A Welshman Writes (yes, honestly)

Take your time to read this by Stephen Moss who on Saturday gave Grauniad decipherers his take on the game of Rugby Football.

Stephen earns himself an invite to this year’s Sharp Single Christmas party for a) making several valid,interesting and fair points; and b) being one of the few Welshmen I’ve every read not to claim to have been a schoolboy international. At anything. 

Rugby: a sport so boring its fans make it great


guardian.co.uk, Friday 15 March 2013 


In the depths of this grim winter we’ve all needed something to keep us going, and for me it’s been rugby union’s Six Nations championship, which comes to a crunching conclusion tomorrow with three matches, including what promises to be an epic encounter between Wales and England in Cardiff.

Now, rugby is not to everybody’s taste. It’s dull, plodding and the laws are unfathomable, say the cynics, who contrast it unfavourably with the flowing, relatively straightforward game of football. And in some ways those critics are right. But they are missing the point that rugby is sport at its purest because, in reality, all sport is boring. It’s a tribal rite, not an aesthetic exercise, and no sport does tribalism better than rugby.

I had better admit at the outset that I am Welsh: born in Newport, which once prided itself on the greatness of its rugby team. (The team has taken a nosedive since I grew up there 40 years ago.) At secondary school I was taught by quite a few rugby players who played for Newport, including Colin Smart, the England prop who became famous when he downed a bottle of aftershave in a drinking contest after the 1982 France-England match and ended up in hospital.

I grew up with rugby, and loved the way the game defined Newport, who in 1963 were the only side to beat the mighty New Zealand All Blacks during a tour that included a remarkable 37 games. This muscular, dour industrial town based on iron and steel articulated itself through rugby. The football team was a national laughing stock, but the rugby players were world-beaters.

An England-Wales match is a titanic clash of cultures, histories and identities that no other sport can match. Football might claim England v Germany has the same resonance, but I don’t buy it. The emotional charge of Wales v England at Cardiff beats anything, and much of the power of Six Nations encounters is derived from the way the fans impose themselves on the occasion. This is so much more than a game.

The anthems often seem to last as long as the matches, especially in Scotland and Ireland, where they set popular anthems alongside the official ones. And the singing during games is fantastic. Whenever I hear the Irish sing The Fields of Athenry, I feel like crying, especially if they are beating the Welsh at the time, as has too frequently been the case in recent years.


Set beside all this emotion, whether the sport is a great spectacle is irrelevant. Which is fortunate because, if you treat it purely as an aesthetic form, rugby is unwatchable. The ball disappears under a heap of bodies for long periods; the scrums are endlessly set and reset as referees struggle to impose discipline; and no one really understands the rules, which makes the giving of penalties a lottery. A game lasts 80 minutes, and if 5% of that is made up of running rugby you’re doing well. The rest will be scrums, mauls, punch-ups and a small man squatting over the ball for minutes on end as he lines up a kick at goal which has resulted from some alleged offence no one can understand in the first place.

Last week’s Scotland-Wales game was reckoned to be one of the worst of all time, with neither team able to establish any fluency. It became a battle of the boot, and saw a record number of penalties in a Six Nations match. But I found it gripping. True fans don’t care about the boredom or opacity of their chosen sport. All they are seeking is validation. Of course it’s nice to win in style, as the Welsh teams of the 1970s did, but what really matters is getting one over the other nations, especially the English.

Sports like to pretend they are interesting for the casual watcher, but on the whole they aren’t. No one in their right mind would sit through a four-day golf tournament unless they were related to one of the players; cricket is best dipped into online or on the radio, or used as an excuse to sleep in a deckchair at Hove; a five-set tennis match between Federer and Nadal is a supreme athletic confrontation, yet even that starts to pall by about the third hour and I usually try to time it so I get back to the telly for the tie-breaks; as for football, it is entirely beyond the pale – all that diving, play-acting and moaning to the referee after the match.

Rugby commentator Brian Moore frequently says, “It’s not football”, when he is berating a player for indulging in soccer-style antics – complaining to the referee, say, or rolling around theatrically after being head-butted – and let’s hope that will always be the case. Rugby is the Eton wall game but with fewer points of spectatorial interest and a much less comprehensible set of rules. Therein lies its greatness. The game is so awful to watch that the crowd, the fans, the nation willing their representatives on to victory, have to create the drama.


A Magnificent 7

Photo: A Mole

South London, early 1980s. One of the more unlikely rugby 7’s teams to ever take the field. None of us wanted to play. It was bloody hot, the bar was open all day and our plan was to get knocked out in the first round and spend all afternoon quaffing and watching others toil in the heat. All went well and we were indeed bundled out of the main competition at the first hurdle. However, such was the brain’s trust that was our team, we’d forgotten about the plate competition for early losers.

