Rugby has an image problem.
Once you look past the professional elite game and down towards the grassroots of the sport you are faced with the image of a large, beer- swilling, foul-mouthed, well-educated, former public schoolboy performing some lewd act or another while thinking he’s the funniest man on the planet.
Sorry, but it’s true. Obviously the stereotype is not universal – there are plenty of more than reasonably behaved rugby players in the world – but it is often this image that the public associate with the sport and lends fuel to the myth perpetuated by chippy Rugby League followers who convince themselves that Union is the reserve of middle-class “rah-rahs”.
In Richard Beard’s excellent book “Muddied Oafs – the last days of Rugger” he describes his horror at the reputation of your typical "Rugger Bugger". According to Beard the "dark side of rugger the man-maker was the recidivist, the dreaded English rugger-bugger" and he goes on to describe typical rugger buggers as being… "…marauding Old Boys in the south-east of England, a beer swilling, guffawing circle of hell well-stuffed with solicitors, surveyors and desperately small businessmen…unreflectively masculine and unthinkingly prejudiced…pissed young conservatives with muscles…”
One problem I have with Richard Beard is that he is right. The other problem I have is that, in the past, I have been as guilty as the next man of fulfilling this grotesque stereotype.
It’s difficult to avoid. One minute you’re an impressionable sixteen year old turning out for the club’s Under 19s and the next thing you know you’re drinking a yard of ale, getting your kit off to “Singing In the Rain” and bawling out a bunch of songs that, under any other circumstances, would get you arrested (or, at the very least, a good slapping) for all sorts of derogatory and prejudicial lyrics. What’s more, it’s not only considered normal behaviour within rugby circles (and in particular amongst the supposedly more enlightened university rugby scene) but it’s more or less compulsory.
That’s not to say I was forced into anything. On the contrary, as a student I embraced rugger buggerism with the naivety and ignorance of youth, although the one thing I would say in my defence is that the real excesses, often involving rather obscene bodily functions which appeared to be a natural bi-product of an English public school education, were something I managed to avoid.
I guess the test, however, is how quickly this "rugger bugger" skin is shed. For many, leaving college and entering the real world involves taking life seriously, giving up rugby and leaving behind such youthful folly. I have to admit that I was never afflicted by such an immediate transformation but as I continued to play rugby into adulthood it became far more about the game and the camaraderie and far less about living up to the stereotype.
Perhaps it was a rite of passage that I needed to go through, but looking back I can see how it must have appeared to onlookers, those in the college bar for instance who just wanted a quiet drink and didn’t need to see a bunch of half naked, beer soaked, vomiting idiots yelling out songs about bestiality. Sadly this is the image many people now have of rugby and its participants and that won’t change unless and until the culture changes. Even the top end of the game has not been immune – for instance Matt Dawson recounts in his autobiography his horror at being whipped with a spiky cactus leaf in a Barbarians tour court session back in 1994, something which convinced him never to play for the Baa-baas again.
I now can’t help feeling that rugby could do itself an enormous favour by clamping down on the antics of the rugger bugger. A few beers with your mates after the game is one thing. Anti-social behaviour being passed off as high jinks is quite another.
Here endeth the lesson :)