My glorious rugby life

"Just hold the ball like this, d'you see, and when you're ready, shout 'Coming in, colours, coming in - now', and chuck it like this".

This was my introduction to schoolboy rugby.  The speaker was none other than England back row forward Alan Ashcroft, who taught us geography and rugby.  Colours vs whites (shirts) was the norm, and I was learning to be a scrum half.

Little did I dream in those far-off days that I would eventually climb the highest peaks of amateur rugby, playing alongside or against names such as Fran Cotton and Bill Beaumont.  This was just as well, as in twenty years of playing I never emerged from the lowest valleys.

 

Some years after leaving school, I moved 100 miles away, and was approached in a pub (where else?) by a chap who was looking for somebody – anybody – who could help make up the numbers for the local club’s 6th team the following weekend.  A few drinks later, five years without rugby was forgotten, and by the appointed day I had acquired the necessary kit.

Unfortunately, I had also acquired a massive hangover from the previous night.  Red-eyed and whey-faced, I rang him to say I couldn’t make it.  “Well, you have to.  We’ve only got 14 men as it is, so we’ll hide you away at full back”.

And so I found myself, still shivering and trying not to retch, on a soggy riverside meadow waiting to receive the opening kick.  Imagine my horror as the ball came spinning high in the air and descended towards me as accurately as a laser beam.   I didn’t even have to move a step, which was handy as I couldn’t have.   I cupped my arms in a manner which, had he been thought of then, would have been reminiscent of Mr Bean.

The ball fell straight into my arms.   I don’t know whether I was mesmerised like a startled rabbit in front of a ferret or felt too ill to move, or indeed was simply scared out of my wits; probably all three.  All I know is that the onrushing opposition player realised in the final yard that he didn’t have to execute any kind of a tackle, rib-crunching or otherwise.  He slowed to a walk, gently took the ball from me (not a word of thanks, mind) and trotted over the line.

Despite this, they were desperate enough to want me to play again, and I began to enjoy playing in the same position as my hero in the back row.  This was mainly because I was too slow to be in the backs and too skinny to be a “proper” forward, though over the next twenty years, emergencies would put me in most positions.  In fact, I scored my first try after two weeks.  The opposition took a quick 25-yard dropout while I had my back turned.  I suddenly felt a hard blow to the back of my head, and turned to see what had caused it.  The ball had struck me unerringly on the cranium, and  was bouncing most obligingly towards their line.  Quick as a flash, I broke into a stroll and touched it down.  I was a hero!

Blasted heaths, half-flooded valleys, slopes as steep as Snowdon: I’ve played on all of them and more.  At least half a dozen times we’ve had to clear sheep from the pitch before the match, and once they kept coming back on, as if to bleat “On your way, strangers, this is our part of town”.  I don’t know if it’s the only time when sheep stopped play, but I suspect it’s not.

And then there were the tours.  Not for us these fancy trips to America or France; Wales, the West Country and East Anglia were quite exotic enough for us.  It seems we never tired of changing the Ladies and Gents signs in the pub toilets, but there were one-offs as well; setting fire to an aged prop forward in the middle of Tenby golf course would probably not be considered PC today, but it was fun at the time.  As the local paper put it “He blazed like a beacon”.   Not so much fun was taking part in a pickled egg eating contest at three in the morning; the consequences of that were too distressing to be mentioned on a family-friendly website.

We enlisted a new player one day.  He was a Malaysian giant with the unlikely name of Locksley Beaudewine.  (Sorry to use his real name, but you have to admit it’s got style.)  We were away to a club whose showers had run dry, and had to leave unwashed.  We stopped in a pub, and, as one does, sang some jolly songs and played some silly games.  I don’t know if you’ve heard of the three-man lift, but basically it involves pinning somebody prostrate on the floor by a trick, opening his flies and pouring beer down them.  And they say rugby players aren’t sophisticated!  Locksley, not knowing the game, was the chosen victim.  We were somewhat surprised (we hadn’t seen him in the shower, remember) when we saw that not only did he go commando – that’s no undertrollies – but that he was enormously, unbelievably, terrifyingly, overdeveloped in that area.  Our surprise was nothing compared to that of the lounge bar patrons who had come in for a quiet G & T.  Strangely, we weren’t invited back.

We managed to carry off a few tricks on the field, too.  The art of deliberately going backwards in the scrum before the ball is put in is not easy to learn, but with the right ref the other lot will be penalised for pushing too early.  Once, the opposition complained to Sir that we had done just that, earning the reply “Do you think I’m stupid?”.  He was stupid of course, but that’s a common syndrome at that level.

