I cannot consider myself a rugby fan. I played just once at school, and my fading memory won’t permit me to recall what age. All I can vividly remember of that ‘lesson’ was a more experienced and muscular boy employing what I later came to know is called a hand-off, to repel my dismal attempt at a tackle.
It was cold, I touched the ball not once, and I have never really properly engaged with the sport ever since, as either player or spectator. For some reason that causes me regret.
It shouldn’t really matter. There are plenty of other sports to get excited about, and several that I have played to greatly differing standards.
At school I loved badminton, with its thrilling speed and its delicious balance between powerful smash and deft drop shot. Table tennis was great too: a game that seemed to reward practice quite unlike any other, and drew me in to its metronomic rhythms and its trademark pops and squeaks. Plus I could play at home on our pull-out dining table.
Cricket was always more fun on the driveway down the side of our house than in the park. My brother and I could cut, pull and drive to our hearts’ content knowing that the slowly disintegrating fence, garage door and garden wall across the road were tireless fielders. Only our justifiably angry neighbours Mrs and Mrs M could halt our endless test matches, as we perfected the Derek Underwood splay-footed delivery or Alan Knott’s tics, stretches and sweeps.
And of course football was my daily bread.
But today a thread on GU reminded me of why I regret neglecting rugby. I revisited one of the greatest sporting moments in my lifetime, up there with Maradona’s second goal vs England in 86, the Headingley test in 81, Coe vs Ovett in and around 1980, and Ali vs Foreman in 74.
From the almost miraculous pick-up and mesmeric side-stepping of Phil Bennett, to the Dawes dummy, the determination of Tom David’s last gasp slingshot allied to Quinnell’s uncanny catch and release, and finally Gareth’s Edwards’ express train denying a last desperate All Black attempt to tackle, topped off with a magnificent dive into the corner.
It never fails to bring a lump to my throat, and often, like this morning, a tear to my eye. I don’t know if the fact that the Barbarians are a composite team rather than a national side makes a difference to the intense humanity of the moment. Clearly nostalgia for the carefree innocence of my childhood also burnishes the memory. But whatever it is I can never tire of watching it.
Maybe that is the problem; rugby could never be that good again.