The Breakdown | The light and shade that can convert non-believers to rugby union
Promoting rugby union should be the simplest of games in weeks like this. The Six Nations is in full flow, Wales are due at Twickenham and the passion and intensity is self evident. Who could possibly need persuading to watch on television or, having taken out the required mortgage, to buy a ticket?
The answer is millions of people. There is no shortage of non-believers and latterly the big Cs – Covid and concussion – have not helped either. Adult male participation rates have fallen and rugby is not a priority in many inner-city schools. Which makes this a timely moment to ponder how best to woo the unconverted. Are social media clips, celebrities and gaming platforms really the route to a lifelong affiliation? What, ultimately, is rugby’s USP? And what makes it so addictive for those who do love it?
The local library is a decent place to start. Some outstanding literary minds, from Arthur Conan Doyle to PG Wodehouse, have long since attempted to project rugby to a wider audience. So did James Joyce in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “The evening air was pale and chilly and after every charge and thud of the footballers the greasy leather orb flew like a heavy bird through the grey light.”
Joyce recognised the light and shade and two-pronged physical and mental challenge rugby offers. And also how the power of the imagination can be the strongest of all. Could it be that rugby’s superpower, over and above its off-field conviviality, is its subtle emotional resonance, not the creation of shiny new (or expanded) competitions that may or may not hit the mark?
A modern-day guru is clearly required at this point, someone instantly capable of articulating and untangling such intangibles. Step forward the perceptive Richard Beard, author of the most sharply observed rugby book to be published this century. It is almost 20 years since Muddied Oafs first appeared but it remains a classic of its sparsely populated genre. The late, great Frank Keating described it at the time as “the book rugby has been waiting for”.
These days Beard is a widely acclaimed novelist and nonfiction writer. His most recent book, Sad Little Men, is a brilliant study of the emotional carnage a boarding school education can inflict and should probably be on the national curriculum. In his time he has also played club rugby in England, Scotland, France, Switzerland and Japan and remains hugely grateful for the perspective and sense of belonging the game has given him.
So what does he think? A few lazy stereotypes, he reckons, need nailing instantly. “There’s a limited imagination about rugby sometimes,” he says, well aware of perceptions that a Twickenham matchday is basically “the professional classes having a jolly” and that rugby fans are there for the drinking, the blazers or possibly both. “A lot of people also have an experience of university rugby clubs, which doesn’t always leave a great impression. But that’s not really what the game is all about any more and hasn’t been for some time.”
Instead, beyond the muscular crunch and visceral physicality, Beard believes the game should be trying harder to highlight its myriad possibilities. “Rugby’s boxing but with friends. That’s the great joy of it in a way. But it’s not just about boxing, it’s about finding space.
“It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never experienced it. Imagine having a line of large people in front of you, all of whom want to knock you to the floor. Then you somehow find a way through without anyone laying a hand on you and space miraculously opens up. It’s a moment of utter transcendence and joy I’ve never found in another sport. It’s terrifying because everyone is now trying to catch you up but that moment when the whole field opens up is just fantastic.”
Which is not to say the “elemental aspect” is not, for many, the biggest draw. As Beard says: “The basic collision of very committed individuals – both in men’s and women’s rugby – is still a great spectacle. You don’t have to understand all the rules to enjoy that.” But in his experience it can also be more emotionally complex than that.
“People like sports which somehow map on to their idea of how the world works. Life can be very strategic, quite slow and about getting as close to your objective as possible. A bit like bowls. But if you’re a person who sees life as a struggle and quite combative with some moments of enlightenment then rugby is the game for you.”
Even Joyce, who instinctively empathised more with the shivering schoolkid stuck reluctantly out on the wing, clearly sensed a sport with a rare depth to it. As Beard wryly observes: “Apparently Finnegans Wake is full of references to Irish rugby but no one’s ever read it.”
Samuel Beckett, a scrum-half in his youth, was another enthusiast. If he was unable to obtain a ticket to watch France v Ireland in Paris he would instead head out on to the street and listen for the roar of the crowd before retreating inside to follow the radio commentary. Just another mundane sport? Hardly.
Fast-forward almost a century and the importance of the Six Nations remaining embedded in the national psyche can not be emphasised enough. “The Six Nations is part of the ritual of the British year,” says Beard. “If it ever goes off terrestrial TV that would die off really quickly. It would be a huge shame.”
So, whether you are eight or 80, settle down on the sofa at tea-time on Saturday shortly before England and Wales run out. And then, just as Joyce and Beckett did, let your imagination roam free.