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For the love of rugby

“Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist, and preferably play in the pack.”


Frankly, rugby isn’t always “a wonderful show: dance, opera and, suddenly, the blood of a killing,” as Richard Burton put it. Some rugby games just aren’t fun. Most Welsh rugby people been thoroughly miserable on a windswept December pitch, peering through the dimly floodlit driving rain while perched on the side of a mountain, trying to extricate every boot from the bog which, although safe, is the world’s most awful running surface. In some of these games Gren would have gone home because the caricature was overtaken by the reality. I’ve been in games whose movie would have merged Ice Station Zebra with the battle of the Somme. And after 80 minutes of poorly skilled attrition, the scores finish at 6-3.

But there’s something about amateur rugby, a drug, a high, that keeps us coming back for more. JPR Williams charged around for Tondu Thirds two decades after striding the world’s stadia as a minor god in the mortal deity of a British Lion. In no other sport would that happen. It’s because the drug is there, and it never goes away. Deep Heat cream gives a rugby man the adrenalin surge that comes with the scent of incense to a believer or the whiff of cordite to a soldier.

There’s the 80 minutes on the pitch. It’s gladiatorial and communal at the same time. PG Wodehouse summarised it eloquently: “Rugby football is a game I can’t claim absolutely to understand in all its niceties, if you know what I mean. I can follow the broad, general principles, of course. I mean to say, the main scheme is to work the ball down the field somehow and deposit it over the line at the other end. In order to squelch this program, each side is allowed to put in a certain amount of assault and battery and do things to its fellow man which, if done elsewhere, would result in 14 days without the option, coupled with some strong remarks from the Bench.”

That’s not a bad description. You need a screw loose to enjoy battering and being battered. But after a hot shower and in a clubhouse, we remember why we do it.

I’ve just returned to amateur rugby after close to a decade away from the game. Work commitments took me away: when you’re constantly commuting between South Wales and London and strangled by the living curse of the modern era, the Blackberry, you don’t get to run around a windswept monsoon pitch for entertainment on a weekday evening. But a change of lifestyle opened up my rugby life and my kitbag, and I grabbed it.

With the trembling hands of a lapsed caffeine addict returning to the first cup of the day, I pulled battered boots out of a dust-encrusted kitbag. The newspaper stuffing in the boots made interesting reading. I remembered that when I bought them Tony Blair was PM, America had never been attacked, and I had brown hair. I winced at the colours of the shirts and wondered at the advertising genius that gave us SpecSavers as a refereeing sponsor. But there was a smile on my face that few feelings can match.

I’m no rugby expert. I’m not a player like my heroes. The closest view I’ve had of top-flight rugby is running up and down a touchline with a flag in my hand. I am, frankly, a wimp who will always really on fast talking to extricate myself from a violent confrontation. I speak about the game with the experience of a playing career of almost laughable mediocrity, whose lack of quality matched only by its shortness of length. I only picked up the whistle because I have enough of an ego to believe I’m usually right, I don’t mind telling people what to do, and I thoroughly enjoy rugby. I am living proof that you can be absolutely crap at the game but there’s still a place for you in the sport.

There are, of course, a few things I would change. So here’s my two-penn’orth. As one veteran referees’ assessor put it to me: “Opinions are like a**holes: everyone’s got one. Just make the best you can of your own judgement.”

I would ban entirely the wearing of synthetic fabrics in a club house. I would institute restrictions on tight-fitting shirts for non-players and players not on the field because there are some things I frankly don’t want to see.

I worry, as does JPR Williams and the research community, that players are now getting too big and too heavy. That the increasing injury rate has serious consequences for the game. We need to get our heads around this, and soon.

The laws are too complicated. They are impossible to play, ref, coach or watch. So simplify them.

I would change our season in the Northern Hemisphere to run March-November. With the ground of Flanders and the K2 topography, our pitches can be woeful.

I deplore the creeping jeering of kickers (it’s counterproductive). It’s sad that we now need codes of conduct for club officials and spectators. And a special circle of hell should be reserved for boorish parents who hurl abuse and incite struggling kids to violence from a Sunday touchline.

But these are minor gripes.

