Amid the euphoria following England's Rugby World Cup victory, let me introduce Bill Finch, who spent Saturday morning at home in Crawley attending to the needs of his infant daughter Supriya, and was infinitely happier changing nappies than he would have been watching Martin Johnson lifting the Webb Ellis Cup.
Bill, who is 38 and a corporate pensions consultant, hates rugby union with a passion; the same passion with which John Bradshaw, who is 57 and head of communications for the Red Cross in the North of England, hates football. John cannot recall where he was when Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet trophy in 1966, only that he "avoided it like the plague". However, his devotion to rugby is matched by Bill's to football. Which is why I took them both out for dinner in London last week, in the hope that sparks might fly.
Both are Independent readers, and therefore too civilised to descend to a really abusive barney, yet both fought their corner with admirable vigour. The encounter came about because John, a Leicester Tigers fan, sent me an e-mail months ago fiercely contesting my assertion that on big match days, Twickenham still has a preponderance of annoyingly hearty, wax-jacketed City types.
Some months later, he sent me his coruscating views on modern football (which, like many rugby enthusiasts, he refers to as soccer), around the time that Bill, a Tottenham Hotspur fan, wrote a letter, published in these pages, arguing that rugby (and let me stress we are talking rugby union here) is asinine, tedious, and essentially for those too unco-ordinated to play the infinitely finer round-ball game. Clearly, these were two guys who had to meet.
I took them to Belgo Centraal in Covent Garden, where the waiters dress as monks. Not that there was anything monastic, and definitely nothing Trappist, about our evening. Here is a transcript of some of the exchanges.
Bill: "There was a period in the Eighties, the Will Carling era, when it was fashionable to take an interest in rugby. And I did, very briefly, until I realised that it was a pantomime. I have always half-expected everyone to wake up one day and realise that the emperor is wearing no clothes - that rugby is complete rubbish. What really gets me is that the principal strategy for gaining ground is kicking the ball out of play. And where's the poetry, the élan, in a pushover try?"
John: "Pushover tries are wonderful to watch. My enthusiasm for rugby grows daily. I recorded the England v France semi-final and have watched it twice already. I admire hugely the immense subtlety of forward play, whereas soccer seems formless to me. Twenty guys hacking a ball up and down a park.
"Compare the England captains, David Beckham and Martin Johnson, starting with Beckham's Alice band. And look at the respective England teams. The first-choice England rugby team, unbeaten in two years, the best in the world. And the England soccer team? Their last competitive match, in Turkey, was cleared of fans, was followed by a players' brawl in the tunnel, and ended in a draw. Yet it was considered a great success."
Bill: "But football is fundamentally a better game. Apart from the pass back to the goalkeeper, its laws haven't changed in my or my father's lifetimes. There is a purity about them. The laws of rugby seem to change all the time."
John: "Fine-tuning. The basic laws are very simple. You don't throw the ball forward, and you don't stand in front of the ball. And what's wonderful about rugby is that there is room for every physical type. A whole form of schoolboys can play rugby, even the fat kids who are useless at sport."
Bill: "Exactly. That's my point. Even at the top level, football is essentially a game of skill, rugby a game of power. And I don't understand how the team that scores more tries, like Wales against England, can lose.
"The equivalent in football would be scoring three goals, but losing because the other team took more corners."
John: "Ah, but that's all part of the marvellous complexity of rugby. It rewards territorial advantage, and pressure, and penalises mistakes. And the intrinsically better sport is surely the one you can attend in complete safety, without hordes of police to take the opposing supporters to the train station. Indeed, I sat near a man at the England v Italy match at Twickenham who was loudly applauded by the home fans for singing the Italian national anthem. Imagine that at a soccer match."
Bill: "Yes, but if rugby had the same place as football in our culture, it would have the same crowd problems. And actually I find the singing of a slave song, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, very offensive. Mind you, I was at Wembley for the England v Germany match in Euro '96, and I found it extremely offensive that the England fans chanted 'There's only one Bomber Harris' and 'Two World Wars and one World Cup...'"
John: "Doo-dah, doo-dah."
Perhaps John's a closet football fan, after all. Whatever, my thanks to him and Bill for playing ball, regardless of its shape. I hereby declare their splendid debate an honourable draw. Perhaps we need extra-time.Reuse content