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.

The laws are another matter, deeply cumbersome and difficult to interpret. The Original Rules of Rugby, edited by Jed Smith, curator of the Museum of Rugby at Twickenham, reprints the two key documents drawn up during the early years of the game, the first in 1845 at Rugby school, and the second in 1871 by the Rugby Football Union. In the interval, two things had happened. First, the game had spread beyond the public schools to local clubs (the most energetic probably Blackheath), who were calling loudly for a universal set of laws in a sport where matches were often played with one team’s rules in the first period and the other’s in the next (this, as much as the need for a breather or a change of ends, is the origin of half-time). Second, the Football Association had been formed and failed to reconcile the dribbling game and the handling game. Within a few weeks of its convening in 1863, the FA parted company with the minority of rugby devotees. ‘Running with the ball’ was an obvious source of contention but, as Smith suggests, ‘hacking’ was probably the harder issue to settle.

Cambridge University, as fans of the dribbling game know, was the first institution to draw up a set of laws for what is recognisably modern football. They appeared in 1848 and were revised in 1863, the year the FA was formed. The revised version allowed running with the ball in hand, as long as the player who did so had made a ‘fair catch’ or a catch on the bounce, in which case he could be charged, held, tripped or hacked – kicked by an opponent, that’s to say, with the front or flat of the boot anywhere between his knee and ankle. Despite the influence of Cambridge on the first laws, the FA ruled against most forms of handling and all hacking. Francis Campbell, a Blackheath player, walked out in dismay and, as Smith writes, ‘took rugby union with him’. In fact, it wasn’t long before hacking, thought to be a manly, character-building part of the game, disappeared from both codes.

The Rugby game in the early years was beastly and manly by turns and, then as now, the difference wasn’t always obvious. In A History of Rugby School, published in 1898, the classical scholar W.H.D. Rouse tells of a housemaster weeping over the injuries of the players after prolonged bouts of hacking. Aside from this fortifying practice, which took place in head-on confrontations, mostly in vast scrums involving scores of upright players, there was a deadly flick of the foot known as ‘hacking over’, in which the flat of the boot was jabbed at the leg of a running player to pitch him off balance. It could be administered with the same intent to harm as a simple hack. And of course there was the good old-fashioned trip-up, nowadays a serious offence. The art of tripping was revived last month in a doughty heritage display by Phil Vickery, the 18 stone 12 lbs England captain, during a world cup pool game against the United States. In Australia four years ago Vickery’s penalty give-aways in the world cup final nearly cost England the match and the Webb Ellis cup. This time around, he simply stuck out his leg to bring down a US centre and remained in the posture a fraction too long, like an agency model showing off a new line of tights. He was banned for two matches.

Given the importance of hacking in the Rugby game 14 years before the Battle of Solférino, it’s not surprising that one or two of the school’s rules anticipate the principle of damage-limitation in the Geneva Conventions. Law 28 for instance: ‘No player may wear projecting nails or iron plates on the heels or soles of his shoes or boots.’ Others are faintly ludicrous. Law 21 is a typical public-school injunction, stamped with recondite authority: ‘Two big-side balls must always be in the Close during a match or big-side.’ Any puzzles arising here are cleared up at a stroke by Law 35: ‘Three praepostors constitute a big-side.’ Odd rules obtain when a ball hits one of the elm trees in the field of play. Others come into force for play around the mound known as ‘the Island’. Vickery would have found all this more challenging than the modern rulebook: how do you go about infringing like you mean it when ignorance of the law is no excuse?

In Jed Smith’s edition the 1845 laws, 37 in all, run to six pages; the 1871 laws, 59 in all, to 15. The International Rugby Board has kept the number of modern laws to 22, half of which, Smith tells us, are derived from the 1871 laws. He doesn’t say that the latest edition of the IRB laws runs to 182 pages. The laws are published with copious illustrations and examples, accounting for a good deal of the bulk. Even so, Law 19 on ‘touch and lineout’, for instance, is 17 pages long, and though the IRB has done away with big-sides and praepostors, it has given referees an immensely complicated set of regulations to get their heads around. Wayne Barnes, the youngest ref in this world cup, learned many of the necessary skills at the Bar before being lured away from Lincoln’s Inn in 2005.

