...for anyone who has played, or is considering playing, rugby…
There are a couple of books I’ve re-read recently that, for me, hit the nail on the head in terms of why rugby can become such a way of life and why, even during the period when I barely set foot inside a rugby club, I always considered myself a rugby man and will always do so.
The first of these was first published in 1960 but remains one of the funniest and most accurate depictions of rugby at the grassroots level – The Art of Coarse Rugby by Michael Green.
Green draws a distinction in his book between “Rugger”, played by club First XVs consisting of fifteen devoted enthusiasts, athletes and fitness fanatics and “Coarse Rugby”, a game hardly ever played by fifteen-a-side and featuring clubs’ third, fourth, fifth and sixth teams (the world of the “Extra Bs” and “Extra Cs”) which are “composed mainly of seedy commercial travellers…round-shouldered clerks and yelping skeletons of teenagers who have outgrown their strength”.
Green then goes on to provide an invaluable guide to surviving the world of Coarse Rugby, including various Coarse Rugby tactics, methods of how to win with the least possible exertion and how to avoid having a referee who insists on applying the laws.
Although set very much in the amateur era, before leagues were introduced into English rugby and certainly way before professionalism (and therefore in many ways out of date), the book is still a gem for anyone who played rugby during that era or who indeed still turns out on the lower rungs of club rugby. Having made my own club debut in the early eighties on the wing for Peterborough 4th XV at Luton as a 16 year old (despite being a Cambridgeshire Schools lock at the time) I can completely empathise with the trials and tribulations of Green’s “Old Rottinghamians Extra Cs” and so many of the stories and anecdotes ring true.
The other book I re-visited recently is one that, in some ways, brings the world of Coarse Rugby up to date. Muddied Oafs – The Last Days of Rugger by novelist Richard Beard charts the author’s attempts to retrace, at the age of 35, his rugby career by visiting and playing for the various clubs he had represented. A far more serious book than Michael Green’s, but Muddied Oafs is packed with self-depreciating humour and certainly isn’t short of funny anecdotes. What the book does do very well is highlight the changes to the game at grassroots level following the introduction of leagues in England in 1987 and more significantly professionalism post-1995. The plight of Norwich RFC is particularly poignant, once a rich amateur club regularly fielding a 5th and a 6th XV, now (or at least in 2003 when the book was written) deeply in debt having attempted and failed to buy its way up the league structure whilst at the same time alienating and then losing players from its lower teams. It appears that in the space of 5 years Norwich managed to go from fielding six teams to just two, losing the bulk of its playing members, those that provide income for the club via membership and match fees and cash spent behind the bar – in other words the “soul of the club”.
Like Michael Green, Beard also draws a distinction between two types of game: Rugby Union - the fast, compelling, TV-friendly combat sport in which sponsored gladiators are sold on their ability to crash into each other at top speed, and “Rugger”, once the serious version of rugby but now more akin to Green’s Coarse Rugby and, as the title of his book suggests, a version of the game which the author fears is quickly becoming an endangered species. I’m not so sure about that – yes, many clubs have made mistakes since the game turned pro and the advent of leagues and merit tables has adversely affected the lower reaches of club rugby but I like to think that the spirit of Coarse Rugby is still alive up and down the country (and indeed around the world) and has a few breaths left to draw yet.