We learned another good ruse playing at Windsor Great Park on the morning of an international.  We had been given a kickable penalty, albeit on the touchline.  The problem was that we didn’t have a reliable kicker, but the captain had a brainwave.  He instructed a player to wander casually across with a message for Badger, the winger on the opposite touch, and told our kicker to aim straight for Badger’s corner.  He then solemnly pointed to the posts.  The hope was of course that Badger would catch it and score, and that the ref would be dim enough to believe he had genuinely aimed between the posts and missed.  To our amazement, it worked.  Thank Heaven for stupid referees.

We had the same captain the next year when we played them again, and it must have been one of the very first games to be refereed by a woman.  She and our gallant captain clearly fancied each other from the start, and just before the end of the game she somehow became caught up in a maul, emerging somewhat red-faced but looking happy.  Grinning widely, she promptly sent the skipper off for “an indecent act”, though he later claimed that it was she who had acted indecently.

Some of you will accuse me of exaggeration, but those who were there know it’s true, especially the captain – eh, Roger?

 

I'm a paragraph. Click here to add your own text and edit me. I'm a great place for you to tell your story and let your visitors know a little more about you.

At the age of 42, I finally desisted from playing rugby.  In a game a decade earlier, I had somehow acquired a livid scar on my cheek which looked like a duelling cut from a German schlager. I had carried it with pride for ten years without even knowing how it happened.  Now it was beginning to fade, and I could no longer brag about a fictional argument with a monstrous lock forward, so it was time to go.

 

 

In twenty years of playing, I had never risen to the giddy heights of playing with a number on my back.  I know someone who wants his hearse to be a Rolls Royce as he has never been in one, and I have a Jewish friend whose earnest wish is to have someone say Kaddish for him when he dies.  As for me, when I shuffle off this mortal coil, will somebody please supply the appropriate shroud?


 

 

 

And now...

 

It is a crisp Sunday morning, and the under-9s are playing against a local side.  The stand-off half receives a pass, knocks it on twice, regathers and drops the ball two feet short of the line.  The ref blows his whistle and raises his arm. “Try”, he cries, “and a very good one too” he murmurs to the supposed scorer.  You know, you just know, what the answer will be – “Thanks, dad!”

We have spoken elsewhere about incompetent referees; you get them at most levels of the game.  In mini-rugby, not only have the officials rarely undergone even the most basic training, but bias is actually taken for granted.  If a boy playing in a game reffed by his father didn’t score, it would probably make the headlines in the local press.

 

I did once referee an under-9s game.  Stepping in as a last-minute replacement, I became that mini rugby rarity – a neutral official.  One lad committed some infringement that didn’t affect play, so I simply warned him, “if you do that again, I’ll penalise you.”  He was deeply shaken by this, and ran to his dad at half time.  The father approached me and asked angrily “What did you say you were going to do to his penis?”  It took some minutes to explain what I meant, but the boy looked very warily at me for the rest of the game.

Refereeing is not the only thing that can be dodgy in junior rugby.  Some clubs can be, shall we say, a little creative with the age limits.  I once watched my local side play away against a team of supposedly under 10s.  Suffice to say that one shaven-headed player appeared to have a tattoo on his leg and at least 3 of them sported five o’clock shadows.

I stood next to our coach, whose son was playing.  The son wasn’t very good at rugby, being small for his age and rather weedy, but his dad was coach and one of the unwritten rules of mini-rugby is that the coach’s son gets to play 9 or 10, even if, as in this case, he didn’t want to play.  At one point the young lad found himself facing the prospect of tackling an onrushing opponent approximately twice his size.  The proud parent bellowed “Have him, Tarquin – are you man or mouse?”  I swear I could hear a strangled cry of “Eek!” before the precious Tarquin disappeared under about 15 stone of hairy, sweaty muscle.

 

 

 

My own son’s days of playing mini-rugby ended when he admitted he didn’t really like it, but was happy to give me an excuse for getting away from the house on Sunday mornings and having a couple of pints in the club bar.  Funny how astute some kids are.


A good friend who shall be known as Teflon Ted sent me these two articles.  The first emerged from New Zealand many years ago and has been edited by Ted to give it a more northern hemisphere look.  The second article is a response by Ted himself.

