A yob's game for gentlemen

24th February 2006 at 00:00
"Right from the start Norton matched top-of-table Colron with both defences getting the upper hand, thanks to good performances from Greenhough."

Not me. My nephew. He is only in the under-sevens league, but he's following in a family tradition of live, eat and breathe football. Already his aim is to play for Wolves, then England.

My brother was a superb goalkeeper and now coaches. I was captain and goalkeeper of a girls' team at school long before it was considered "acceptable". Mind you, that wasn't so much down to talent as the fact that I owned a pair of goalie gloves and shin pads and was the only girl who didn't mind throwing herself on the floor in the mud. Still, I am that rare thing, a woman who can understand and explain the offside rule. I join four generations of relatives on the terraces chanting about the goalie's mother and the ref's eyesight.

Despite the headteacher being a lifelong Everton supporter there's a culture of rugby, not the beautiful game, at my school. Until I met Mr Knights, director of sports studies and an ex-Royal Marine (I referred to him once as a soldier, big mistake on my part), I was a rugby virgin. The only thing I knew about it was the lyrical reference in The Jam's "Eton Rifles" to "all that rugby puts hairs on your chest. What chance have you got against a tie and crest?" I'm not sure if it's put hairs on sir's chest, having not had the pleasure of looking, but it has given him a metal elbow joint after being crushed, literally, during a game.

There are allegedly 36,000 schools rugby injuries every year, yet come rain or shine the boys are in the playground oblivious to these perils as they launch their rugby balls, or "Gilberts", at one another. I've even seen them at break time playing while hopping on crutches and with broken arms.

Dedication or madness?

Thursday afternoon games and my form looks unusually miserable. Apparently it's football today for inter-house games and their long faces clearly indicate their disgust. "It's a one-man game, football, not like rugby Miss, which is about the whole team," explains Cami.

Perplexed, I accept sir's offer to watch the same group of boys play both games. Saturday morning sees me freezing, standing on the muddy sidelines watching Mr MacBratney shout "Over. Over!" so loudly I fear he's pulled something vital. Boys who muck around in the locker room are utterly transformed. Timid, disorganised lads find guts I never knew they had as they tackle boys twice their size. They applaud one another, shout encouragement and most surprisingly of all, respect the referee's decision without question. So do the spectators, who spend a lot of time clapping politely. When Alex prepares for a drop kick there is utter silence, so unlike the accepted noise of the football crowd.

At half-time Sam gives a pep talk worthy of Henry V at Agincourt. Of course they want to win, they are united in their efforts to ensure this happens.

No one hogs the ball or the limelight. At the end they form a tunnel face to face and clap every player off the pitch. The post-match debrief isn't one of blame but of positive reinforcement.

At football those same boys become yobs. They blame one another, abuse and challenge the referee whose constant calls to "keep it clean" go unheeded.

Sir has to remind them what a team is and comes across all philosophical and profound with his description of a mass being far greater than the sum of its individual parts and reference to "invasion sport".

The longer they play, the rougher they become. Mild, artistic Rory berates Rashid with yells of "Get in there! Get 'im! Oh, for God's sake!" I realise that the referee is trying to control the players - in rugby he controlled the game.

Back in class, I listen to Charlie's impassioned speech about the mental and emotional impact playing rugby has had on him, claiming that rugby has not only taught him how to be a man but how to be a gentleman and true sportsman. Who said that sport maketh the man? Listening to Charlie I realise it may, but that rugby could well make the finer gentleman in a way my poetry lessons probably never will. At least our boys get to play both games and have adequate timetable space for sport.

Why anyone would want to downsize sport in the curriculum is beyond me. Yet I am perturbed at the change in their behaviour and search for answers. The current crop of professional footballers appears bigger than the game itself. Our media is obsessed with football, be it Beckham's new hairstyle or the suntans and sex of Footballers' Wives. Football appears less of a sport than a celebrity lifestyle to aspire to. There's a distinct lack of sir's team philosophy. Is this what's behind the boys' behaviour? Are they products of our greedy, selfish, celebrity-obsessed society?

I hate to admit this to myself, let alone to sir, but I am fast becoming a rugby convert. It may be too late to take the terraces out of the girl, but this girl is clearly coming off the terraces. Now then, where did I put my Gilbert?

Julie Greenhough teaches at a London boys' school

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