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  • Writer's picturePhilip Bryer

Rugby: A Cowards Guide

Updated: Sep 24, 2023

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 mists, I could make out 30 (mostly horrid) adolescent boys and a red-faced teacher dressed in a tracksuit and as over-keen 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 onanistic one. I’m talking about football.

This bombshell was dropped 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 (unless it was as played by the England rugby team in the Rob Andrew era). We had to buy a rugby rule book, had two 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 dreary 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, but I also found myself in the B Group. That is, an injury, a cold, or a dental appointment away from being drafted up into the A Group, which was home to the first XV and first reserves. The A Group, with its population of budding games masters, otherwise known as 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 head of games — a Welshman who belonged less in a tracksuit than a tightly bound straitjacket — to form two 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 who knew me back then wouldn’t be surprised that I carried off the weedy streak-of-piss look with aplomb. Also, I had a full head of hair in those days, golden curls which tumbled below my shoulders, which may have helped shade it by confirming the master's worst prejudices: How could he let what was to all intents and purposes a girl into his beloved first XV?

How was I, as a fly half, then? I have to say that for a while I was a typical one. Both 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 mud and injury free. For me, at least. 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. However, a couple of yards from glory, I was caught by some bastard from the opposition who launched himself at me, hit me square in the back and wrapped his arms around me tightly. I fell face first to the ground, my stomach landed on the ball, and he landed on me. And then I was sick. (Metaphor for Bryer's future alert!)

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 straight round to Mark Taylor’s house, where we would smoke Guards ciggies and listen to Ziggy Stardust. This worked brilliantly. Right up until the time when one of the masters, one of the 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 a few whacks on the arse with the slipper.

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