, sang ‘Ireland’s Call,’” says Cave.

“That was their way of accepting the northern players because the reason ‘Ireland’s Call’ exists is essentially to include the players from the north.”

Irish players sing "Ireland's Call" before taking on the Wallabies.

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Brexit ‘unknowns’

Irish rugby may yet have further political issues to wrestle with.

A majority 56% of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union in 2016, but the country is having to embrace the consequences of Britain’s vote to leave the EU.

“The worrying thing with Brexit full stop is just the unknown,” says Best.

“As a rugby player you base your life on knowledge – we need to know our detail, we need to execute it, we need to practice it and then we get to the game and then it’s all about delivering it. Whereas now we’re going in to a period where we don’t really know what the future is going to hold.”

The border of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is currently open. Over a million vehicles a month pass between the two countries and the open border also facilitates trade between Britain and Ireland.

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“There’s a lot of people who live in and around the border and trade on both sides of the border regularly and drive on both sides of the border regularly,” says Cave. “I’m struggling to see the positives.

“I think Ireland made great progression uniting people and uniting things, and I think when it comes to Brexit … nobody knows what will happen.”

Best’s family runs an arable farm, while he owns a herd of about 60 cattle. Working on the farm figures in his plans after rugby, but when it comes to Brexit there are “so many gaps in terms of the subsidies that need to be filled,” he says.

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Then there’s also the impact on the sport he’s leaving behind: “Is it just going to be, well the Irish team can stay as it is? Or is it going to be, well actually you know there’s bits and pieces about freedom of movement and trade across the border that just leaves it untenable to do that?

“Then what happens to Ulster? Do Ulster have to break from the three other provinces? … I know that politicians in Brussels probably don’t really care very much about Ulster Rugby or Irish Rugby, but you would like to think that there’ll be consideration given to the human element of it all.”

A spokesperson told CNN that the Irish Rugby Football Union “like all organizations, has been looking at the possible impact Brexit might have” but “does not wish to engage in speculation on the possible outcomes and their potential impact.”

BRIGHTON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 19:  Ayumu Goromaru of Japan ceelbrates scoring the second try during the 2015 Rugby World Cup Pool B match between South Africa and Japan at the Brighton Community Stadium on September 19, 2015 in Brighton, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)
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The final goodbye

Both Best and Cave have enough to keep them busy after retirement.

Cave owns a coffee shop in Belfast and has just become a father. As the World Cup gets underway and club players across Europe begin the new season, he says he won’t be having too many regrets about his decision.

“I always remember hearing the phrase, ‘Everybody wants to eat sausage but no one wants to see how it’s made,’” he says.

“So I’ll miss the games, but I won’t miss the buildup. I won’t miss the worrying about selection, the injuries, the gym, the conditioning … the physicality. Just what your body has to go through.”

As for Best, there’s the small matter of a World Cup to play in. Ireland has never won rugby’s showpiece event, but goes into the tournament as the world’s top-ranked team.

Few would see the men in green as outright favorites to win in Japan, but this could be the team’s best ever chance to become world champion.

How can Ireland achieve that? Best thinks the answer is quite simple.

“The first World Cup I went to, it wasn’t an enjoyable experience because we went there thinking we were going to do well and we actually forgot to enjoy the fact that we’re in a World Cup.

“I think that is the big thing – how we get players and whatever management to enjoy the experience and ultimately deliver the best that they can deliver.”