The fan - Hunter Davies is bored by rugby
Rugby, despite the hype, is less likely than ever to catch up with football
The organisers have done a brilliant job getting us all excited about the rugby World Cup, masses of advertising, posters of hunks everywhere, endless interviews, slick TV previews. Bugger Beckham, Jonny Wilkinson is now the golden boy, master of the sporting universe, so look out soccer, you're shit and you know you are.
So naturally, I was full of anticipation as I settled down at lunchtime to watch England-South Africa, the first biggie, thinking if it's really good, I might not go to Arsenal. I did play rugby at school, and enjoyed it, and watch England and Scotland rugby internationals on the telly about five or six times per season. No one can say I'm prejudiced.
First surprise was Will Carling, sitting in the ITV studio, rugby's golden boy only yesterday. He's put on ten stone and 20 years since I last saw him. And there was Jim Rosenthal as well, wondered where he'd gone, an old folks' home, by the look of him. Don't people age when you're not watching them.
The England team still have huge necks, but are not as fat and beefy elsewhere as they used to be. Do they do neck exercises, or take neck steroids? Such a strange place to put on weight. Their new skin-tight shirts make them look less macho, more poofty, especially when they have to change their shirts and struggle like girls' blouses, literally, to get it over their fat necks.
I like the way rugby players get stuck in, thump each other, yet don't argue with the ref. Blood replacements are a good idea; so is being able to hear the ref. I enjoy the crowd singing "Sweet Chariot" and am amused by the nice public-school names such as Will Greenwood, Josh Lewsey, Dorian West. Not a Darren or a Wayne in sight. They are obviously fitter, quicker than they ever were and get all hyped up, desperately patriotic, singing their little hearts out during the National Anthem. Bless.
And yet, after 15 minutes, I was looking at my watch. I estimate that 40 per cent of the time in a rugby union game nothing is happening, at least nothing you can see happening, no sign of the ball, what with scrums and assorted mauling. So much is negative, like deliberately kicking the ball out.
Most of all, I hate penalties. I can't always understand why they are given, and the commentators don't help when they say it's a technical infringement. They are so often out of all proportion to the supposed crime, yet a side can win a game on penalties, like England, just by having a good kicker who doesn't miss. And they take so long, which at least means you can go to the lav, get a drink, wander round the garden, feed the wife, talk to the cat, and be back while the kicker is still placing the ball. Then he has to fix his hands, practise his mad stare.
In football, a penalty kicker is competing against another human being. In rugby, it's against an inanimate object, a crossbar which can't move. What a nonsense. They might as well take the penalty kicks beforehand, on their own, before the game, in an empty stadium, and not bore us all.
We know there's a class difference, that in England rugby union is still played and followed by and large by the middle classes. That's partly why it will never have the mass audiences of football. But what has happened in football, traditionally a working-class sport for the past hundred years, is that the game now attracts all classes. Rugby's chances of catching up, despite all the hype, are less likely than ever.
But the main difference is that football, by comparison, is a simple game, easy to watch and understand. It flows all the time, with few interruptions, you can always see the ball, everyone is involved. In rugby, the functions are separate and specialised. A back can be stuck out on the wing all the game, waiting for a pass that never comes.
Halfway through the second half, by which time England was well ahead, I switched off and raced to Highbury, in time for kick-off. I'll watch England's games again, and hope they get to the final, which the England soccer team will probably never do again in my lifetime. But only if there's absolutely no football available . . .