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Rugby Matters: Kenny’s challenge taught me when to fold ’em!

Kenny Rogers

THE death of Kenny Rogers last week may have gone somewhat unnoticed in rugby circles but your columnist fondly recalls the legendary country and western star from when our paths randomly crossed one afternoon during Rugby World Cup 2007.

World Cups are a little crazy and we in the Press are not averse to playfully stoking the fires a little.

And so it came to pass that I spent the best part of an hour on the phone with Rogers the afternoon after England’s semi-final win over France the previous evening. My task was to get a few congratulatory quotes from Rogers and to persuade him that he really ought to fly over from the States to Paris to support England in their hour of need against South Africa.

You might recall that just for a few weeks that autumn Rogers’ hit ‘The Gambler’ had been adopted as the England team song mainly on account of prop Matt Stevens, who had an excellent voice and could strum a guitar, belting it out repeatedly on the team coach after training and matches.

These things have a certain momentum and my then employers heard of this musical angle and took to running regular messages of support for England from Rogers and posting video clips of the great man. We had just discovered how to post video clips online, a new toy to be played with.

The demand for Kenny seemed insatiable amongst our readers and the subject of Rogers actually attending the final itself – and performing the song for England fans outside the ground with our cameras running – was broached by the editor no less when England’s place in the final was confirmed.

Not being the England man – I was then the ‘Ireland man’ and being held personally responsible by said editor for their dismal failure – I was a spare pair of hands that Sunday afternoon who needed to be kept busy by way of penance.

So having been armed with Rogers’ number, I phoned for the quotes and gently opened negotiations before mercifully our news desk and feature writer Bryony Gordon took over the following day.

Kenny Rogers I can report was extremely courteous, patient and good fun but utterly bemused at our bizarre lionising of him and his morphing into a rugby cult figure.

Eventually he decided against an unwanted dash across the Atlantic although he continued to gamely play ball in the coming days with more good luck messages and songs.

My one encounter though was totally surreal and culminated when I casually mentioned that the only song I can ever remember when drunk and called upon to do a ‘turn’ was his classic ‘Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town’ which I assured him was huge among the British Rugby playing community.

I explained that ‘Ruby’ was one of our tour songs when Reigate GS toured British Colombia for three weeks in 1975 and rarely a day passed when we didn’t give it a whirl. We sang it at post-match receptions, we sang it at the many barbeques and parties our hosts laid on, we once sang it on local radio, we sang it in the bar after we had been skiing up on Mount Seymour, we sang it at Vancouver Airport departures when we waved goodbye to everybody. We were word perfect.

I instantly regretted my bravado, I had badly overplayed my hand. What was that line in ‘The Gambler’? You got to know when to hold ‘em. Know when to fold ‘em.

I knew exactly what was coming next. There was a horrible pregnant pause before, with a playful laugh, Rogers invited me straight out to sing it to him. “C’mon then son, let’s see what you got.”

Holy crap!

Mercifully I wasn’t blagging – just petrified – and after a big intake of breath and a silent prayer, I went for it.

You have painted up your lips and dried and curled your tinted hair, Ruby are you contemplating going out somewhere. The shadows on the wall tell me the sun is going down, (altogether now) oh Ruuuuuu uuuuu beeeeee, don’t take your love to town, for God’s sake turn around.

The words came out just fine although not alas the notes which were rarely correct and never in the right order. I was just starting the second verse – it wasn’t me that started that old crazy Asian war – when Rogers relented, or more likely had heard quite enough. He took over singing duties down the line while I tried to get my heartbeat down to under 200.

Bonkers, absolutely bonkers. Trying to sing ‘Ruby’ to Kenny Rogers down a phone line from a Paris bedroom. When I woke up that morning I was an outwardly sane, if a tad bleary-eyed, reporter. I had no inkling of the compete madness the day would bring.

Only sports journalism can do this to you.


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