I had just passed my eleven-plus, but any joy was short-lived. Ma told me I would be going to a not-very-local school as it was a grammar. (No choice!)
Dear reader, I have to tell you I cried. I threw one hell of a wobbly. Why? Not, because I would be Billy-no-mates, but because the school did not play football, only rugby. And, at 11, still obsessed with Peter Lorimer and “Sniffer” Clarke, not going to a football school was even worse than not being allowed to watch Benny Hill, because he was “too rude”.
Years of bloodied eyes and split lips later, as I type, I can still feel a little bone protrude from my shoulder, the result of one or other shuddering physical encounter with a variety of man mountains that passed for first XV schoolboy players. My school produced many stars, notably Paul Sackey (22 England caps), although he was well after my time, thank God. He would have been on MY team, but most of those brutal encounters took place during our lunch-hour training sessions. I can only imagine the collective pong in afternoon classes!
It was so long ago, locks like me had to jump and catch the ball without lifting in the line-out. And the rucking... But unlike football, rugby has definitely not gone soft – far from it. International players are now as wide as they are tall; athletes that can’t and won’t go missing in a game to have a breather, with abs and pecs that we did not dream of. The game is played with a ferocious intensity, that was unimaginable in the 80s.
That’s why, although I couldn’t wait to hang up my jock strap for the last time, you’ll find me, my i neighbour Rhodri, and half of Britain’s males – especially all the antipodeans near i’s office in west London – up at dawn for the next few weeks, glued to the brutal mental and physical contest that is the Rugby World Cup. Bring it on!