My relationship with rugby is different from the one I have with cricket because, in many ways, I found it for myself. My father always preferred the round ball game, so he had little influence on my decision to try playing the game when I was almost ten years old.
Prompted by friends, I joined a club near our home in south-west London (which just happened to have the same name as the most famous ground in the world) and relished the game I started to play, which was mini rugby. Nine players a side – three in the scrum and six backs – with matches played across one of the twenty-two metre areas of a normal pitch. We played a bit at my junior school too, and one of my greatest sporting memories from half a lifetime of mediocrity sees me bursting through to score a try at Richmond Athletic Ground, handing off several smaller boys in the process, at least one of whom went off crying (well, we were all eleven). If anyone had known who he was – he was barely out of nappies at the time – they might even have said it reminded them of Jonah Lomu.
From there I played a few seasons of proper rugby before drifting away. We played a bit at school but the focus there was football, and there were other things I wanted to do, like watch real rugby players knock each other about instead.
Soon after I began playing, when my mother saw that I was fascinated by the game, she brought me some books about it from the local library. Memory tells me that at least one of them dated from the 1950s, when even the names of some of the positions were different, but they helped develop my knowledge of the arcane details of a sport which, until then, had hovered far from the forefront of my consciousness, only impinging upon it when my father attended one of his rare matches or my elder brother injured himself in a school game.
During the first season in which I followed rugby Wales won the Grand Slam, as they always seemed to then, but within a few years Bennett, Edwards, JPR and most of the other peerless heroes of that side had gone. England briefly rose to the fore in 1980 before fading, Scotland and Ireland had their short days in the sun, France usually seemed both predictable and unpredictable at the same time. They were always contenders, but rarely fulfilled expectations, except in their inconsistency. Very little has changed since.
One of my early heroes was John Scott, England’s No.8, who seemed to play the game with just the right blend of athleticism, aggression, swagger and humour, and spent the best days of his career playing in the unforgiving environment of the Welsh club circuit. Years later I met his father. He’d worked in the same office as me before he retired, and his pride in his son’s achievements was touching. You could tell that one of the best moments of his life had been the time he visited the clubhouse at the old Cardiff Arms Park and saw the huge portrait of his son which marked his place in the pantheon of one of the world’s greatest clubs.
The game was very different then. Players were amateurs; they had proper jobs and could only train in the evenings. The game didn’t move as quickly or have the same type of fluency as the professional game, but it still worked. There was more space on the field and in some cases players made up for their lack of size and physical conditioning with greater levels of skill. Also, as a result of the players’ amateurism, the game had a democratic quality which all other major team sports had lost decades earlier. It was sad, even though it was inevitable, when rugby union became professional in 1995.
This is not to say that modern rugby isn’t good. I have my heroes – Wilkinson, O’Driscoll, Jason Leonard, from further afield in place and time the young Christian Cullen – and, in general, contemporary professional rugby union is faster, more dramatic and more thrilling than the game ever was before.