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How to watch a game of rugby: Part 3

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2nd April, 2020
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My friend, the late Warwick Roger, used to have a ‘Cockadoodle Do’ section in the Metro magazine he edited so brilliantly which listed all the awards his writers had won in the previous year.

This was good for the reputation of Metro, which in the 1990s was one the largest and most profitable of the city magazines, often running to more than 300 pages in a single issue.

It was also therapeutic for the journalists on the magazine.

Being a journalist is often pictured in movies as an exciting job with plenty of overseas travel and the experience of getting to know famous and interesting people.

In fact it is exciting and interesting. You do get to meet and sometimes even become friends with famous and talented people. But it is generally poorly paid. And the pressures on a journalist who is fearless with his approach to revealing the truth about what is happening during a particular crisis can be excruciating.

So I was thrilled when How to Watch a game of Rugby sold out its first printing in 2004 and then went on to be reprinted in 2005 and again in 2006. I had avoided the dreaded Clive James curse: “The book of my enemy has been remaindered”.

This was my ‘Cockadoodle Do’ moment, a sort of payback for all the flack and hostility I’d received in my career as a rugby writer in New Zealand and Australia.


Not many rugby journalists, for instance, have been the subject of an open letter, which included the great Evan Whitton as a fellow villian, from the captain and senior members of a touring Wallabies team in France to be booted out of our rugby writing gigs by our bosses at the Sydney Morning Herald.

No names and no pack drill.

During the 2011 Rugby World Cup held in New Zealand the national broadcaster, Radio New Zealand, ran a week of excerpts from the book in 15-minute excerpts before the popular 11 o’clock news. This was a further ‘Cockadoodle Do’ moment.

Radio New Zealand wanted me to read the excerpts, but I was reluctant to do it. I have always been amazed at how high-pitched and awkward-sounding my voice is on the telephone and on radio.

As the joke goes, or should go, I have a great voice for the printed medium.

I suggested that Keith Quinn, the voice of New Zealand rugby, do the job. This suggestion was taken up and Quinn did a magnificent job reading my text.

I still have the disc of the readings and live in the somewhat overoptimistic hope that someday some publisher might think about putting out this abbreviated e-version of my book for sale.


Judging by the feedback the readings received, there perhaps might be a market for this e-version of the book.

Anyway, one of the listeners of the Keith Quinn reading was the ABC’s correspondent in New Zealand, Dominque Schwartz.

Schwartz found out that I was staying at Howick, Auckland, at the residence of Judy’s father. She contacted me there and asked if she could come out and interview me about the Rugby World Cup. She was especially interested in quizzing me about a section in How to Watch a Game of Rugby that dealt with how various teams during the 2003 Rugby World Cup dealt with the sex thing.

The Springboks, I wrote, had banned any player from having sex during the tournament. They were bundled out of the tournament in their quarter-final loss to the All Blacks.

The Wallabies were able to spend time with their wives and partners at their training headquarters but were kept apart in the days leading up to the final matches. They lost in the final in extra time.

England allowed the partners of players to stay with them throughout the entire tournament if they wanted. Jonny Wilkinson’s girlfriend stayed in England.

England won the final of the 2003 Rugby World Cup, with Wilkinson converting a field goal with his (wrong) right foot.

Jonny Wilkinson kicks the drop-goal which won the 2003 World Cup

(David Davies / PA via AP, File)

So there I was, standing in the sunlight on the road outside Hunter Wade’s house with friends gathered around listening in, discussing whether to bed or not to bed was the best preparation for Rugby World Cup victory.

I had two killer quotes on this matter from the book that amused her, the onlookers and hopefully the listeners in Australia who tuned in to Dominique’s report.

The first was from the Roman historian Pliny the Elder (77 AD), who claimed, “Athletes, when sluggish, are revitalised by love-making”.

The second was from the legendary baseball coach Casey Stengel: “The trouble is not that players have sex the night before a game; it’s that they stay out all night looking for it”.

Ain’t that the truth.

Given the early success, in New Zealand terms at least, of How to Watch a Game of Rugby there were attempts to get a French edition to coincide with Rugby World Cup 2007, which was to be held in France.


These attempts were not successful unfortunately. But in early 2007 my publisher, Mary Varnham, presented with me a copy of an Italian edition of the book, which was augmented by chapters on various aspects of rugby by four rugby writers with truly splendid names: Alessandro Baricco, Carlo Bonini, Vincenzo Cerami and Marco Paolini.

The title of the book was changed from How to Watch a Game of Rugby to what was, in effect, its real title: L’arte del rugby (The Art Of Rugby).

The chapter printed below basically discusses rugby from this point of view. Rugby is an art form that has at its heart and soul a certain disposition towards violence. Thus the chapter heading: ‘A certain amount of violence’.

The phrase comes from an observation made by the English humourist PG Wodehouse, which I selected to be the quotation to lead this chapter.

