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Why Rugby Is Still About Commitment, Courage, Loyalty and Ability

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"Back in my day" - the cry of the ex-sportsman, or woman, that makes all the current players roll their eyes and walk away...

And quite rightly in my view, as today is their time, for their glory and for their memories, as we have had ours and hopefully like mine they make you smile every now and then. And yet so many people ask me, is rugby better now, are they fitter, is it worse, are the games more interesting, are the players bigger etc etc

The game is different. It is a different generation, and yes they are bigger, faster, stronger, and I am bloody grateful that I am in the stand or watching safely on TV! It is not for me to say whether it is better, just as when I was playing it was not right to say that our game was better than that played by such genuine legends as Duckham, Bennett, JPR, Edwards and Slattery etc. And to be honest the question is slightly irrelevant and definitely not one that interests me, unlike the question of are the players still inherently the same?

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I hope so!

Rugby demands certain qualities of a man, commitment, courage, loyalty and the ability to earn your teammates trust. I would love to add a sense of humour, but then again I played with and against a few who certainly lacked one and some who could not even spell it...

I believe the animal is pretty much the same, or at least I hope that they are. How do you describe the 'animal' that plays rugby? Well animal is obviously a good start, but it has to be an animal that has both a predatory streak and a pack nature... There is the love of the physical and mental challenge, the physical being the strength, power and skill to survive and even contribute to the game, the mental having the courage to firstly walk out there and secondly to keep the brain thinking whilst the body rages. A cool head is crucial in rugby, it allows for discipline, and despite what the game might look like at times in terms of brutal collisions, it is the ability to relish all this whilst calculating the next play, next point/ player to attack that marks out the great players. Not as apparent, but still important is the ability to have a laugh, let off steam and enjoy each other's company.

The story of Andy Powell and the golf cart has gone down in rugby legend as a moment that typifies rugby players and their approach to life! The man wanted a burger and some fresh air, and the golf cart ride provided the perfect blend!! Now I know I will get all sorts of people reminding me that it was dangerous, irresponsible and stupid... I would not argue with any of that, but then again which of us has never done any of those three...

Back in my day (you see, it does come so naturally to us old farts) we used to 'relax' quite hard after a game. After home games, we had to attend a black tie dinner at the Hilton Park Lane, and then the guys would 'unwind'. We always had a 'team room' to retire to when all the bars and clubs had given up on us. One night I remember that we could not find the said room, so it was unanimously decided, by the forwards, that my room would do!! My memory is quite sketchy about the night, but as I stepped past/around/over food trolley after food trolley and champagne bottles the next morning, I realised it had been a very good night. This was confirmed as I went to sign my room bill, and as the printer passed page seven, I knew that it had been a very special night...

I think that same season we managed to win the Grand Slam and hence decided that a good night was due. The great Ian Botham invited us to his hotel at some point that evening, night and hence we ended up in his hotel bar. Beefy's competitive nature came out at the bar, and he stood toe to toe with the likes of Dooley, Richards, Leonard and Skinner enjoying some responsible drinking. One of the few things that I remember that night was a German couple trying to have a romantic drink in that bar... which they might have managed had the guy not come across to complain to Mickey Skinner about his language! He found it hard to carry on being romantic with a bucket of ice over his head and down his back soon after... Not big and not clever I know, but at the time quite funny!

So I hope the animal is still the same even though the game has changed. I believe that they do still have that proud sense of team, that they do still feel a rush of adrenaline when they pull on their national jersey, that they would still look after any team mate in any situation, that they do still implicitly trust each other out on the field, and that once the game is over that they do still do bloody stupid things, that only those who have been through the same cauldron of emotions, of anticipation, hope, fear, dread, panic and joy, would understand and smile at...

When I talk about fear, I can obviously only talk about my own personal emotions and what I experienced before a game. Fear was certainly right up there, but not as in fear of getting hurt, although anyone who remembers that far back will no doubt be surprised, as my performances would seem to reflect exactly that! But no, it was not the fear of mud on my shorts, it was the fear of letting people down, and most importantly letting down my team mates. From that almost paralysing fear, in the tunnel before my first Test, that you just might not be good enough that day, that you might just be the one who lets the whole team down, by either lack of ability, loss of concentration or just freezing...

And you dealt with it through humour, even if at times it was cutting, cruel and basic. Humour was a constant companion, and a humour that was hugely sarcastic, merciless and consistent. Any team mate who made a mistake or took themselves too seriously, for even a minute or two, was sure to receive a barrage of cutting wit. Any weakness, and I mean any, was gleefully exploited. I still remember the day the team read that Jerry Guscott once drove the 'Badger' buses around Bath. On boarding the coach to go to training that day, he was met with a chorus of 'ding ding' next stop for me please driver, 'ding ding, can I get off at the next junction driver' etc etc. He also learnt that not laughing ensured that these comments would last for months...

If the humour and glint in the eye dies from rugby players, then I think the game is losing something vital. Of course in the professional world, the demands are high and the guys and girls are far, far fitter and better prepared physically. But what makes rugby players captivating as people is that sense of fun that comes from the qualities mentioned before and comes from the brutal nature of the sport itself. You have to have humour to get through the intensity, to deal with the pressure, but ultimately and most importantly so that you still love what you do and who you do it alongside...

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