Fear and suspicion among the rugby-playing classes

'I was despatched with a Pancho Villa lookalike, who like myself was partial to a few gallons of beer'

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My first reaction was to call them a bunch of grasping children. A national team that goes on strike for more money, a few days after a famous victory, and a week in advance of a crucial game! So this is the honourable and manly code of rugby football?

My first reaction was to call them a bunch of grasping children. A national team that goes on strike for more money, a few days after a famous victory, and a week in advance of a crucial game! So this is the honourable and manly code of rugby football?

Whatever happened to the singular pride of playing for your country, the stuff of every rugby playing schoolboy's dreams. Gone it seems with the cold showers, broken down dressing rooms and rainy Saturdays of youth. If John Betjeman were alive he might be able to do justice to this heresy with some gently pointed words. Come homely venom rain on Twickers.

Whatever will they try next - a work to rule? This week only the forwards will be playing. The backs will man the picket line under the posts. Or no scrums this week, they fall outside the definition of a working day. I wallowed for two days in self righteous indignation. And then I ran into the editor of Panorama, Mike Robinson, possibly the most notorious England supporter of his generation. He is a modest and reserved Englishman with a doctorate in understatement. But get him going on rugby and the transformation is awe inspiring.

"I hope you're proud of them," I snapped. "It would never happen in Ireland." He let slip a few uncharacteristically cheap remarks about the abilities of the Irish side and then lapsed into a discourse in reasonableness.

"Look these guys have only a few years at the top to make their money before they get too old or too injured. Do you have any idea the injuries they have to carry?" He went on to appeal to my sense of fair play (highly underdeveloped in respect of big league sports personalities) with talk about the changed nature of the game.

Faster, tougher, more demanding. Much as the English forwards will probably do to the Irish in the Triple Crown, Robinson wore me down. Then I picked up the paper to read that Clive Woodward, the England coach, was blaming the RFU for the collapse in negotiations and consequent strike.

"The union must take a large amount of responsibility for what happened. It is unacceptable that things should have been allowed to get as far as they did." Not since the glory days of Will Carling's "Old Farts" denunciation, have the Barons and Squires of Twickenham been so publicly humiliated. To use rugby terms, they had gone for a pushover try and were swallowed.

Although things have surely changes from my own humble days as the rugby correspondent of the Limerick Leader and Chronicle (a post which enabled my first foreign travel, a lost weekend in Paris of which more later) the accusation that the rugby top brass were guilty of being 'patronising' rang true. In rugby the 'Alickadoos' - the men who run the administrative side of things, from organising coaches to securing multi-million-pound sponsorship deals, have long inspired fear and suspicion among the playing classes.

When I was a young rugby follower they wore a uniform of blue crombie coats and controlled the insurance and banking industry in the town where I lived. A lot of them smoked cigars and pipes. They fawned over the rising stars, fixing them up with jobs and introducing them to their daughters; they ignored the fallen heroes, chaps whose hands they'd clasped a month before were banished into outer darkness by the misfortune of injury or lost form. My own rugby playing was of such a quality that the 'alickadoos' did the only reasonable thing in the circumstances: they pretended I didn't exist.

It was only later after I'd left school and emigrated from Cork to Limerick (a journey of 68 miles) that I came face to face with rugby's silvery haired elite. Every day I would phone them for news of fixtures and teams. Garryowen, Shannon, Bohemians, Cork Constitution, Old Crescent, Dolphin, Sundays Well, Young Munster, the teams of the Munster league.

Mike Robinson talked about the injuries of the modern game. He had clearly never encountered the hard men of Limerick. One of the local teams' grounds was known as 'The Killing Fields.' How one heard the shout 'kick ahead, any head' through those grim afternoons on the windswept tundra by the Shannon. I had a particular difficulty in reporting Limerick rugby - the most passionate and committed rugby to be found anywhere in Europe - for I came from the city of Cork.

The teams from the two cities were deadly rivals although they paired up to play for Munster (beating the All Blacks and hammering all opposition in the European cup) several times a year. But being a Corkonian and reporting Limerick rugby was to live under a permanent cloud of suspicion. It wasn't helped by the fact that one of the printers on the paper was the trainer of the most successful local side. Looking back he was the most critical editor I have had; I have never feared anyone quite as much since. "Do you see here where you say McMahon knocked the ball on in his own 22. Will you go way outa that. He didn't go near it. Amn't I right Christy?' He called to one of his colleagues. I stood firm, knowing that if I gave in once, every trainer in the city would be traipsing into the office demanding changes. It prepared me for the world's war zones

All went well until the infamous trip to Paris. For the Limerick Leader to send a reporter and photographer to Paris involved a challenging degree of expenditure. One could say it devoured the entire foreign budget. I was despatched with Fonsie Foley, a Pancho Villa lookalike, who like myself in those days, was partial to a few gallons of beer.

We arrived in Paris and conducted a tour of various drinking establishments ending up being threatened with decapitation by an ex-Paratrooper after drunkenly berating him over the use of torture in the Battle of Algiers.(I know. We were imbecilic with drink).

Such was the progress of our merriment that I neglected to pick up the press tickets for the rugby match. When the day dawned I was forced to buy two tickets from a tout outside the Parc Des Princes. As a result Fonsie and I were banished to the top-most level of the stadium. 'Can you see anything with the telephoto lens?' I asked him. 'No they're like f-ants running around down there.' We were in trouble. I could get by and write with the assistance of television replays and the Sunday newspapers (my deadline was Monday morning) but Fonsie's photographs would look like satellite images.

We sweated and worried. I saw my career vanishing in public humiliation. How my rugby enemies would delight in this. I could imagine the smirking 'alickadoos.' But rugby journalism is a fairer game, or was in those provincial days. Outside the ground we ran into a colleague from a rival paper. Over several beers we explained our predicament. A deal was struck. He would pluck the best photographs for his first edition on Sunday, and send the negatives to us by train straight afterwards.

We got away with it, but only just. The train was running late and the sports editor absolutely fuming. When it was over, Fonsie lay down on the floor of the darkroom and groaned. But we did get the pictures in the end.

I find it hard to imagine such an escapade in these serious days. Rugby administrators, players, hacks: there is so much more to play for.

The writer is a BBC SpecialCorrespondent

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