Rugby Union: The craft of a true hard man

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The Independent Online
ONCE, in a night-club notorious at the time for occasional bursts of volcanic activity, I watched an acquaintance demonstrate why he was considered to be naturally one of the hardest men in London.

Called upon to exercise authority invested in him by the owners, and with no assistance, he clinically set about demolishing an unruly group of rugby supporters from the north of England whose behaviour was deemed offensive.

As I recall it now, order was restored with admirable efficiency. Believing it futile to remonstrate with aggressive drunks who outnumbered him heavily, scornful of untutored violence, this normally placid teetotaller laid them out, one by one. A predictable victory was achieved with, quick, clean punches.

The only reason for recalling this murky experience, and you are entitled to wonder what excuse I had for being on the premises, is to touch upon the mayhem that broke out early in the proceedings at Cardiff Arms Park last Saturday when Wales met Scotland in the Five Nations' Championship. As the Welsh troubador, Max Boyce, is fond of saying, I was there.

Whether you were there or watching on television, doubtless it will be recalled that the Welsh hooker, Garin Jenkins, put himself seriously at risk of spending most of the match in ashamed isolation when seen to be the principal protagonist in a brawl that broke out beneath the eyes of the French referee.

As no retribution was forthcoming, it has to be assumed that M Robin is inclined to be lenient with such conduct, having witnessed plenty of it in his own country and elsewhere.

This attitude is adopted by the majority in rugby, presumably on the basis that punches are less likely to cause serious damage than raking studs, and that explosions are inevitable in an intensely physical game.

With this in mind, you may find information supplied by a former internationalist enthralling. It appears that, on one tour by the British Lions, a policy was adopted to ensure that nobody was sent off for impersonating a pugilist. On the basis that it was impossible to dismiss the entire team, if a fight broke out everybody pitched in. 'You simply lashed out at the nearest opponent,' my informant recalled.

What he agreed readily is that few players, however hard and including the largest, would last more than a round if asked to put on gloves against a half-decent middleweight. In other words, most of the brawls that break out in sport are laughable. Another appropriate adjective is pathetic.

Some years ago, but not so far back that it is lost in the mists of time, a street brawler and convicted felon from the north, Paul Sykes, who acquired a reputation for extreme hardness when required to do time, was matched with John L Gardner for the British heavyweight championship. Although small for the division and technically a novice, Gardner quickly disposed of Sykes, stopping him in the sixth round.

However you look at these things, and I am inclined to look at them cynically, there does not appear to be much sense in fighting unless you get paid for it.

For example, in more than 40 years I have only come across a handful of footballers who were capable of delivering a knock-out blow. In common with most of us, they simply don't know how. Some of the meanest tacklers, men who could do considerable damage with their feet, could not have hit a Fresian on the backside with a banjo.

A superior knowledge of that shortcoming figured prominently in edicts laid down by one of the toughest men in my experience: Wilf Copping, a Yorkshireman who played for Arsenal and England and was trainer at Southend United when I came under his unforgettable influence. Growling out of a craggy face that was pitted with a collier's blue scars and seemed to be all forehead, he used to say: 'Tha'll frighten more folk with tha feet than tha ever will with tha hands.' The penalty for raising them was a boot up the backside.

This is not to absolve Garin Jenkins of blame. But if you were to ask what a real hard case looks like, he would not spring to mind.