The game they play in heaven

Lewis Thomas 18 January 2018

This is the game they play in heaven.

When I’m in London, I tend to drink in a small pub by Waterloo called The Hole in The Wall. They’re quiet, show sport, and serve good beer at good prices.

I dropped in on my way back to Cambridge from the Varsity Match, and found myself chatting to a few Welsh blokes at the bar – they were all middle aged, and most had some degree of Cambridge stash. Asked if they were from the uni, their leader laughed – they’d come because one of the Cambridge players was from their part of the world, and they felt like he could use the support. They’d taken days off from work and crossed down to Twickenham, so they could sit in the Cambridge end and cheer on one of their own.

This is the thing with rugby – there’s a community aspect to it. The major sides in the Premiership have stadiums the size of a Championship football team’s, and it trails behind football everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere except Wales and Ireland. The Southern Hemisphere’s another matter – I don’t know what it is about the New Zealanders, but they’re almost fetishistic about the game.

This community feel extends to Cambridge, where the rugby community spreads beyond the players. Unlike rowing, with Boat Club Dinners and Row Chat cultivating an image of a world apart, rugby becomes involved in the communities in which it’s played. This isn’t even a matter of playing the game – it’s a matter of following it, of knowing the sport. There’s a special place for the players, obviously, but there’s still a role for those who can talk about the merits of a good Lock, or even enjoy the atmosphere at a match at Grange Road.

Sports are more than their players. They’re the coaches, the fans, the writers. They’re everyone who feels sufficiently invested to back a team, and to stand in the pissing rain to cheer them on. Land Rover run a series of adverts during the Premiership under the slogan “this is our game”. To some of us, Rugby is our game – it’s the game we’re exposed to as children by fathers and uncles, or introduced to at school. It’s the game that lurks in the back of our minds, and whose matches (watched or played) provide a sort of punctuation. It’s a topic guaranteed to smooth conversations – to establish common ground where there might otherwise be none. To those who know it, rugby lurks.

So, week in week out as children, we lace up our boots and go out to a school or club pitch, to arse around with tackle dummies and dummy passes. We freeze, we moan, and some of us love it. Some of us stay with the game, and carry on through childhood, while others drift off as they see their peers accelerate away, and get their attention caught by other things – work, study, other interests.

Then, as teenagers and adults, some come back to it – some as players, some as fans. I’ll admit – I’m one of the worst players to ever walk the earth. I spent more time on the ground feeling sorry for myself at school than I did scoring. So now, instead of playing, I watch the matches and write about them.

The Six nations kick off next month. For that, I’ll make the trip from college to pub, to pray that Scotland and Wales will make a run for glory. I’ll chat with my mates, I’ll think of watching matches when I was a kid, and of my Great-Uncle’s stories of playing in the fifties. But mostly, I’ll focus on what’s happening on the pitch.

Rugby’s many things.

It’s celebrating in the stands when your team wins a tournament, with half of North London screaming over your head.

It’s gritting your teeth in the College Library and praying that Hogg can get a burst of speed, that he can outrun the All Black nipping at his heels, that he can achieve the impossible.

It’s afternoons and evenings spent with friends in rammed pubs, watching teams from countries you’ve never visited duke it out.

It’s punctuation. It’s a break in the weekend, in the term, in the day. It’s eighty minutes where the only thing that matters – fan or player – is what happens on the pitch, and that it happens cleanly.

It’s all of these things, and more. This is the game they play in heaven, and the game they watch too.