Rugger’s buggered

The more money has come into rugby, the more dismal the spectacle has become

This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Down the years Twickenham’s attraction has altered. The last time I went (and the time before and the time before that) the best of the day was the car park picnic. Picnics in drizzly car parks ought to be miserable. However, should the dishes have been prepared by a master such as Pierre Koffmann and the wines imported by Yapp Brothers, then the occasion becomes an ad hoc regale. 

And then off we trudge, not particularly willingly, with the Barbour’d hordes to watch a game of set-plays, man mountains, butch choreography, gain lines, “hits” and rules which no one, especially these days the referees, seems to understand. 

As a spectacle, rugby union has vastly diminished. Where does a ruck end? When is a maul a brawl? The debt to American football is massive and debilitating. The late Alan Watkins, a writer not given to hyperbole, observed that rugby union is “no longer a game for normal members of the human race”. It had become an attritional mud bath for men who had “bulked up … not always a pretty sight”. They turned with the speed of a liner. That was almost 20 years ago. 

today is worse. It is reminiscent of the sort of away-day-bonding-in-the-trenches exercises the BBC subjects its executives and their minions to. The weary plodding is, pace my kinsman Stuart Hogg and Antoine Dupont, seldom worth watching. When either of them gets the ball, one is transported back to a different and better age of audacity, flair, risk and the palpable enjoyment of both participants and spectators: essentially 75 minutes of thuggery and five minutes of ballet. 

If the finest of all rugby players — the marvellous Phil Bennett who sadly died last month — was playing, then the five minutes of ballet would be stretched to 15 minutes and transformed into a performance that appeared to defy gravity and the norms of mobility and balance. 

He deceived the eye as surely as the magician Channing Pollock did. We look this way. He goes that way. The more the pedal dexterity perplexes the more it delights. 

The only sportsmen I have seen who made comparable magic are Johann Cruyff and Zinedine Zidane — “a boy with hands where his feet should be”. Their gifts were financially rewarded. Not to the extent that today’s football players are, but their scran was more than a crust. 

Phil Bennett played in an era of shamateurism, lowly sinecures and “boot money” — bank notes handed over in envelopes, in sums that seemed a fortune to miners and steel workers whose Saturdays were devoted to parish pride, home town loyalty and playing for the sake of playing, for joy, bung or no bung. 

The more money that has come in to football the better spectacle the game has become. Pitches are no longer ploughed. Players have, mostly, not had individuality bullied out of them by sergeant majors whose limited command of English marks them as English. Tactics are generally fluid. 

José Mourinho is an exception. His teams have often played a variation of catenaccio, the ultra-disciplined, ultra-defensive Italian style of the 1960s and 70s that works fine if you have a libero with the anticipatory acumen of Gaetano Scirea but doesn’t if you haven’t. Even Mourinho has now and again experimented with crowd-pleasing formations.

The more money that has come into rugby, the more dismal the spectacle of the game has become. Every coach in the world has been treated to a cracking bumper package of data, performance analytics, algorithms, accelerometers, work efficiency indices, body weight targets: all of them tools of surveillance and consequent regimentation.

Players become the brawny puppets of coaches and the coaches’ suited, wired up, Stasi-trained boffins from the sports psychology soviet who don’t watch the game played on the pitch in front of them, but instead monitor it on multiple screens.

The game is being destroyed just as prose is being destroyed by the laughably named pseudo-discipline of Creative Writing. Those who can, write. Those who can’t become Creative Writing Mentors. The excitable, jolly, all-in-this-together communal lexicon of these borderline therapists should be a warning. 

They do not heed Thom Gunn’s maxim that “deep feeling doesn’t make for good poetry. A way with language would be a bit of a help.” They blithely spray us with wretched constructions: “workshopping”, “unforgettable story worlds”, “keep readers turning those pages”, “be an active member of the writing community”, “broaden your creative skillset”, “harness the power of language”. (There is a lot of harnessing going on). 

The result of this fraudulent preying on the arty gullible is a straitened, puritanical sub-literature that leaves no taste: it is like drinking water rather than eau de vie. It does not possess the cardinal properties of writing: it is not harrowing or exultant, wondrous or offensive, dystopian or paradisiac. It is a chaste peck on the cheek rather than a tonic offal rub. 

It is doubtless useful if you want to pursue a career in greetings cards. Céline, Pope and Swift are, of course, turning in their graves, impatiently awaiting the distraction of the start of the new season.

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