Rugby still, most of the time, shows respect. Injured players are clapped. Language is controlled in the bar when ladies and children are there. It’s old-fashioned but I thoroughly approve. And on the field, captains and teams usually police their players. I fail utterly to understand how football allows its players to barrack and surround a referee, arguing and disputing like the emotionally incontinent morons that they appear to be. I’ve had my fair share of abuse as the worst referee all season. The Welsh rugby community is, after all, exceptionally helpful in offering “real-time feedback,” as a management guru would conclude. But real abuse or sustained dissent are rare on a rugby pitch.

Rugby also knows the difference between physicality and thuggery. There will always be the odd exchange of forwardly business cards. I rarely spot what started it (crowds are usually quite forthcoming with advice) but am usually able to finish it. As French great Pierre Berbizier said: “If you can’t take a punch, you should play table tennis.” But the contempt for a biter, gouger or head-butter is palpable, and the disapproval from both opponent and team-mate is one of the strongest moral strictures I’ve encountered.

Rugby instils real values. Rugby clubs make kids put on a shirt and tie after a game. Rugby teaches them that it’s OK to get muddy. That it’s fine to be physical, but you need to temper that with control and harness it with skill.

Frankly, theres no finer place on earth to have a pint than in a good rugby club on match day. The pub is indeed part of the game and my favourite summary of a post match snifter is Gareth Chilcott, on his last game for Bath, saying: “I thought I would have a quiet pint … and about 17 noisy ones.”

Rugby clubs are a barometer of the public mood. I found in politics that the clearest indicator whether myGovernment was doing OK was in my rugby club. There was grim acceptance that the war in Afghanistan is necessary, and short shrift for the anti-War protestors. I knew we had it wrong as a Government on tax credits because the focus group of my rugby club bar couldn’t explain them easily.

Rugby clubs are a great mix of people. We unite in love of the game, love of a pint, and irritation at Stuart Barnes’s commentary on Sky Sports. Part of the historical rugby legend is the back line of doctors, solicitors, and lecturers who lined up behind the pack of plumbers, miners and steelworkers. That still holds good in amateur rugby. In my local rugby club I, a political speechwriter, industry manager, or most recently denizen of a university, am accorded the same status (and derision) as policemen, managing directors, barristers and electricians. It’s a community as it should be. And it’s entirely possible to find the skills and trades to redecorate a home or plan a mortgage in the front row or the front bar.

Rugby does humour brilliantly. How about this spectatorly advice to James Hook, stepping up to take a Millennium Stadium penalty kick soon after the Grand Slam propelled Gavin Henson to “stardom.”

“Go on Hooky – get this over and you’ll get to **** Charlotte Church as well.”

You have your own favourites. Contribute them below!

Rugby is deeply embedded in our Welsh psyche. We don’t need to profess knowledge of bards or druids, genuflect to medieval princes or patron saints, or sign up to the narrow cultural pursuits of our vocal minority to be part of the distinctly Welsh rugby community. Rugby is part of being Welsh, like colliery bands, male choirs, immaculately coiffed ladies’ committees, trade unionism, satirical humour, improbable geography and healthy self-deprecation. And it feeds both our defining characteristics as a nation: our sense of injustice and our wonderful optimism.

Injustice? No Welsh side in the history of the game has lost a match because of superior opposition or playerly error. Instead, a combination of referee error and unspoken dark forces combined to rob us of our rightful victory. I was told firmly by an irate (losing) Club chairman that “all refs hate P******** RFC.” Unaware of this mythical match officials’ memo instructing my fraternity to engineer his team’s loss, I could only muster “Hate you? I can’t even spell you!”

Optimism? I revel in our gloriously misplaced faith in our national sporting prowess. We approach every game with the rising hope that we’ll win against the World Champions, Tri Nations Champions, Six Nations Champions, Guinness Premiership Champions, and Division Six (last year) Champions. We’re almost always wrong. But this will be the year we beat the All Blacks, of course.

Enough of the cultural history, this attempt to insert an anthropological basecoat behind the vivid paint of our rugby picture. The last word goes to American footballer Joe Theismann:

“Rugby is great. The players don’t wear helmets or padding; they just beat the living daylights out of each other and then go for a beer. I love that.”

First published by WalesHome, November 26, 2010

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