WHY THERE ARE BACKS IN RUGBY UNION

It is largely unknown to players and followers of the modern game that rugby started off purely as a contest for forwards in opposition in line-outs, scrums, rucks and mauls. This pitted eight men of statuesque physique, supreme fitness and superior intelligence in packs against one another. In those days, the winner was the pack that won the most set pieces. The debasement of the game began when backs were introduced. This occurred because a major problem was where to locate the next scrum or line-out. Selecting positions on the ground for these had become a constant source of friction and even violence.

The problem was resolved by employing forward rejects, men of small stature and limited intelligence, to run aimlessly around within the field of play. Following a set piece, the ball would be thrown to one of them, who would establish the next location either by dropping it or by throwing it to another reject for dropping. Very occasionally, a third reject would receive the ball before it would be dropped, and crowds would wildly cheer on these rare occasions. Initially these additional players were entirely unorganised, but with the passing of time they adopted set positions.

For instance, take the scrum-half. He was usually one of the smallest and least intelligent of the backs whose role was simply to accept the ball from a forward and to pass it on to one of the other rejects who would drop it, providing the new location for the forwards to compete. He could easily (given his general size) have been called a quarter forward or a ball monkey but then tolerance and compassion are the keys to forward play and the present euphemism was decided on.  The fly-half plays next to the scrum-half and his role is essentially the same except that when pressured, he usually panics and kicks the ball. Normally, he is somewhat taller and slightly better built than the scrum-half. 

Interestingly, in the antipodean colonies, who had taken an interest in rugby since they had no skills in any other game, (other than swimming, which they are often very good at since their ancestors used to jump ship and try and swim home instead of being transported, but that's another story for another time) the scrum-half is known as the half-back, the name allegedly being chosen because he was approximately half the size of a normal player. The fly-half is there known as the first five-eighth, allegedly since they were not quite small enough to be a proper half, but three-eighths short of the size required to have qualified to become a forward. 

Tet with back2 lft

Outside of these two were players who became known as centres.  The centres were opportunists who had no expertise but wanted to share in the glamour associated with forward packs. After repeated supplication to the forwards for a role in the game they would be told to get out in the middle of the field and wait for instructions. Thus, when asked where they played, they would reply "in the centre". And they remain to this day, parasites and scroungers who mostly work as lawyers or used car dealers.

Outside of the centres came players known as wingers. You may ask, why wingers? The answer is simple. Because these were players who had very little ability and were the lowest in the backline pecking order, they were placed as far away from the ball as possible. Consequently, and because the inside backs were so diligent in their assigned role of dropping the ball whenever they received it, the main contribution to the game made by the winger was not to get involved. Their instructions were to run away as quickly as possible whenever trouble appeared, and to avoid tackles at all costs. The fact that the game was organised so that the wingers didn't get to touch the ball led to an incessant flow of complaints from them and eventually the apt description "whingers" was applied. Even though the "h" dropped off over the years, the whingeing itself unfortunately has not.

Lastly, the full-back. This was the position given to the worst handler, the person least able to accept or pass the ball, someone who was always in the way. The name arose because the forwards would understandably become infuriated by the poor play invariably demonstrated by that person, and call out "send that fool back". He would then be relegated well out of everyone's way to the rear of the field. So there you have it. Let's return to the glory days of a contest between two packs of eight men of statuesque physique, supreme fitness and superior intelligence. The rest can go off to where they will be happier – playing soccer.

(Modified from an original piece from The All Blacks Supporters Club, whose origination is acknowledged.)

WHY THERE ARE FORWARDS IN RUGBY UNION

It came to my notice a while ago that some ex-convicts from the antipodes had been spreading scurrilous rumours about our beloved game, suggesting that the original format involved only the forwards, with the backs being added as an afterthought.

Now, we all know that rugby was invented when William Webb Ellis, while playing a game of football, picked up the ball and ran with it. This happened at Rugby School, which of course was a school for young gentlemen. It follows therefore that rugby, as first played, was specifically a game for gentlemen. 

With that key fact in mind, I am now able to reveal how it came about that there are forwards in rugby.

Firstly, it is essential for the reader to understand the basics of the game as it then existed. Rugby was specifically, and exclusively, a game for gentlemen. Originally there were 7 players in a team, chosen for their lithe and sporting figures, and ability to run rapidly but with elegance. They were arranged across the pitch from side to side, with several remaining in the centre.

