I am now in my middle 50s. A short while ago I was playing golf with a near contemporary who had gone to Princeton. After the game we fell to talking about the '20s, which he had spent mainly in New York while I had been in London. We compared our separate experiences during that hectic period. Suddenly an idea struck me. "I believe," I said, "that this is the chief minor difference between us—I as a Londoner every Saturday afternoon between mid-September and mid-April was playing Rugby football while you as a New Yorker were shooting squash in the Racquet Club."
He looked surprised and his eyes ran me over. I am short and stocky, 5 foot 6, and my weight since my late teens has vacillated between 150 and 160. "You played Rugby till you were nearly 30?" He is quite a bit bigger than I, but he had played no football after he had left high school. He hadn't been heavy enough to make the team, he felt, and there were other games. "Weren't you exceptional?" he asked.
I shook my head. "I was a very average player. One of many thousands. Rugby is played in the majority of our public schools. Most of us who are any good go on playing afterwards."
"Rugby every Saturday between mid-September and mid-April. That's quite a thing!" he ruminated. "It must fill a very special place in English life."
Now, in retrospect, I can see it does. But at the time, to play Rugby every Saturday through the winter was the most natural thing for me to do, for the very simple reason that it was the thing I wanted to do most.
I have joined in many arguments as to which is the best game to watch. Much is to be said for many. But I have little doubt that the best winter game for a young man to play is Rugby football. It has everything to recommend it. It is fast and hard; it is rough but it is not dangerous. You get bruised and shaken but bones are rarely broken; no special padding is prescribed; you wear shorts and a jersey. Dexterity and speed are as important as weight and strength. It is essentially a team game, but it is highly individualistic. The majority of points are scored not as the outcome of a concerted movement but through an opportunist taking advantage of an opponent's slip. Each player develops his own style.
It is, moreover, a very simple game. You learn it by playing it. No long apprenticeship is served. My own experience is that of many thousand others. At my preparatory school, from 9 years to 13, I played soccer. On my first afternoon at Sherborne, my public school, I was instructed with 20 other new boys in the rudiments of Rugby. It bears resemblance to American football. It would be surprising if it didn't; after all, both games stem from the same source.
Tom Brown's Schooldays, in its account of a school-house match at Rugby School in the 1830s, describes that source. Both fields look alike, with a similar type of goal post, and the object of each game is the same, to get the ball over the opponent's line, after which you are allowed a free kick at the goal. But whereas the game that was introduced into America via Canada in the 1870s developed rapidly into its present form, Rugby stayed the way it was. My younger son is playing today at Sherborne virtually the same game that his grandfather played there 75 years ago.
In Rugby there are few complications. The ball cannot be passed forward; it is fatter and less pointed than the American ball, and you cannot fling long one-handed passes with it. There is as much dribbling with the feet and the gaining of ground by long kicks into touch as there is running with the ball under the arm. Body blocking is not allowed. There are no substitutes, no huddles, no interruptions except for serious injuries. The rules consist of a few straightforward DON'TS.
There are 15 players on each side, and I was told on that first afternoon how they are disposed—eight forwards, six backs and as a last line of defense a single fullback. I was then shown how the eight forwards form themselves into a three-row phalanx—it is called a scrum—and, with bent backs and arms around each other, join issue with the opposing pack. The ball is then slid by one of the backs under their feet, and the two packs shove and struggle in an attempt to heel it to the backs, who are spread out behind them in the open, waiting to initiate an attack.
My first lesson lasted for half an hour. I was then ordered to watch a practice game on the upper ground. It was the first Rugby match that I had watched. I was fascinated by its speed and its variety. In all athletics I doubt if there is a finer sight than a fast back-field movement, the ball heeled quickly from the scrum, each back running straight, making all the ground he can, drawing his opponent before he passes laterally till finally the ball reaches the wing man, who makes for the corner flag in a desperate attempt to out-swerve and outpace the fullback. I longed for the day when I should be big enough to play in such a game.