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Rugby Fantasies #1

I’m not very cool. I don’t get out much. I’m not what you could call ‘in the loop’ – or in any loop  – ever. So it came as a little bit of a shock to discover that rugby is now cool. I only found that out last year. And that troubled me, because I don’t like not knowing things.

I also have generally little understanding of sports. I mean, I can watch soccer and understand the rules – even the offside one (without the use of shoe analogies), but I couldn’t actually go about playing soccer. Still, I grew up knowing about it; it gave a sense of comfort that I at least knew the names of some of the teams.

Rugby, though – that’s an alien sport. No one I knew played it. I think we had a team in school, but I’m not sure if they ever had more than fourteen players and someone they paid to make up the numbers. Still, I like a good bandwagon, and this one got a running jump. That’s how I found myself watching Wales play Ireland last year, in the mirror, while putting on mascara (it was my cousin’s birthday and we had dinner reservations). I’d followed the games all the way through, even watching Scotland and Italy, which I thought was quite impressive at the time. (What a tool I was.)

And even though I didn’t understand why Wales got that penalty, it didn’t make Stephen Jones’ missing it any less exhilarating. I had discovered, to my nonchalance, that I actually quite liked this rugby lark, and that I might just start watching it more often.

Of course it helps when you spend every second weekend in an office with two sports nuts, desperately trying to find a decent stream of the Autumn Internationals. I hadn’t intended watching Ireland-Australia, but I found myself doing so without noticing (That may, actually, explain some of the typos in that particular issue of our esteemed publication). So watching it was fun. Hearing the lads talk about it was fun. Hearing them argue about it was funny. Not understanding who or what they were talking about didn’t bother me in the slightest. Names were familiar, but I was firmly stuck in girly armchair supporter rugby, tee hee hee. And then we got tickets.

Sitting in Croke Park watching Ireland beat South Africa, and not really getting that Ireland beat South Africa, was a turning point. I was embarassed to be there and not be able to name all fifteen players on our team. I was embarassed to be sitting there not really knowing when to cheer. Sitting at home on the couch not knowing what’s going on is one thing, but I realised I’d never be able to watch rugby in a pub, or even in public, without looking like a complete pleb unless I pulled my socks up.

I needed to learn the rules. And the names of players. And the difference between the tighthead and loosehead props. (That one is still hazy to be honest, but I know which is which, and that’s, like, 80 per cent of the battle right there.)

Having read a full 20 pages of Rugby Union for Dummies (a gift from one of the aformentioned sports nuts), browsed several Wikipedia pages, and looked at at least seven threads on scrum.com I’m obviously fully down with the rules. Almost.

I’m still pretty vague on the penalties. The offside rule makes the soccer version a bit of a joke. And the scrum, frankly, is ridiculous. No, seriously: how on earth did anyone come up with the idea for a scrum? Its creator was clearly a raging homosexual – why else would you invent a bit that seems to have little purpose other than sticking your head in between two other guys’ bums, and pushing?

Wikipedia taught me many things; I soon found myself with around eighteen tabs open, just trying to gather all the info I’d need to start understanding this game. I realised that I knew more than I thought. I knew the big Irish teams – not that it’s really very difficult what with there only being four of them and their being named after provinces. It still felt like an accomplishment. I knew that Leinster had won the Heineken Cup, and I remembered that Ulster had once done so too. (Sorry Munster, I knew nothing of you, forgive me…)

I started getting a bit cocky from this point on. The Magners League in particular caught my attention. It was probably the name, to be honest – working in a bar in the northern part of Ireland, that whole Bulmers/Magners thing really gets to you.

I knew I’d gone too far, though, when I spotted Welsh and Scottish teams in there. In truth, I knew we couldn’t just have an Irish league: it would be very short. But seeing the name Llanelli had me scrabbling for the back button. What was this mysterious being? Was it a town? How do you pronounce that? Why does it have so many Ls? No, this was dangerous territory. You can’t depend on the Welsh.

That only left one logical choice. I switched countries to somewhere a little more pronouncable, and Wikipedia dutifully taught me the name of the Guinness Premiership. (What is it with rugby and alcohol by the way? Magners, Heineken, Guinness? I think it might say quite a bit for this sport to be honest.) Wikipedia concluded that some team in Leicester were last year’s winners, so off I went.

