The Melón in His Arms. Up and Under of a Rugby World Cup

Who would have imagined, when William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran at Rugby school in 1823, that we would end up here. From 18th September, when England meet Fiji at Twickers to 31st October we are expecting a feast of International rugby like we have not witnessed before. What we won’t see is grown men rolling around the floor like they have just been shot, the inability of so called International players to pass the ball over 5 yards or hit the goal from 2 yards out. We won’t see managers haranguing the ref, and making excuses for a lack of entertainment when their team sets out to park the bus for 90 minutes. We won’t see players constantly trying to cheat, stealing yards at free kicks, calling for throw-ins that they have clearly kicked into touch and “time-wasting” by making three substitutions in time added on to hold onto a barely deserved lead. This isn’t Football, Ladies and Gentlemen welcome to the Rugby World Cup. It’s fitting that such an event should be played in the home of Rugby. As is the case with other sports the Brits “invented” we are no longer its primary exponent. Though, unlike Football and Cricket, there are high expectations that the England side reach the Semi-Finals at least, which for us is a major achievement in an International Competition. It beggars belief that we actually have 20 Countries able to field a team capable of competing in such a spectacle (though in reality some of them will undoubtedly struggle to stem the tide against the “big” teams). I know Rugby is strong in Galicia and in Pontevedra particularly. Is there a Spanish National team – or Galician? How close were they to making the World Cup? Rugby is a game where it seems to be much more difficult for sides judged as “minnows” to upset the big boys but here’s hoping for the odd surprise or two along the way.

I grew up playing rugby (and football and cricket) at Middlesbrough High School and gravitated to Middlesbrough Rugby Club who at the time ran 7 Senior and 2 Junior Teams. The first team included England Internationals Alan Old, Rob Andrew and Rory Underwood at different times and the standard was very high. I played “social rugby” usually around the 5th or 6th team, enduring many a Saturday afternoon game in all weathers (I remember playing on a pitch that was a sheet of ice) up and down the North East, in every Pit Village from Boro to Berwick.. All for the pleasure of a pie and pea supper and a night on the beer. As a fully paid up member of the front row union – I played Hooker- the constant pressure in the scrum meant it usually took until the Friday after the game before I could move my head only for it to happen all over again the following Saturday. My love of the games social aspect meant that I continued to play on much longer than I intended as it was a major commitment – training twice a week and every Saturday taken up from August to May, which meant I couldn’t watch much soccer during that time – night matches were a rarity – though we could see the ball in the air from Ayresome Park when we played our home games at Acklam Park.

Why did I continue to play a game that is so physical? I remember playing next to soccer pitches and being embarrassed by the behaviour of the footballer’s, with much swearing and arguing every time the ball went off the pitch along with a constant barrage of abuse aimed at the referee, the opposition or team mates. In rugby the word of the ref was and still is law. Any dissent was quickly punished by a 5 yard penalty and your own team would tell you to keep it shut. I also liked the way teams would applaud each other off the pitch even when they had spent the game trying to tear your head off. You know what they say: Rugby is a game for thugs played by gentlemen and football is a game for gentlemen played by thugs.

The game has changed a lot from my time. The players all seem to be beefed up behemoths – even the scrum halves – the jockeys of the Rugby world. The rule changes have also made it much more difficult for teams to turn the ball over. The scrum seems to be becoming more and more redundant. How many times to you see a strike against the head? Despite this it’s still a game I love and watch when I can. The “Six Nations” is a major part of the sporting year and we often spend all day in the Lord Byron pub on a rugby weekend. The banter is great especially as I have a Scottish friend who takes great pleasure in England’s every miss-step. Funny that.

