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The Reason Rugby Has Absolutely Nothing On Football

Let's unpack exactly why.

by Hydall Codeen
26 September 2019, 10:24am

Illustration: Dan Evans

A morning in spring. The day is bright and breezy and the skies are as clear as your head, after you eschewed a Saturday night spent decapitating yourself in the usual ways for peace on the sofa. Out the door, fresh as daisies, you make your way to the nearest pub with the sole intent of luxuriating in an entire Super Sunday – hangover and guilt free. It's only when you turn the corner for the final approach that it hits. That familiar sinking feeling. Oh no. It's them.

Draped about outside the front, clad in boot-cut denim and faded variations of the same navy Fat Face fleece, clutching pints of Fruli and talking about Red Dwarf, problem tenants and that morning's hunt, it's the dismal tribe known to all, despite only drinking in pubs that don't sell roast dinners a few times each year.

It's selfish enough that the Six Nations leeches valuable licensing hours in February and March, just as the Premier League season enters its most crucial and euphoric phase. Apparently not content with this annual transgression, rugby fans are back to ruin your weekends once more this autumn, lured from their bistros, man-caves and pelotons to bray and to roar and to relive those humid teenage memories of shouting at the homeless and drinking other people's piss through traffic cones by the Rugby World Cup in Japan.

All of which feels, more or less immediately, a touch too harsh, a case of attacking a niche subculture for the crime of not being able to design the world around itself. There are unwritten rules about punching down, and with each passing year, rugby union resembles less a sport than it does some outdated pagan curio, an activity closer in popularity and scope to cheese rolling or welly wanging than it is the Premier League.

Zoom out a little and it's even possible to look at rugby fans with a measure of sympathy. Not all of this is their fault. In its own way, their presence in pubs up and down the country is heartening. If it weren't for the rare forays into public life encouraged by international competition, maybe we'd forget that they exist at all, so thoroughly subordinated has their game become to its upstart cousin.

Since the World Cup kicked off last Friday, there has at least been a light uptick in attention. Prominent among the coverage so far has been an article written by BBC Radio 4 presenter Justin Webb, published at UnHerd.com and entitled "How could anyone prefer football to rugby?" It's a strange and provocative headline, and as you can imagine the essay has been passed around online like a urinal cake at a freshers' rugby sevens initiation party.

"My mother, a quaker Maoist, wanted to ban football," begins Webb. "It was the seventies and hooliganism was a thing, and mum, who was left-wing in a north London-y kind of way, didn't think much of unruly working class people."

There's a lot to unpack in that opening salvo, but sadly it's downhill from there, as Webb proceeds to mash up all of the usual "Wendyball" complaints into a thick green paste of envy and Monty Python quotes that will make tedious reading for anyone who's encountered a rugby fan in the wild. The grievances boil down, as ever, to the same pair: that rugby players are harder than footballers and have better manners.

It's surprising that rugby fans assume football supporters will take offence at this. Rugby players are harder and do have better manners than most footballers. And that's fine, because it's also a large part of what makes rugby so boring.

For all of modern football's flaws, there's something more enthralling and emotionally nuanced about cheering a wiry, ratty little bastard as he scams and cheats his way to immortality, a state of affairs that forces you to ask questions of yourself, questions that rugby fans – with their idealised view of sport as something that should be contested solely between some nice dads and a team of friendly village firemen – maybe aren't so keen to ask of themselves.

In answer to Webb's question, the reason football is preferred by so many is that all sorts of different pricks and cunts can play it. Mad cunts, sad cunts, big cunts, little cunts. Petulant cunts, mischievous cunts, adulterous cunts. Pissed up cunts and lucky pricks. The depth of physiological personality in rugby is basically zilch. Other than a couple who are a bit quicker and skinnier than the rest, it's the same body type over and over again, sheds that bleed, cows stood on their hind legs.

Footballers come in all shapes and sizes, and much of the intrigue of the game arises from seeing how they exploit or overcome their physical traits to get the better of their opponent. The best footballer of all time is 5'7" tall. In football, Todd Cantwell and Adama Traoré can play on the same pitch. In rugby, Todd Cantwell would probably be dead.

There's also something immediately demeaning about rugby, a sport that seems to derive its soul from the Medieval act of sending the hardest blokes in your village off to fight some big lads from across the bog while you stand there, having to swoon and clap. Again, we return to the issue of rugby's fundamental hardness and who, exactly, this is supposed to enrich. What do the rugby fans who spend their lives decrying the dives and feigned injuries of "Wendyballers" get out of watching some hard, posh blokes run into each other repeatedly for 80 minutes? Who does their suffering serve?

At rugby matches, Webb says in his article, "Nobody fears violence, and little children can wander safely around men as tall as oak trees." Leaving aside for a moment the implication that footballers and their fans are a danger to children, it's tempting to wonder if there isn't something infantilising at play in the mind of the watching rugby fan, if he or she longs to be returned once more to the safety of the cradle, to feel protected in watching the painful trudge unfolding on-pitch in the same way one feels comforted by the sound of a lightning storm raging outside the bedroom window at night.

Rugby is a game played by "real men", the rugby fans tell us constantly. What does that say about the men whose chosen lot is to watch it?

Empathy is a funny thing. There are obvious reasons why people – and especially rugby's partisans – hate football, and especially Premier League football. I remind myself often that I'm incredibly lucky to love the Premier League, because if I didn't, its ubiquity would torture me. Football is everywhere, at all times.

In fact, if you were able to siphon off the transfer gossip industry and treat it as a sport in its own right, in terms of online energy expended and attention paid, it would likely be bigger alone than rugby. It's a situation that enrages rugby fans and leaves them stranded on some imagined moral high-ground like the goths of sport, pointing at Ant and Dec on the TV on Saturday night and demanding to know why Sex Gang Children aren’t on instead, the Match of the Day theme tune trundling through their nightmares as their teeth fall out and they desperately try to ask passersby what the score was between Saracens and The Wasps.

Nevertheless, try to reserve some pity for rugby fans over the next six weeks. As the Tory party implodes, private schools face abolition and 007 becomes a black woman, they deserve to bathe in the relief that only a cold, £9 pint of Fruli can provide, ruddy-cheeked and permanently enraged cartoon outliers in a moral world that is vanishing every day around their tan leather sheux.

@hydallcodeen / @Dan_Draws

Tagged:
Football
rugby
Sport