Class, the brusque midwife presiding at the birth of rugby league in England, gets very little say in the French story, although the ideal of the peasant character is briefly on display, before it gets drafted into a bigger plot to do with regionalism and political principle. In the French imagination, rugby has earned the status of a nation within a nation: ‘l’Ovalie’ – the name derived from the shape of the ball, sometimes called ‘the kidney’. The game was imported via Le Havre just after the Franco-Prussian War and there were two expat clubs in Paris by the end of the decade, one of which – the Paris Football Club – played both association football and rugby. The Parisian clubs of the 188os were said to emulate the toffish ways of the English game and maybe for that reason failed to spread the gospel with any success. It was in Bordeaux that rugby really prospered and from there that it rapidly colonised the south-west from the end of the 1880s. Despite the renown of Racing Club and Stade Français in Paris, the clubs in the south-west remain the engines of French rugby, pushing a constant stream of players into the national side.

The exhibition in Bordeaux makes much of this and even hints at a moral kinship between the game and the region, which goes roughly as follows: in the south-west people are identified with the land and attend to the rugged, honourable schedules of planting, harvesting, breeding and culling; a strong spiritual attachment to tradition, tantamount to a culture, echoes this material link and knits communities together; rugby union, equally rugged and honourable, is therefore bound to flourish. The result is a virtuous circle in which the game embodies the character of a great region, and the region continues to generate great players.

Keep the ruggedness, qualify the idyll somewhat and a similar case could be made – surely it has been – for the Welsh valleys or the old bullwhip cultures of the Northern Transvaal and the Free State. Like a vast expanse of Velcro tended by hacks and commentators, sport is an adhesive surface to which any folklore will stick without seeming wildly out of place. Even serious accounts of French rugby can’t resist this grand temptation to myth, taking their cue from Webb Ellis’s run, which is interpreted as a radical act of imagination and a serious challenge to authority. And so it’s possible for Jean-Pierre Bodis, in Histoire mondiale du rugby (1987), to sketch out a political geography in which the rugby strongholds are located in areas with a conspicuous anti-clerical tradition, the theory being that the game thrived in opposition to the Church, with its life-denying strictures against bodily contact and its preference for anaemic honest-to-god football.

This is one of the most interesting differences between the rugby union mythos in England and its counterpart in France. The English version is knotty, based as it is on the doubtful idea that Webb Ellis was an enemy of football (i.e. the game defined decades later by Cambridge and the FA). From this it seems to follow that rugby union evolved as a minority sport for posh chaps, leaving the field open for a game that could be played by ‘the people’; and from this in turn that the deep social organisation of manual labour operated a category distinction – a bit like rules about food and menstruation in other societies – which disqualified the use of the hands for recreation. Yet that seems odd for a lot of reasons, including the fact that plenty of working men were playing rugby in the 19th century. Indeed, the breakaway Northern Union of 1895 – the forerunner of rugby league – was formed because working-class players needed some sort of indemnity for lost earnings and the Rugby Football Union stood firm for amateurism. It’s a vexed tale at best.

The French version has the simplicity of a Maoist fable. The forces of good – some of them peasants, others commendably close to the peasantry – liked to play a game involving the hands. The forces of superstition and repression were against hands: give them a chance and they’d be fumbling for the devil’s work. The forces of good assembled in a vale of plenty and began a secular resistance, based on the paradoxical values of discipline and transgression, and slowly but surely the nation of Ovalie flourished, much like the Republican impulse, even if it didn’t prevail. In this story, praise for the hands – justified praise, since the pass at speed is still the most breathtaking part of the game, especially the French game – comes without the lurking English suspicion that the availability of the whole body in rugby is really a class privilege.

There is, as you’d expect, some ritual sneering at footballers. Players in the south-west sometimes refer to them as manchots – a broad translation would be ‘amputees’ – and see their virtuosity, quite correctly, as a function of physical constraints. They are also dismissed as pousseurs de citrouille, or ‘pumpkin rollers’, an expression recorded by the anthropologist Anne Saouter, who spent five years with rugby players in the south-west before publishing Être Rugby (2000). Saouter doesn’t say whether this disdain is an expression of envy for a more popular, celebrity-driven, six-figure-salary sport, but I’d be surprised. It’s not unusual for rugby union fans to sit down to watch a game of football. The great gulf that the Webb Ellis story puts between the codes can always be crossed by an eclectic sports lover, though it helps to be going in the right direction, from the jagged articulations of the rough and tumble to the purity of the beautiful game. In general, the simpler the rules of a sport – jumpers for goalposts seems to say it all about football – the greater the range of stories, dreams and desires it can assimilate.

