My favourite sports show how very English I am – rugby union, and cricket. There is a wealth of wonderful writing on cricket, but not much on rugby. The Six Nations Championship started this weekend – a cracking match between England and Wales, a tense one in Paris between Scotland and France, and in Rome, the unrolling of an unsurprising script as the Irish wore down the Italians. The TV channels have to pretend they were all equally and enormously exciting, which they weren’t. Maybe I should start with a primer on rugby union, similar to the ‘American football for beginners’ guides that were around when Channel Four started broadcasting the NFL twenty or so years ago.
Start here. A rugby union side has 15 players. They are divided into 8 forwards – the pack – and 7 backs. Broadly, it is the job of the forwards – big, rumbling psychopaths – to get the ball, and the job of the backs – dainty, skilled athletes – to use it to score points. As the old joke has it, the team is made up of the piano players and the piano shifters. Actually, things have changed a bit in recent years. The forwards now get to run with the ball a lot, aiming to exhaust the defence, not by running around them but by running over them. Never used to be like that. When I was playing (guess which group I belonged to. Clue – 17 stone and size 18 neck), I guess I received a pass a year. The other change is that the backs are no longer dainty: it used to be said that the great asset of the game was that it was good for all physiques, short and fat, tall and thin. Not any more. There are some exceptions, but many of the backs have become the sort of six foot, seventeen stone bruisers who would have been sent into the pack in the past. They are, however, different from the forwards in the fact that they can catch a ball off their toes, and do an even time 100 metres. Much of the modern game involves teams trying to find a ‘mismatch’, where a sprinter from the backs is up against a bricklayer from the forwards he (or she) can run around.
The thing about rugby union that distinguishes it from American football and rugby league, is that the game carries on when a player is tackled to the ground. This is the source of some awful tedium, as the ball disappears into a heaving mound of humanity; it is also a source of frustration, as the referee discovers some bizarre offence that no-one else can see as the forwards burrow and wrestle. But this continuity is also the source of the most exciting events in any sport anywhere, as play follows play without interruption, with twenty or thirty uninterrupted passes and tackles, as the ball is ‘recycled’ from the breakdown, and spins first to one side of the field, then to the other. When this is combined with the other unique feature of rugby – that the game cannot end until the ball is out of play – you can have extraordinary endings, with the losing side playing on for minute after minute, throwing passes left and right, in a desperate attempt to secure a score before being tackled off the field.
So, have a look at a match and see if you can seem the different roles play out. Regrettably, you will not get much help from the press. Rugby journalists tend to be impressed with forwards who can run around athletically, catch and throw extravagant passes, without realising that is not their job. They are there to get the ball from the opposition, wrestling often in dark areas. It is salutary to look after a match to see the ratings that different journalists give to various players. Like TV talent shows, it seems you can’t get below 5 or above 8, no matter how good or bad you are. Here are the ratings given by the Guardian (G), Times (T) and Sunday Times (S) on Friday’s match.
|Leigh Halfpenny||7||8||8||Mike Brown||6||8||7|
|Alex Cuthbert||6||5||5||Anthony Watson||7||7||7|
|Jonathan Davies||6||6||6||Jonathan Joseph||7||7||8|
|Jamie Roberts||6||7||7||Luther Burrell||6||6||8|
|George North||6||5||6||Jonny May||5||6||6|
|Dan Biggar||7||5||7||George Ford||7||6||8|
|Rhys Webb||6||8||7||Ben Youngs||7||7||8|
|Gethin Jenkins||6||5||6||Joe Marler||7||7||8|
|Richard Hibbard||6||6||7||Dylan Hartley||6||7||7|
|Samson Lee||5||7||6||Dan Cole||6||7||7|
|Jake Ball||6||7||7||Dave Attwood||6||6||9|
|Alun Wyn Jones||6||6||6||George Kruis||6||7||7|
|Dan Lydiate||6||6||5||James Haskell||6||8||9|
|Sam Warburton||6||6||7||Chris Robshaw||6||7||7|
|Toby Faletau||5||7||8||Billy Vinipuola||8||6||8|
So, there you have it. Billy Vinipuola was England’s best or worst forward, according to who you read. But then, so was James Haskell (who really was outstanding). In the Guardian, Gethin Jenkins gets the same marks as Dan Cole, who pushed him all over the field. Ben Youngs, who ran the second half, gets marked below his opponent Rhys Webb. Toby Faletau was the best or worst Welsh forward. Dave Attwood was man-of-the-match, or pretty ordinary. There you go, expertise in action. Ho hum.