Rugby Union: It's too tough for old boots

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ALONG WITH a group of other doddery rugby veterans, I've been finding out how tough the modern game is - and we're not fond of it. We've been gathered in Bermuda and, while there's no lovelier island, we're all aching from head to toe after competing in the Bermuda Classic tournament.

This is one of the most popular events in the rugby world among those whose boots are not only hung up but rotting. It is extremely well organised and managed and the social side is very enjoyable, but the rugby itself has become ultra serious.

The oldsters playing in it used to revel in the chance to play open and expansive rugby and although everyone wanted to win, the tournament was played in a free and easy spirit. Not any longer. The Classic has become just as ferocious and defensive as any class of rugby.

I was part of a British Lions team that included players like Mike Teague, Wade Dooley, Keith Crossan and Colin Deans. The All Blacks were packed with famous old names like Jock Ross, now in his 50s, Andy Haden, Wayne "Buck" Shelford, Terry Wright, Joe Stanley and John Bow, who is tipped to be the next New Zealand coach.

It was great to meet old opponents from all over the world that I hadn't seen for years. We were all looking forward to having a good laugh and entertaining the crowds, which have been numbering up to 5,000. But we hadn't reckoned with the fact that the game's new professional philosophy is now present in every level of the sport, even the fun events.

The other teams in Bermuda last week were South Africa, France, USA, Canada and Argentina and most of them meant business. The British beat Bermuda in the first round, which was demanding enough on a very hard pitch. Then we faced Argentina and took a 15-5 beating. But it was a hammering in more ways than one. We feared the worst when we heard that they'd been training every day, and when we met them they looked a lot younger than us. They played some serious stuff and certainly weren't content to stand back and let us show off a bit of the old style.

I was totally knackered at the end. There was more of my skin on the pitch than there was on me. New Zealand had a similar experience against Canada. Joe Stanley said it was the hardest game he'd ever played. Coming from an All Black that is a serious statement. We were supposed to play New Zealand in the next group match but both sides were so battered we decided to go for a drink instead.

It was no surprise that Argentina and Canada met in the final and it was a very good game with Argentina running out convincing winners. They were a good team, with some talented players, and we heard that they'd had seven warm-up games. The South African sitting next to me at the final dinner said: "I expect they'll get a ticker-tape parade when they get home." I'm not complaining. A lot of us oldies are in the media now and it does us no harm to get a taste of what the game is like these days. But it was all so defensive that the crowd saw few of the spectacular tries they might have expected.

And we experienced all the problems of the modern game - the forward domination, the in-your-face defences and players continually killing the ball around the tackle. Perhaps, we were daft to expect anything else but it would be a shame if fun has no further part to play in rugby. They should think, too, about the qualifying age. The minimum age was 33, which is hardly ancient. I was still playing for Wales at 34.

I am also a little worried that a serious injury is going to occur and cause some past players to think twice about entering. This would be a shame because this great competition is supposed to remind us of the past, not the present.