Praise for the Hands

Jeremy Harding

  • The Original Rules of Rugby edited by Jed Smith
    Bodleian, 64 pp, £5.99, September 2007, ISBN 978 1 85124 371 6

Twenty years ago at Eden Park, Auckland, as the minutes ticked down to the final of the first rugby union world cup, a correspondent for Libération caught the mood in the French changing room. ‘The players enter without a word … A few coughs, the sound of shoes and bags dropped on the floor. Almost immediately the rasping sound of adhesive tape torn from spools. It will never stop. The strapping of ears and limbs.’ Slowly the talk builds. Pierre Berbizier, the scrum-half, tells the players: ‘Breathe out, get your wind. Find your balance; now shift your balance.’ Jacques Fouroux, coach and former captain (a.k.a. ‘le petit caporal’), urges the forwards and half-backs to inspire ‘confidence in the three-quarters’. Half an hour in, the reporter notes: ‘Constant to-ing and fro-ing of players to the toilets.’ Someone announces: ‘Ten minutes, lads.’ Moments before they emerge into the stadium someone else says: ‘As soon as the anthems start, we form a circle. They’re not going to break our balls.’ It’s a reference to the haka, the All Blacks’ intimidating dance, performed before each game in front of the opposition, and sometimes met by an unconvincing couldn’t-care-less huddle. In the event the French faced it out.

The ‘haka’, Twickenham, 1954
The ‘haka’, Twickenham, 1954

The New Zealanders handled the countdown with more aggression and a lot more self-importance. The selector, John Hart, on their arrival in the changing room: ‘It’s going to be a long wait, boys. Time to concentrate.’ Then the coach Brian Lochore, voice breaking with emotion: ‘You’re a good team but you’re not yet a great team. If you win today you can say you are.’ As with the opposition, the toilet doors ‘bang increasingly frequently’. David Kirk, acting captain from the start of the tournament: ‘Remember, you’re the All Blacks. You carry with you the memory of the past. That’s a force.’ Andy Dalton, the nominated captain who failed to play a single match because of a training injury: ‘Never let up, split their pack in two’ – like splitting firewood, he meant, with a wedge driven into the core. As the team comes out Dalton strikes an authentic 1980s note: ‘Losing is for wankers and we’re not wankers!’

The All Blacks took the French apart at Eden Park to win 29-9; in those days it was four points for a try and the game had not yet gone professional. Five world cups down the line, the scoring system has changed and there is money slopping about. The laws are constantly under review, chasing changes in the way the game is conceived and played. Rugby union is more finicky than it was when Kirk held the Webb Ellis cup aloft in Auckland. Fans and experts are always keen to explain that the game ‘moves on’, but the basics are fairly constant, including the likelihood that whenever the two teams meet, New Zealand will beat France – world cup hosts this time around – as they did in 1987 and, indeed, when the teams first met in 1906.

The nervous exchanges between the players in the first world cup have been transcribed and reproduced on large panels at the Musée d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux, where Le rugby, c’est un monde – ‘the first big international exhibition of rugby culture’ – opened at the start of this year’s tournament. The show contains some intriguing memorabilia and photos and provides a good potted history of the game, from the moment in 1823 when William Webb Ellis, a boy at Rugby School, caught a football and ran with it, right up to the present. (Those who enjoy watching the modern game imagine Webb Ellis as a boy-prophet, running towards them with an egg hatching in his hands.) His legendary act is often celebrated as a transgression of the non-handling game later codified in the 1860s as association football – the beautiful game. But the ‘dribbling game’, as football was known in the old days, was not played at Rugby. Webb Ellis should be remembered not for catching a ball – this was standard practice at the school – but for running with it when he ought to have retreated. Had he done so, the opposition would then have advanced to the point at which he’d made the catch and he’d have gone on to take a punt or offer the ball to a teammate for a place kick.

The story goes that he lunged forward, pursuing territorial advantage with the ball in hand. That impulse is still the most dramatic element of modern rugby union (and league), from which so much else follows: the mercurial invention of space at great risk, or its sullen, surgical obliteration; the death of the messenger and the transmission of the message in the offloaded pass; the dark struggle at the breakdown, where possession of the ball favours incremental gain, metre by metre, and on through subsequent breakdowns and recyclings, until the moment of truth – dull as ditchwater if it comes to nothing, grimly satisfying if the defence is forced to concede a penalty, better than good in the event of a try.

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