I can’t read Italian, but for those who can, here are the words of the opening sentence of the chapter in Italian: “Il rugby, come ai pedanti piace sottolineare, ha leggi, non regole. Eppure e, come suggerisce il grande romanziere e umorista anglo-americano PG Wodehouse, un gioco in un certo senso privo di leggi. Come si spiega questo paradosso?”.

It strikes me that my prose reads very much better in Italian than it does in English.

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How to Watch a Game of Rugby
A certain amount of assault

The main scheme is to work the ball down the field somehow and deposit it over the line at the other end, and in order to squelch this program each side is allowed to put in a certain amount of assault and battery and do things to its fellow man which, if done elsewhere, would result in 14 days without option, coupled with some strong remarks from the bench.
– English-American novelist and humourist PG Wodehouse explaining rugby.

Rugby, as pedants like to point out, has laws, not rules. Yet it is, as the great humourist PG Wodehouse suggests, a somewhat lawless game. How do we explain this paradox?

A famous apocryphal story provides something of an answer.

A young referee is appointed to referee Wales in his first Test appointment. This is in the heyday of Welsh rugby, when the Red Dragons are famous for their shrewdness in exploiting the laws in their own favour. To calm his nerves on the eve of the Test the referee goes into the bar of the hotel where he and the team are staying.

He becomes aware that a group of thickset and beetle-browed men near him are talking in low voices how they are going to have a field day with the young referee the next day. He assumes these men are members of the Welsh pack. He makes up his mind he is not going to be exploited.


The following day, scrutinising the Welsh pack as the first scrum goes down, he sees nothing wrong. No law has been broken. He blows his whistle and calls out, “Penalty against Wales”.

And as the Welsh retreat, he hears one of the forwards say, “Better give it away, boyos, the ref’s onto us”.

The laws of rugby are many and detailed. Perhaps this explains why so many lawyers adore rugby. The field is a moveable courtroom. The IRB’s book Rugby: The Laws of the Game Made Easier is 195 pages long. No fewer than six laws of rugby, some of them running into 14 subsections, are needed to establish the requirements before a match can proceed.

It is hardly any wonder that David Campese once confessed that he didn’t know all the laws of the game. This didn’t stop him from being the top tryscorer in the history of Test rugby. That wonderful Welsh winger Gerald Davies once told an interviewer, “I don’t think many players know the laws. For my own part, I never actually read the law book until late in my life”.

David Campese of the Wallabies in action during a Rugby Union test match between Wales and the Australian Wallabies at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales. Australia won 28-9.

(Getty Images)

Three years after he turned from league to rugby Jason Robinson, the electric, broken-field runner for England, revealed that he was still uncertain about the laws of his new code. “The referee often blows his whistle,” he said, “and I don’t know why. But I know what I’m supposed to do. That’s the important thing”.

Only the referee (perhaps) knows all the laws of the game. The players certainly don’t. Most of them regard the laws of rugby a bit like questions in an examination – only four to be attempted.


Players do need “to know what to do,” as Robinson suggests.

This formula of knowing what to do, or rather what to look for, applies to the good watcher as well. An accountant understands the restrictions that apply to commercial activities, while the entrepreneur concentrates on the horizon-wide possibilities. The best players and the best watchers are rugby entrepreneurs, not accountants.

Rugby is a game for all shapes and sizes. The laws of rugby accept this inclusiveness: the physical democracy is matched by a similar law democracy which makes rugby a relatively easy game for players who do not know most of the laws. For these players it’s like turning on a light switch without having the remotest idea how the electricity is conveyed.

In rugby you only have to know that you generally play behind the ball, that you don’t tackle someone unless he (or increasingly she) has the ball, that tackles should be on the chest and downwards, that passes must not be thrown forwards, that you shouldn’t dive over the ball in rucks and mauls, that once there is a ruck you use your feet (but only on the ball, not on your opponents) to get it back and that lineout throws and scrum feeds should be ‘down the middle’.

Each position, particularly in the forwards, has its own body of knowledge. But this knowledge needs to be mastered only by the specialist. Backs, for instance, have no idea of what goes on in the front row. The scrum is a dark world of heaving shoulders, clashing heads and hacking boots best left to the battle-scarred veterans of the front row to fight out among themselves. It is the underworld of rugby. If you ask a hooker, for instance, the score of a match, he’ll tell you that he won two scrums against the head.

Rugby can be played in every type of weather condition. One of the most dramatic Tests I have ever watched was between the All Blacks (5) and France (3) at Athletic Park on 5 August 1961. The winds were so ferocious the inter-island ferry was not allowed to try and enter Wellington Harbour. The ball could not be kicked forward into the howling gale. The Test marked the opening of the Mallard Stand, a steepling structure that virtually jutted over the field from a great height.

There were rumours that someone had been blown off the stand. I was sitting in the middle of this stand and was not surprised about these rumours. The southerly gale was so strong it seemed entirely capable of lifting someone from the stands and depositing them miles away in downtown Wellington.


(Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images)

Don Clarke kicked one of the weirdest and most wonderful conversions in Test rugby by using the velocity and direction of the gale. Kicking from about 15 metres from touch to convert Kel Tremain’s try to win the Test for the All Blacks, he directed his conversion at right angles to the goalposts. He took the ball back to the 22-metre line and kicked it straight along the line.

