Rugby Union: Bitter night for the die-hards: The dawn chorus was subdued on the morning after the all-night vigil of the true rugby fan. Hester Lacey reports

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The Independent Online
'RUGBY's not a sport, it's a social disease - very hard to get rid of once you've caught it.' David played for 27 years for the Old Abbotstonians rugby club, of Hillingdon, Middlesex. After 12 dislocations which have left his arm in a sling he is now a referee. Propping up the clubhouse bar at 10pm on Friday night with his two Staffordshire bull terriers, Gypsy and Romy, he was waiting for the start of the Lions-All Blacks match, beamed live by satellite from Eden Park, New Zealand, at 3.30am yesterday morning.

About 50 people, including children, were milling around, but this would thin out later, according to Andy and Scott, the Abbotstonians winger and fullback. 'The men will dump their wives at home and come back later.' Both air traffic controllers, they were working the next day after staying up for the match. 'If you're planning on travelling anywhere, take a train, a boat or a bus. But not a plane.' Glenn Baptista, club secretary for seven years, a player for 15, working behind the bar, had no idea how much beer he would sell. 'A lot, probably. But we get through a lot of beer anyway.'

The Abbotstonians were full of team spirit. 'We're most certainly going to win - by eight to 10 points,' predicted Dixie, the prop forward, a huge man crammed into a straining T-shirt printed 'United we stagger, divided we fall'. He expected to discard the T-shirt before too long. 'A few pints and it's back to nature. We'll be running around stark bollock naked.'

A pizza delivery arrived to supplement the ferocious consumption of Websters, lager and Benson & Hedges. Large rugby players dripping with melted cheese is an awesome sight. By 1am wives and children had disappeared to bed, but Melissa and Helen from the ladies team were still enthusiastic. 'Not everyone can play for their country. If you're keen, following the matches is the next best thing,' pretty, dark-haired Melissa, said. 'They've got lovely legs,' sighed Helen, tall, Amazonian and blonde. 'I don't know how anyone can bother watching football,' she added scornfully. One lone voice, Sue from New Zealand, supported the All Blacks.

Half past one, and the group had divided into those who were just drinking steadily and those who were drinking steadily and playing games. 'Taps is a great game to play if you're broke,' said one, whose consistent failure to tap the table in sequence meant lots of forfeits in the form of drinking extra beer. 'You can get out of your tree without paying a penny.'

But the tension was mounting. Voices were rising. Jock, the tight- head prop, was waxing philosophical, in an ever-broadening Scottish accent. 'When you lose, it doesn't get violent like football, it's more a kind of sadness deep within yoursel'.'

The television, suspended in a corner, went on at 2.45am. Abo the Alsatian, club mascot, was let in. Kick-off was greeted with whoops and howls, and advice to the Lions flowed freely. 'Ruck it up, mates] Punch him straight in the f****** head]' 'Get him down. Down]' Helen roared. 'You stupid Scotch git,' yelled someone, leaping in anguish and landing on Abo, who yelped. The Lions' early lead was greeted with fists punching the air. 'Yes. Yes] Yessss]' Sue's tentative cheers for the All Blacks led to a bombardment with bottle tops and crisp packets.

But it did not last. As the All Blacks pulled ahead, the atmosphere became more subdued. 'This is the time you really hope they know people are watching at home,' murmured Helen. At half- time there was a despondent mass exodus to the loo, followed by much discussion of tactics. 'We're not driving it forward. We've got to drive at them with the front five,' according to Tinker the scrum-half. 'We're not doing well,' he admitted, 'but we're gonna win, though.' But already he did not look convinced.

The second half went from bad to worse. Batman from Ruislip slumped over the table in silent despair. 'They deserve it,' said a miserable voice. The final score was 30-13. 'Once again, it's the mighty All Blacks]' roared the commentator. 'The mighty All Blacks,' muttered an Abbotstonian in disgust. It was 5am, daylight and the party was well and truly over. No one had even taken any clothes off. Was it worth staying up for? 'Probably not,' Bob snorted morosely. Even New Zealand Sue was not celebrating - she had gone home to bed at half- time.

(Photograph omitted)