Northside - Andrew Martin remembers his rugby days - but was it league or union?
I have fond memories of my brief rugby days - but was it league or union?
In the wake of England's rugby triumph, the Daily Telegraph commended rugby union on the grounds that it had desensitised generations of tender schoolboys forced to play it.
I was one of those schoolboys, or was I? Maybe it was rugby league I was forced to play at school in York. There's a fair chance it was, because I'm pretty certain that league was a northern game - although I understand it has since spread.
On a trip up to York last week, I asked my stepmother - a female, yes, but also a former games teacher - to explain the difference between league and union, about which I've never been clear. She began confidently, saying: "Well, rugby union has line-outs . . . Or is that rugby league?" I turned to my dad and asked him which I'd played at school. "You'd have played league . . . No, union. When I was a boy, we always played union." But I reminded him that he'd been to a grammar school, whereas I'd been to a secondary modern.
It was all coming back to me now. Aged 14, I was picked for my school rugby league team at the same time as the kid down the road, who went to the grammar my father had been at, was picked for his school's union team. He then gave me a hard time about how union was the original, classier version.
Actually, when I say that I was picked for the rugby league team, it would be more accurate to say that I was put into it as a punishment for messing about in PE. Rugby was so unpopular at my school that all the team members had been pressed into service against their will. It was like The Dirty Dozen, except that there are 13 in a rugby league team . . . Or is that union?
Anyway, the first half of my debut for the school went very well for me, in that I managed to avoid touching the ball. At half-time, we sat munching on our orange quarters as the games teacher gave his team talk. Whether we were losing or winning I can't recall, and I don't think I knew at the time. "Get out there and give 'em hell," said the games teacher. But as we ran back on to the pitch, he called: "Martin, I'm taking you off, lad." I've never played rugby since, or watched it on television, or read a single article about it, but after that game I always got a "B" for games on my school reports (rather than the "C" I deserved), along with the remark: "Has played rugby for the school."
I reminded my father of all this and he shook his head sadly, being quite a fan of rugby. I then brought about a rare moment of unanimity in our family discussion when I asked: "Is it league or union that's played by large, loud, bald accountants who live in Surrey?" "That," said my two interlocutors with one voice, "is definitely union."