Behind the lens: the many faces of rugby

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The Independent Online

Through the rugby year, across the oceans of the different hemispheres, the game of rugby union has many guises.

For sure, the image of grunt and grind, impact and intimidation, is thoroughly merited. In this professional era for the sport, never has rugby so resembled a gladiatorial encounter.

Yet the game has many faces which is one of its most enduring appeals. It can be alarmingly physical yet still aesthetically enchanting. And sometimes, what the photographer’s camera captures is a different image, a fresh vision of the sport hidden away from most supporters.

In locations as widely spread as London, Rome, Paris, Cardiff, Wellington, Cape Town and Christchurch, Hannah Bills' photo file over the course of the last 12 months offers myriad images to explain rugby’s continuing attraction.

We see the great South African forward Victor Matfield, a 2.01m, 110kg giant of a man, tenderly stroking his young daughter’s hand on a winter’s day beside the Mediterranean, during his sojourn with French club Toulon. In another image, we see another man of enormous physicality, the New Zealand centre Ma’a Nonu posing in a particular stance for the camera, his world famous dreadlocks the focal point of the picture. Some rugby men need no name: the Welsh full-back JPR Williams was known solely by his initials. Nonu’s dreadlocks make him a familiar sight on the world’s rugby grounds.

In London, asked to capture an image of the 2009 British & Irish Lions manager Gerald Davies, the photographer sought to use the location - London’s famous old Garrick Club in West End theatre land - to offer a different pose and perspective of the great Welshman.

Similarly, in Rome, the view out of Italian coach Nick Mallett’s apartment window – over the rooftops of Rome – was a natural backdrop to the silhouette of this famous South African rugby man’s features.

Above all, rugby remains a joy, a delight both to its participants and many followers. The image captured of South African wing Bryan Habana laughing helplessly at a party in Perth before the 2008 Australia/South Africa Tri-Nations match, offers an enchanting picture of a famous player away from the spotlight and concentration of his role, laughing himself silly with a balloon.

By contrast, two images from a club rugby match in Paris on a freezing cold December night, reveal the harsh, unrelenting physicality of the game. One picture shows the Racing Club front row, stooped and ready for the impending impact. Faces are set in stony concentration, eyes levelled at their opponent; floodlights pick out the sweat trickling down their faces and, perhaps, a touch of fear in their expressions?

The next picture is of the speed of the impact, the foreground a whirl of action as the two packs hammer into each other. The sense of movement is obvious but the great contrast is the focal point of the Racing Club scrum half Jerome Fillol, a touch of horror and deep concern on his face at the bodies crashing into one another.

With these and other images, Hannah Bills’ camera offers an image of the game not always seen in such focus by the observer on the side. These pictures reveal much of the hidden side of professional rugby.