After some careful, serious thinking about England’s showing in the Rugby World Cup, I’m afraid my opinion hasn’t fundamentally changed. I still think it would have been better shirtless. When I explained this to someone earlier he asked, “but would they still change ends at half time?” to which I think the fairest answer is: “only if it feels right.” Frankly, there’s no point asking people to do something if it makes them uncomfortable. We’re all different, and that’s what makes the world go around. For instance, I can’t stand even the thought of Cash In The Attic but I know some people build their day round it.
Last Saturday night I kept half an eye on the England Wales game and thought pretty much the same then. We were staying in France with our friends Richard and Mike, in their house high up in a forest somewhere not very near anywhere, and everyone other than me fancied watching it. Wales apparently didn’t do well for a time, and Mike said something about them being at a disadvantage because one of their best players was unwell or otherwise unavailable. “Leigh something,” he said. “Leigh Halfpenny,” said Rory. “Oh I know him,” I attempted to join in, “he’s got lovely blue eyes.”
Rory really loves rugby, but the fact that some of the players these days are not uneasy on the eye seems to have passed him by. He enjoys the game for the sake of the game, and I’m utterly mystified. When we’re at home he might watch it on the television while I’m in the kitchen attempting a mayonnaise or something tricky with vine leaves. And he’s very vocal in his likes and dislikes of not only my food but what’s happening on the pitch and I look at him wondering whether he’ll ever go, “only kidding,” and wink. But he doesn’t.
Occasionally, I’ll consider showing an interest and try to imagine how a conversation would progress. Oh you see that one there with the nice bum well why doesn’t he run away from that scary but quite hot one with the poncy haircut into the arms of that other one with biceps ruined by a tattoo. But I don’t because Rory and I love each other and I hate to think of him despising me, and anyway I suspect “running away from” and “into the arms of” are not recognised rugby terms.
In an attempt to engage with Rory I will acknowledge that rugby is a game not simply of tremendous physical skill but mental ones too. At school our Welsh head of sport, Mr Walbyoff, had played professionally and so was very keen his boys didn’t miss out on the fun. Once a week, out we would trot onto the pitch, my friend Neil and I, skinny in those days, like two undernourished exotic ticks in our maroon and gold-striped rugby tops, and then we would concentrate. There was an exhausting hour ahead of us of focused running about trying not merely to avoid being anywhere near the ball but also, just as vitally, not so far from it that it was obvious we were trying to avoid the bloody thing. Even once we had succeeded in steering well clear we had to make great show of clamping our hands to our waists and despondently shaking our heads with disappointment: yet another one that got away was the look we were aiming for. I suspect it didn’t translate.
Ours was a game of considerable tactics, skill and effort, and the sort of thing that might have appealed to a job scout from one of the intelligence services had they joined Thresher’s Wine Merchants and the local timber yard at our school careers’ day, but they never did.
Schools these days not only want to utilise their pupils as drones in classrooms but I understand they are expected to get involved in all manner of other ghastly-sounding stuff as well. You might, for example, be expected to mentor another child, or even more horrifically be mentored. Or be a member of a pupil council, a body where you sit in judgement on your teachers, and hold ultimate sway about what pasta shape goes best with the simple tomato and basil sauce available at lunch.
Likewise for parents. Parents I know are always rolling up their sleeves for cake sale days, and putting in a couple of hours at the weekend to paint the roof of a pop-up dreams workshop. Like every other parent of friends of mine, my mum and dad went through the school gates but only once a year. Indeed, if you ever spotted a parent going in at any other time there was usually a policeman or a paramedic to greet them. Parents’ evening took place in the autumn and my reports from sport in particular were never especially glowing.
Back at home, after one of these occasions, as they started to go through my report with me, there seemed to be discernible tension between Mum and Dad, and it all seemed to hinge on my performance on the pitch. I couldn’t understand: my lack of skill in this field was not a new development. But as they talked it became clear it wasn’t really anything to do with me. Their froideur centred much more around the issue of Mr Walbyoff himself. Dad glowered as Mum looked at me and said, “you never mentioned how dishy he is.” I was barely aware I was gay myself at this time so it seemed slightly too much to ask of me that I’d take time off watching Nationwide to point this out to her. “Oh before I forget Mum, that Mr Walbyoff is quite the hunk. You should treat yourself, get yourself down there and get an eye-full.” (And anyway I thought his deputy Mr Keenan was nicer.)
Dad seethed during all this. Completely understandably. The last thing my father wanted to hear was that his wife fancied a rugby enthusiast. He has an overwhelming loathing of the game. And for once, my father and I saw eye to eye. He didn’t want to hear this of his wife, and I didn’t want to hear that Mum fancied one of my teachers. The only thing worse would have been to discover that she fancied my father. A year later the subject was forgotten. Mr Walbyoff still caused consternation but this time it was down to my request to skip rugby and set up a croquet lawn in the school grounds instead.
Between appointing teachers to the payroll and debating the viability of a drumming workshop, I would suggest pupil councils in the state sector address this rather more serious matter instead. Let’s face it, it’s good to widen the choice of sports on offer and, certainly as far as England is concerned, like football and cricket, I suspect rugby is better left to the girls.