Offside, 20 November

Offside readers find the game boring, hate the song and don't understand the rules - so why will they be glued to the rugby World Cup final?

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

Something strange has been happening in Britain this week. Rugby, a minority sport in this country, has been front-page news, momentarily displacing football as the focal point of the nation’s sporting life. Why? Because a bunch of cauliflower-eared English gorillas – and one pretty boy called Jonny – are threatening to win rugby’s not-very-global World Cup.

To understand this phenomenon I conducted a small survey of Offside readers and their friends. Fifty-four people responded. ‘Not a very scientific sample’, sniffed one academic friend. Okay professor, it’s a fair cop, but the poll does throw some light on the sudden upsurge of national interest in rugby union.

Seventy-eight per cent of respondents said that they would be getting up on Saturday morning to watch the final either on TV or in a pub, and 71 per cent said that they would be rooting for England – the rest were mainly Aussies, Celts, or quislings. However, a mere 35 per cent said that they actually liked rugby. The remaining 65 per cent either said they disliked rugby or were indifferent. ‘Tedious game, too many stoppages, hard to follow if you don’t know the rules, ugly players, repellent fans’, said a female friend. ‘Any sport where a team can win 85-0 cannot be taken seriously, and they use a silly shaped ball’, said another respondent.

Knowledge of the offside rule in football is a badge of authenticity for the nouveau soccer fan. But do rugby’s new converts understand the union code’s more complex offside rules? Not really. Two-thirds of respondents said that they could not explain rugby’s offside rule. ‘Didn’t think there was one. Is that a trick question?’ asked one woman. ‘I’m going to sound girly, I know’, confessed a red-blooded male: ‘Is it something to do with throwing the ball forward?’ Only a handful of people were able to explain the rules convincingly.

So why are people who neither follow rugby nor fully understand its rules cheering on Clive Woodward’s men? There are definite echoes of Italia 90 and Euro 96, with fair-weather fans being attracted by the sense of occasion and the rare opportunity to see England win a major sporting event. Indeed, when asked if they agreed that ‘any kind of sporting victory for England is better than nothing’ the majority of respondents (53 per cent) said that they did. ‘I’m a round ball fan but I’ve been caught up in the hype’, said one respondent. ‘I’d quite like the associated glory of being a nation of (occasional) winners rather than the alternative’, said another. ‘It’s an excuse to go to the pub and be abusive’, admitted one woman.

The chance to exact revenge on the Aussies for countless sporting humiliations is also a factor. ‘I will respect my fellow countrymen if they manage to defeat the common criminal and come away with the cup’, declared a true-blue Englishman. ‘I want to stick it to the Australians’, said another.

The problem with English rugby is that it suffers from a stuffy public school image at a time when it is chronically unfashionable to be a toff. The spectacle of Prince Harry and assorted posh twits in fancy dress gurning jubilantly as England bludgeoned their way past France in the semi-final hasn’t helped alter that perception. Indeed 56 per cent of respondents agreed that ‘rugby is a game for braying toffs and sheep shaggers’. Furthermore 33 per cent concurred that ‘rugby is an expression of sublimated homosexuality’, while one in five agreed that ‘rugby is a game for ugly fat lads who are crap at other sports’.

Swing Low Sweet Chariot, the anthem of the English rugby fan, has irritated the hell out of our convict cousins down under. But even here in Britain opinions are divided over Middle England’s favourite negro spiritual. Seventy-two per cent of England supporters either disliked or were ambivalent about the song. Only 28 per cent admitted to liking it. ‘It’s a girls song’, observed one male respondent. ‘Pile of posh sh*te, sung only by inadequate men’, said one angry young woman. We may be temporarily gripped by rugby fever but that hasn’t rid many of us of our instinctive dislike of rugger buggers.

Interestingly, many of the same people who felt that rugby was for toffs and sheep molesters also expressed appreciation for the game’s sporting qualities. Fifty-four per cent agreed that rugby ‘is a game of skill, strength and athleticism’ (well, you need to be fairly athletic to catch a sheep and pin it down). This at least qualifies rugby as a sport in our eyes, unlike pub games like snooker or darts, which the Brits are also good at. Some of you also find the sheer physicality of rugby appealing. Twenty per cent felt that rugby is ‘a real man’s sport’. ‘Great bodies, tight shirts and shorts – why not?’ gushed one female respondent. ‘I actually fancy Martin Johnson – but don’t tell anyone!’ another woman admitted.

My poll shows that the English sporting public will be cheering on ‘our boys’ in the rugby World Cup Final on Saturday. We desperately want England to win something. Anything will do, even a sport we don’t really like. We won’t all be singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Some of us won’t even know our rucks from our mauls but, to paraphrase George Orwell, when we see an actual flesh-and-blood Englishman in conflict with his natural sporting enemy, the Australian, we do not have to ask ourselves which side we are on.

And if we lose? Irritating but it will soon be forgotten. After all, unlike football, rugby is not exactly a matter of life or death is it?

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Topics Politics


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