Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Tyrone Howe: Derby battles always offer biggest buzz

Northampton Saints' Chris Ashton and Leicester Tigers' Matt Smith

Wikipedia describes extreme sport as a popular term for certain activities perceived as having a high level of inherent danger. I can’t help but wonder whether derby games in rugby would qualify?

Head first: Northampton Saints’ Chris Ashton and Leicester Tigers’ Matt Smith getty

What is it about playing against your next door neighbour that brings out the best and worst in you? Surely, knowing your opponent so well should make you more easy-going?

Yet, maybe it makes you more vulnerable than usual, and you feel a greater need to defend yourself. Maybe derby games appeal to the stereotypical male need for a sense of hierarchy — who is the best?

As primates, it brings you down to a most basic level. Rarely do you express your well-earned bragging rights openly, but you know that you have got one over the opposition or your opposite man.

You just know, and even more importantly, so do they. You have got inside their minds, and that gives you a huge potential advantage.

If something untoward happens, then you rapidly build up, ‘history’, which is hard to forget and shed.

In fact, it seems to accumulate rather than dissipate. It makes you fight even harder the next time.

Whatever the reasons, derby games have an innate intensity and sometimes they tend to drag out dark tendencies in the individual.

Last weekend saw one of the most brutal and yet enthralling games of rugby between seasoned rivals, Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints.

These boys might be able to have a beer together afterwards, but they beat the living daylights out of each other on the pitch.

And somehow, I don’t think that there is too much affection between Chris Ashton and the Tuilagi family.

Too much has happened, too much history in a short period of time, but there will be mutual respect, even if it is begrudging.

I grew up on derby games. Matches between Dromore, Banbridge and Ballynahinch rugby clubs were always the most intense affairs.

On all sides there were supporters on the touchline — experts on everything, with opinions they liked to ‘share’, and all qualified referees, without the qualifications, of course.

In keeping with panto season, it has elements of the comic when you stand back and think about it. Chris Ashton dragging Alesana Tuilagi (pictured) out by the roots, quite literally!

A free-for-all with even Geordan Murphy throwing a few handbags!

However, when you are standing in the middle of it all, it feels far from humourous.

It is as intense a sporting contest as it gets and you get swept up and carried along by the atmosphere.

The crowd stand and roar their approval, disgust and partisan support at their respective gladiators doing battle.

Farce and testosterone wrapped up in the one package.

There is no shortage of passion and rivalry in Irish inter-provincial matches.

Historically, Southern provinces wanted to beat Ulster.

Over a vast period in the 1980’s Ulster were untouchable and, therefore, the side to beat.

There was greater parity in the 1990’s, but Munster and now Leinster have moved ahead in some style.

Some players enjoy these fixtures more than others.

At the start it does give you a certain sense of weirdness about playing against people you know well, but when you get over that initial barrier, it is no-

holds barred. Rugby in the East Midlands seems to have reached a new level of rivalry.

Chris Ashton does a great job of stoking the flames, but it is a tinderbox where even the slightest flicker can ignite the spark.

It is also intoxicating to watch. Recent battles between Leinster and Munster have been as hard-fought as any Heineken fixture. This is what guarantees bums on seats and a packed Aviva Stadium or Thomond Park.

This is what Ulster aspires to and what will be tested in the next month.

Despite the fracas and an inevitable citing or two, we shouldn’t read too much into the action last Saturday.

What you can bet on is that the next time the Saints and Tigers, much like Leinster and Munster, meet (and this time back at Franklins Gardens), it will be one not to miss.

Put two heavyweight teams together from the same environ and there is only one outcome. Look out for the next installment.

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