bill bryson

Things I Know About Rugby

23 January 2009

So, here’s the news – we’re forsaking Blighty next week for eleven days in South Africa, where we’ll be headlining at the after-parties for the Cape Town Tens Rugby Tournament.

“But how,” I hear you cry, “have The Lightyears ended up performing at a rugby tournament?”. Well, evidently the good word is spreading and in fact we’ve been scheming about getting out to SA for some time now. Thing is, of course, that I know very little about rugby. Next to nothing, if I’m honest. How will I hold my own with the players? What on earth am I gonna do about my banter? Will I expose myself as an idiotic boob by failing to understand the principles of scrummage? (Which, by the way, sounds like a boiled vegetable to me. However, I digress.)

Let me give you an example. In football, successfully maneouvring the ball between the two white posts is known as a “goal”. This makes perfect sense to me. The word “goal” denotes an achievement, a success. In rugby, however, it seems to be called a “try”. How did that come about? I mean, apart from anything else, using “try” as a noun demonstrates a reckless disregard for English grammar. And what’s with all the backwards passing? Did you know you can only pass backwards in rugby? Extraordinary.    

I guess the root of my ignorance of the sport is that I never really connected with rugby at school. I just wasn’t built for it, you see. In fact, I downright feared it. Consider this – you come into school one morning, just like every other day, discreetly avoiding eye contact with the school bully, Chris Jennings (a guy who would sell his own grandmother for crack), lest you attract a pummeling. Everything’s proceeding as normal until PE class comes round and, against your will, better judgement and every instinct in your central nervous system, you are forced into participating in a sport that not only authorises but actively encourages the bullies to beat the crap out of you. Effectively this was legalised maiming. And nobody did anything about it. 

Our PE teacher was called Mr Blower. Ian Blower is, in fact, an extremely fine chap who I see now and again and, bizarrely, even features in the photo on the inside of the liner notes for the new album. This fact notwithstanding, when I was a shivering, pasty, knock-kneed thirteen year-old, the particular brand of masochism celebrated by Mr Blower and, indeed, PE teachers worldwide, seemed especially unfair to me. He used to stand there in twelve layers of clothing declaring “It’s not cold, you big girls’ blouses!”, whilst the blood drained slowly from my muscles and my tiny legs turned blue. 

I have only one vivid memory of playing rugby. Quite why this is, I don’t know. We must have done it on a fairly regular basis but it’s easily possible that the part of my brain responsible for recovering those memories perished in the intense cold we would weekly experience on the school battlefield. Sorry, pitch.

On this particular occasion it was snowing. I mean, really snowing. “Blizzard” would not be an overstatement. You couldn’t see much further than six feet in front of you, which meant that when Sid The Tank – a boy who was wider than he was tall and had the look of Cro-Magnon Man about him – came careering at you across the field, you didn’t know about it until it was too late. Now, a face-off between me and Sid was a little bit like a locomotive running over a cake. There could really only be one winner. 

I remember lying face down on the cold ground, not certain how many of my fragile little bones had been shattered by the impact, reflecting that I hadn’t even had the ball in the first place. Luckily rugby is, by reputation, a sport played by gentlemen, and so I imagine these kind of underhand tactics are peculiar to one’s school days and the dog-eat-dog world of hormonal teenage boys.  

These days, as it happens, I rather enjoy watching a game of international rugby in the pub of a Saturday afternoon (let’s face it, it’s the only sport that the English are actually any good at) and am keen to learn more. So this tour may turn out to be educational as well as recreational.

Oh, and whilst I’m on the subject of sport, what’s up with cricket?!? Bill Bryson, a hero of mine, once commented that you should never trust a sport where the participants break for mealtimes. Quite. On tour, Tony and George derive hours of pleasure from forcing me to listen to cricket on the radio. “Oooooh,” they coo gleefully as we speed down the M1 to some gig or other, “the five-day test match is on. Pukka.”

Five days? FIVE DAYS?! Wars have been over quicker than that*. You know, I think if they took all the standing around, staring at the sky, scratching one’s crotch etc out of cricket and just kept the bits where the players actually moved around, the games would last about 15 minutes.

Mind you, what do I know? I still think a “googly” is an internet search engine…

Chris Lightyear

*this is no exaggeration – in December 1939, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco joined with the Axis Army in war against the French. Just one day after the declaration, the Axis conquered Algiers and the French surrendered. The following day the peace treaty was signed. And all this in the amount of time it takes cricketers to decide how many sugars to have in their tea.