Going in to bat for The Vulgar Boatmen

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The Independent Online
Do not be misled by those adverts on the BBC for this afternoon's France against England match in the Five Nations. They feature "Dominique", the ghastly single hit of the Singing Nun, because, apparently, the BBC wanted to point out that not everything French is as slick, suave and sophisticated as a David Ginola back-heel. As an act of subversion of the Gallic cause, however, it somewhat back-fired: the Singing Nun was Belgian.

Besides, the type of music that should really be sound-tracking anything to do with English rugby is opera. What, you might wonder, is it about rugby players and opera? Something to do with large men of sizeable girth getting over-emotional? Whatever it is, since Brian Moore declared an undying love for aria and recitative (last Thursday night, instead of training with the England squad the freshly retired hooker was at the English National Opera watching The Pearl Fishers) it has become de rigueur for rugby internationals to wax lovingly about opera.

First it was Victor Ubogu, proclaiming a life-long interest in the Ring Cycle. And now news reaches us of Jeremy Guscott presenting Top Score, described by BBC2 as a "six-part, child-friendly introduction to the world of opera" which kicks off on 4 February. Guscott spends his time in the series interviewing Luciano Pavarotti, watching Roberto Alagna hit top C during a production of La Boheme and generally proselytising about the thinking rugby player's music of choice.

"It's the emotion," he says of Tosca, his fave rave. "It's so full of it." To be fair to Guscott, his is a recent conversion. He admits he was selected for the presenting job because he was not a buff, and was thus in the same position as most of the children in his audience, learning as he went along. Until he started, his preferred listening was "all sorts of music: M People, Phil Collins and Harry Connick Junior." In short a taste for the kind of middle-of-the-road fare which, if you believed the questionnaire-style interviews which are the main insight we have into the private preferences of our heroes, appears to be issued at birth to sportsmen.

But scratch away the surface, and rugby is not the only sport to harbour practitioners who favour the musically atypical. Mike Brearley, for instance, used to calm his nerves when facing Michael Holding by humming Mozart quartets. And Derek Pringle, at present reporting on the South African debacle for this paper, stood out in the Essex dressing-room for his love of The Vulgar Boatmen, the Go-Betweens and Magnetic Fields.

"The most common response I got in the dressing-room," said Pringle speaking from somewhere on the tour of pain, "was, 'you only like that stuff to be different'. Well, while I think it's right to seek out those things on the margin, basically Dire Straits gave me a headache.

"In my early days at Essex, Gooch, who is a big Van Morrison man by the way, asked me what I thought of Simply Red. I said simply crap and he remembered it most of my career, as if it were an insight rather than, I would have thought, a statement of the obvious."

Cricketers, Pringle adds, have more time than most sportsmen to develop their tastes - all those breaks for bad light and hanging around to bat while Gooch scores a double ton.

"John Stephenson and I used to swap tapes," he says. "And he introduced The Replacements to the Hampshire dressing-room when he went there as skipper. This tour the England party seem to be hung up on James for some reason."

Not Devon Malcolm, though, who left for home in a huff taking a couple of Pringle's lovingly compiled reggae tapes with him.

Though it is unlikely that Paul Ince cited the opportunity to go to the La Scala opera house in Milan as his major reason for joining Inter, there are even some footballers who deviate from the regulation affection for Luther Vandross. For every hundred David Seamans (seen looking more enthusiastic than might be considered necessary at Rod Stewart's Wembley gig last summer), there is a Danny Dichio (of QPR) who spends his Saturday nights spinning acid jazz, house and garage as a sharp DJ. David James, the Liverpool keeper, too, is a keen amateur jock, boasting an ability to keep three record decks on the go at once. Not that surprising an act of co-ordination, though, for a man apparently capable of keeping three hairstyles on the go at once.

There are indy rock fans too out on the pitch. The grandfather of them all is Pat Nevin, who once admitted a fondness for the Factory records act Crispy Ambulance, and subsequently rather regretted it. And at Nottingham Forest, following the lead of his skipper Stuart Pearce, once spotted pogoing at a Lurkers gig, Scott Gemmill claims that the worst thing that happened in 1995 was that The Verve split up, so soon after making "A Northern Soul", his album of the decade. Appearances may be deceptive, but you couldn't help feeling that his father, Archie, was probably a Carpenters man.