Saouter was very interested in the women of the rugby tribe. The carnival ways of the game, and its obvious excesses, particularly in the ‘third half’, as post-match bingeing is known, led her to think of the players as gargantuan, all-embracing figures who shied away from nothing, yet the women – player’s wives, girlfriends, groupies – were always marginal. This is also true of high-level rugby, a world with no Wags or world-ratings for shopping. Rugby simply can’t sustain the drip-feed of money that keeps football’s spangled hangers-on in eerie animation. By the end of the present tournament the hosts will have transferred about €70 million to Rugby World Cup Ltd, the commercial arm of the IRB, in return for grabbing the event. The terrestrial channel TF1 has already agreed roughly the same figure for retransmission rights now and during the next tournament in 2011 – paltry sums beside the money circulating in football.

The claim that rugby is steeped in honourable traditions and eager to hang onto them gains a whiff of credibility from the modesty of its means, but on occasion it has sunk as low as any other game. In this the French are no better than anyone else. Shamateurism had a long tradition in the south-west before the game turned professional in the 1990s. In 1931 the RFU, in deep distress about payments and violence on the pitch, refused to play against the French team or let any of its own members play the French clubs. The ban was lifted in 1939, though France didn’t compete against another Five Nations side that year. In the last stages of the Phoney War the reconciliation was marked by the meeting of two army sides – French and British – in Paris. The French army fared marginally better (three points to His Majesty’s 36) than they would a few months later against the Wehrmacht.

One of the consequences of defeat and zoning ought to have been a downturn in rugby union. But for Vichy fit young bodies and the great outdoors were important subsets of ‘travail, famille, patrie’. So was strength through joy, and vice versa, always excepting the extravagance of the third half. Like the RFU, Vichy had a horror of payment for prowess – not so foolish in retrospect – and it wasn’t long before the French version of rugby league had been outlawed. The League’s assets were confiscated and, in one account, handed direct to the French Rugby Union. If so, it was an accomplished act of theft by the amateurs, whose code had faced strong competition from the 13-man game for nine years. The upheaval of war had produced a sudden incline in the playing field where the rivals of league and union had locked horns without any official encounter. It’s safe to associate flair, intelligence, persistence, daring and even solidarity with sport, but ‘honour’ never gets out of the game in one piece.

The Musée d’Aquitaine has a great item (shown on the previous page) on loan from Twickenham. The haka in 1954 looks nothing like the grim dance performed by the All Blacks nowadays. The onscreen version of the modern televised game – a ton and a half of livid beefcake wagging its streamlined bum and popping its eyeballs at the opposition – is enslaved by the medium. Television comes to the game, as it does to football and cricket, with a miraculous eye for detail and superhuman forms of attention, and perhaps this photo from the 1950s says more about the innocence of still photography half a century ago than it does about the nature of the haka. Yet whoever owns the means of representation shapes the thing. Viewed from the crowd, across the obsolete dimensions of real time and measurable space, the haka looks alien, intriguing: it starts, it finishes and the match proceeds, with the ghosts of the dance receding. From the armchair it’s just another splash of digital overkill: generic brawn, generic dreadlocks and tattoos, generic fury and a pledge of animosity to come. Even so, the armchair is one of the best seats at the game. Maybe a liking for the haka as it looked at Twickenham in January 1954 is sentimental. There’s plenty to scoff at in the photo: scouts’ PT, Salad Days with an all-male cast, and so on. The straw in the foreground was spread across the pitch overnight to keep off the frost; it’s been swept clear of touch in preparation for the big match. Losing was probably for wankers even in those days, but it didn’t always need spelling out. With all their dancing done, the All Blacks went on to win by five points – three for the try and two for the conversion. England left the field having failed to score.