The wind, hissing and roaring like 100 steam locomotives, grabbed the ball as it left Clarke’s boot and hurled it straight down the ground and through the posts.

I would say that this was the most sensational conversion in the history of Test rugby. And it was achieved in circumstances that defy belief in retrospect that a Test could have been played.

Rugby has been described as chess played by passive pieces who are allowed to smash into each other. And, like chess, there are in rugby innumerable permutations and variations of play for which the framework of the laws allow.

There are about 200 events – scrums, kick-offs, penalties, lineouts, mauls and rucks – in an 80-minute game of rugby. And within these events there are many subsidiary events. Is the ball thrown in the lineout straight? Are the thrower’s feet behind the touchline? Does the hooker throw without baulking? Do any of the jumpers cross the invisible line down the middle of the lineout? Do the lifters have the correct grip on the shorts of the jumpers?

With all these complications it is understandable that the actual laws are a complicated document.


The laws have to be flexible enough to cope with events that cannot be foretold. Every game is different. Things happen that have never happened before. The laws have to take in events the lawmakers could never have envisaged. There has been an instance of a hang-glider landing on top of a ruck. What decision does a referee make with an event of this kind? What about a ball lodging in telegraph lines overhanging the field of play?

The innovative Australian coach Daryl Haberecht made this point: “The laws of the game tell you what you can’t do. Only your imagination limits what you can do”.

Haberecht invented the ‘up-the-jersey’ ploy. He got his team to line up for a penalty with their backs to the opposition. One player stuffed the ball up his jersey. The rest of the team placed their arms up their jerseys. At the signal, all the players turned on their opponents and sprinted towards the try line. The opposition did not know who to tackle and Greg Cornelsen, who scored a record four tries against the All Blacks at Eden Park in 1978, cantered away for a try.

Rugby Union ball generic

(Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

Another example of inventiveness under pressure is provided by Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop, the cranky and immensely brave doctor-hero at Changi, who took beatings and privations to ensure proper treatment of the imprisoned Australian troops. He was a Wallaby in the 1930s despite playing out of Victoria. In a Test against New Zealand at Sydney he had his nose smashed in – good practice for his Changi years. But rather than leave the field, in an era of no replacements, he broke his toothbrush, shoved the two bits up his nostrils and played a leading part in inspiring the Wallabies to a rare victory against the All Blacks.

Occasionally referees are forced to invent a law. During the 1960s, in a match between the Weston-Super – Mare Hornets’s Third Fifteen, a Hornets prop broke wind as a scrum went down. This was a particular tactic of the prop, apparently. A terrible smell that might have come from a draught horse after a feed of onions perfumed the pitch. The prop was warned. But the next scrum he broke wind again. The referee awarded a penalty against the Hornets, thereby creating a new offence in rugby: the production of foul air.

Gerald Davies argued – correctly, I believe – that the tension between strict liability rugby law and the advantage law is one of the game’s attraction: “One of. Why does a scrum collapse particular charms of rugby football is that the laws are so complicated the game is not clear-cut in any way at all. Why does a scrum collapse? Whose fault is it? Why has a penalty been given? Why was it a free kick and not a penalty? … Breweries have made their fortunes on after-match post-mortems. The game gorges itself on such talk”.


The website one time devoted three pages of intense discussion to an incident in the 2003 New Zealand-England Test at Wellington. The incident probably lasted three seconds but the post-mortem was endless.

England had lost two forwards in the sin bin and faced a scrum on their tryline.

This sequence of play then followed. The six-man England pack is penalised for a prop pushing in at an angle. Rodney So’oialo, the All Black No. 8, taps the ball, picks up and drives for the tryline. He is stopped at the line by two England defenders. The All Blacks are then penalised on the advice of the TMO (television match official) for So’oialo trying to rabbit across the line after being tackled short.

But was this decision correct? Here the complicated laws of rugby come into play.

The website host asked this pertinent question: “Why weren’t the All Blacks awarded a penalty try when So’oialo, after taking the tap penalty, was tackled by players who had not retired to the goal line?”

Law 21.7, ‘Regarding what the opposing team must do at a penalty kick’, with this section having four parts to it in 2003, was then discussed by the website host.


This discussion went into the crucial matter of where the feet of the defenders were. If they were not behind the try line before the defenders came forward to make the tackle, the defenders have committed a ‘professional foul’, a sin-binning offence. The referee could then have sent both players from the field, leaving England with 11 players.

Or he could have awarded a penalty try. Law 10.2, ‘Unfair play’, covers this option. The key judgments here are whether the defenders “intentionally” offended and whether the try “would otherwise have been scored”.

All these considerations had to be weighed up by the referee in seconds – and for hours by the good watchers of rugby in the endless post-mortems that followed.

No wonder the Welsh have a saying that goes to the heart of the rugby culture: “The game begins after the final whistle”.

How to Watch a Game of Rugby by Spiro Zavos (Awa Press, Wellington, New Zealand) 2004