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Brendan Gallagher: Michael Green gets right to the heart of Coarse rugby

Michael GreenAccording to my calculations only one layman – ie somebody who didn’t play or coach at the top level or wasn’t a blazer who ran the game in some way – has ever been admitted to Rugby’s Hall of Fame and that is Bill McLaren. The latter’s inclusion is self-explanatory but I would also argue a second award is long overdue.

No single person has exerted more influence on the game’s ethos, and recorded more acutely the fun and laughter it offers to millions, than Michael Green and a month short of his 88th birthday it’s about time the IRB, sorry World Rugby, did the decent thing and gave him a gong. If Bruce Forsyth can get a knighthood…

Green’s The Art Of Coarse Rugby has run to 23 reprints over the last 50 years – that’s well in excess of 250,000 books – and to this day remains both the template, Bible and excuse for 90 per cent of the rugby playing world.

If you want to play rugby properly and aspire to greatness you will, of course, gravitate to Jim Greenwood’s Total Rugby or Think Rugby and sit physed exams in draughty college gyms. And if you want your hopeless but spirited ineptitude glorified, your prodigious drinking feats justified, your gross unfitness excused, you will sink into your armchair and turn gratefully to The Art Of Coarse Rugby or its follow ups The Art of Coarser Rugby and The A To Z Of Rugby.

Green hasn’t quite retired – his updated The Art Of Coarse Acting is re-published next week – but after a couple of minor tickles along the way to include a few Welsh anecdotes and eradicate one or two expressions that are now deemed politically unacceptable he has left The Art Of Coarse Rugby alone since 1995.

He lamely offers terminal laziness as an excuse, I’d argue instead that you can’t improve on perfection although on behalf of the greater rugby world I did plead with him to add a final chapter on ‘Rugby Man 2014’ when we met this week. He’s thinking about it.

“I remain mystified to this day about the book’s success, it came from nowhere and teaches you never to give up in life,” mused Green in between mouthfuls of mince pie as we made ourselves comfortable in his den at Twickenham – the town, not the stadium. “I always wanted to pen the ‘great novel’ – I still do but of course never will – but I wrote a newspaper article for The Observer about the kind of rugby I played and loved and a publisher phoned me up the next week and offered me a few quid to try making a book out of the idea.

“I had to bash it out in three months – it was a hack job for 75 guineas to pay a few bills – and all that time I hankered after getting back to my ‘great novel’ and serious laudable writing. It was a chore at the time, you have to work very hard indeed at being spontaneous.

“Believe me there are very few laughs in trying to write a funny book – it’s mostly tears of frustration – but to everybody’s surprise it seemed to capture a mood and sold like hotcakes. I thought perhaps I had simply captured a moment but it went on selling and selling.

“It was a very British, its only ever appeared in English actually and I seriously doubt if the French for example would ever ‘get’ the ‘coarse’ philosophy at all. Essentially it was – is – about losing and being rubbish and incompetent while aspiring to such much more and I suspect only us Brits find that gentle egopricking genuinely funny. Not that we set out to be hopeless, we always tried our very best which only added to the pathos. I was genuinely fed up for half hour afterwards if I played badly and/or we lost. It’s also about muddling through a crisis, normally of your own making, mateship, excessive drinking and occasional poorish behaviour dressed up under the banner of high spirits. Again that is very British.”

The art of Coarse rugby cover

The art of Coarse rugby cover

Green had more clubs than Jack Nicklaus during his itinerant ‘have boots’ will travel career with Leicester ATC, Leicester Harlequins, Leicester Thursday, Stoneygate, Old Wyggesdonians, East Midlands Wanderers, Northampton Wanderers, Birmingham Press XV, Ealing and Lyons Sunday XV to name just the first ten or so he can recall.

“At Leicester Thursday not everybody selected was actually meant to be off work and needed to have their excuses prepared so a code was used when the teams were printed in the Mercurywhich – in the general absence of phones –was the only way to communicate the side. B Jabers at prop was an Irish doctor while T Bone, another front rower, was a butcher in Hinckley.

“We had that great mish-mash in most of our teams. Varsity types, farmers, tradesmen, impoverished journalists, lawyers, butchers, doctors, bus conductors. Some were very decent players who couldn’t be bothered to train and most of us were cowards.

“I used to quake with fear before most matches and cringe at the size and apparent Olympian fitness of the opposition as they ran out. In all honesty the first couple of pints after the game were usually to celebrate my survival.

“I am convinced that initial outpouring of relief at still being alive and in one piece at the end of 80 minutes is at the heart of rugby’s enduring love affair with booze, along with the urgent need to relieve and numb actual physical pain straight after a match without the inconvenience of a hospital visit. And of course once you’ve had a couple of drinks you get the taste and the evening develops.

“It was very fertile ground for anybody who could string a few words together, I was just lucky to stumble on it first. Strangely despite trying I could never convert our antics in to a play on the stage, my other great love. There’s an opening there for somebody still.

“I trust ‘coarse rugby’ is still alive and kicking – very badly no doubt – on various muddy wastes around the country. Hopefully there are some sides where having 15 players is still considered something of a luxury. Please tell me this is so. I would be interested to hear from the modern-day keepers of the flame.

