Wyn by name, win by nature…
Several years ago I read an article about rugby’s Sir Ian McGeechan. The author introduced it by writing that, as he’d grown older, he appreciated more and more the decency of a person above their achievements. McGeechan, he went on to say, was not only one of the most fundamentally decent of people, but also one who had achieved remarkable things.
I mentioned this later to a work colleague on whom I reported in performance appraisals and his reply was mischievous; did it matter if he didn’t achieve anything during the course of a year providing that he showed, instead, what a thoroughly decent chap he was? Er, that would be a ‘No’!
McGeechan was, by chance, one of the TV studio summarisers last weekend during Scotland’s epic draw with England in the final Six Nations rugby game of the season. I wonder if he’d watched the earlier game that day, when Wales demolished the Irish team to claim the tournament’s Triple Crown, Championship and Grand Slam? If he had, then he would have seen a kind act courtesy of the Welsh captain.
As reported on the WalesOnline web site, the Welsh and Irish teams were both uber-pysched and totally focused prior to the kick-off, seeking to get the pre-match preliminaries out of the way before tearing into each other. The rain was falling heavily, so it was cold and wet and the lad selected as the Welsh mascot was shivering badly as he stood in front of Alun Wyn Jones, the Welsh lock forward and captain.
Despite the formalities and his focus on the game ahead, Jones noticed this and took time-out to take off his jacket and wrap it around the youngster before laying into the Welsh anthem with only a slightly less savage demeanour than that which later put the Irish to the sword. Apparently no-one who knows him was in the least surprised by Jones’ thoughtfulness. And what a win in the game itself! Great achievement underwritten by sheer decency. I like that.
When la vita turns out non è bella
In the rain without an umbrella,
Wyn Jones is the guy
Who’ll help you stay dry
‘Cos the bloke’s just a real decent fella!
(‘Yes’, I do know that in his case Wyn is part of a double first name and not part of his surname, but, please, grant me some poetic licence!)
Postscript: Technically, I was a reasonably good rugby player in my day, but a bit too soft and small even by the less-than-gargantuan average size of players back then.
I played hooker and modelled myself on the Irish stalwart Ken Kennedy who had developed the role of hooker from one of a fat violent plodder who only scrummaged to that of a mobile player who could pass, kick, tackle and run with the ball.
(I was stunned a couple of years ago – in a good way – to be told by a former school-days teammate who now follows Saracens RFC, that their hooker, the South African international Schalk Brits, played much the same way that I did. Wow! It might be factual b******s, but as compliments go, it doesn’t get much better!)
Actually, I was a county player at schoolboy level and good enough later to get picked to play for Scottish Universities and a couple of invitation teams before giving up in my early 20s due to my dislike of psychopaths and rugger-b*****s. (Oh, and there was also that occasion when I couldn’t sit my exams because I’d spent all term training, playing and touring!)
The Scottish Universities’ shirt design, above, was in the style of a rugby league jersey. It was, for those days, a none-too-subtle, two-fingered salute to the Scottish Rugby Union as it had refused to support the team financially because the coach, Mal Reid (suited and booted in the pic), was a former rugby league professional.
(There is an interesting-if-old article about Mal here. The former Glasgow player referred to in the piece, Walter Malcolm, is pictured, above, in his younger days immediately to my right.)
I’ll allow myself a couple more anecdotes from those days:
I had a false start to my tertiary educational experience which is why, although I am a graduate of The University of Dundee, my academic not-quite-alma-mater was in London. And it just happens that as a callow 18-year-old, I travelled from the big city to Dublin to attend a girlfriend’s 21st birthday party.
Her dad, Bobby, was a past-President of Wanderers rugby club, a team that shared the old Landsdowne Road rugby ground with the Landsdowne club itself. So, it was no surprise that I found myself cheering Wanderers in a game that Saturday and was bought beers in their clubhouse after the match by Bobby (who knew everyone and more on the south side of Dublin). We hadn’t been there long when he said “Come on Phil, I’ll introduce you to Robbie”.
Now, I recognised ‘Robbie’ before I’d been told his surname, it was Robbie McGrath, the then Irish international scrum-half. “Phil”, said Bobby, “this is Robbie McGrath. Robbie, this is Phil. Phil plays rugby too”. “Great” was the reply “and who do you play for?”. If only I’d thought to lie, but I told him the truth: “Er, North East London Polytechnic second team”. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. If McGrath had thought to laugh out loud, then he hid it well and was a generous and encouraging soul. A terrific player and a decent bloke too!
I dropped out from the polytechnic at the end of my first term before enrolling at Dundee for the following autumn and, after a year or so, I was picked for the university’s first team.
In those days, penalties around the defenders 25m line were often ‘run’ by the attacking team and not kicked for goal (muddy grounds and no kicking tee made it harder to slot home any kicks).
When penalties were ‘run’, the opposing scrum-half would tap the ball and pass it to the so-called pivot whose back was turned to the opposition. The scrum-half would then run around the pivot whilst the attacking forwards would charge en masse towards it. The point of it all was that defenders didn’t know to whom the pivot would pass the ball – the scrum-half on his run-around who would then open out play to his backs, or to one of his forwards charging at full tilt to smash into the defenders, closely followed by the rest of his pack.
Now, the pivot was always the hooker and it was the defending hooker’s job to sprint towards his ‘oppo’ as soon as their scrum-half had tapped the ball; the intention being to ‘smash’ the pivot just as he received his scrum-half’s pass.
Usually you never made it before the pivot switched the ball to his scrum-half or to one of his rampaging forwards, which is how, when sprinting at full speed, I once managed to crash-tackle Iain Angus McLeod Paxton who was also sprinting flat-out, towards me. Paxton had just been picked as the Scottish international Number 8 and that season (1981) was when he won the first of his 40 Scottish and 4 British Lions caps. We both stood up after the collision (and I was delighted that I’d stopped him so abruptly), but to this day I wonder whether he, like me, felt that every bone in his body had been dislocated? I somehow doubt it – and there’s the difference!