I tried some others. Wasps. London Irish. Harlequins. Newcastle Falcons, because Jonny Wilkinson played there and he was the only English rugby player I’d ever heard of outside of Strictly Come Dancing. But one thing kept me coming back to Leicester Tigers: I really like those stripey socks. Is that a bad reason to sort-of follow a team?

I’m not a supporter – I couldn’t really care less if they win or lose – and I doubt I would have been cheering for them against Leinster in the final last year. (I realised about two weeks ago that I had in fact seen that game, and had simply not made the link.) But something about them keeps me interested.

I’ve even read a lot of the bad things. Martin Johnson was a Tiger, and he got Mary McAleese’s feet dirty. Austin Healy was a Tiger and he was severely overmarked for that Paso Doble. Someone called Neil Back did Munster out of the Heineken Cup back in 2002 by tapping the ball into the scrum. Leicester have faults. They’re flawed. Reading the threads on other team’s message boards, it became abundantly clear – I am now sort of following the rugby world’s equivalent of Man Utd, except with more cheating.

Everyone hates them. Everyone. Munster hate them – probably with good reason, to be fair. Ireland hate them for their association with Johnson. Sports Editor hates them because Julian White punched… well, lots of people actually, including one of his own England pack mates.

So why do I still like them? Am I just too easily pleased? Or do I not care enough? I’m fairly certain it’s the latter. I like to think that it’s also because I only found out of their existence about a month ago, and all these things pre-date me. Their ground staff are amazing, they have heated tents – tents while Leinster had some blue tarp held in place with some old tyres. And also, I’m not from Munster.

So this little jaunt into English rugby took me through Christmas and quite a bit of the start of January. I realised I knew things the boys were talking about sometimes, and it was quite a nice feeling. I also realised that I had spent so much time on English rugby that I hadn’t a clue about Irish rugby, or any of the other four nations for that matter.

This presented a large problem last week, when the words ‘Observer Six Nations fantasy league’ were thrown about. I was all for it, desperate to show I had learned something, and riding high on my one week of modest success at Fantasy Premier League.

When I went to pick the team, though, well… the words ‘hadn’t a clue’ come to mind. The only saving grace was that you don’t have to pick players in their actual positions, just as forwards and backs. I at least know the difference between forwards and backs. What I didn’t know was anything about France, Scotland, or Wales, and only enough about Italy to know they’re the last resort.

Things looked pretty dire, and not just for me. News Editor was in very similar waters, having admitted on a clandestine GChat that the only Welsh players she knew were Gavin Henson and that gay one. This did not look good.

But pick we must, and I did.  I went for ones I’d heard of, like Chabal and Wilkinson, and then looked the others up on Wikipedia. I sort of knew which English ones to pick, I think. I knew which Irish ones to pick, not just the prettiest ones either. I knew Lee Byrne from Ospreys, and was very relieved he is no longer banned. I have the grand total of two (or three) Tigers: I’m torn at fly half. OK, so Wilkinson is starting, but I think it’s all going to fall apart around him and they’ll have to bring on Toby Flood. And I like Toby Flood, he’s a Tiger. But then I remembered the England-France game last year, and where I had seen Toby the Tiger before I’d ever heard of Tigers. He had, in fact, provided the highlight of the game when he fell over his own feet about two yards from the line and dislocated his shoulder.

I’d be mock horrified now, naturally. It was hilarious twelve months ago. So maybe Wilkinson is the way to go after all; he’s unlikely to get within two yards of the line to fall over. I’m torn between my six-week loyalty to a club I have never – and likely never will – see playing, in a country that isn’t even my own, and beating Sports Editor at all costs. This is tough.


The ‘Big Gay Beards’ have been chosen, except now Chabal is injured, I’m not sure I can continue with this name. Although beards aren’t a pre-requisite for the team, I feel like he’s somewhat of a mascot for BGB with his flowing locks. So what are they now? Just Big Gays? I sense a trend here that makes me look scarily homophobic. Sigh.

And now I’ve just discovered that another of the forwards isn’t playing, so I have to go back and change again. This game is starting to suck.

Maybe I should read that next 20 pages…