There was Rory Best, a Northern Irish cop, in the Aviva Stadium in Dublin less than a month ago and when the Irish rugby fans clapped for him again, he fought back tears. He scratched the back of his head, ran his hand over his head, where for a long time only hair on the outermost sides was growing. Turning away again, shedding tears - then finally an answer, but the reporter had asked him no question, but simply stated: "Rory Best, your 120th game for Ireland and their last in Dublin."
Rory Best shares his thoughts with the Aviva Stadium crowd after his final home appearance for Ireland #rterugby #IREvWAL # RWC2019 pic.twitter.com/2bMWgtQFf1- RTÉ Rugby (@RTErugby) September 7, 2019
Best is not an Irishman, he comes from Craigavon in Northern Ireland. And yet he is considered one of the greatest captains of Irish rugby history, which will probably make his last game for the national team on Saturday. At the World Cup in Japan, Ireland have to beat home-high favorite New Zealand.
That all Irishmen applaud him, is possible because the All-Iceland rugby team represents the whole Irish island - the south and the north. While nationalism across Europe has become more and more open in sports arenas, and that sport has become a toy of the autocrats in parts, the politically and religiously torn-up Irish island, the Brexit focus, is playing rugby together.
"It was an honor"
Not long ago, Catholics and Protestants bombarded Northern Ireland. The nationalist Catholics sought a reunited Ireland, the unionist Protestants wanted to continue to belong to Great Britain. About 3,600 people died until 1998 during the Troubles, the civil war in Northern Ireland. Since then, there is a nervous peace.
In this mood, symbols in Northern Ireland are not trivial: when in 2012 the Union Jack was removed from the Belfast City Hall, where it had always flown, it came to days of protests and riots. And then the Protestant Best says goodbye to the Irish Catholics: "It was an honor to play for this country." One could almost think: Sometimes it still has the sport on it.
Bests' political message was: British and Irish identity, that works together. He was not just the captain of a sports team at that moment, but the representative of all Ireland, says sports magologist Joseph Maguire of Loughborough University: "The Rugby national team can represent the whole Irish island."
And because rugby is a major sport in Ireland and there is a stadium for more than 50,000 spectators, it is the sport that unites the island. Although both parts of the island also play field hockey together. But this sport lacks the big stadium and probably also the importance. In football there are two national teams. The Gaelic sports are still more popular, but so far only for the Catholics. Rugby also plays the Protestants.