Gaw, who is rapidly establishing himself as a most excellent addition to this corner of the blogosphere, writes here about the British and Irish Lions’ narrow loss to South Africa on Saturday.
Although I will watch international rugby and enjoy it, inasmuch as I enjoy virtually all sports and am a sporting patriot (the 2003 World Cup win, led by Johnson and Wilkinson, was terrific stuff), I confess that I have trouble with the game. That is, with Rugby Union specifically– my objections don’t apply to League, which is a simple and exciting game to watch (though must be absolute murder to play).
Partly my troubles with rugby could be attributed to my childhood. I grew up initially in Portsmouth, which like all urban areas is footballing, but moved later to Devon, which like many rural areas is rugby-playing. School rugby thus irritated me by wasting valuable footballing time. Rugby shouldn’t take this personally, mind – at that time I considered most things that didn’t happen in the cricket season to be a waste of valuable footballing time. But rugby was particularly frustrating because there we all were, out in the school playing fields on perfectly good Wednesday afternoons and virtually wearing football kit, but chasing around after an absurd, skill-defeating oval ball, instead of a round one with which I could show off. And have you ever seen schoolboy rugby? It’s farcical. Futile mud-wrestling amongst the forwards (all of whom are picked purely on the basis of their physical shape and size), and endless knock-ons, ill-directed kicks and ball-droppings amongst the backs. And nobody has a bally clue about the rules, it’s all stop-start-stop-start, trudging from line-out to scrum while the backs stand and catch pneumonia a mile from the action. There was one game at our school once that finished 0-0. Imagine how dismal a spectacle that must have been!
Anyway, I forgave school rugby ages ago, but I still have three major objections to Union which prevent me from fully enjoying it. The first is the all-pervading pomposity. Of course, other sports such as soccer and boxing are massively overhyped, primarily by competitive television companies – but no other sport takes itself quite so seriously as does Rugby Union. No other sport’s pundits are as eager to pronounce players, even after just one or two matches, as legendary and one of the All-Time Greats. No other sport’s commentators are as quick to push the Epic button, or to describe a successful incident as For the Ages. Even as the winning South African penalty was sailing through the air yesterday, Sky’s man was asking not “Has he won the match?” but “Has he written himself into the history books?”
To some extent we can put this hyperbole-disease down to the relative scarcity of international fixtures, especially compared with the endless, cheapening treadmills of football and cricket. And certainly the Lions tours, which only take place every four years, are the apotheosis of the ‘historic’ shtick. But it’s primarily about the culture (by contrast, cricket is undercut by self-deprecating humour, while football is determinedly stupid and anti-pretension). The annual Six Nations is no different, being at base the only genuine sporting outlet for anti-English fervour amongst the other home nations (the presence of France and Italy in the competition is a mere distraction; years when France win don’t really ‘count’). The pre-match build-ups to Wales-England matches are nauseating. Damp-eyed moustachioed Taffys wax lyrical about JPR (“ohhhhh, he could rrrun like the whind, could Jay-pee-arrrrr”) while smirking English rugger-buggers tell homoerotic tales of each other’s gigantic balls.
Part and parcel of this rugby pomposity is - my second objection - a sneering disdain for football. Rugger, with its World Cup, tries to be a global game but makes an even feebler attempt than cricket (which can at least boast the sub-continent as well as the white ex-colonies). But the fact is that football is the international game, and it is also the national game, and rugby copes with this brute fact by cultivating a huge superiority complex. Soccer has fans; rugby has ‘connoisseurs’. Soccer players are pansies, whingers, cowards and cheats. Of course, rugby players gouge each other’s eyeballs and stamp on each other’s throats under the cover of rolling mauls, but only football commits the unforgivable sin of Diving. And then there is the rugger bugger’s ultimate trump card: unlike spoilt, obnoxious footballers, rugby players respect the referee.
But this brings me on to my third and final problem with rugby. For the fact is that, unless players did uncomplainingly accept every refereeing decision, the game would cease to function. Complexity and subjectivity are the critical flaws in rugby as a spectator sport; no other game is so utterly determined by the whim of the official. Have you ever watched a match live? Without explanatory TV commentary (which is nearly always as confused as the rest of us, but feigns understanding), penalties are just an unfolding series of mysteries. Like the supposed tactics, the officiating is wholly impenetrable to the outsider. For the most part, there’s a big melee and then, apparently arbitrarily, the referee awards a penalty kick and the game is decided. And then some damp-eyed Jock or Taffy describes it as ‘historic’.
All that said, there’s still a lot to be said for Union. The players are almost insanely physically courageous and close matches can be thrilling. But cricket wallops it for genuine tactical complexity and depth, and for excitement, skill and unpredictability you can give me the footballing pansies over the wet towel-whipping rugger buggers any day. Sorry, Gaw.