Newlove and old love preserve a Saint

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The Independent Online
LOOK at it this way: there are these 13 men you've never met to whom you have entrusted, unasked, a large portion of your entire happiness, which depends on the arbitrary outcome of an event of no real importance over which you have absolutely no influence. All you can do is shout. Metaphors for Life have been constructed on flimsier premises, often by Frenchmen. (Actually, I've cried, as well. This embarrasses my mother, but I'm quite proud of it.)

And that's not all. For this, as the sharper among you will have already discerned, is rugby league, a game that positively heaves with deep social resonances, involving as it does 100 years of enormously and mutually satisfying conflict between northern working-class chippiness and southern middle-class condescension with a ball thrown in on the side. Following rugby league has been not so much an act as a statement, like waxing the whippet.

But now? Reconciliation: Wigan at Twickenham. Expansion: European Super League. Paris against Sheffield. Change: Bradford Northern turning into Bradford Bulls, Oldham turning into Oldham Bears. Oldham Bears! They used to be called The Roughyeds, once. And now we're playing in the summer. I didn't know they had summer at Thrum Hall, Halifax.

Not that bad for me, as it happens, though. Living in the South, my opportunities for standing next to people shouting "Gerremonside" in a live situation have been limited of late. Any quibbles about Murdoch satellite gold pale and fade beside the southern, middle-class and condescending way the BBC has always treated the game. And they get Sky here in the office, you know. Secretly, too, I never really hated rugby union, even if that Guscott is a bit of a nancy.

None of the fiercely resented and fiercely fought amalgamations concerned my club, either. St Helens, since you ask. Principal reason for the existence of St Helens: to give Wigan a lesson in the fine arts of rugby league at least three times a year, once at Wembley. To people who even resent the road sign on the M6 that reads Wigan 18 St Helens 12, these last years have been hard, I can tell you. I can also tell you that your Wiganer is not a byword for graciousness in victory.

And, with the advent of Super League, we now seem, at last, to be catching up on Central Park (and if you don't believe me, look up there at what the great Mr Hadfield has to say). Full-time players, like Wigan. Just paid a record fee for Paul Newlove. Tough new Aussie coach with moustache and baseball cap. At Wembley next month, although, sadly, not against Wigan.

But. The beauty of this game has been its combination of loyalty to the local and openness to the exotic. The first match I saw was St Helens against Australia: on the Saints' wings were the two great South Africans Vollenhoven and Prinsloo. But the players didn't give up their day jobs then, and they didn't call themselves anything soft or daft like Bulls or Bears. (Possibly the most awe-inspiring moment of my life, by the way, was standing in silent communion at the next urinal to the great Vollenhoven in the Gents at the Savoy Cinema, Bridge Street. I stared straight in front of me and said nothing. I met him again, years later. He was not exotic, lithe and aloof; he was stocky and cocky, but I blame Life, not rugby league. But what a wing, and what a try, Wembley, '61, Wigan, well beaten, since you ask.)

And, now I think on, there was wit then. Where are the bellies of yesterday? Dave Chisnall, for example, a prop with a cracking sidestep in which the stomach went left and the rest went right. Now they're all lean, fit and thinking about defence and playing out the six tackles. It's all getting so, well, professional.

Do I want this? When I cried last, it was because they came to our end at Wembley and stood in sheepish apology for throwing away the game (against Halifax) in typical, crazed, stylish, Saintly fashion. Character forming, I call it; better than any dull, grinding win. And when Newlove came, two loyal local lads went in exchange, plus Sonny "The Red Mist" Nickle, a man who added immeasurably to the excitement because you could never be sure when his contribution would come to an abrupt halt.

All over now. I don't suppose they drink a tot of cream sherry ("very good for the tubes") before the game any more, either. And, no, I shall not be following the lads to Paris. It's not what Paris, or St Helens, is for.

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