After this week’s national shame of being knocked out of the rugby world cup by the old enemy, Wales, I thought a few rambling thoughts and reminiscences about the sport of rugby might be in order . . . to help heal the wounds, as it were.
They said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. For me, my adolescence was lost on the playing fields of the grammar school.
There were two types of physical activity in the school, as far as I could gather. One was indoors, and involved hanging from wall bars in the school gym. It was like being crucified, and was an example of what would be called abuse today. This type of activity involved feats of balance and strength that were way beyond me, but that no-one actually told me how to do.
There was no teaching, as such. The gym teachers were not teachers; they were drill sergeants with years of experience in the army during the Second World War. They were still fighting the foe, and the foe had transmogrified mysteriously into the boys in their class.
The other type of activity took place outdoors and always involved having a cold shower afterwards.
All through the winter it was rugby and cross-country running, and in the summer it was cricket and swimming. I was unbelievably and embarrassingly crap at all of them, even my beloved cricket.
Great store was set by the school by one’s performance on these Etonian fields of war. The school teams were applauded and presented at school assemblies.
My father had played rugby as a young man, and then refereed local games. I think he was really proud of the fact that I would be able to continue the family sporting prowess. He must have been blind. Had he never looked at me?
In the summer holidays of 1963, I acquired my House rugby kit. I was placed in Johnson House, and their colours were black shorts with a blue and white hooped jersey. I posed in the back yard for a parental photograph, that later appeared on family sideboards. I have it in front of me as I write this, and a more incongruous and ridiculous portrait I can’t imagine.
For a start, I’m wearing glasses. I couldn’t see anything without them. Secondly, I’m spotlessly clean and laundered, fresh from the shops where we bought this stuff. No rugby player is ever clean. They emerge from the dressing room spattered in mud and blood. During the match, simply add sweat and the blood of others to complete the look!
I am standing with my hands on my hips and my right leg turned out, in what I imagined was a manly pose, but was, in fact, the complete opposite. I just looked so camp, with my hair swept to the right and my boots neatly polished.
How did Dad manage not to laugh? Maybe he was blinded with pride.
My experiences actually playing rugby were even more ridiculous.
In soccer, the boy who is rubbish and wears glasses gets picked last and gets put in goal. This had happened to me so many times at Junior School that I had become quite a good goalkeeper, despite the glasses.
But this was rugby, and there was no goalkeeper, though I still got picked last, along with a little boy with glasses and a shock of red hair, who turned out later to be a genius at Mathematics and a Professor of Mathematics at a prestigious American university.
The reason we weaklings were put in goal in soccer, was the fact that the whole team could blame you if they lost. And you didn’t need to know how to kick a ball.
The position you got put in in rugby, was full-back. This was madness. The full-back is the last line of defence. He has to have nerves of steel when he is being charged by 15 boys who are intent on breaking every bone in his body.
There are three specific skills he absolutely must have.
One is the ability to catch the ball under extreme physical pressure, which requires him to see it in the first place. Playing with glasses makes this extremely dangerous; playing without glasses makes it impossible.
The second skill is the ability to kick an oval—shaped ball high, long and accurately. Why did people think me or the Genius could do that?
Finally, you have to be able to stop big boys who are running straight at you, at high speed, in the noise and clamour of battle.
I learned very quickly what to do. I realised that everyone was trying to get the ball, but I couldn’t see where it was. When, by accident, I found myself near the ball, all hell would break loose and I would be trampled into the mud.
I discovered I didn’t need to know where the ball was – it was always in the middle of a heap of vicious bullies and psychopaths. My technique was to avoid that ball at all costs, to run away from it rather than towards it, and to drop it rather than catch it.
It is to this technique that I owe the fact that I have never broken my nose or had my teeth kicked out.
But it is magnificent to watch . . . like the French cavalry charge at Waterloo, it is magnificent, but it is not war.