I’ve never played rugby in any form, which is just as well. Because even trying to watch it, in my experience, can be tactically difficult. Take last Saturday when I went to a pub in Dublin to see the EU double bill involving Munster and Leinster.
Of O’Neill’s many television screens, I chose one near the Trinity Street side door, before taking the calculated risk of sitting on a stool at the bar.
On the plus side, this provided a guaranteed line of sight to the tall wall screen. A customer ordering in front of me should be seven feet tall to block the view. And I knew the only seven feet in Dublin on Saturday was probably on the Lansdowne pitch.
On the other hand, sitting at the bar counter leaves you plagued by the occasional crowd as people push around to shout orders. You are also at a higher risk of conversation than usual.
So it turned out here. Regular visitors to the counter included an affable New Zealander who discovered on close inspection that what looked like my Leinster top was actually a Monaghan GAA and decided that was the basis of friendship.
He was a nice guy, deep into rugby. Unfortunately, he was also deeply immersed in Guinness and past the point where he could focus on Munster vs Toulouse.
Instead, he was more interested in the rivalry between Ireland and the All-Blacks, saying things like, “You have our number now.” This forced me to explain how every time Ireland thought they had New Zealand’s number, the number was quickly changed again. Come the World Cup, we would realize that it was an old number that we had for them, since disconnected.
Unfortunately, by saying such things, I would miss another dramatic moment in the Munster game. My Kiwi friend’s multiple visits to the bar oddly coincided with key scores.
Worse still, as the pub got crowded I now had lots of loud customers on the TV side, shouting orders.
So, before the Leinster game, I decided on a slight change of position.
The row of stools at a bar counter is like a defensive line in rugby, with their occupants spread out at intervals and patrons standing trying to attack the space in between.
I was near the end of the line, in a centre-forward position, with only one winger closer to the TV. If I close that gap, customers would have to line up behind me instead.
The tricky part was that the ‘wingman’ was then a glamorous young American, who had just taken the last stool and ordered an Irish stew.
I had to close the gap without invading his space or looking like a bad guy. Luckily, it only took a little tweaking to force the attacking clients back into me. Now I could watch the game undisturbed.
Then the American tourist said “hello”. Or maybe she asked a question. And with that, of course, the dreaded conversation broke out.
Unfortunately, she turned out to be a really interesting person. She was an opera singer and associate professor of music. She was also a travel blogger. For more interest, her first name was Alethea, a new one on me.
While I was learning all this, Leinster had gained 10 points, unguarded. Then I found out that despite her exotic first name, Alethea was Scottish-Irish on her father’s side, which is why she was here.
His father had died not long ago, a big shock. Now, still missing him, she was on a journey to discover her homeland.
As she was saying that, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Robbie Henshaw had crashed for another try. But I desperately resisted the urge to glance at the screen, even briefly. It would have been rude.
Instead, we continued to discuss the names of places in Ulster where her ancestors are from and places in Dublin she should visit.
But at some point the subject of James Joyce arose: she knew him mainly through the composer Samuel Barber, who set some of his poems to music.
And just then, by chance, a man I know who happens to be both a Joycean scholar and a singer, not to mention a professor of philosophy, stumbled across. “It’s Alethea,” I said. “Greek for ‘truth’,” he pointed out. “Yes!” she says.
After that, rugby was plunged into a sea of philosophical, musical and literary discussions. Despite my pub defense strategy, I had lost both games, heavily.
Still, as the coaches always say, there were positives in the performance. I just need to dust myself off now and get back to it next week.