• Philip Bryer (No. 10)

Rugby. A Cowards Guide


In a week when news of the return of grammar schools coincided with the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup, my mind strayed back to the Seventies (as it often does) but not to reminisce, on this occasion, about music. Through the mist, I could make out 30 horrid adolescent boys and a red-faced teacher dressed in a tracksuit and as overkeen with the whistle as he was with his fists. Zooming in on this dank and freezing November afternoon, I picked out the most reluctant fly-half in this school, and probably any other. Me.

It came as quite the shock when, having passed our Eleven-Plusses, my mates and I realised that we were bound for a school where the hobby we pursued most keenly was not permitted. No, not that one. I’m talking about football, which was far more important than jazz mags and Onanism.

We were informed at our first games lesson, which consisted mainly of a talk about the illustrious history of the great game of rugby football, and how it was superior in every regard to what was referred to disparagingly as ‘association’. Association football not even being allowed its full title. Despite the fact, it seemed to us, that it was clearly the game that involved the most use of the feet. We had to buy a rule book, and had 2 kits, and a pair of ugly, galumphing boots as far removed from England’s classy midfield dynamo Alan Ball’s white pair as they could be without having spikes protruding from the toes. A development which I suspect our razor-gang of games masters (who all played for the local rugby club) would have welcomed, and indeed, actively campaigned for.

I agree that I was not approaching this new game in the most positive fashion. I don’t think I’d ever actually seen a game of rugby and, soon after I got it, I chucked the rugby rule book out of the school bus window, but I was aware that forward passes were not allowed. Which was all I needed as further evidence that this was a dull, defensive game fit only for dolts and dullards. This is why it still mystifies me as to how I ended up as a fly-half, who, as the playmaker, string-puller and director of operations on the field, would be expected to know the game inside-out and have the requisite skill levels to be able to carry out these, I imagined, incredibly complex tasks. Not only that, I found myself in the B Group. That is, one injury, a cold or a dental appointment away from being drafted up into the A Group. The A Group! Home to the 1st Team and 1st reserves. The A Group which was populated with budding games masters, hard-nuts, and the elite squad of school bullies.

On these occasions, when Mother Nature intervened and visited a plague of boils on form 2B, we of the B Group were commanded by the loony Welsh head of games – who belonged less in a tracksuit than a tightly bound straitjacket – to form 2 ranks. He passed down these quivering lines and selected his victims for the upgrade. I ensured that as he approached I had assumed the stance of a slope-shouldered consumptive. Willing my eyes to sink into my skull, I was sure that I could command the colour to drain from my face. Or this may just have been fear. However, I never once got picked, so my impression of the most etiolated weakling in the district must have worked. Although anyone that knew me back then wouldn’t be surprised that I carried off the weedy, streak-of-piss look with aplomb. Also, I had hair like Rory Gallagher, which may have helped shade it by confirming his worst prejudices. How could he let what was, to all intents and purposes, a girl into his beloved 1st XV?

How was I, as a fly-half? I have to say that for a while I was a typical one. At once, cowardly and glory-hunting. My basic game plan was this, when the scrum-half passed to me if I thought I could sidestep and outrun whoever was in front me – let’s be honest, this was usually one of the kids who finished off other kids’ lunches - I went for it. Otherwise, if I saw a solid wall of lads, all sharp knees and elbows, bearing down on me, I shipped the ball smartly to the inside-centre and made myself scarce. For a while, all was, well, if not necessarily fine, it was injury-free. For me. Until one afternoon when I gathered up a loose ball and took off from the halfway-line. Haring half the length of the pitch for a glorious match-winning try. Except, a couple of yards from glory, I was caught by some bastard from the opposition who launched himself at me, hit me square on my back and wrapped his arms around my shoulders, I fell face-first to the ground, landed on the ball and he landed on me. And then I was sick.

I retired from rugby football and took up cross-country running. Well, when I say cross-country running, this involved running out of the school gates, round to Mark Taylor’s house, where we would smoke Guards fags and listen to Ziggy Stardust. This worked brilliantly. Right up until the time one of the masters, one of Games Gang, announced he would be running with us. It soon became clear that some of our number, despite the fact they’d ostensibly been running the course for weeks, didn’t have a clue where they were going.

If you should ever find yourself in this position, I would advise you that saying, “Short term memory loss, Sir,” wasn’t enough to save me from the slipper.

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