Here’s today’s question: what do Finland, Luxembourg, Vanuato, Norway, Monaco, Nigeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Guam and Tahiti in common? Give up? Thought you might, because it’s not obvious unless your answer was that vast majority of the citizens of those ten countries have two legs. Well, the answer is that they are all in the bottom ten in the International Rugby Union board’s ranking of national sides. Perhaps you would have cottoned on a lot sooner had I asked what New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England and France have in common - they are all in the top five and of all the many connections one might make between the five of them, being rugby nation would not necessarily come too far down the list. But what suprised me was seeing how many nations around the world play rugby. Monaco? Really? Surely the place isn’t big enough for a full-sized rugby pitch? Finland? Well, as sure as eggs is eggs it will be a summer game up there, unless they play rugby on skates.
I am something of a recent convert to rugby, despite being impeccably middle-class with quite marvellous manners to boot and charm most others would die for, and despite the fact that I shall never see 59 again. In fact, I used to loathe it, and, to be honest, there are aspects to rugby I still loathe. I suppose it would be more truthful to say I have become a fan of the game of rugby when it is played during the Six Nations tournament at the beginning of every year and, as now, during the World Cup, now being staged in New Zealand.
To clarify my earlier loathing (now downgraded to intense dislike) a little more, it is English rugby and its so-called ‘rugger buggers’ I dislike: their attitudes, their vastly
I am happy to point out that this intense dislike is solely restricted to English rugby. In Wales it is very much the national sport played by all, and although Scottish rugger buggers have more in common with their English cousins than their fellow Celts, I don’t find them half as irritating. For one thing, they often share their fellow non-rugger buggers Scots sense of humour. My loathing started when, at the age of 13, and after four years attending German schools the last three at a Jesuit college, I was sent to the Oratory School. I was unfeasibly innocent – I remember suggesting to my mother that one sure way to tackle world over-population, a contemporary concern in the early Sixties, would be if all men and women simply stopped shagging. She laughed but did not (and possibly could not) explain why my solution was something of a non-starter – and life at and English boarding school (oh, all right, public school) was not so much a wake-up call but a nightmare for this tender young lad. I knew nothing of ‘queers’, ‘stiffs’ and ‘wanking’ and after just a few days got very, very homesick. I know realise that all the other boys had also been very, very homesick at one point, but as I was the only one of two in my year’s intake of 40 who had not previously been to a prep school, my homesick came later on in my school career. Those poor saps had gone through it all when they were seven or eight and were first shipped out as the inconvenience many middle-class parents regarded them. Football – soccer, to you Yanks – was the game I liked and followed, but it wasn’t played at the Oratory. Rugby was, and the connection between English rugby and an almost blinding unhappiness was made. It didn’t help that at 13 I had reached my teenage weight, but not yet my teenage height and was rather chubby to boot. My first nickname was ‘Preggers’ – perhaps you can guess why.
So there you have it: the reason why I find English rugby, its followers and everything about it loathsome. There is even a certain accent which, whenever I hear it, is like a stab in the back. Irrational? Certainly, but then someone once observed that what distinguishes humankind from animals is not that we have the capacity to be rational, but that we often behave totally irrationally.
. . .
But I have come to appreciate the game a great deal more, and for two simple reasons. The first is the various rule changes which have made the game far more fluid. When I was forced to play the game – and occasionally watched it – you often had to guess what was going on as the ball would get lost for what seemed like hours in a pile of rugby forwards and mud. This made it all rather boring. But rules changes mean that union is now almost as fluid as league.
The second change which made watching rugby (and, by the way, cricket) more of a pleasure was the gradual introduction of new technology which meant numerous replays, often in slow motion, and several angles were available, which helped one understand the game far better. Admittedly, many already did, but I wasn’t one of them.
These days I support Italy in the Six Nations. They have almost always been coming last, but they are getting better and better, for one thing they seem to have more in common with the Australian, South Africans, New Zealanders and French than those awful rugger buggers.