Ballad of the Lost Weekend

GuinessI am told there are people who travel to Six Nations games for the rugby. I cannot be sure of this and I have no first-hand evidence but apparently they travel to the game on the morning of the match, have lunch and – if they are feeling reckless – a glass of beer, watch the game, head back to the station, airport or worst of all the car park, and travel home again. All in one day. Extraordinary behaviour, of course, and I only report this as hearsay.

Or should that be heresy? These people if they exist – and I really do have my doubts that any self-respecting rugby fraternity would allow such heretics to fester in their ranks for long – should be publicly outed.

They should be named and shamed and never permitted to go to a Six Nations game again until they have spent every Saturday for two seasons at the local Old Foreskinians learning all the songs and the art of public drinking. Then, and only then, should they be entrusted with another ticket.

I know, you are shocked. As was I when I hear about these lily-livered charlatans. But hold fire. Best not to be too harsh on them. Yes, the waste is a disgrace but the chances are they do not actually realise the wider concept of the finest tournament on earth. They do not realise the notion of the Lost Weekend.

England rugby fans
For most rugby fans, the Six Nations is a chance to sack Constantinople all over again, if you get my drift

Fortunately, the vast majority of rugby followers worked out a long time ago that the Six Nations was the best excuse given to Man – and latterly Woman – to disappear for a weekend in a haze of revelry and bonhomie. Yes, there may be a bit of sight-seeing going on – without wishing to sound sexist it is usually when the ladies accompany their philistine men – but the weekend, fuelled by some well-appointed ales, is about having a good time and making new friends.

I first came across the concept when I was a student in Dublin in the early 1980s. At the time, Ireland had rather a good team – think Slattery, Duggan, Keane, Fitzgerald, Orr, Campbell, Finn, MacNeill to name just a few – which gave an added edge to games in Dublin which was, and still is, the number one destination for any Six Nations weekend.

The opening game of the 1983 championship saw the French coming to town and it was with a mix of excitement and admiration that I noticed the first berets and stripy shirts – this was before the age of replica shirt – sauntering up Grafton Street. It was the Wednesday before the game. Sod the Lost Weekend, this was A la Récherche de la Semaine Perdue.

And I swear that one group had a live cockerel with them. If there were European regulations about the import of livestock, someone had turned a very blind eye.

A JOYCEAN EPIPHANY

The scales slid from my own eyes. James Joyce, a Dubliner whose eagerness for a pint would have commanded an approving eye from the most experienced Lost Weekender, would have called it my epiphany. From that day forward, the Six Nations – or Five as it then was – was about the craic.

kiernan_85
The great day in 1985 when Michael Kiernan taught England the value of a late drop goal as he clinched the Triple Crown for Ireland

This hit a new level two years later when Ireland won the Triple Crown. Jonny may have brought the drop goal to the attention of the previously slack-jawed English but in Ireland, St Michael Kiernan was the man, his late drop at Lansdowne sinking the English in 1985. It was a mighty strike and the crowd rose as one to acknowledge it. 

The party was even mightier, especially at the official reception at the Shelbourne Hotel. My flatmate and I, carried away by the emotion of the day and a fair few pints in O’Neill’s of Suffolk Street, repaired to our rooms at Trinity College, threw on dinner jackets and walked through the crowds and the security without so much as a second glance.

“Bad luck lads,” said the doormen, assuming us to be the vanquished English.

With free booze and nibbles, it was a fantastic evening. The only tight moment came when a member of the Irish Referees Association pulled his programme from his pocket and asked me to sign for him.

In an act of desperation, I scribbled something unintelligible under the thumbnail picture of Stuart Barnes who, I had heard on good authority, from Wade Dooley and John Orwin was already tucked up in his bunk with a hangover in the making.

Stuart Barnes
Stuart Barnes has kindly forgiven me for assuming his persona in every club on Leeson Street

Thankfully, when Mr Barnes heard this story some years later he had the decency to laugh and take wine with the culprit – the makings of yet another lost weekend.

Players often talk about making new friends through rugby and it is the same with the supporters. A mate of mine, in Cardiff for an Ireland game, found himself kidnapped by some lads from Bridgend. At the start of the day he didn’t know any of them but after being dragged to the clubhouse for a few late pints and a few hours on the sofa, they are now old friends. Mind you , as he had only gone for the day, he had some explaining to do when he got back to London the next afternoon.

The great thing about the Six Nations is that you get to visit six superb cities, each unique in its own right. As I mentioned before, Dublin is probably the best place to visit because the whole city gets wrapped up by the game. The excitement builds with every passing hour and by the time the walk to Lansdowne Road gets underway – you have to walk to the ground and stop for a couple of pints en route to get the best atmosphere – it fairly crackles.

DRUNK IN DUBLIN

For some reason, Dublin also seems to produce the bulk of the drinking stories. One journalist tells the tale of a match he covered there in the 1990s.

Jameson_Irish_Whiskey_bottleHe was in Dublin on the Saturday for the game and had to fly out early on Sunday morning to some one-flight a week backwater like Maribor to cover a golf or ping-pong tournament. It just so happened that his Saturday night ended with some late night whiskies with the night porter. At around five o’clock our man staggers up to bed.

“Don’t forget,” he says by way of goodnight. “I need the alarm call at eight and a taxi to the airport for 8.30.”

The next morning the night porter, looking a tad weary in his boots, knocks on his door with a silver tray of the finest breakfast known to humanity. Alongside it, a bottle of Jameson, seal still intact.

“That is fantastic,” said the journalist. “But why the Jameson’s?”

“That’ll be on account of it being half past ten, sir.”

Another scribbler of the Welsh variety – for argument’s sake, let’s call him Tim – suffered a similar problem with booze and wake-ups. This time, after a big night in Keogh’s, Tim was incredibly annoyed to get a telephone call in his room in the middle of the night. It was one of his colleagues who began to wind him up.

“Where are you, Tim? The game’s just about to kick off,” asks his colleague.

Wales
It is a well-known fact that only stone-cold sober Wales fans are allowed to attend matches with a painted plastic bucket on their head

Cue a tirade of expletives along the lines of “kindly depart you illegitimate male offspring of a lady dog.”

“Seriously, mate it’s just about to kick-off.”

“You’re talking rubbish,” insists our man. “I was at the game, Ireland won 27-9 and I have already filed all my copy. So just piss off and leave me alone.”

Pause at the other end of the phone. “Er, Tim, I think you might want to turn on the TV.”

He did and to his horror, there were the teams trotting on to the field. He had dreamt the whole thing.

Fortunately, being the consummate pro he immediately settled down in front of the screen and produced 1,500 words of purple prose.

Like Dublin, Cardiff and Edinburgh are small cities with the grounds walkable from the city centre. Actually, the Millennium Stadium is bang in the middle of Cardiff so anyone arriving at Cardiff Central walks smack into the middle of it.

CITY CHARMS

Twickenham has its own charm although if you are looking for pre-match build-up the night before skip the West End and head for a decent boozer like The Sun in Richmond where you are likely to bump into some like-minded folk.

pint of beerRome is building a reputation although it still has a way to go before reaching Parisian status.

Paris’s charm lies, I regret to say, more in the exotic and erotic than in the culture or the cuisine. No one comes back from Paris without at least one story of “a friend” who disgraced himself in a bar or “club” in some way.

Fortunately, the Lost Weekender’s golden rule of “What goes on on tour, stays on tour” means these can never be divulged – except, of course, on the next lost weekend.

©Barney Spender 2013

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