Belfast Telegraph

Let games speak for themselves

By Declan Bogue

How much of sport is truly the entertainment industry?

That phrase alone; mentioned in the same sentence as sport, does it make you recoil, or do you accept is as a reasonable description of a product that lures tens of thousands to pay top dollar to see athletes perform?

It's a debate currently getting a good airing after the recent heavy rugby defeat of Ireland by Australia.

The complaints are many and sustained, centring around the matchday staff at the Aviva Stadium turning a sporting occasion into some dumbed-down jamboree, with fans exhorted to perform Pavlovian acts on cue in an effort to manufacture an atmosphere.

Mass-appeal sport has been steadily evolving ever since the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough Stadium disaster. Once recommendations were implemented, such as making stadia all-seater, there's an acceptance of the gentrification of sport.

As technology has shrunk the world and corporate sensitivities have invaded every cultural crevice, the natural thing for those involved in the 'industry' was to take lessons from the best attended sports in the world, in America.

However, while some elements of American sporting culture have undoubtedly enhanced the spectator experience, some discretion may have been advisable to refrain from slavishly copying the more cheesy elements.

Nobody really wants to hear a blast of 'Song 2' by Blur when a goal is scored. Likewise, there was a measure of disgust when strains of 'The Fields of Athenry' drifted over the Public Address system while the ball was in play against Australia.

On Sunday, my brother and I trooped along to the match against the All Blacks, me nursing a private fear that I was going to be assaulted with a saccharine dose of razzmatazz.

There are certain elements from the day that prompt a sneer. The fake heartbeat being pumped out of the speakers whenever the Television Match Official is making his deliberations on a try is particularly staged and, if anything, robs the few uncertain minutes of genuine tension.

However, the lashing that the matchday committee received over the weekend seemed to pull their horns in. The fact that the game was utterly absorbing also helped. In the middle of the second half, with Ireland regaining some composure, 'The Fields' got an airing that evolved organically, made all the more special for that.

Mercifully, I was not asked to participate in a Mexican Wave, which prickles my contrarian nature and social awkwardness, though I must be the only one in the world who doesn't 'get' fireworks.

Whoosh! Boom! Huh?

Back to the action, and for the final 20 minutes, we have to dip into cliché to say: You Could Not Keep Your Eyes Off It. For those watching on television it really was everything you would imagine inside. A phenomenal sporting and emotional experience.

This is what can happen when sport is allowed to provide the entertainment. It did not go unnoticed in the aftermath either. In Tony Ward's column – a man who knows a thing or two about beating the All Blacks – he noted, "Like many, since it re-opened under a new corporate moniker, I find the Lansdowne Road experience hugely underwhelming... on Sunday all that changed and the atmosphere was electric. We are still stuck with the plastic promptings but when the team on the field delivers, those dotted around the stadium do as well."

On Saturday night, four teams from an area around the Tyrone-Monaghan border will battle it out for the Ulster Intermediate and Junior Championships.

You could draw a straight line of 10 miles from the home of Eskra Emmetts to Truagh Gaels, who will contest the Intermediate final, and a dozen from Emyvale to Killeeshill St Mary's, who will open proceedings in the Junior decider.

The largest distance between these teams is the 13 miles from Killeeshill to Eskra, while a mere two miles separates Truagh and Emyvale.

Credit to the Ulster Council for staging these contests as a double-header in the Athletic Grounds within striking distance of all four parishes.

If you want razzmatazz or Mexican Waves, you won't find it in Armagh on Saturday night. The fireworks will be of a metaphorical type given that it is neighbour against neighbour for the chance to be crowned the best team in Ulster at their respective levels.

Sport will be allowed to become centre stage, there will not be any massive foam fingers and the raw intensity of the action will be heightened by the pre-match anticipation.

Having more money to invest in 'the event' is not always a good thing. The GAA at its most primal and local level have a keen appreciation of this and, after the weekend, it seems the IRFU are beginning to slowly realise it.

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