Armed with two men looking down the wrong end of forty and five other hangover victims, and led by the every-young and ever-smiling Des Burney (middle, bloodied, smiling) several games later we  stupidly went and won the sodding thing.  You may be able to detect the fatigue in the above victory snap. This remains the only competition (plate or otherwise) I ever won as a rugby player. And it hurt.

Thanks Des. We’ll all miss you.

A Bad Taste in the Mouth

Advanced warning to my friend who said she read and enjoyed my blog, “but not the boring sports stuff”. Please feel free to scroll down to the next post, it’s all about music.


Don’t you think it would have been better if, when Tom Williams went into that Clapham Common joke shop, he would have gone the whole hog? For those not-in-the-know, Williams plays for Harlequins Rugby Football Club and is the centre of a scandal having been found to have bitten on a joke shop blood capsule, thus faking a blood injury so he could be substituted. I’d have loved to have seen him emerge from the bottom of the ruck with a fake arrow through his head and one of those rubber nails though his thumb. If you’re gonna feign injury, have a bit of style about it.


I know of a club in Wales who used to have a one-legged bloke in their Vets team. He’d play on the wing wearing his plastic leg and, at the pace that over-35’s rugby is played at, got along just fine. On one occasion, with the opposing team’s consent and cooperation he removed his artificial limb whilst he was laying at the bottom of a pile of players, and a team-mate stuffed raw liver into the now-empty leg of his shorts. The play stopped, the scrum of players untangled and broke up, leaving this bloke on the floor, screaming in mock-agony. The only guy on the pitch who wasn’t in on the joke was the referee, who duly fainted. Now THAT’S style.

The most worrying thing about the Tom Williams affair, or Bloodgate as the press are calling it, is the complete lack of shock or surprise shown by anyone in world rugby. Apparently feigning a blood-injury is commonplace and what are we all bleating about? Tales of England physios opening up stitches on a player’s old wound soo he could come off the pitch for a fresher player, teams smashing blood capsules into their scalps have filled the sports pages this week. Has it come to this? I listened to a rather gleeful soccer pundit on the radio who was beside himself that at last, the smug holier-than-thou rugger-buggers had finally been exposed for what all footy fans had thought for eons: that they were as corrupt and dishonest as anyone involved in the round-ball code. It’s difficult to argue against. How can we watch the Six Nations Championship this year and believe any injury we see, short of decapitation? I have a feeling I may not bother.

So where does the sports fan turn to for clean, unsullied, cheat-free fun? Cricket? Remember Hanse Cronje, the bookies runner? Mike Atherton’s dirty pocket; or any number of Pakistani indiscretions on and off the pitch? Nope that’s out. How about Track and Field? For every Usain Bolt or Paula Radcliffe, there’s a Ben Johnson or a Dwayne Chambers waiting to happen. Horse Racing? (Keiron Fallon); Baseball? (Barry Bonds) Cycling? don’t even go there.


There is always soccer, I suppose? I mean it. Perhaps that’s the one I should watch because at kick-off no-one should be under the slightest illusion that any of the 22 men on display has any intention of playing within the rules if he can possibly get away with it. It is a game based on cheating, on conning the referee, on maiming the opposition, on getting fellow professionals sent off the field of play. It makes good tv and the authorities not only applaud it, condone it, they actually encourage it. They must do. How else could it carry on like this if UEFA or FIFA or the FA or whoever did not support this rotten, murky, corrupt shambolic excuse for a game of sport?

Arsene Wenger is fuming that his player Eduardo may be punished for diving in the penalty area and thereby conning the ref into awarding a penalty. YOU BET HE’S FUMING. Every single player dives given the slightest opportunity to obtain a free-kick or a penalty, or to get an opposing player sent off or booked. So why has Eduardo been singled out for punishment? Have the authorities finally had enough of this integral part of the game? Of course not. Sadly for the Croatian, he’s so bad at diving, it was such an obvious cheat that even UEFA can’t turn a blind eye to it. They have to go through the motions of being seen to do the right thing. If they were serious about stopping the cheats they’d have shut down Seria A, La Liga and the Premier League years ago. Lee Bowyer, Drogba, Klinsmann and the rest of them down the years would long be behind bars, or at least have been banned from the game after their first match.


So I have no sympathy when a mate moans that his team “was robbed” through a penalty-that-never-was, or because the full-back should have never been sent off for a foul that didn’t happen. Sod them all. All of them are cheats. All of them, and as long as you go to a game knowing that, football is almost an enjoyable game. The score doesn’t matter, just watch the play-acting, or the acts of violence that pass for a sporting past-time. It doesn’t matter who wins or loses or how, just sit back and watch the show and see if you can spot the young lad, new to the game, who hasn’t quite got it yet, trying to play them game as written in the rule book. Fret not for him, he’ll come around in the end. In seasons to come he’ll be rolling around the penalty area, screaming for the magic sponge after being felled by an invisible foot. They’ll probably make him England captain of he’s convincing enough.

Of course that sort of thing doesn’t happen at Charlton. That’s five wins in a row, by the way. It’s a beautiful game.