September 18, 2019

My mother, a Quaker Maoist, wanted to ban football. It was the Seventies and hooliganism was a thing, and mum, who was Left-wing in a north London-y kind of way, didn’t think much of unruly working class people.

As with her view of nuclear weapons – “get rid of ours and ask the Russians to do the same later” – or of universal wearing of uniforms – “just issue them and people would stop going to clothes shops” – she was not sweating the details, but she did have a firm view that men caught in possession of round balls should be dealt with abruptly.

Dear mum – so much of her worldview seemed to me, even as a youngster, to be barmy, but the football thing? Maybe she was on to something. This Friday sees the start of a real sports tournament, the Rugby World Cup, during which time I will once again ask myself whether mother, after all, knows best: in fact we should all embrace our salvation from soccer.

The World Cup, played over the next month or so in Japan, will be watched by fans from Tonga to Kenya, Russia to New Zealand; even the USA, where it’s become a big deal in universities. And, of course, in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, both north and south.

If football really is our “national game” we are, as a group of nations, pretty bad at it. It certainly doesn’t bring us joy. Sometimes when I listen to Garry or Rob, droning on during The Today Programme sports news about some ghastly score draw in the Scottish League (the only news line being that someone chucked a coin at the goalie), I wonder whether the sporting powers that be properly understand the truth: that the game really binding us together as a nation is not football but rugby union.

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Every corner of the UK is good at it. The Scots are unlikely to win the World Cup but they have a fantastic team who will last the course with the world’s best – and they are the weakest of the Home Nations. The Irish (including several players from Northern Ireland) could win, as might either Wales or England. Indeed Ireland, England and Wales are all in the top five world rankings.

So this World Cup should be a celebration of a sport that we are all good at: in the South Wales Valleys, the Scottish Lowlands, in Lancashire and the East Midlands, all the way down to Cornwall where the long running campaign for a national stadium is led by supporters of the Cornish Pirates rugby team. Rugby does not need to “come home” because it is already home. It is part of life.

It is also a morally superior sport to football, one that teaches youngsters how to respond to adversity, how to be strong, how to win well and lose well too. How to overcome physical fear. How to be the person they want to be under pressure.

Am I as dotty as mum in thinking this? Actually not. There are examples of rugby players and supporters behaving badly, including an infamous case of organised cheating known as “Bloodgate” in which Harlequins faked blood injuries in order to have players taken off the field and replaced at vital moments (when the rules would have prevented a fresh player coming on for any other reason).

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This is sad, but on fields the length and breadth of the country, and all around the world, hundreds of thousands of players from minor leagues up to national teams prove weekend after weekend that these are exceptions. The rule in rugby is generosity of spirit and honesty of purpose.

That honesty is a big point of difference with the infernal game of soccer. It is highly unusual (and normally only happens in France) for a player on a rugby field to pretend that he or she is injured. In fact they normally play on with bits of them hanging off in the manner of Monty Python’s Black Knight: “Tis but a flesh wound …”

This is the code – you go down when you are truly knackered or broken and only then. For children – for all of us – in a world of fake victimhood, rugby teaches that there is a better way.

It is a violent sport; there is no escaping that, indeed it is a big part of the attraction. While footballers are dancing around and falling over if they so much as get a sniff of a push from behind, rugby players attack each other with terrible force.

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I had a fascinating conversation recently with Maro Itoje, the 18-stone England star, about why he enjoyed the violence. “Getting smoked”, as he put it, was as important to him as the destruction he wrought on his opponents. There is something gut-clearing about being able to survive, even prosper, in an all-out war. Itoje, a gentle twinkly-eyed man, is an advertisement for the organised carnage of top-class rugby.

Of course the game is much less lawless than it was. I remember playing for the third team in the village of Winscombe in Somerset when I was a schoolboy, a horrific experience. The men drank beer out of a watering can at half-time and kicked and punched and gouged at each other. Teeth were lost and noses bent and jaws broken. No-one could catch, but no-one cared. The game, in the professional era, is much improved.

But the amateurishness of the old days lives on at grounds around the country, where, in the dying light of a Saturday evening, players who have just finished a game mingle with each other and with the crowd. Nobody fears violence, and little children can wander safely around men as tall as oak trees.

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They can wear the scarves of either team, just as they have during the match, sitting next to each other in unsegregated stands. I remember once waiting by the pitch to have a word at Twickenham with my pal Matt Banahan, who then played for Bath. He’d taken so much time to sign autographs that the lights had been put out and the stewards, very politely (Matt is 6’7” and 17 stone) had to ask him to leave.

The thing that struck me was that Bath had performed badly that day, and it had been a disappointing result. It didn’t get him down, because Matt knew that this was a big day out for a lot of young lives and he had played a part in it.

You will see the same spirit at the World Cup over the next few weeks. Immense violence and huge decency, skill, fitness and bravery rewarded. No flinching, diving or dishonour.

That’s rugby. And if a home nation does win, let’s not ban football: let’s laugh in its face, and make a better choice.