Fair-weather friends


As Ireland’s rugby team sets a winning streak in the Six Nations Championship, Peter Molloy turns his attention to that lesser known sports personality: the fair-weather fan.

In the end, a picture really is worth a thousand words. The front page of the Sunday Times last Sunday week, a day after Ireland’s rugby team had grappled their way to an away victory over Scotland, featured a photograph almost calculated to raise the hackles of cynics everywhere.

The Irish fan that the Sunday Times’ intrepid snapper had selected from the crowd to symbolise the visiting team’s win was anything but a mohair suited, balding South Dubliner; or a scarlet-cheeked, bellicose Munster fanatic. Instead, readers on March 15 were positively treated to the sight of an attractive, gleaming toothed blonde, green jersey draped across her midriff, leaning over the railing in Murrayfield’s stand to cheer her team on to triumph.

Now, before scrabbling for the keys to the outrage bus, calm down and read on. When the going gets good on our native sports’ fields, there is almost inevitably a rise in the number of people claiming to be hardcore fans. Welcome to the world of the fair-weather fan. The genus so dismissed by Roy Keane in its football manifestation as “the prawn sandwich brigade” is alive and well and rugby, or so it would appear, is currently the game to ostentatiously follow.

To the fair-weather follower, sport is a passion to be pursued only so far as the going is good. Next time the camera pans across the crowd in Croke Park or Stade de France, take a closer look. The fair-weather fans are the lost souls huddled in the corporate box, or sitting, knees clenched nervously at the front. They’re not quite sure of the words to the chants (or even the national anthems), they may just about know the name of half the players on the pitch, but, by God they’re delighted to be there for the win.

Barry Cunningham, manager of the IRFU’s official Irish Rugby Supporters Club, is honest about the attraction sporting success offers to certain enthusiasts. “The success of the team in 2006 and early2007 in the build up to the RWC (Rugby World Cup) saw a surge of memberships. On the whole that level has been maintained despite the poor run of form through the RWC and the 2008 Championship. There is no doubt that a winning team is a great advantage in recruiting members.”

Speaking from the coalface – or at least the rugby merchandise Mecca that is Elvery’s Sports on Stephen’s Green – manager Stephen Kelly is even more open about the boost the fair-weather (and full-walleted) fan brings. “You would have your adamant fans who are there all year round. Percentage wise, I’d say near enough to 60 per cent [are] loyal fans… the others just jump on the bandwagon. In certain areas, you’d see more of a fashion; they have to have [the jerseys].”

Rugby is by no means alone in its propensity to attract more short-time acolytes. In early 2007, Ireland experienced an all-too-brief wave of fondness for wickets and bowlers as the island’s cricket team managed to inch its way into the Cricket World Cup.

A decade and a half previously, two successive toe-dipping participations in the World Cup by the Republic’s soccer team saw every bar-room bore from Wicklow to Westport displaying an encyclopaedic knowledge of the ins and outs of the foreign game. Cunningham is savvy enough to recognise the opportunity for long-term conversion that the current craze for the boys in green offers.

“I think that we are in a good position to retain the supporters that a winning team brings. That is the key challenge for us to capture those newer fans from the wider audience and to convert them to hardcore fans. Naturally there will always be a drop off if a team has a sustained run of bad form but our aim is to retain as many as possible and to encourage them to join their local club and get involved etc.”

For the moment, things at the business side of sport at least are still good. “I know things are hard at the moment, with the economic downturn, but it doesn’t seem to be affecting us at all”, says Elvery’s Stephen Kelly.