Alan Watkins: Genuine ring to royal enthusiasm and No 10's lack of interest

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The Independent Online

Over the years, members of the Royal Family do not have a specially good record when it comes to the support of rugby football. They have traditionally preferred activities involving dogs, guns and horses. The late Queen Mother was an enthusiastic fisherman, or fisherwoman, as well. If we regard the family as being on the top of the social pile (and there are those who would place them somewhere below the top), this neglect is natural enough.

For contrary to much of what was written after England's triumph in the World Cup, rugby has never been a toff sport. The leading toff public schools - Eton, Winchester, Westminster, Shrewsbury - continued to play football into the 20th century, as they still do today. Harrow has only recently begun to take rugby seriously. Some of the schools, Eton and Winchester for instance, had their own peculiar games with their own daft rules.

Rugby, by contrast, was the game of the middle-middle-classes. In certain parts of the country and in Wales it had a working-class audience, too. So there is nothing at all surprising in this Royal neglect of the game over the years.

Recently, however, there have been signs of change. Princess Anne became an enthusiastic supporter of Scotland. Her son, Peter Phillips, was - as he presumably still is - an accomplished flanker, who was at one time spoken of as a possibility for Scotland.

Her late sister-in-law, Princess Diana, was if anything an even more devoted supporter of Wales, making special expeditions to Cardiff with her entourage to see the fun, if there was any to be had. Indeed, before she had taken up with the late Dodi Fayed (or, at any rate, before I knew about it), I speculated about the embarrassment which would be brought about if she formed a liaison with a member of the Wales squad.

These reveries ceased when I concluded that there was no member of the squad who could possibly keep her in the style to which she had become accustomed. Why, not even the entire Welsh rugby union, impoverished as it was, could sustain her in that condition.

However, Diana did not confine her interest or her patronage to my native land. She was, after all, English, as English as could be, and she became friends with the recently retired England captain, Will Carling. Gary Lineker, a friend of Carling's, advised him to have as little as possible to do with her because she was "trouble''.

To what extent he accepted this advice we do not know. An England rugby jersey seems to have been smuggled into Kensington Palace for Diana's son, William. It may be that Carling was smuggled in as well. Who knows? In any case, it is none of our business - certainly not in a column for family reading.

But her sons, William and Harry, seem to be genuine enthusiasts for the game. In the recent World Cup, the television pictures were of Harry, vociferously supporting England, and giving a hug to Mrs Clive Woodward. There are those who say he should have shown more restraint - that his demonstration of patriotism compromised his royal position, particularly in the match against Wales. I think he was quite right to show his feelings as he did.

If there is now some enthusiasm at Buckingham Palace, at any rate among the younger element, there is little of it down the road at No 10. This is not to say that Tony Blair was hypocritical, exploitative or in any way wrong to give the England party what was vulgarly called a "champagne reception'' - what other sort of reception could there possibly be in these circumstances at six in the evening? The Prime Minister was right to honour the team; and he would have been properly criticised had he failed to do so.

But he has never shown any interest in the game and never pretended anything else, even though he went to Fettes, one of the most famous of Scottish rugby schools. That may be the reason for his lack of interest, or part of the reason. But then, rugby has never been a natural guest at Downing Street. David Lloyd George once denounced the people of South Wales for being "consumed by a morbid footballism'', by which he meant rugby rather than soccer.

James Callaghan, it is true, used to play second row for Streatham-Croydon before the last war but showed little interest afterwards. And Margaret Thatcher's late husband, Denis, was a first-class London Society referee who only just missed taking charge of a full international and was a touch judge in a game between England and France in Paris. His wife showed no interest.

On the whole rugby and No 10 have not gone together. I only hope the Prime Minister contrived to invite enough knowledgeable guests to make up for his own deficiencies. I do not suppose the England party minded greatly one way or the other. By now they must be thoroughly sick of making polite conversation about Australia.