Rugby, for me, is the closest thing to a religion apart from… a religion. I’ve played plenty of sports in my time, including rugby but this sport holds a special, almost mystical place in my heart that I cannot really explain. So much so that my wives and children have generated much laughter at my expense making up stories about the way I behave when watching rugby union either at a match or on television. One curious thing, I watch lots of sports (but not football) and in no other sport does my body react unconsciously to the players in the game. I can be seen to lean from side to side as if pushing with the players. It happens so many times during each game. I can’t stop it. It’s purely reflex, I’m part of the game.
My first wife would claim that she would have to take our children out of the room when the Championship started because of my shouting and my using occasional swear word which would often be directed at my own team rather than our opponents. In those days it was only four teams, England versus Scotland (Calcutta Cup), Wales and Ireland. Look how strange that is. Ireland, a foreign team, but not Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom. I don’t know if England has ever played Northern Ireland at Rugby Union. I suspect the enmity between republicans and loyalists might spark inevitable violence.
Anyway, it was four ‘nations’ playing against each other. On TV we watched the BBC (who had the exclusive contract) in black and white. This meant we had one team in white, one in black and two in grey. Imagine the confusion when Ireland plays Wales!
Scotland = dark blue – looks black, England = white – stays the same
Wales = red – looks grey, Ireland = green – also looks grey
The matches were great fun, played with spirit and fairness, often in deep mud (this is England don’t forget) and everyone was the best of friends the moment the whistle blew. Those were the days when Wales was invincible, every member of their team was a legend. Two Williams boys, JPR Williams and JJ Williams, Gareth Edwards, Gerald Davies and the incomparable Barry John were the backbones of a team which swept all before them – and they were often immortalised in song echoing through the Welsh valleys sung by great Welsh choirs. – and Max Boyce.
Then colour came to the game and with it innumerable rule changes to make the game faster and more competitive. At some point the RFC, the governing body for rugby, decided that we should invite France into the competition. People scratched their heads a bit and thought perhaps we might teach them a few lessons and so it was agreed. The problem was… the French were actually quite good at rugby despite it being a game of English invention.
In the latter years of the millennium the French were unbeatable with expert handling skills and a flair for innovation. We began to dread the appearance of Serge Blanco, Pierre Berbizier and Philippe Sella. The bright blue strip embroidered with the French cockerel became too often worn by the trophy holders at the end of each championship.
England at this time were deep in the doldrums searching for cohesion and consistency. Along came the millennium and along came Martin Johnson captaining a team of superstars including Mike Catt, Matt Dawson and the legendary Jonny Wilkinson. It was the first time for many years that the captain was from the scrum. It’s a class thing, working class got dirty in the scrum and upper class pranced about in the backs, from the ranks of whom the captain was inevitably chosen. A World Cup victory beckoned and Jonny kindly obliged.
After the excitement of the millennium the championship expanded further with the addition of an Italian team. At first we sniggered and waited for record breaking scores against our poor Southern European neighbours. In recent years the Italians have shocked us all, beating every team except England and showing shocking innovation in interpreting the rules of the game. It all came to a head in the 2017 game against England where English players found themselves surrounded by Italians in what appeared to be clearly offside positions. Twickenham, the temple of English Rugby howled in impotent fury as the Italians continued to disrupt the noble game in this way. At one stage, England captain Dylan Hartley and team-mate James Haskell asked referee Romain Poite to clarify the law, but the Frenchman replied: “I am a referee, not a coach.” In the second half England found a way round this disruption and ran in five tries. They never tried that again!
Clearly Rugby is in my blood.