Hard knocks

Muddied Oafs: the last days of rugger

Richard Beard <em>Yellow Jersey Press, 274pp, £14.99</em>

When I came to this country from South Africa, my first away rugby match for Trinity College, Oxford was in London against the Honourable Artillery Company. All I can remember about it is that there was an immense bath, into which we all plunged after the game. I wondered about this. Was there some sort of cabal of City gents who treated rugby as a prelude to something more Greek? Or was communal soaping an army custom? It turned out that there were any number of these giant baths and that, like beer-drinking and singing, they were an integral part of rugger. The other thing which intrigued me was that none of the teams I encountered played in any discernible league. You either lost or won, and nobody seemed to care or notice.

My English rugger career was blighted by my not being able to see the ball after about three o'clock on a winter's day, when most games started. Contact lenses were beyond my budget, so I played many games by sonar. But it finally ended, ten years later, with a dislocated shoulder, also at the HAC, on what happened to be the day of a junior doctors' strike. I lay in agony at St Bartholomew's Hospital for hours before a registrar could be found.

Having read Muddied Oafs, I can see that the injuries, the pain, the shambling dis-organisation, and even the hydrotherapy, were part of a greater plan, a sort of resistance to professionalism, an affirmation of independence and a cultivation of nostalgia. But the point about nostalgia is that it is usually nonsense, and I have a strong suspicion that there was never a golden age of rugger when brave yokels or Olympian public school boys knocked seven bells out of each other in the nicest possible way in order to foster Anglo-Saxon values.

Rugger, for Richard Beard, means a lot of things, none of which, unfortunately, is very clearly expressed. But his main point is clear enough: rugger is more important than rugby. Rugby is professionalism, very large people playing with grim determination for money. Rugger is assorted people playing for fun without any prospect of reward, beyond a half-time quarter-orange. Rugger players pay for their own minibus, their own drink and their own folly. But essentially, despite the oceans of vomit, the hooliganism and the violence on the pitch, they are decent chaps who live for Saturdays. Unlike soccer players, we are to understand, they are manly and uncomplaining. You might almost say masochistic.

In order to have something to hang this book on, Beard, now 34, and a considerable rugby player in his time, undertakes a highly artificial journey back through all of his seven clubs in three countries. His career as a player spanned the introduction of professionalism and is now coming to a close just as the World Cup fires up in Australia. He starts his journey in Scotland, where he is for a while amanuensis to Mathilda, Dowager Duchess of Argyll, and played for the local team; on his return he finds his old mate Rhys, a New Zealander, at his workshop: "I could never be as manly as Rhys (not as strong, not as hard), but I could play a game which embraced the notion of egalitarianism, of a team of hard, strong men, a gathering of good honest blokes. That was me: that's what I wanted to be, and rugby famously had a welcome for everyone, short and tall, thin and fat, lightweight and overweight."

So the template for the book is laid down: Beard, a southern Englishman and would-be novelist, in search of hardness, mateship, acceptance, goes to play rather pointless games for Sporting Club Universitaire in France, Radley (his old school), Pembroke (his Cambridge college), Norwich, Sporting Club Geneva and Midsomer Norton.

Along the way, there are some amusing anecdotes and sharp insights. He is particularly scathing about the admissions tutor at Pembroke, who crudely equates rugby with philistinism. Women, it seems, are keener than men to play rugby at Cambridge. Beard also makes good observations about the different atmosphere of rugby in France, where the Parisian teams see themselves as quite different from their compatriots to the south.

Midsomer Norton, his last team, is the one that best evokes Beard's sense of rugger: "Here it's different. For a while now I've been living near Midsomer Norton like an unrolling stone, hoping to gather some moss. The rugby is moss, but I've also needed excitement, and rugby has been generous enough to oblige with that, too." This gives a fair representation of Beard's rather cumbersome and repetitive style.

That said, you finish Muddied Oafs with a very real sense of his passion for rugger and an understanding of his fear that, in this age of professionalism, when every rugby player looks like a capon on steroids, something is being lost. That something is unmediated pleasure.

Justin Cartwright's latest novel, White Lightning, is out in paperback from Sceptre