Brian Viner: Is rugby just a game for football's rejects?

My blood is stirred at least as much by a magnificent try as by a magnificent goal
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The Independent Online

Just as I was limbering up for Saturday's rugby match between England and South Africa, trying to decide whether to fry or scramble the eggs, a letter in these pages caught my eye. It was from Bill Finch, of Redhill, Surrey, a confirmed rugbyphobe. "If rugby is so good, why has it never caught on?" Mr Finch wondered. "The game only has any kind of foothold in a handful of ex-empire countries." Warming to his theme, he added: "I appreciate that not everyone has the motor skills for proper football, so I guess it makes sense to have a game to cater for the uncoordinated unfortunates. But please don't try to kid me that this is any kind of spectacle."

I admit that I read his letter and chuckled. To suggest that Jonny Wilkinson, Will Greenwood and Jason Robinson might be regarded as "uncoordinated unfortunates", or that France v New Zealand in the 1999 World Cup was no kind of spectacle, has to be worthy of a chuckle, if not manically hysterical laughter. But in chuckling I was also thinking of an occasional correspondent of mine, John Bradshaw, and wondering whether he had read Mr Finch's outrageously provocative letter.

For Mr Bradshaw, rugby union is a noble calling, Association football a disreputable horror show. He first e-mailed me in July, when I poked fun at the massed ranks of brogued bankers who descend on Twickenham and extract claret-fuelled enjoyment from the lewd hand-movement-only version of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot".

I concede that in slagging off that particular contingent of rugby enthusiasts, I am giving vent to skewed prejudices: frankly, I would rather sit in a football stadium behind a man in a denim jacket yelling foul-mouthed abuse, than at Twickenham behind a man in a waxed jacket simulating masturbation to the oddly ungrammatical line "coming for to carry me home".

But what Mr Bradshaw objected to, in an aggressively forthright e-mail, was not only what he considered to be my gross misrepresentation of the Twickenham crowd, but also the way I and many other fellow sports writers "slaver" over football. Anyway, we exchanged views and that, seemingly, was that. Last week, however, I heard from him again.

"You miss all the best stories about [football]," he complained. "That in general it is managed by financial dreamers and incompetents; that its stars are overpaid; that it continues to be the commonest reason for, and the home of, tribal violence; that English football is heading down a cul-de-sac which excludes home-grown talent; that it's corrupt as well as venal; and, most important, that in its present form it is totally unviable beyond the next couple of years."

Mr Bradshaw concluded by quoting another newspaper's World Cup Guide, to the effect that rugby "has ceased to be the élitist sport of popular myth". "At last!" he wrote. "And my view entirely, confirmed on my most recent trip to Twickenham, for the Sevens." Several responses spring to mind, not least that stories about football corruption and mismanagement are the domain of my Independent colleague David Conn, who covers them with forensic brilliance, and it is not my business to step on to his territory.

But the best response I can offer is to invite Mr Bradshaw, representing the pro-rugby, anti-football lobby, and Mr Finch, for the anti-rugby, pro-football brigade, to engage in direct verbal combat. Both men are manifestly passionate and eloquent, and being readers of The Independent, will not, I hope, resort to physical argy-bargy. I would like to hear Mr Bradshaw deal with Mr Finch's suggestion that rugby is for the uncoordinated, and Mr Finch with Mr Bradshaw's assertion that far from being the beautiful game, football is "the ugliest game in the universe".

If both are willing, I will take them out for lunch, in London, between now and the end of the Rugby World Cup. I will record their exchanges and print a transcription in these pages. In effect, I will be the referee. Mr Bradshaw will doubtless feel that I will incline to Mr Finch's corner, but he need have no such fears.

For the record, I follow football much more keenly than I do rugby, yet my blood is stirred at least as much by a magnificent try as by a magnificent goal, by a tightly angled Jonny Wilkinson penalty as by an impudent David Beckham free-kick. And if match commentaries provided the soundtrack to my adolescence, John Motson bawling as Ronnie Radford's thunderous shot hit the back of the Newcastle net in Hereford United's famous FA Cup win looms no louder than a disbelieving Cliff Morgan bellowing "What a try!" as Gareth Edwards touched down in the corner for the Barbarians against the All Blacks.

So, gentlemen, come and have a go if you think you're persuasive enough. You might feel that there is no point preaching to the unconvertible, but at the very least you'll get a nice lunch, and anyway, as young Wilkinson keeps proving, there's no such thing as unconvertible...