The fan

Penalties, sin bins and how to kick Rugby and football can learn a lot from each other

Often, once a year, around this time, I find myself watching big, beefy blokes throwing around a funny-shaped ball. This year it’s been pretty exciting, with Wales and Ireland fighting it out for the Grand Slam.

Don’t the rugby players look funny with their gumshields. Do they take them out for kissing? Shame about those messily, nastily designed Scottish shirts, but they are luckier than the Welsh, who have to lumber around with the word BRAINS on their chests. Looks as if it’s been stuck there by some cheeky kid.

Oh and the surnames, I am fascinated by them. The Welsh and Irish have such traditional names – loads of Joneses and stacks of O’Somethings, suggesting centuries of inbreeding. Then you have anomalies, like an Italian called McLean and a Scot called Danielli. What happened there?

In the England team, I know why Cueto is called Cueto, because I read the Cumberland News. In the 1900s his great-granddad sailed from Spain to Maryport, where he opened a fish and chip shop. Borthwick, the England captain, is another Cumbrian, born in Carlisle. See, I do follow rugby.

But what mainly strikes me is what football could learn from rugby. Not arguing with the ref, that is so refreshing. Being able to hear the ref talking, giving advice and even coaching the players, that could be a big help in football. As could video judges. Seems such an obvious extra tool.

Best of all would be sin bins. The whole business of yellow and red cards in football is often such a nonsense – so unfair and illogical – and then when it leads to a player being sent off, often for two piddling offences, the whole balance of a game is ruined.

What rugby could gain from soccer is learning how to kick the ball properly. Rugby players are OK at penalty kicks; in fact, some are phenomenal, from distances that make you wonder if they can even see the posts. But the kicking from the hand is atrocious. Back and forward it goes, pointless and annoying and time-wasting. Or into touch – and the crowd cheers. Pathetic.

Scrums, they are a nonsense, too. Impossible to see what’s going on and all they do is slow the game down. Football cleverly speeded up its game when it stopped the back pass to the goalie. Plus, three points for a penalty kick is far too many, out of proportion to the offence, whatever it was, and that’s another thing that should be simplified. Half the time, the rugby commentators have no idea what went wrong.

I’ve also been struck by the intensity of the players and the huge crowds, especially when it comes to the home nations games. It gives such pleasure and pride to Wales or Ireland when they give the mighty, superior big heads of England a good stuffing.

Which makes me think that the Home Internationals in football should be brought back. They were the oldest internationals in the world, starting with Scotland-England in 1872. I lived for them as a boy, the highlights of my year, but they were discontinued 25 years ago. Far better practice for England than playing all these limp friendlies against middling foreign countries.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit