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 …
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
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.