Evening all. I am back home today after spending the previous three nights in hospital. On Sunday, my girlfriend felt sudden, intense stomach pains and had to be rushed in. Turns out it was a nasty bout of pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas that can be really serious if not treated. Thankfully all is back to normal now, although the cause is still unknown. The human body, for all its wondrous design, does do some weird shit sometimes.
Amid all the medical excitement, I missed much of the sport I had planned to watch this weekend. I did, however, manage to catch the Calcutta Cup on Saturday. What a wonderfully bizarre game of rugby that was. Played in atrocious conditions as Storm Ciara swept into Edinburgh, it was naturally scrappy, replete with errors. But I found a certain beauty in that. It took me back to my days playing schoolboy rugby. Sodden January mornings with frozen hands and knee-deep mud. More dropped passes than caught ones. It was nice to be reminded that professional sportsmen, for all their supreme talents and skill, were also schoolboys once. And they, too, can spend an entire afternoon ballsing it up.
I also happened to be watching the match with a group of Mexicans, none of whom had seen rugby before. To them, it was just a distant cousin of American Football played by Brits and a handful of our former colonies. So I suddenly found myself attempting to explain the merits and value – not to mention the rules – of the sport against the backdrop of one of the worst matches I’ve ever seen.
As you can imagine, this was no easy task.
“You have to throw the ball backwards,” I explain, as one of Owen Farrell’s usually pinpoint passes catches the wind and lurches forward. “The line-outs have to be evenly contested,” I note, as Fraser Brown flings the ball directly to his scrum-half. “He’s one of the best in the world. He’ll definitely slot this,” I boast, as Farrell’s kick from right in front of the posts flops down short, a dozen metres to the left.
At halftime, with the scores locked at 3-3, I assured my confused audience that this was not normal. The conditions were tricky, the pressure of the Calcutta Cup intense, and the level was bound to improve after the break. This is the Six Nations, I said, one of world sport’s greatest tournaments with rugby’s elite performers on show. A chorus of unconvinced, almost pitying nods spoke volumes. “Why on earth do you watch this every year?” they seemed to say. “You really think this is better than the NFL?” … “Are you OK?”
As the second half unfolded, the gale grew in ferocity and I quickly realized things on the pitch were getting worse, not better. It was a quite remarkable display of consistent error-making. Up and unders were the most affected. “Kick and chase” quickly became simply “kick and wait” as the oval ball was lost in the chaos overhead and reappeared somewhere entirely different. To the untrained eye, the essence of rugby appeared to be 30 enormous men running around after a ball with no idea how it moves or control over where it goes. The only certainty was that a dropped pass was something desirable. Without doubt, it is beneficial to the team’s chances if it’s players drop the ball as many times as possible.
But to my surprise, my friends appeared to be enjoying themselves. They laughed as the camera showed groups of fans in the stadium, beers in hand, chanting and cheering despite the horizontal rain pounding their faces. The took pleasure in the mutual respect shown by the teams, both to each other and – more importantly in a land where football is king – to the referee. They applauded the brutality of the hits, executed with perfect technique in contrast to the haphazard tackling of the NFL. And, most of all, they marvelled wide-eyed at the extraordinary scrums and mauls.
If that was the worst game of rugby you’ve ever seen, one of them told me afterwards, it must be a pretty great sport.
When you are on holiday and everyone is struck down by a batch of debilitating diarrhea resulting from a dodgy spag-bol, it becomes a positive memory, something to joke about down the pub for years to come. In the same way the Battle of Murrayfield, as I have now dubbed it, was so lacking in quality that it ended up being a fantastic advert for the game of rugby. Everyone will remember this match, not for its free-flowing passing or darting line-breaks. Nor, even, for its drama or thrilling finale. It will be remembered for how utterly, stupendously shite it was.
Right, that’s enough of that. I’ll have something more for you all on the weekend. Till then.