In recent days Brian Ashton has been praising to the high heavens the lessons he’s learned in terms of which players have emerged with real leadership potential from the England squad’s few days in the hospitality of the Royal Marines last week.
Rugby, it seems, is a sport which encourages and develops leadership, or at the very least attracts people with leadership qualities to its ranks. It came as some surprise to me to learn that Britain’s new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was a keen schoolboy rugby player until an eye injury forced him to quit the game and subsequently take up a political career. So was he a natural leader, who then channelled his ambition into another sector, or did rugby give him the leadership qualities he was then able to use in later life? I’d very much like to think the latter, but I guess we’ll have to wait for the autobiography to find out (and what a riveting read that’s likely to be).
Brown, however, is not the only renowned political leader to have a rugby past. Across the pond in the United States it appears that several of their political luminaries enjoyed a rugby career of sorts. For instance, Bill Clinton apparently played while a student at Oxford between 1968-1970. According to Clinton himself, "Being an American, I didn't know any of the rules but I was the biggest guy on the team, so the coach just said to me: 'Clinton, go out there and get in someone's way.' So that's what I did, just got in people's way." I’d guess it’s probably also where he learned how to smoke a cigar.
Clinton’s successor as US President, George Dubya Bush, was also, it appears, a rugby player (sorry, I really can’t bring myself to use the Americanism “rugger”) turning out for Yale University between 1964 and 1968. A fullback and winger (undoubtedly on the right), from the infamous picture shown here it’s obvious that his tackling technique was perhaps a little raw.
Further back in time and playing in the centres (I imagine) were the Kennedys – JFK is rumoured to have played rugby at Harvard and his younger brother Ted apparently managed to get himself sent off for fighting in one Harvard rugby match in 1954.
Outside American shores, various other world leaders have been connected to rugby. It was believed for some time that Karol Józef Wojtyła (aka Pope John Paul II) used to play rugby for Poland although this has been since been dismissed as an urban myth (although I still prefer to believe it).
What is not in doubt, however, is the rugby career of former Ugandan despot Idi Amin. Amin, who brutally ruled Uganda from 1971-79, was (in a classic case of poor character judgement) described as a "splendid type and good rugby player," by a 1964 British Dominions Office report and, in one of Amin’s speeches he said: “As you know I am a rugby player. I am second row, so I know how to push. I am very big. You don't want to push against me. And I also play wing three-quarter and I am very fast. I can run one hundred meters in nine point five seconds. If you tackle me, you will try, and you will hurt only yourself. So to everyone who is a boxer, I say this, do what you have to do to knock out your opponent." Make sense of that if you can.
Also not in doubt is the fact that Marxist guerrilla icon Ernesto "Che'' Guevara (pictured below, apparently, although you don't see this image on too many t-shirts) played rugby in Argentina, playing for Estudiantes in Cordoba and when at medical school in Buenos Aires. Despite suffering from asthma he apparently earned the nickname "Fuser", a contraction of "El Furibundo Serna" - "The Furious Serna" - (his real name was Ernesto Guevara de la Serna) for his aggressive style of play.
So, did the game of rugby attract and appeal to the natural leadership qualities of these men from across the political and ethical spectrum or, in fact, did rugby somehow help to shape their characters and turn them into the men they were to become? In one or two cases the thought of the latter case applying is certainly a scary one.
Answers on the back of a postcard please…