The rugby field is still a place to relive old National grudges. Games make the spectator revisit clashes of the past – the Scots can’t get past Bannockburn when they sing “Flower of Scotland.” You had your chance for independence and you blew it, get over it lads. And the Welsh and the frankly ludicrous, but admittedly rousing “Sospan Fach” or little saucepan!?!. Plus we get the ‘Oirish singing the decidedly Republican “Soldiers Song” even though the team is picked from Northern Ireland too. Don’t expect many of the Ulster lads to be singing along. Then there is the legendary Hakka, don’t you point that tongue at me mate, and the Aussie anthem erm “Australia forever” or something. You can’t expect anything lyrical from a bunch of convicts. I recall during the last World Cup watching Russia play Georgia in a boozer in London (I was in the boozer, they weren’t actually playing the game in the lounge of the Porcupine Inn you understand). There were only a couple of people watching but one chap, obviously a Russian, was singing away until a couple of very large lads, who turned out to be Georgian and could have easily made their front row, came in. Things went rapidly downhill from there as National boundaries’ were drawn and insults traded. it wasn’t long before the Police were called to separate the two factions. Despite the rampant Nationalism on display I’m looking forward to passionate renditions of National Anthem of Namibia, though hearing the “Star Spangled Banner” still seems just wrong on a rugby field (or anywhere come to think of it).

To help the uninitiated I’ll provide a brief run down of the combatants.

Pool A

England – We can only dream. Have beaten Wales, Australia and New Zealand in the past few years so a good side but will the expectations of a Nation prove too much? Will we regret leaving out Cipriani? Swing Low Sweet Chariot etc etc.
Wales – An excellent team who on their day can beat anyone but they always struggle against the Aussies and England beat them last time out so may just fall short. I expect the Porcos will be rooting for these Celts…
Australia – One of the favourites, strong in all areas, with a real big game temperament. Will only really fear the All Blacks who I hope kick their collective arses.
Fiji – Expect the usual mix of flair and brutality in equal measure but a team in decline. Will provide some great moments but no shocks.
Uruguay – Semi-pros find themselves in the Group of Death with 3 of the world’s top 6 ranked teams. Could be a humbling experience.

Pool B

South Africa – Another one of the favourites. Success built on their always powerful pack but due to meet New Zealand in semis so it could all end there.
Scotland – Performed poorly in 6 Nations though there were signs of moving to a more attacking game. In a weak group there will be some success but not enough.
Japan – Excellent record against the weaker opposition but cannot make the step up to match the big boys.
Samoa – They will be committed and dangerous. Have the ability to provide an upset against Scots or Japan.
USA – Sorry this is just wrong! A team in decline they will finish bottom of this group. Stick to rounders lads.

Pool C

New Zealand – The overwhelming favourites. I just can’t see anyone beating this lot and some of the teams in this group could be in for a major mauling. I suspect we’ll be seeing the Hakka at Twickenham come the end of October.
Argentina – Another team who sporadically threaten to get into the big league then fail to progress. Strong pack and always have a good kicker they should finish second in the group but that’s it.
Tonga – Ageing and inconsistent they will struggle to make any real impact in the competition.
Georgia – Like a team of lumberjacks these lads are very powerful in the set piece but have little to offer in the flair department. Rugby as it was played in the Dark Ages but strangely compelling.
Namibia – The lowest ranked side in the competition. They will be lucky to get out of their own 25 most games so expect a few cricket scores against them.

Pool D

Ireland - Another team who on their day could beat the best. They will be well prepared and dangerous in all areas but capable of the odd slip-up so they will ultimately miss out.
France – What’s happened to French rugby? Nowadays they seem to have little of the legendary Gallic flair that could destroy teams in an instant. Though there are always brief flashes of brilliance they just can’t sustain it. Wide open for an upset and not make it out of this group.
Italy – The Auzzuri have gone backwards in the past year or two despite trying to move away from their previously forward dominated tactics. Lack of a consistent goal kicker will always haunt them. Could fall to one of the minnows.
Canada – Another team in terminal decline. They’ll be hammered more times than a Porcos in the Toon. Expect them to finish bottom of this group.
Romania – A decent side that could cause a few flutters before ultimately bowing out.

So enjoy the spectacle boys and girls. There will be a few beers supped during this marathon I suspect. Let battle commence and the best team win – as long as it’s not Australia.