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Your rugby autobiography

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RoyalBlueStuey

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"The Rugby?!?!? Are you a woolyback or what?"

"A load of sweaty posh blokes grabbing each other's balls? No thanks"

"It's egg-chasing, get a grip."

It's not an uncommon reaction where I'm from. Liverpool, you might be aware, has a pretty good pedigree when it comes to football. Almost without exception if you are a Scouser you are either red or blue...there is no room for anything else. Well almost...I remember as a kid taking a break from the constant games of football to watch the Internationals. Will Carling. Rob Andrew. Jeremy Guscott. The Underwoods and their crazy mum...the national team was on the radar but nothing else. You'd certainly never take an interest in the normal down-to-earth club rugby that got read out at the end of final score. Gosforth? Harlequins? Saracens? They aren't the names for proper teams. It's Plymouth Argyle not Plymouth Albion...Nottingham that has the Forest not Jedburgh. No, in the 'pool we stuck to what we knew. There was no need to diversify...in the early 80s regardless of which one it was you could be fairly happy that your team was one of the best in Europe. Who needed a bunch of muddy amateurs playing for a team with a funny name?

Basically that's the way it stayed until I went away travelling. From my days watch the 5 Nations I had a rough working knowledge of the game and whilst staying in Brisbane us and a few of our fellow hostellers grabbed tickets for the Queensland Reds V Otago Highlanders game. It's fair to say that sitting on the hill at the near end of Ballymore Stadium was more than a bit bewildering. Not nearly as much of a culture shock as it was to our Danish friends ("It's quite violent isn't it") but still pretty early on I decided that it was easier just to go with the flow and enjoy the game...the rules would come later.

My abiding memory of the game was of Wendell Sailor...there was something about him that just made me think "sh*thouse". I wasn't sure how I knew but after spending my entire youth watching sport I knew a player who was giving it everything for the team. "Is he injured or something?" I enquired of a local "Nah, he's just a fairy" came the answer. "Yeah..." I thought "...gotcha". I mightn’t have known much about the game but this was a sport I could ‘get’.

So with that grounding we moved across the Tasman Sea. I'd like to think that no visit to the UK would really be complete without going to a football match. It's the people's game. It's fundamentally part of the national identity, an all pervasive lowest common denominator. It'd be difficult to visit the British Isles without touching upon it but to actually get to grips with the game, the allegiances, the rivalries is massive part of getting to grips with the British psyche. The same is true with Rugby Union down in New Zealand. We'd arrived in Auckland and were immediately swept along into the tail end of the 2003 Super 12 season. Most of the family we were staying with were islanders...natural born rugby players. Rugby League was okay but the 15 man game was everything.

I have a pet theory that sports fans the world over will talk about their team in much the same way...it's only when you hear them talking about their rivals that you really understand them. On the day we arrived in Auckland the folks we were staying with plonked a couple of crates of Lion Red in the front room and settled down to watch Canterbury Vs Wellington...they'd actually bought Hurricanes hats purely 'cause they hated the Crusaders and so that’s basically where it started for us. The Blues won the Super 12 that year, uncle Dave and his brother Jason were proud as punch whilst Aunt Moira swooned over Carlos Spencer. Having Brits in their midst, however, was making the Kiwis nervous...even folks as footy orientated as us had realised that England where looking a bit good. The autumn internationals months previous had been a massive success for the northern hemisphere and a Grand Slam had finally been completed by our boys. The locals were unimpressed. England were boring, old, slow, one-dimensional and above all arrogant...they were coming over in a few weeks and these facts would be demonstrated. In the mean time we were to sit back and get more Lion Red down us. I loved it : The game, the banter, the obsession. The pride with which they talked about their team was pretty infectious. The almost reverent way Dave, Jason et al spoke about the national team ("Yeah, he's pretty good but he's not an All-Black"). It helped that we instantly fell in love with New Zealand...that such a nice bunch of people had something they all adored made it impossible not to get swept along. We were welcome to join in on the understanding that England WOULD lose when they came down here.

In the event our lads didn't read the script...they played two tests, one each against NZ and OZ. The first saw Wilkinson kick the All Blacks into the ground and our pack hold their own goal-line whilst two men down. If that wasn't good enough two weeks later we took Australia to the cleaners by three tries to one in Melbourne. A 40 yards rolling maul being a particular highlight. It didn't matter that the locals still weren't impressed we'd done it. You notice the "we" there...that's what came of our travels round the world's most rugby obsessed nation. All of a sudden, out of guilt by association, England were "we" and what's more they were looking good. The World Cup followed soon after our return to the UK...I'm sure no-one needs reminding of what happened there. So there you have it, we'd jumped firmly on the band-wagon.

In the aftermath of this as the games increased media profile it was easy to have a look around at what was happening in the 'club scene'. The only problem was our nearest top level team was Sale....egg-chasing may have been a lot more alluring prospect to my little Scouse self but there was no-way I was going to cheer on a load of Mancs. There were plenty of teams around but it seemed wrong just to seize upon one. Leicester and Northampton both seemed nice choices as Austin Healey & Matt Dawson were both good Evertonians but to really support a team it had to be somewhere local. Enter Waterloo...as it happened my first game was against Blackheath a club that was deeply involved in the formation of the football league...I don't remember that much of the game because Cains Lager was one pound a pint but the rugby was fun and the place was wonderfully friendly & welcoming.

It didn't take much soul searching to realise we found our club, who needed the Premiership when you could drink with club players and officials standing next to memorials to the club's war heroes in a clubhouse that reeked of tradition and heritage (and beer and liniment). Since then an increasing number of us go to Waterloo whenever our footy teams aren't playing. It's a great club and handy neutral ground for reds and blues to meet up for some Saturday sport. There is still pitifully few people I know who are into rugby but who cares...the internet keeps you in touch with all the rugby info & chat you need. It doesn't matter our team will almost certainly never attain a decent level of play. The team do what they can do and the bar, with it's real ale and open fire, is always welcoming. Waterloo will always be second fiddle to the footy but does that really matter? We don't care.
 

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