What could you want more on a cold February Saturday afternoon than to settle down in your own sitting-room in front of a big fire to watch on television an Irish six nations rugby match. Having read every column inch of pre-match comment in the morning newspaper, anticipation builds with the ‘talk up’ to the game with the garrulous George Hook and his delightful foil the knowledgeable Brent Pope, whom when George half agrees with him, as he occasionally does, he calls him ‘Popey.’
Both of these pundits, each, in his own way, have something worth saying. George delivers tortuously his often lateral opinion on some fine technical point. With agonised expression and gesture he frequently includes some classical or Churchhillian-type allusion, carefully prepared beforehand no doubt, but delivered in such a way as to appear entirely spontaneous and designed to make the final and definitive view on the matter. Popey occasionally says ‘I agree with George,’ but to some of George’s more outlandish opinions and metaphors he simply looks at him with his delightfully disarming smile, that must melt the heart of every female viewer, of no matter what age. Popey’s own opinions, simply delivered and often at variance with George, are usually to the point. Having played for the All Blacks in his day and as an experienced coach his views have an authentic ring about them. George and Popey, despite being a wonderfully entertaining double act, deliver the goods – astute comment on the game of rugby.
The rugby you see on television these days has little more in common with the 3rd B or 3rd C club rugby I played in the 1950s, than the ball and the basic rules. The players of 3rd B and 3rd C rugby of my experience were as like the professional players of today as a cat is like a lion. Today’s professional rugby players are virtually a different species from those of us who played this standard of rugby in the past. They are even in a different category from those who played senior club rugby in the amateur days. Their fitness, upper body strength and the speed at which they play the game are remarkable.
By the way, I could never understand why after the 3rds teams weren’t called the 4ths and the 5ths. I suppose it didn’t sound as bad, and was better for the ego to say you played on the 3rd Cs rather than on the 6ths. In those days even the 1st team players played rugby for the pleasure of playing; to keep fit and to enjoy a game on Saturday afternoon.
Billy was our club’s match secretary. Early in the week he sent out postcards to players who had been selected for the games for the following Saturday. The teams had been selected on Monday night at a meeting of the selectors, mostly alicadoos. These were older former players who had watched a game on the previous Saturday. Selection was a fairly serious business for the first four teams, but for the Bs and Cs it was a little more relaxed and the team that took the field on Saturday might bear little resemblance to the team that the selectors picked on Monday. In fact it wouldn’t surprise me if they left the 3rd Bs and Cs to Billy to get what players he could. Players might ‘cry off’ between receiving their card and the game at the weekend, and you might get a phone call from Billy as late as lunchtime on Saturday to tell you that you had been ‘subbed up’ and to go somewhere else to play.
Our junior pitch was at the top of Brewery Road, Stillorgan, along one side of which ran the disused and overgrown railway cutting of the old Harcourt Street line. There was a basic concrete block pavilion with elementary showers. It defied the ingenuity of even the most dextrous to adjust them in such a way as to have a comfortable shower. (I once heard George Norton, the Irish full back in the early fifties, recount that when he started playing senior club rugby for St Mary’s, after a game two teams had to wash using a rain barrel of cold water!)
On the Bs and Cs there were usually one or two older players who had played decent rugby in their youth and loved the game so much they were going to play until they dropped. They knew what they were doing on the rugby field and did their best to hold the mixed bag of semi-competent enthusiasts together. There was no requirement, or perhaps even expectation, that Bs and Cs players should train during the week, but some did. There was certainly no team practice or even discussion of tactics. You just togged out on Saturday and played with whoever Billy had summoned. In fact I have a clear memory of arriving at Brewery Road to find the team was short a couple of forwards and Billy, the conscientious but casual match secretary, into his forties and not having played for a number of years, togged out. We all thought he would have a heart attack, but the old dog for the hard road - any time he got hold of the ball he kicked it over the fence on to the railway cutting to give himself a breather.
Most of the players on the Bs and Cs had probably played rugby at school. It was compulsory for boys in most schools that played the game. Why some of them bothered to join a club after school I’m not quite sure. One Saturday that I was injured and watching a match at Brewery Road, I saw one forward following the kick off walking up the field, hand in pocket of his shorts in the general direction of where the ball would land. I don’t remember what happened to him next, but I have no doubt that someone told him in colloquial French to get, not his finger but, his hand out. Forward play was pretty tough and set scrums were often problematical. The basic rules were observed, but the niceties of the finer rules of today’s professional game were not observed and were probably unknown even to the referee. They were certainly unknown to many of the players, especially rules that governed what went on in the front row of the scrum. There was almost always a referee present, but one Saturday no ref. turned up so one of the four spectators, fingers in mouth for a whistle, took charge and after about half an hour he twisted his ankle and had to be carried off.
I used to play in the centre and occasionally was drafted in to out half. One season I played with Mick at scrum half. I was sure he was the owner of the ball because he held onto it so much. I’m pretty sure that the ball never went out the whole way along the back line. It was inevitable that someone either kicked it, dropped it or was tackled before it got to the wing. However in those days the wing threw the ball into the lineout, perhaps the only time he had a chance to hold it unless he went infield in loose play and foraged for it himself. On the other hand there were those on the team who were afraid of their lives that someone would pass them the ball.
Billy appointed the captain from week to week depending on who was on the team. In one particular game he appointed Mike, who had some kind of heart condition, as captain. I suspect he did this, not because Mike knew the game well, but because having been to a better class of school Billy would have expected him to have leadership qualities. Early in the game we had a free, but as Mike didn’t know who on the team could kick, he took the free himself. He stood back and making sure that the rest of the team was onside he proceeded to kick the ball back over his head!
The half-time whistle was always a welcome relief. The alicadoo watching the match arrived on the field with a plate of quartered oranges for both teams. He would then proceed to give us a pep talk and suggest how we might improve our game to give us some chance of winning. Derek, one of the alicadoos, didn’t put a tooth in telling us what he thought of our performance. Mervyn, who was quite good with ball in hand, wasn’t keen on getting hurt and contributed absolutely nothing in defence. At half-time in one match Derek told him straight: ‘you wouldn’t tackle your granny.’
I often came off the pitch at the end of a match not knowing who had won. On other occasions I was in absolutely no doubt that the opposition had won without having the foggiest notion of the score. This was a version of rugby the finer points of which I have no doubt that George and Popey know nothing.
Despite all, we enjoyed the game and, after a freezing or scalding in the elementary showers in our concrete block pavilion, most of us retreated to Long’s of Donnybrook to replace lost liquid and hear how the other teams had done, feeling satisfied that we had earned our Saturday night out.