It was always going to start like this. I had debated blogging for a long time and had been planning titles, compiling lists of what topics I should cover and poring over suitably artistic looking photos to upload alongside my very first thought for the day. I was being my usual, organised, list-writing, post-it filling self.
And was completely missing the point.
A blog should not just contain well crafted missives that have been scanned, edited and polished to perfection. They should also contain spur-of-the-moment posts, entries that reveal your personality (for better or worse) and the things that get you up out of your seat.
Which is why it was obvious that my first post was always going to be about rugby. For the past twenty five years, watching rugby has been a very family orientated activity for me. Usually it’s at home with my parents, surrounded by cups of tea and the sports pages of the newspapers shouting at the TV screen. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to be in the ground – so I can clutch a sneaky hot whiskey and shout my opinions at the referee in person 😉 Last night, for Ulster’s Heineken Cup quarter final clash with Premiership leaders Saracens at the newly developed and incredibly impressive Ravenhill, I wasn’t watching it in Donegal, Ulster or anywhere in Ireland for that matter. I was watching the drama unfold in an Irish bar in the centre of Budapest, where I’ve recently moved for work. After scouring a selection of the city’s other drinking emporiums for coverage of the Ulstermen with no success, I found myself at seat right in front of two large TV screens that were filled with Ulster flegs and grown men in giant red and white onesies. Perfect (if sartorially questionable – the onesies, that is). Pint of cider in hand, Cassidy was sucking diesel.
It was all going to plan…for the first four minutes until referee Jerome Garces red-carded Ulster full back Jared Payne, thereby creating one of the talking points of the Heineken Cup season and meaning that Ulster would now have to play for over 75 minutes a man down. For anyone reading this who might not follow rugby union, this is almost the sporting equivalent of Charlie Haughey’s GUBU: grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented. Rugby is a physically demanding, full blooded contact sport. Teams who have players sent to the sin bin for ten minutes following a yellow card infringement can suffer a real set back and lose valuable momentum. A red card completely changes the course of the game – and a red card before the game had begun in earnest practically set Ulster’s fate in stone.
Lots of teams would have thrown in the towel at this point. Then there were the injuries to front row stalwart Rory Best and the outrageously gifted Ruan Pienaar. We had officially entered nightmare territory. No-one had told the Ulster team that though. Those boys continued to play for themselves, each other, the fans and above all the Ulster shirt. When you talk Heineken Cup, Munster are usually the Irish team that evoke terms like ‘pride’, ‘the brave and the faithful’ and ‘miracle match’- and rightly so. But last night proved that Ulster are equally full of pride when it comes to playing for the jersey and their province. Saracens, although the victors, have a massive list of questions to ask themselves after that match, but Ulster know who they are and what they are about. I walked home from the pub with my Ulster scarf proudly around my neck. While feeling deflated and dejected, I can honestly say I never been more proud to be an Ulster fan than I was on the streets of Hungary last night. Coming at the end of my first full week in Budapest, such a match was aptly timed. I’m sure over the next few months there will be days that I’m homesick. That work is tough. That I make mistakes and don’t have familiar faces around to calm me down or tell me to ‘cop on’ in person. Days that I’ll miss my dog and the comfortable familiarity of home. Those are the days you need to pick yourself up, dust yourself down and keep on going. All right, I personally won’t have to try and stop Billy Vunipola at full tilt, but the principle is the same. Keep standing up. Keep standing up for the Ulstermen.