A God Descends To Earth

This time of year finds this blog at a bit of a loose end.  From April to September I can usually find something of interest to say (to me, if no-one else) about the game of cricket I’ve seen that week.  When October comes around the obvious thing to do would be to write about the sports I watch during the Winter.  Most Saturdays find me watching either Rugby or (Association) Football (in proportions of about 60/40 these days) but I rarely find anything to say about either.

I think the reasons are partly simple and personal and partly more complex and of wider application.  The simple reasons are that I’m much less interested in either code of football than cricket, know less about them and watch them at a lower level than the Summer game (readers might be interested in reading, for instance, about prospective England players in the County game, and I’m unlikely to encounter any of those playing for Market Harborough at either code).  The more complex ones, which I think relate to the question of why some sports (baseball as well as cricket) have literatures where others do not, require more mental energy than I have the time to give them at the moment and could probably keep me supplied with posts until the beginning of the next cricket season.

But here is a game of Rugby football  that might be worth recording.  Last weekend I was watching a frankly undistinguished game of football between Market Harborough and the Yaxley “Cuckoos”.  The most memorable incident was when a sliced clearance knocked my chips out of my hand, to general hilarity from the pitch (“Good chip, Mate” and so on).  Towards the end of the game (Harborough were losing 2-0) both players and crowd were distracted by the sound of inexplicable bagpipe music from the neighbouring Rugby club (the two grounds adjoin each other, the two clubs having a mildly fractious relationship).

When the football ended I drifted round to find the source of the mysterious piping and found a game of Rugby about to start, in front of a substantial and already quite well-oiled crowd.  One team appeared to be a sort of Harborough Veterans XV (though they were technically an “Invitational XV”), the other, I later discovered, were Huntingdon 2nd XV.  As they lined up, in fading light and worsening drizzle, I thought Harborough’s big No. 8 looked familiar and, on closer inspection, he turned out to be Martin Johnson.

Johnson is a not unfamiliar sight in Market Harborough (in my more fanciful moments, I imagine him as a kind of presiding deity of the place).  Wherever he appears he seems out of proportion with his surroundings.  I once saw him, in the days of the late, unlamented, Turbostar, having great difficulty cramming his legs under the gnome-sized tables that were provided on those trains between St. Pancras and Harborough and half expected him to rip the thing from its moorings with one flex of his thighs.

On another occasion he appeared in the local baths, teaching his daughter to swim in the Under-5s pool, looking rather like a Ray Harryhausen animation of  Poseidon ankle-deep in the ocean.  I don’t suppose you’d be likely to see David Beckham in the municipal baths any more than you’d be likely to see him turning out for Romford F.C. as a favour for a friend, which might tell you something about the difference between the two codes, though I suspect it simply tells you more about Johnson’s character and beliefs.

There seemed to have been some agreement that Johnson would not be giving it 100% (as they say), hanging back at the lineout, for instance …

The big no.8

and the ruck (if that’s what this is)


until Huntingdon took the lead for the first time with about ten minutes to go, when, as one of them said as they ran back to face the restart, “we know what’s coming now” and he began to, as Bill MacLaren so often said, impose himself on the game, sorting out the bout of fisticuffs that inevitably seems to break out towards the end of every game

Martin Johnson imposing himself

and galvanising an ailing pack into a pushover try to give Harborough victory with seconds to go.

Well, there we are.  The Harborough Invitational XV could retire to the bar to celebrate a famous victory, a couple of blokes from Huntingdon can dine out for years on the story of how they were well and truly scragged by Martin Johnson and, if David Beckham does happen to turn out for Harborough Town, you’ll be the first to know.



4 thoughts on “A God Descends To Earth

  1. As a rugby union devotee, I really enjoyed this. As you say, it says something about Johnson’s character and brings one back to a discussion that occasionally rears its head in cricket about the fact that some players who’ve played at the highest level make the decision to never pick up a bat again (Botham, Boycott, many others), while others (Gatting, Ramprakash) are happy to play their trade among people whom they would once never have mixed with on the field.

    Indeed, as you suggest, one of the main functions of this sort of thing is the fact that it allows both opponents and team-mates to reminisce about it for years to come.

    I was always a bit of an agnostic about Johnson (with the odd exception I’ve never been very fond of Leicester players) and he was a poor choice as England manager, but he could certainly play and he was the man who received the World Cup from the miserable John Howard on 22nd November 2003, so for that I’ll always hold him in pretty high regard.

    I would love to have been there.

  2. Thanks, Brian. I’m a bit ambivalent about Rugby. I enjoy watching it at Harborough’s level (E. Midlands 2) watch the internationals and keep an eye on how Leicester are doing, but it doesn’t really go very deep in the way that cricket does (and I suppose the point of trying to write about Rugby is to work out what it is about cricket that makes it different).

    I guess it doesn’t help that Rugby was the big sport at my school. I used to play cricket with John Olver (who I think played for England) and Simon Langford (Orrell? England B?) & P. Winterbottom was in the age-group year above us. I never really had the temperament or physique for Rugby, but was just about good enough until I was about 14 to spend most afternoons getting pulverised by a selection of future England internationals, which may have coloured my view of the game.

    No doubt it’s perverse to want to view a sport through a lens of literature, but are there any good books about Rugby that you would recommend? I think the only ones I’ve read (apart from “This Sporting Life”) are autobiographies, which tend to be on the level of “and then Smarty drank the aftershave” …

  3. Very worrying that as a rugby anorak I can immediately deduce that you went to Rossall School.

    I saw all three of the players you name in their greatest days. In fact Winterbottom was something of a boyhood hero, while my main memory of Langford when playing for Orrell (who were very good for some years – not bad for a place once described as ‘a layby on the M6′) was that he looked about 57 when he was approximately 30.

    It’s often said – or at least implied – that there isn’t much good rugby literature, and it’s largely true. Some of Stephen Jones’ books (‘Endless Winter’, ‘Midnight Rugby’ and ‘On My Knees’) are very good, although his style can become a bit wearing. I would also recommend Donald McRae’s ‘Winter Colours’, although it’s too long and I would imagine it hasn’t worn well (it came out in the late nineties and had quite a ‘current’ feel to it at the time).

    However, my favourite rugby book by a country mile, and one which I’d wholeheartedly recommend, is Richard Beard’s ‘Muddied Oafs’. The author revisits various clubs and places from his rugby-playing past, interviews players and others and ponders on the past, present and future of the game. Because it’s about rugby I don’t think it ever received the praise it deserved, but in my opinion it’s a classic piece of sporting literature.

    I can’t think of a cricket book which compares, but there are definite and justified parallels with ‘Fever Pitch’ (and in my book that’s really high praise).

    • Thanks, Brian – I’ll look that one out. Yes, it was Rossall – I remember Simon L. as a very useful bowler, genuinely quick by schoolboy standards (I think he played for Lancashire U-18s, or Colts or whatever they were called in those days). Had a mop of curly hair then too!

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