Monday, 28 September 2015

Me and the Rugby World Cup (Part I)

Last Christmas, BigBear fulfilled one of my ambitions and gave me tickets to Twickenham to see a Rugby World Cup match. France v Italy to be precise. It's taken rather a while to come round, but last Saturday evening I went up to London to watch my first ever rugby international. (And as a confirmed rugby fan for almost as long as I can remember, and a former rugby player, that it took till I hit 40 seems quite extraordinary)

The home of rugby

I was, naturally, quite excited about it, and I did the thing I often do - didn't really think through the process of going very clearly in advance. For instance, I went by train, and I took a book with me to read. I took The Scarlet Pimpernel. On a train filled with patriotic (and drunk) French rugby fans. Good plan PhysicsBear. The first train (Woking to Clapham Junction) was relatively quiet and civilised. And then Clapham Junction. Oh my. They didn't need any signs pointing to the right platform, just follow the flood of humanity. And it was only at that point that I remembered the panic attacks that overtake me when I'm in swarming crowds on my own. It was only then that I remembered my claustrophobia at being trapped in a crowded train. It was only then that I realised perhaps why I hadn't been to a rugby international before. It's so far outside my pathetically timid comfort zone. However, I had the ticket, I was half-way there, and I really, really, really wanted to go, so there was no stopping me.

The platform was so heaving that despite the trains arriving every five minutes or so, I didn't get into the first one, and barely squeezed into the second. And I mean squeezed. There were men on the platforms pushing us onto the trains in true Japanese-commuter style. And thus I ended up sandwiched into a seething mass of sweating, breathing, jostling humanity. There were men pressed against me closer than anyone but BigBear ever gets to be. And, to my great relief, despite the quantity of alcohol that had been consumed, they were all perfectly civilised, perfectly polite and generally happy. Then we stopped at Putney and on the platform beheld the extraordinary sight of eight very large, very drunk men wearing bright blue kilts and blazers, forming a scrum with which to engage with the train. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I'm not sure which, they chose to board the train rather than scrummage with it. They turned out to be the Galicia Rugby Club Old Boys. I'm not sure I knew rugby was played in Spain. Or that they wore kilts, but there we go. They joined the already jammed train and proceeded to sing songs about every rugby nation they could, or make bold attempts on the national anthems, with a minimal grasp of the words or tunes.

A Galician rugby veteran. A very happy Galician rugby veteran.

It was at this point that my stress levels began to climb. What had been a bit of a squeeze, with hands within inches of my bosom and resting across my back and shoulders, became an uncomfortable contortion to fit into the space remaining without either groping or being groped. I couldn't see out of the windows, I didn't know where I was, and all I could hear around me was the cacophony of half a dozen European languages, none of them discernibly variations on English, and none of them comprehensible to me. It was almost a perfect storm of things that make me panic. My heart rate rose, my palms were sweating, I was looking in every direction, listening, trying to see or hear something, anything, familiar to latch onto, to feel secure with. There was nothing. Within moments we were at Twickenham however, and as the doors opened, the fans exploded out of the train like coke from a bottle, spraying across the platform, stumbling over each other, laughing, singing, joking, jostling.

The gentle stroll down to the stadium in the warm afternoon sunlight was a delight. Families and small groups of friends chatting and strolling in the last of the summer. Stalls selling food set up erratically here and there along the street and in back gardens. I paused for a hog roast roll and to take photographs and meandered my way down to the home of rugby. It gradually became clear that the majority of overseas fans were French, and the majority of the "neutrals" were also supporting France. There were certainly more people with chickens on their heads than there were men dressed as Julius Caesar.

Men with chickens on their heads. It's a French thing.

Julius Caesar. Or a close approximation.

Once in the environs of the stadium, it was all vaguely familiar from trips to a variety of football stadia. OK, so the biggest I've been to is Stamford Bridge, which has half the capacity of Twickenham, but the feel of a crowded, excited stadium is familiar, and the organisation of ticket barriers, stairways, bars, concourses, stewards and fans is familiar. But, if I'm completely honest, the type of people were rather different. The women were broadly divided into two categories - young and slender, with long straightened hair, in skinny jeans, tweed jackets and oversized handbags; or middle aged in replica rugby shirts and pearls. I'm pretty certain I didn't fit either category, other than by being middle aged. And there were certainly more men in red trousers and Charles Tyrrwhit shirts with tousled gingerish hair answering to names like Rupert and Alistair than I've ever noticed at a football match. Once inside, the feelings of uncertainly and anxiety and fear abated; I bought a pint of beer and joined the throngs watching the tail end of Japan v South Africa on the big screens mounted throughout the concourses. Oh my. I'm sure there was an element of supporting the underdog, but I'm equally sure there was a strong element of nobody liking the South Africans. I have never heard a crowd watching a televised match make so much noise, or get so enthused and excited as in the last ten minutes of that match. It was almost worth going for that experience alone. And even better when everyone took their seats, beers in hand, and they replayed it again to a full stadium. Truly, nobody likes the South Africans. Which was a bit unfortunate for the two people sitting in my row in their Springboks shirts...

Based on my own principles of supporting the underdog, and the inherent natural bias of an England fan against the French*, I had decided in advance to support the Italians. It's a good thing that a lifetime of supporting English national teams in a variety of sports, not to mention the odd decade supporting Burnley Football Club has inured me to the prospect of watching my side lose.

An attacking line-out from the Italians, just to prove it did happen.

And thus ended my first rugby international. I say ended. I won't go into the details of the several hours it then took to return home, nor the horrible paucity of hours of sleep before LittleBear came and jumped on me, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Nor the regret at the beer consumed. Next time I go to a rugby match, it's not going to be one that starts at 8pm. Or it will be when LittleBear is old enough to come too and then stay asleep the morning after.

* For those unfamiliar with the past millennium of European history, you can't go wrong with referring to Sir Humphrey Appleby (Yes, Prime Minister) when discussing the French with Jim Hacker:
Hacker: Well they're our allies, our partners.
Sir Humphrey: Well, they are now, but they've been our enemies for the most of the past 900 years.

No comments:

Post a Comment