Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Rugby: a delight even when it's a grind

Strangely, I’ve never played rugby. Or perhaps that’s not so strange: I was always small and though, like most small kids, self-preservation taught me to be reasonably quick, I was never what could be called athletic.

So if I love rugby, it’s purely as a spectator. But love it I do, and find it enormously entertaining, at least at international level. And above all at the level of the six nations, the main annual competition in the northern hemisphere.

It’s a curious mix: two Latin nations, France and Italy, and the four ‘home’ nations, Scotland, Wales, England and Ireland. The latter grouping is interesting, since Ireland went to considerable lengths to leave that particular home. Even so, when the emerald nation plays rugby it draws its player from both the Republic and Northern Ireland, currently still inside the United Kingdom.

What’s more, to show their attachment to that home, the Scots’ rugby anthem is ‘Flower of Scotland’ whose refrain refers to how the country ‘stood against him, proud Edward's army, and sent him homeward to think again.’ And who was this Edward? Why, England’s king, second of the name.

See? Just listing the countries taking part raises all sorts of fine points of controversy.

Though it’s a rough, tough game, occasionally brutal, rugby somehow generates a surprisingly convivial atmosphere. Fans aren’t segregated at matches. Women and children attend. Whole families turn up.

And, though it’s a rough, tough game, it’s also surprisingly stimulating intellectually. Players are forbidden in front of the ball, so the game embodies a concept of territory: each team holds the territory behind it. The slow build-up of territorial control is sometimes reminiscent of chess, though generally things move a little more quickly and with rather more physical contact.

That contact, though rough and tough (of course) is also a lot less brutal than one might think. For instance, it is less dangerous than American football where the use of helmets and padding tempts players into far greater violence, leading to more serious long-term injuries. Besides, in my own lifetime I’ve watched the laws of rugby evolve significantly and always in the direction of making it safer.

What emerges from all this is an engrossing game, swinging through many phases in which a team builds its control of territory, alternating with sudden explosive passages of running and passing when one or other side sees its opportunity for a breakthrough. It can be quite breathtaking.

But not always.

Last weekend, I watched two matches, France against Wales from Paris and Ireland against England from Dublin.

The TV companies produce highlights of a game for transmission when it’s finished; I have to say it must have been hard work to find more than a couple of minutes of highlights from either of these games, even using a generous definition of what constitutes a ‘highlight’.

The Paris game included just one try, the most exciting score in a rugby match. The Dublin games included none. Both games involved a lot of slow, grinding work to occupy territory and smother the other side’s attacks. You need to be a real aficionado of the game to enjoy it when it’s like that.

The only try in the two games I watched:
George North goes over the line for Wales against France.

Clearly, I’m a real fan, because I enjoyed both of them. You certainly won’t hear me saying that those games weren’t enthralling.

On the other hand, I do have to make a possibly damning admission: I’m not sure I would have enjoyed them as much had the results been different.

My (French) wife points out that I hold French nationality (thanks to her) as well as British. But naturalisation changes nothing when it comes to rugby loyalty and mine is to England. I’ve backed the English side for a long time, through thick and thin, and that’s meant a great deal of thin as well as occasional flashes of thick.

England won in Ireland.

And who are the great rivals of England? Why, France of course. 

And France lost to Wales.

I love the game for its own sake. Naturally. But an unlikely win for my side in Dublin? And an equally unlikely home defeat for its main rival?

It’s just possible that my pleasure at the grinding matches this weekend wasn’t entirely down to selfless love of the game. A little element of partisan advantage may have contributed just a little...

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