For a fleeting few weeks in Autumn, the gaze of Britain’s sport-loving public can be briefly diverted from the strutting, diamond-eared peacock that is the Premier League. For the rugby autumn internationals are here and the masses were being steadily WHIPPED into a state of mild indifference.
Then, one by one, the home nations will be embarrassed, outclassed, humiliated or pick-pocketed by their south hemisphere opponents and normal football-worshipping service will be resumed.
But I would argue that rugby deserves at least as much affection as its flashier, cocksure relation, even long after the climax of its flagship tournament.
I should start with a disclaimer. As a Welshman I’m genetically hardwired and legally obliged to follow anything rugby-related. Most Welsh houses have a shrine to Gareth Edwards or JPR Williams in their coal sheds, and we’ve all been brainwashed by the sinister propaganda songs of Max Boyce. But the inevitability of our passion doesn’t make it any less genuine or indeed logical. So now at the mid-point of the international (that will decide the seeding for the 2015 World Cup no less), now seems like the ideal time to remind ourselves why rugby is the objectively superior sport...
One famous incident involved granite-faced former All Black captain Buck Shelford, who was forced to leave the pitch after an opponent performed a violent Riverdance on his balls. He returned 5 minutes later to lead his team to victory, with testicles reinserted and scrotum sown up. Probably using his own muddied laces.
I was going to begin by lamenting the endlessly cunty off-field behaviour of Premier League stars. But then during the last Rugby World Cup the England rugby team miraculously out-twatted their footballing counterparts in various displays of tombstoning, dwarf-lobbing and light adultery. All these misdemeanours raise serious questions about where the next generation of Question of Sport captains is coming from, but that deserves an article/dissertation in its own right. So back to the respective sporting merits...
Football in its purest form can be a thing of simple beauty, but the modern game has been corrupted by theatrical play-acting and pratfalls. Pundits often doubt the ability of foreign stars to cope with the ‘physicality’ of the English game, and yet ironically the Premiership is starting to resemble a weekly showcase of Albanian slapstick.
In contrast, the collisions and bloodshed in rugby are wincingly real, with players showing an almost kamikaze lack of respect for their own physical well-being. One famous incident involved granite-faced former All Black captain Buck Shelford, who was forced to leave the pitch after an opponent performed a violent Riverdance on his balls. He returned 5 minutes later to lead his team to victory, with testicles reinserted and scrotum sown up. Probably using his own muddied laces.
I was fortunate to attend the Oxford of Wales (Cardiff University), where the 6 Nations weekends were an annual festival of good-natured competition and male voice binge-drinking. It was during this period that the Millennium Stadium hosted football’s showpiece finals (while historic Wembley was being converted into a giant Tesco Extra). The difference in atmosphere between the two occasions was palpable.
Whereas rugby fans jostled together in a city-wide show of friendly national rivalry, the football supporters instinctively separated into marauding tribes of shirtless, pissed-up morlocks; scenes repeated around stadiums and town centres every weekend. It’s a little-known fact that although the official capacity of Wembley is 90,000, the empty rows of seats required for fan segregation means the actual working size is closer to 400.
The argument often goes that the behaviour of the two sports’ fans and players is a reflection of their upbringing and social class – football is predominantly the sport of the urban working class and rugby of middle-class suburbia and the playing fields of Eton. Whilst there is a speck of truth in this sweeping generalisation, the argument collapses when you consider Wales, rugby’s spiritual home and a resolutely working class country; the definition of middle class status in Merthyr Tydfil is ownership of a VHS player and an indoor toilet. Yet players and supporters show the exact same discipline and camaraderie as their more affluent rugby-playing neighbours across the Severn Bridge.
Conversely, football turnstiles act as some kind of personality-twisting rage portal, turning otherwise intelligent, mild-mannered individuals into bile-spewing mentalists. So it’s got little to do with class or upbringing. It’s the culture of the sports themselves that determines the behaviour of fans & players. Rugby brings out the best in people. Football the twat.
Obviously the choice between football and rugby is in no way mutually exclusive – both sports are fine British pursuits that we’ve exported to the world, only to have the world ungratefully master the game and then humiliate us at every opportunity.
“What a score!”
Of course, rugby has been bringing disparate and sometimes actively hostile groups together for decades, in the form of the touring British Lions and Barbarians. And it was the latter that brought us one of the greatest sporting moments of all time.
Goals in football unleash one intense ejaculatory moment of pleasure, whereas an unfolding try in rugby is a more gradual, tantric experience. And although Football has undeniably produced some seminal (pun intended?) moments in sporting history, it’s difficult to choose a definitive, undisputed highlight.
That honour in rugby goes to the BaBa’s sweeping, magisterial try against the mighty All Blacks in 1973 at Cardiff Arms Park. There a very few sports where the most exhilarating point of its most celebrated moment happens within 5 metres of the scorers’ own line, but Phil Bennett’s physics-bending sidesteps were as mesmeric as Gareth Edwards’ soaring finish. In fact, the entire game is an 80 minute exhibition of outrageous offloading, dummying and body-swerving. Coupled with Cliff Morgan’s iconic commentary and an operatic Arms Park crowd, it’s pretty much the perfect game of sport. Apart from the Haka, which looks like a drunken rehearsal of camp Morris Dancers.
United in Rivalry
Obviously the choice between football and rugby is in no way mutually exclusive – both sports are fine British pursuits that we’ve exported to the world, only to have the world ungratefully master the game and then humiliate us at every opportunity. Perhaps antipathy amongst us rugby supporters is rooted in the knowledge that we’re destined to follow a sport that lacks the universal appeal, financial clout and raw passion of the Beautiful Game...
But it’s this all-consuming devotion that fuels football’s excesses. And maybe the best way to curb these excesses is to more evenly spread the adulation, publicity and investment across a broader range of sports. And what better sport than rugby?
So this weekend switch on the TV on Saturday, bypass the ramblings of Football Focus and give rugby a try. I said give rugby A TRY...
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