A conversion of epic proportions in the wife's tale

RUGBY WORLD CUP 1995: When she married a rugby player, Faith Hallett pictured a nightmare world of beer-bellies, jock-straps and rude songs. It took her a long, long time to change her mind.
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I was not born a rugby groupie - nor was my conversion to the cause of the Road to Damascus variety, with a sudden flash of insight into the glories of the line-out leap or second-phase ball. Rather, it has been a reluctant "if you can't beat 'em join 'em" affair - a kind of laborious rolling maul.

It seems heresy to say so now, but until I married, I viewed rugby and those who played it with horror. My vision was of a violent game played by unpleasant fat men with cauliflower ears who, having savaged each other on the pitch, then all climbed into filthy communal baths and sang rude songs before getting drunk. All in all, a pastime with absolutely nothing to commend it.

If I had not met my spouse-to-be in Hong Kong, about as far away from chilly touchlines as you can get, the last 20 years of my life would undoubtedly have taken a very different course. I knew he played rugby, of course, but somehow it seemed less threatening from the deck of a Chinese junk, glass in hand - and, at the ripe old age of 25, he would surely be glad to exchange such an uncivilised pursuit for something more genteel like tennis or skiing. Anyway, was betrothal not about Saturday afternoon togetherness?

The honeymoon was shortlived. Our flat was soon filled with the smell of linament, tape for keeping ears on and jockstraps that did little to heighten desire. Saturday nights were punctuated by groans that had much less to do with connubial bliss than stud-inflicted bruises. In short, marriage was certainly not what my mother had brought me up to expect and I held rugby wholly responsible.

Even after the boots had been officially hung up, "we" progressed to the Richmond heavies where neither age nor unfitness impeded team selection and post-match celebrations went on all night. Administrative involvement began too and I fumed at the amount of time involved. Stuck at home with three small children, my relationship with rugby hit an all-time low which lasted several years.

Despite a warm welcome, I found my introduction to the Rugby Football Union Committee and their wives daunting [Faith's husband, Tony, is the secretary-designate of the RFU]. At 30, I felt I had more in common with the players' partners - but they, in a clique together, were just as alarming. At my first dinner, I was left off the table plan. Standing alone in the middle of a room full of, as I saw them, ancient ladies while a place was laid, I swore I would never return.

But I've been back many times and with increasing pleasure, won over by the good friends I have made. Most of the players fail dismally to live up to early expectations too. Many have careers far too high-powered to qualify as mindless brutes and there is a noticeable dearth of beer- bellies. A bit disappointing, really, to discover that first impressions can be so wrong.

With an Old F... of a husband who, despite my best endeavours, has become increasingly involved, and three sons who all play too, there are still times when I think I will scream if the game encroaches any further.

However, rugby has finally proved addictive. Lured down the slippery slope by watching an enviable number of international matches, my habit has been further fed during many a freezing afternoon on school touchlines - learning the rules, shedding tears of shared anguish after a missed conversion or crucially dropped ball and holding my breath with excitement for so long it's a miracle I don't pass out.

But it was the wholehearted enthusiasm, commitment and comradeship of everyone involved - at every level, with every age group - which finally made me see the game of rugby in a different light. No game that inspired such loyalty could possibly be as dreadful as I had first thought.

Looking back, my past "home-aloneness" seems laughable compared with that endured by those involved at the game's higher levels today. The degree of commitment demanded by players' and coaches' families is enormous; I am full of admiration and thankful I'm not one of them.

Granted, the few whose partners reach international status get some excellent trips and can bask in a measure of reflected glory. But not even these would have compensated me for the endless training sessions, matches, tours and (since rugby devours all time-off entitlement for top players trying to pursue a career) years without family holidays.

Mind you, administrators' families often pay a heavy price too, with innumerable evening meetings and many a father too busy with club, county or national commitments ever to watch his own children in action at weekends. And while playing days do end eventually, those of administration go on forever....

Much has been written of late denigrating the RFU. It is certainly not my place to comment. But I must set one record straight. The Committee is urged to attend every international; one away trip per year is RFU- funded, the other comes out of members' own pockets and makes a big hole in most of them. And contrary to popular belief, RFU Committee ladies pay for everything, home and away (including post-match dinners) - lucky though we are to be there, it is an expensive privilege!

Enough of all that. Rugby is bigger than player/adminstrator warfare, although recently that has sometimes been hard to remember.

The World Cup is upon us and the next four weeks will find me glued to the television, tottering to bed each night appropriately clad in an RFU nightshirt complete with England rose upon the bosom.

Just think! A whole month of rugby - and although the odd cauliflower ear may flash across the screen, I'm afraid I will be too busy admiring the relentless power of the back row and the accuracy of Rob Andrew's kicking to notice....

Apart from being the "widow" of the secretary-designate of the Rugby Football Union, Tony Hallett, Faith Hallett is the Director of Professional Education at the Multiple Births Foundation, an organisation which provides support for the growing number of families with twins, triplets and more.