The game was started by one gentleman dropping the ball onto his foot, and tapping it upwards to catch it, and then immediately running forward to allow him to pass the ball backwards to one of the other players. That player would in turn run forward carrying the ball, while endeavouring to avoid being tackled by a member of the opposition. It became a common tactic, to avoid being tackled, to kick the ball forward, and run to collect it as it bounced, catch it, and run on to cross the opposition goal line to score.

There was a critical problem that could commonly occur. If the ball was spilled, dropped, or otherwise not clearly in the possession of a gentleman player of either side, there could be arguments as to who should take the ball to restart the game. Worse; in trying to collect the bouncing ball, or pass it while being challenged, a gentleman player could fall over, soiling his immaculate silk uniform in the often muddy pitch. This was unacceptable, so a way had to be found of restarting the game while allowing the gentlemen players to remain elegant and unruffled.

The solution to this problem was found amongst the ruffians who would often gather to admire the grace and elegance of the game. Not considered as eligible to play, since they were unschooled and generally of the lower orders, and due to poor diet and lack of exercise were often grossly overweight.

It became common to invite a number of these ruffians on to the field to stand in front of the gentlemen players when the ball was lost forward, and they were expected to pick up the ball and pass it back so the game could restart. The obvious problem was that the opposing gentlemen players also had their cohort of ball fetchers, and frequent arguments as to whose ruffians had the right to retrieve the dropped ball occurred.

Given the nature of the people involved, these disputes often became physical, and since the ruffians usually carried heavy bags with them containing food and drink (since they were by nature incredibly greedy) they would often seek to use these bags as weapons in the altercations, which thus became generally known as “handbags”.

As time passed it became evident that it would be better all round to formalise a way of restarting the games, and to organise the 2 packs of ruffians into some form of order.

 

It was decided that when the ball was inadvertently allowed to cross the side line, that the ruffians would be allowed to compete for possession by throwing the ball from the side line to the remaining ruffians. This gave the opportunity for the shortest and fattest ruffian to be given a go at touching the ball, and throw it in. The tallest of the ruffians would jump up to try and catch the ball, but cheating soon developed whereby the remaining ruffians would sneakily try and lift up the taller men to help secure the ball. Sadly, this cheating has continued to the modern game.

There also needed to be a way of restarting the game within the boundaries of the pitch, when the usual fight for the ball had resulted in a round of “handbags” and the ruffians had lost interest, become confused, and forgotten what the objective was.

It was agreed that the ruffians should wrap their arms around each other, (to assist them in knowing who was on whose side) and bend down and push against the other lot, while a gentleman player threw the ball into the general melee, and any ruffian who could reach the ball with his feet should try and kick it backwards towards his gentlemen colleagues. Clearly this was a dangerous place for any gentlemen player to approach, so the risky job of throwing the ball into the general melee was usually given to the smallest and most nimble gentleman player. There were also frequent delays in this process when a gentleman player directed that a melee should be formed, since many of the ruffians were unfamiliar with the term, so a new word “scrummage” was invented which the ruffians were required to learn. Interestingly, when the game reached across the English Channel to France, where the ruffians were generally better educated, the term melee remained in use.

Once the ball had been kicked back by the ruffians, (the rearmost of whom was required to pick up the ball from the ground and pass it back to a gentleman player) the game proper could continue.

At this point the ruffians usually lost interest for a while, and wandered around the pitch chatting until the next restart was required, another practice which has continued into the modern game. In order to minimise the disruption, it was decided that the smallest gentleman player, already familiar with the ruffians from his restart duties, should become the manager of the scrummage and have the duty of directing what the ruffians would next do.

In order that the ruffians could be ready for the ball to be thrown in, the thrower would count one-two-three-four, before throwing it in. The ruffians, mistaking this for a session of number counting practice, began to repeat this call, but being generally unable to remember four numbers together, usually forget the “one”, and to this day can be heard grunting “two-three-four” when they expect the ball.

Since the scrummage was now generally known as the “scrum” (an easier word for the ruffians to remember), and since the gentleman player was usually very small, often around half the size of the average ruffian, he became known as the scrum-half. A concession was also made at some point to avoid calling the ruffians “ruffians” and after lobbying by several ruffians who had become involved in the labour union movement (another story!) it was agreed that ruffians should be known as “The Forwards”.

So there we have it, as all right minded rugby people know full well, the only reason there are forwards in the game is to undertake the messy, but necessary, business of making the ball available to the gentlemen players after an unfortunate and unplanned stoppage of the game, so that the game may resume in an attractive, open, running manner.

 TeflonTed 2018

Want more rugby stories?  Use the contact page to get in touch and add your own!