Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Ulster did lose but fans and sport were the real winners

Ulster rugby fans

Ulster's dream is over - if only until next year. The thousands of us who crossed the Irish Sea to throng the streets of west London, trooped out of Twickenham in the gathering dusk of Saturday evening, downcast, yes, but not dispirited.

Van Morrison's words "There'll be days like this" might have been written for the occasion.

The Heineken Cup final between Ulster and Leinster was not simply about playing a game of rugby or winning a sporting trophy. It was a hugely significant display of the social and political revolution which has overtaken us all on this island in the past decade.

To quote the Olympic ideal: 'The honour is not in winning but in taking part' - or, as was the case at Twickenham, in being there. We were part of a unique experience, something that went beyond the disappointment of defeat.

Saturday provided a platform for those who hailed from the province of Ulster to express openly and freely their sense of identity. It was an opportunity to show some pride and passion in our roots, and perhaps even to allow us to finally exorcise any embarrassment about our past and show our positiveness about the present and the future.

When the referee's whistle blew to start the Heineken Cup final, it was as if the deafening cheers of the 82,000 in the grandstands from north and south were not just for the teams but to signal the burial of Ireland's troubles in Twickenham's hallowed turf, it must be hoped forever.

We waved our flags. We raised our voices. We stood together. We found a common thread, we in the grandstands of such diverse persuasions and differing views.

Whatever did the English make of us? The accents from Antrim to Kildare, from Belfast and Dublin? One rugby fan draped in an Ulster flag, the other with a Tricolour, side by side in friendly conversation on the platform of Strawberry Hill train station, heading off to the nearest pub together.

Down Twickenham's main street, the strong guttural tones of the northerners, the lighter vowels of the southerners filled the air. Forget the fact that Ulster lost, the image of this province is all the better for the respectful manner of what took place.

As I mingled with the Ulster and Leinster fans, my mind went back to 'A Night in November' the title of the Marie Jones play about the meeting of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland teams at Windsor Park in the World Cup of 1993.

I was there that night with my teenage son and never was I more embarrassed to be an Ulsterman than when the Republic scored. The full venom of the crowd was directed at a small band of spectators who had travelled from the south and who dared to cheer their team's goal.

That very afternoon I had been to Dublin for an interview with the then Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. We had spent two hours in his office discussing the difficulties of finding peace in Northern Ireland.

As we talked, I had one eye on my watch. With two tickets to Windsor Park and my son waiting in Belfast I knew I was running out of time to drive back in time for the kick-off.

The atmosphere at the match reflected the depth of tension and sense of outrage in the community after the Greysteel massacre shortly before.

I remember thinking amid the hate-filled taunts of some fans around me that had I put Albert Reynolds in the boot of my car and smuggled him into Windsor Park he would have learned more about the difficulties he faced than from all our conversation that afternoon. And so to May 19, 2012 at Twickenham. Rugby, despite being the most combative and, at times, brutal of games, attracted a uniquely respectful gathering of north and south, Protestant, Catholic and dissenter, unionist, nationalist, republican or whatever.

The Heineken Cup final showed how far many people have come from that night in November 19 years ago and how far other sports have yet to travel when they shout their offensive slogans and continue to vent their bigotry.

As I left Twickenham on Saturday night and watched the crowds melt away, I could not but think that, though the Ulster rugby team had been soundly beaten, the players had won for us all a much greater prize than the Heineken Cup. Whether other sports can follow that example remains to be seen.

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