“Playing numbers is a big issue these days. So many clubs don’t run 3rd XVs or Extra Bs and Vets sides anymore. I remember Streatham & Croydon and Esher used to play each other in a block fixture once a year. They emptied the clubhouse on those days and fielded about 11 teams per club and the overall winner received the original Webb Ellis trophy which for some reason was a skull. The well-known rugby sense of humour I suppose! Are you allowed to play for a skull these days?

“I remember once playing – I use the word advisedly – for Stoneygate 3rds and we were sent a map reference as the location of our next opponents’ ground which seemed, frankly, a bit dodgy and was the cause of much speculation. Anyway, with a few ex-army types in our side, we located the middle of this wilderness no problem and there to our disbelief was a pitch of sorts – one set of posts fell down midway through the second half – with an old double decker bus on the touchline.

“The opposition captain came jogging up. His team hadn’t arrived yet – probably still down the pub – and asked politely if we could push the bus, which served as our changing rooms apparently, a few yards along the muddy touchline before kick-off. Apparently the local council insisted that it be ‘moved’ once a week to prove it wasn’t a static building. It didn’t seem remotely odd request at the times, that was our world.

“The great thing about coarse rugby, of course, is that no b****r watches it so that you only have to entertain yourself. And although all the best stories have a goodish element of truth in them you are allowed to embellish and improve then because frankly there are no spectators on the touchline to contradict you in the bar afterwards.”

Despite two brushes with cancer, Green remains hale and hearty and was playing tennis regularly this summer down at a club in Ealing –“a very nice unstuffy place where, thankfully, they are inclined to throw you out if you turn up in whites” –Green has dived down many avenues in his life not least with his massive involvement with the Questors, the biggest amateur dramatics troupe in Europe. Rugby has been the constant, though, both as a player, reporter and author and he remains hopelessly besotted with the game, scarcely missing a TV game.

“The reporting started properly when I was the ‘Scout’ with the Northampton Chronicle & Echo. We weren’t allowed bylines but the Scout was something of a celebrity in a rugby-mad town like Northampton and it was heady stuff at the tender age of 21. Saints were an extraordinary bunch. They were a great club side full of England internationals and big names in their own right yet off the field they were like those riotous club 3rd XVs I played for. The Scout was their 16th man really and I travelled on the team bus and stayed everywhere with them which had its moments. It was only years later I looked back and thought what a strange balancing act it was.

“I conducted my first post-match interview with the captain Don White in the shower, fully clothed, after he dragged me under when I ventured into the changing room. I didn’t bat an eyelid which rather impressed Don I fancy.

“Another time I spent an uncomfortable night dining at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool with no trousers on when we played at Waterloo. The Saints thought it would be great fun to take my trousers off and throw them out of the train window. I had a big trench coat so wore that, and not much else, down to the evening meal.

“Saints used to have a chap called Jerry Gordon, who was the club secretary but his main job when we went away was to carry the slush fund to pay for drinks and what they call collateral damage these days. I was very grateful when Jerry knocked on my bedroom door the next morning with a new pair of trousers for me.

“It got a bit tricky if Saints lost badly or somebody had a stinker, I had to develop a sort of coded report to hint at criticism while pulling up short of downright condemnation that would have caused uproar, loss of circulation and probably hastened my departure. Such reports would be full of ‘X was not seen to best advantage on a difficult afternoon; Y understandably looked tired after his recent heroics for England; Z would clearly profit from a rest after his prodigious recent efforts for Saints’.

“Don White was an amazing bloke, he would be a sensation these days. A big strong burly forward but with the speed and skills of a centre, well ahead of his time. He was a thinker on the game and I would accompany him on trips to the local clubs which was all part of being Saints skipper. He would sit them all down over a pint and just say, ‘right guys, what is your plan, what are you going to do on Saturday?’

“That would be greeted by looks of alarm and bafflement but he firmly believed that no matter what level you played at there had to be a basic plan in place. Way down the line he became England’s first coach and plotted their first ever win over the ’Boks. I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised.

“Another favourite of mine was our Scottish full-back Tommy Gray who famously lost part of a foot during the War but continued playing, using a specially adapted boot they made for him in one of Northampton’s shoe factories. Clever stuff.

“He went on to win a full cap but what I always remembered about Tommy was that he enjoyed his smokes and every Saturday, last man out of the changing room, he would stub his smouldering fag out on the tunnel as he ran onto the field. It somehow connected him very directly with the rugby I played.”

Green’s default setting is laughter and “12 years short of my ton” doesn’t intend to get serious and preachy about modern-day rugby but as the December sun begins to set outside he does offer a little warning for the game he loves:

“Modern rugby has developed to the point where if it goes down any more avenues it will cease to be rugby and become another game. We are at an important crossroads. I still just about recognise rugby as the game I played even if backs now pile in like forwards and forwards run and handle like backs and everybody spreads across the field in that strange way.

“But we are getting very close to American Football with all the delays, the TMO, multiple officials, the use of technology, huge numbers of replacements seemingly coming and going at will. Top level rugby is in danger of becoming divorced from the game everybody else plays at school and at the weekends and that is very dangerous territory indeed. Rugby of all games needs to keep that connection.

“If we start wearing helmets and protective clothing and gridiron body armour the game will be up. That will be the litmus test.

“Now, who’s going to have the last mince pie, you or me?”

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