I was never the type to be cursed with too much street cred. Never been known as hard. By anyone at all. But that’s fine, as the late, white MIchael Jackson would say, “I’m a lover, not a fighter” (and there my similarity with Bubbles’ owner ends). However, I did like to try to carry with me a kinda Jim Rockford—loveable rogue—bon viveur—lad-about-town—rough diamond sort of image, which was invented to say “Hey look, I don’t have to swing punches to handle myself. DON”T mess with me mate.” Fortunately, thanks to my ability to foresee punch-ups and my penchant for the exit stage left school of acting, I never had to put up my dukes too often.
But the little aura of invincibility I possessed buggered off completely one Saturday afternoon in Bromley, South London (not Kent) about a year before the above snap was taken. I was playing inside centre for my school team against a touring French Club side. Dunno why we were playing a drunk touring club side, we just were. Pissed-up and Punchy they were, just like I wanted to be later on in life. But for now I was a schoolboy playing against men. Albeit youngish men, and not very good ones at that. They were called something like Chateaneuf Rugby Club, which was quickly translated into Soixante Neuf (by our coach, Buster), which kept us amused all the while up to kick-off.
But here’s a surprise for you: The oppo’s open side flanker was a cheating thug. Imagine that ! A Flanker: cheating; A Frenchman: niggly. A FRENCH OPEN SIDE FLANKER: Niggly and Cheating . I know, it’s hard to believe. So, as was bound to happen (and this may be the point of this piece —you knew there’d be one somewhere, didn’t you ?) I ended up having a scuffle with this fella. It wasn’t really a fight — he punched me on the nose and I swung (swang?? swinged ??) a huge Dick Barton punch in his direction and caught him hard, smack on the shoulder blade.
And then it happened: Estimates vary between 5 yards and 25 yards as to how far my father had run on to the pitch in an attempt to break up this set-to before he came to a sudden halt, blushed, shouted “Oh, sorry”, spun round on his heels and took himself off again. I didn’t see any of this, of course as I was far too busy being punched in the face. But everyone else did. The frenchman and I curtailed out pugalistic activities as the sound of me yelping was being drowned out by the laughter of those around us. It was clear to all present: I needed my dad to save me from a fight on a rugby field. Told you I was hard.
But this is how the french play their rugby: HARD. I’ve been present at many a dust-up on the field in France (present, you understand, not active). I’ve watched from the safety of behind the posts as the team from the French Town we were visiting punched and kicked the living daylights out of us (well, I say us, I mean my mates). I’ve seen legions of my colleagues in maroon and gold shirts become victims of assaults on the pitch by opposition players, cheered on by the ref shouting “Allez, Allez” and waving his arms around in that gallic “what the fuck are you complaining/bleeding about?” sort or way. I once even asked the opposing hooker, (a huge, beared bear of a man) in my very best Franglais, if he could ask his team-mates to go easy on us; that we’d been on the piss for three days and “really weren’t up for a fight today, just a laugh”.
“Don’t esk me mate”, came the reply in fluent New Zealandish “I jist got ‘ere from Aucklund”. He was a recent purchase of the club from down under. Apparently New Zealand Senior League front row play wasn’t violent enough for him. We were losing by 40 points after 33 minutes when I called for “Three Cheers” for the opposition and we left the field. It was what Field Marshall Haig would have called a tactical retreat. We capitulated faster than any French Army could ever had done. Almost.
So anyway, the mouth-watering prospect of France vrs England today should herald the start of a particularly enjoyable 6 Nations season. The French were appalling last year, so will be excellent this year (probably); the English will be overpowered up front, and the few who did tour with the Lions will be too fatigued to mount a challenge for the title this year (probably); the Ref and assorted officials will merely be part of an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy, hell-bent on cheating the French out of the match (probably) and there will be niggle, aggro, punches, boots, set-tos and stand-offs a-plenty (WITHOUT A SHADOW OF A DOUBT).
No-one hates the English more than the French — apart from the Welsh and the Scots. The Irish, Australia, New Zealand, The Belgian Congo, Dutch East Indies and parts of the Miliband family (©Mail Newspapers). And anyone else who knows me — so you can bet the smaller of your testicles that a little bit of, ow u say ? Fisticuffs will be in evidence this afternoon. It’s part of the game. This game may well have been shorn of competitive line-outs, wheeling in the scrum and proper sideburns, but unlike the Super 73 (or whatever it’s called this year),the northern hemisphere version of Rugby Football still retains some semblance of a contact sport. With contact sports you get physical contact, which occasionally escalates into physical confrontations. Especially if you hate that bastard over there. So who will win today ? I haven’t the foggiest. England have faith in Stuart Lancaster and his big plan for Team England (not to be confused with Andy Flower and his big plan for Team England), so let’s see how they go. For me, it’ll be Wales for the Championship, they seem to have just enough strength on the bench that you need nowadays. Or the French. Or England as an outside bet. I’m sure of it.
But I won’t fight you over it.