This is a 700 word epic about one day in a tournament that will last six weeks. The hopes of a nation were nourished. The pride of a country was restored.The dreams of a once great world power were shattered. On a Saturday afternoon in early October Japan claimed a place as an emerging rugby power with their 26-5 victory over Samoa. South Africa had Nelson Mandela inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame before emerging as the Pool B side that can make it through the knock-out phases in their 34-16 dismantling of Scotland. England crumbled before their once outlaw colony Australia 33-16.
On a cloudy afternoon I entered Plough-on-the Moor pub in the northwest of England. The pub had advertised on the internet they would be showing the World Cup matches, and they were. Tucked in an alcove over a family of 8 the match competed with the coming and going of burgers, fish and chips, sausages, and a set of grandparents enjoying an afternoon out with daughters and grandchildren. I was the only one in the pub watching as Japan slowly gained confidence and momentum after only getting a penalty try early in the match when Samoa had 2 players in the sin bin. At the table in front of the tv one of the daughters knowingly informed those around her Japan was playing Fiji. She later would explain that she was a woman, so she planned ahead. Her father promptly agreed with her adding, “Yes, you plan ahead for yesterday.”
As South Africa and Scotland were about to kick-off a handful of rugby fans gathered. The table under the tv had been vacated, but a party of hipsters looking like something from Love Actually had reserved it. The wait staff asked if I would move even farther back. As I complied I asked 2 English chaps if there was a better pub to watch rugby. The poor lads were heading to an Aussie bar in Manchester. After the opening ceremony which brought tears to my eyes as Mandela was inducted and the camera panned Springbok fans of the rainbow nation proudly singing the two versions of their national anthem, I joined 3 Irishmen at a small table. They were a father and two sons from Northern Ireland. We talked about rugby, Gaelic football, and a nation torn apart by religious bigotry. The father had been a school administrator as I had. He told me how his school had been set on fire 5 times. He was a Catholic struggling as a politician now to hold on and grow a still shaky peace. They hopefully spoke of how rugby brought the two Irelands together. As the final whistle blew on South Africa’s domination of Scotland there was an unspoken dream that an Irish World Cup triumph would further heal a long wounded country.
Before leaving the Irish lads bought me a pint and directed me to Cassidy’s, an Irish pub around the corner. They warned me the Irish crowd would be largely cheering for Australia. When I entered Cassidy’s, Chelsea footballers were leaving the pitch with stupefied expressions as South Hampton fans celebrated a 3-1 win by singing “When the Saints Go Marching In”. The 10 televisions and the large screen were soon turned to the main event, England vs Australia. A young Irish couple, only married 2 months and longing to make enough money in their new jobs in England to move back to Ireland one day, sat in front of me and quietly cheered for the Aussies. As the match wore on and the Red Rose of English rugby wilted from the tournament they were hosting with such dignity and energy, a sadness fell over the pub. The crowd no longer cheered the Wallabies amazing display of rugby prowess. There was a sentiment almost of a comforting embrace for a brother who used to tease you remorselessly, but who was now dying and at the end of the day was still your brother.