Elation, pride and immeasurable relief. Those are just some of the emotions that a rugby fan deals with after seeing a display of their beloved sport such as the one produced on Sunday  1 March by the boys in green.

The word ‘fan’ comes from the modern Latin ‘fanaticus’ meaning “insanely but divinely inspired”. This sounds pretty accurate when describing a lot of die-hard fans – insane and inspired! A true fan sticks by their team through thick and thin, win, lose or draw and shows their unconditional loyalty for their team – often to the point of madness.

This loyalty shines through when you look at the Irish rugby fans and their dedication to the men who put on the green shirt, stand with pride while Amhrán na bhFiann and Ireland’s Call is played out throughout the stadium and then put their bodies on the line, bringing the fans on an emotional roller coaster from the starting whistle.

The importance of a fan in boosting team morale as well as success rate can sometimes feel underappreciated in some sports. However, this is not the case when it comes to rugby, according to a good friend of mine, John Kennedy, a Munster fanatic and frequent attendee of provincial and International rugby matches. “As a fan, you feel it is your job to get behind the team and be that extra push they need when the game is down to the wire. The 16th man if you like.”

Ian Keatley showing his appreciation for the loyal Munster fans - Photo Credit - Mallorie Ronan

Ian Keatley showing his appreciation for the loyal Munster fans – Photo Credit – Mallorie Ronan

Not good for the heart

As a rugby fan, you are part of a community. The sense of community is never more palpable than on a match day. The excitement of waking up on the day of a match with the tight, nervous yet excited knot in your stomach is hard to beat. You hate it but at the same time, as a fan it is something you have grown accustomed to.

The lead up to an important match can leave a fan believing they are just as nervous as the players that will be lining out for their country or province. In reality, this sickly feeling in the pit of their stomach, a nauseating mix of nerves, excitement and hope on the morning of a game day, is minute in comparison to the pressure felt by the players to succeed and provide their fans with the ultimate goal, a win. Giving the fans what they want is a huge motivator for the players. They know that fans spend their hard earned money on the tickets which, incidentally, aren’t cheap (now that’s a whole other story in itself!), on buses, trains, even planes just to see their team play for eighty minutes.

Electric atmosphere

The build-up before an international game like the one against England in the 3rd round of the 6 Nations is fantastic. Ballsbridge buzzes with excitement and there is a real sense of happiness and pride among everyone waiting for kick-off. Squirming through the mass crowd that slows to a snail’s pace at the Shelbourne and Landsdowne road intersection, you can’t help but have a silly grin on your face as you prepare to enter the wondrous fortress that is the AVIVA stadium.

The Calm Before the Storm in the Aviva Stadium - Photo Credit - Mallorie Ronan

The Calm Before the Storm in the AVIVA Stadium – Photo Credit – Mallorie Ronan

“It’s a thing of beauty, a really incredible stadium to be sitting in” John laments. He is right, of course. The 50,000 capacity stadium is a sight to behold, especially when filled with a sea of home and travelling fans cheering their team on. From the moment the whistle sounds and the ball is kicked high in the air, the fans are mesmerized. It is amazing to look around the stadium at fellow fans and see a number of different emotions on each person’s face. They sympathise with the players, they heckle, they laugh at the heckles, they shout obscenities, they clap until the palms of their hands hurt, they scream until they are hoarse and some shed tears of pride as well as pain when the final whistle is blown. Sport can bring out the best or the worst in people, but when a stadium filled with 50,000 fans turns quiet enough for you to hear the reverberation of Johnny Sexton’s kick you can see the respect that is part and parcel of being a rugby fan. Silence for the kicker is a long standing tradition, lest we forget.

Roller coaster ride

As a fan, you go through extreme highs and extreme lows. One particular low stands out in John’s memory, the heart-breaking defeat suffered in November 2013 by Ireland at the hands of the number one country in the world of rugby, New Zealand. “Soul destroying” John sighs while giving a slight shake of his head. “The game was ours for the taking, we just needed to hold on for another 30 seconds but we couldn’t. I remember standing up, hand to mouth along with the rest of the stadium, hoping, with bated breath that Cruden would miss his second attempt at the conversion. A draw would have been poor consolation after a superb Irish display of rugby but better than a loss. The overwhelming feeling of emptiness that I felt after the final whistle is one that I’m not fond of reliving.”  (If any of you can bear to relive the gut wrenching final moments take a look at the video – I can’t watch!)

So close, but just out of reach. That game will live long in the memory of Irish rugby fans and players alike but as Conor Murray said talking to the Irish Mirror “The New Zealand defeat has given us the belief we can beat anyone”. The impact that loss had on the Irish rugby community surely crept in again and helped to spur the team to their first clean sweep in the autumn international series since 2006 last November.

Recalling the November clash against South Africa, John says, “If someone had told me before the match that we would beat South Africa by 19 points, I would have laughed at them”. No doubt John will not have been the only one to feel this way but that match and the stunning display of world class rugby up until the final nail biting moments in their narrow win against Australia gave the Irish fans something to be proud of, and that is no easy feat. “We are a tough bunch to please. When things are going well, brilliant but when a game isn’t going our way, we take it to heart. It’s like we feel what those men on the pitch feel; every emotion possible.” This may not be entirely accurate, the players have the double whammy of letting down their fans and going through the emotions of losing a game but there is a shared belief that players and fans together make the team what they are. Jamie Heaslip, after the win against Australia back in November, gave a nod to this when he tweeted “atmosphere in the AVIVA today was hair raising #ShouldertoShoulder”.

Psychologists claim that fan psychology is derived from primitive times involving tribes and the warriors that defended these tribes. For a rugby fan, the players are our warriors who put their bodies under immense pressure for their club, province and country (their tribes) and for this we applaud them.

John O’ Sullivan writing for the Irish Times, in his match report of the Ireland v South Africa game, summed up the feeling of fans superbly “The noisy exultation from the majority of supporters at the AVIVA stadium that acclaimed Ireland’s victory represented an outpouring of pent-up emotion, an explosion of nervous tension.” Throughout a game a fan goes through a number of emotions that sometimes alter within a split second. The tension release at the end of a match whether win, lose or draw is enormous. Fans feel it all, and for eighty minutes they are the 16th man on the pitch, pushing their team to the finish line.

Let me know, what are some of your favourite rugby fan moments?