The Autumn Nations Rugby Cup has been a delightful interlude at the back end of a bad year. Rugby is a sport altogether different from soccer. It has retained an old-fashioned sense of sportsmanship and camaraderie in times when acquisitive greed has come to dominated most sports
I never ever played rugby but I would sometimes watch a game I didn’t understand.
In schooldays, we were allowed to go Torquay on a Saturday afternoon. The bus would collect us at five o’clock at the south end of the seafront and there would have been afternoons when there was not much of interest in the town and I would have wandered to the ground of Torquay Athletic, the town’s rugby club. It was close to the pick-up point, was the most scenic sportsground I knew, and it had free admission. There was once a match against Penzance & Newlyn and, it being the 1970s, I think I might have seen the England international Stack Stevens play, but, close on fifty years later, it is hard to be certain.
Rugby became a television spectacle for me in the 1980s and 1990s, watching the Five Nations each spring, but never going near the ground.
Moving to Dublin in 1999 brought the odd ticket to watch Ireland at Lansdowne Road and the growth of the habit of going to Donnybrook or the RDS to watch Leinster – but those weren’t obscure matches.
The favourite obscure moments, those moments that required an anorak-like devotion to being present, were occasions that demanded extreme patience on the part of those with me.
There were the friendly matches. An August evening match between Agen and Bordeaux Bègles at Sainte-Foy-la-Grande: heard of them? I thought not. What about Bordeaux Bègles against Northampton Saints? The latter would be well-known.
Then there were French Top 14 matches; fixtures like Bayonne against Montauban, or Biarritz against Bourgoin-Jallieu. My children at some future date will probably recount tales of extreme eccentricity.
It wasn’t about who was playing; it wasn’t even about the result (though driving from a French campsite down into Spain and seeing Bayonne beat Stade Francais at the Stade Anoeta in San Sebastián was a very fine night out). Rugby was about the game; about chess-like movements, about speed and agility, about physical strength and sheer brute force.
The obscurity or prominence are not important – it’s the game that matters. And if you don’t believe me, watch the end of a match as each team stands and claps their opponents off the pitch. Can you imagine many soccer teams doing that?