Rugby as Theatre (Arena essay)

The lovely people at Arena (RTÉ Radio One) asked me back. Here’s the first radio essay I’ve written in a long time:


My artsy friends are puzzled by my love of rugby but to me, rugby is pure theatre. Spectacle. Drama – even before kick-off. The crowds, with colours, flags and drums take their places in stands reminiscent of Roman amphitheatres, all dressed-up, expecting a show.

The task here is deceptively simple: to carry an oddly-shaped ball over a line, or to send it flying between the posts, to accumulate scores and prevent another team from doing the same.

But that’s sport, you complain. Not the same as theatre at all.

Really? Like drama, rugby is all about conflict. It’s a test of character. Each player has a role, rehearsed many times. Matches may enact the same structure, but the story plays out differently every time – players improvise. That’s the magic of it. Each game has its own cast of characters, their (literal) goals, specific stakes, a ticking clock. We get effort, setbacks, gains and losses. There are structured phases of play, rules, a kind of choreography. There’s no shortage of incident. We get innovation and flair, moments of unscripted excitement and chance. One awkward bounce of that wilful ball can bring triumph – or disaster.

Off-pitch dramas heighten onstage tensions. This arena has its stars, temperaments, rivalries; not just among the players, but coaches and referees too. There are histories between the teams: old scores to settle, losses to avenge, pride to be restored. Ambition crowds the bench – understudies strain for their chance to perform, to outshine the big names. Young talent snaps at the heels of experience.

In the 6 Nations tournament, memories of past campaigns raise the tension. Nothing less than national pride is at stake. Witness the recent match between England and Italy – the Italians, underdogs of the tournament, deconstructed the script entirely and in the general confusion, carried the first half against all our expectations. Look at our own opening game against Scotland – at the outset, our players’ timing was off. Crucial lines were forgotten, lost. Nothing flowed. After the interval, our players brought us to the very edge of victory – and lost.

Both matches revealed the dangers of Hubris.

Think about what it takes to turn up, time after time, when you’re bottom of the pool but must play every move with absolute conviction – Like playing to poor houses after an excoriating review?

The crowd is a Chorus. They have a moral force, catharsis their reward. There aren’t many outlets for such uninhibited expression of approval or disapproval, joy or outrage, to cheer or to condemn. When a player falls badly, 50 thousand people go very quiet, very fast. Aristotle’s pity and fear are here in spades.

There are life lessons, too: Leave mistakes behind. Move on. It’s not over ‘til it’s over – but be warned, the clock is ticking. And while that clock is winding down these players don’t roll over. They play their hearts out. They keep trying. The never-say-die of it – that’s what I love.

You can listen to the show here.


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4 Responses to Rugby as Theatre (Arena essay)

  1. Ann Marie Hourihane says:

    Don’t love rugby so much but love you on the radio – your voice is so beautiful. amx

    • libranwriter says:

      Look who’s talking! Thanks for this lovely comment. I’m afraid people will think I paid you to make it, but it’s good to hear. You know how our voices don’t sounds like themselves when you hear them on playback? Hope to see you soon x

  2. Sheila Barrett says:

    Not forgetting the Haka… and a certain gladiatorial element. And the sheer speed of the game is riveting.

    • libranwriter says:

      There’s scope for a really long piece on this – to include the haka! And that moment in Chicago when the Irish Team formed a figure of 8 in memory of Axel Foley – there are so many super-charged moments…

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