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Publication: Sleaze, March 2004

Revenge of the Rugby Girl

Rugger: a sport played by men with funny-shaped balls, who pull, mate with and eventually marry a particular kind of girl. Such as 25-year-old Robyn, a policewoman from High Wycombe who just can’t tear her eyes away from Wasps’ 28-year-old, 14st Josh Lewsey: a statuesque winger with a stiff back, rippling sinews and thighs double the size of Thierry Henry. This Sunday afternoon in January, Robyn leans over the touchline barrier at the High Wycombe ground to ogle, almost indecently, the embattled, muddy and rained-on beefcake. Four thousand Celtic Warriors fans on the terraces behind Robyn want blood; Wasps will suffer an ignominious 9-14 battering by the Welsh visitors today, largely on penalties and one magnificent try.

But Robyn can’t hear the screams, far too distracted by the human tree-stump mauling his opponents under the crossbar a few yards away. I mean, just look at those bandaged triceps; that wonky broken nose, those cauliflower ears…

‘Have I ever been out with a rugby player? I wish…’ she tuts. ‘I’ve got a thing for Josh Lewsey. But that’s just not because of the way he looks, but  because he’s an army officer. He’s got a career. The thing is, rugby players are intelligent. He didn’t leave school at 14 and start playing, like footballers do. He’s done something other than rugby.’

He is, in short, husband material. Robyn is currently single. For her sins, Robyn’s equally friend Amber, a diehard Saracens fan from Rickmansworth who works in Thame, describes herself as a ‘football widow’: ‘my husband is footballfootballfootball,’ she screams over the din. ‘They’re all into football. I’d much rather come to a rugby game! It’s only been professional for 10 years and the players are all doctors, solicitors… Without being snobbish, it’s a university sport; the educated man plays, the educated man watches it.’

And increasingly, the educated girl marries into it, because unlike football, The Gentleman’s Game is in the business of manufacturing heroes, the kind of fellow girls want to marry in 2004. Today, rugby has become everyone’s game – the Wielkinson Effect has ensure gate receipts are soaring as the sport sheds its hoorayish associations and garners new interest transcending class barriers. An afternoon at Wasps will illustrate why Rugby’s a fine deal: a modest tenner will get you through the turnstile into most premiership matches, where you can drink on the terraces and watch the closest legal equivalent of a punch-up this side of boxing. It’s also the fastest growing women’s sport in the UK. It goes without saying England’s victory in the World cup last year was a triumph for squad, sport and country, and an element of Rugby’s new elan has come at the expense of football’s collapse into a pantomime of scandal, greed, mismanagement, racial assault, drugs, rape allegations and deeply questionable eveningwear.

More crucially, the win illuminated a shift in gender politics that a cursory flick through the pages of heat will suggest has been years overdue. In an age when the rules of masculinity have been bent so far out of shape by fashion and celebrity that we’re all trying too look like the figments of Tom Ford’s imagination, we spent most of the Australia 03 tournament cheering on a type of man who makes you wish you’d brought shares in Hackett years ago: bloody good blokes of iron constitution, brick-shithouse build, high earning potential and right-thinking moral outlook. Professional types who in conversation say ‘fair play’ a lot and actually mean it, who bathe together, pull each other’s trousers down without feeling like they’re compromising their sexuality. Alpha chaps like Johnny Surname-No-Longer-Required Wilkinson who wouldn’t be seen dead in a sarong, a mullet or the VIP queue outside Aura, and who play to win on the pitch of life by an older code of brain and brawn. Whereas the average rugby bloke looks as if he could mend the gate, carry nine children and make a killing on stock market without breaking a sweat, and the same can’t really be said of the average Metrosexual  premiership mannequin like Freddy Llungberg, even though you could open envelopes with his cheekbones.


Clearly, this is great, vindicating news for Rugby Girl. At the final whistle in Sydney, while the First XV team collapsed into exhausted rapture on the pitch, the true action was on the touchline, where the team’s pretty, robust and substantially blonde contingent of wives and girlfriends effervescently cheered, clapped and wept. A beauty for each beast, they looked thrilled, proud, vital, robust, supportive, loyal; they also looked as if they knew how to cook Yorkshire pudding, which end to feed a baby through and what ISA provides the best inflation-adjusted return. To a woman they wore pastel shades, denim, baseball caps with blond ponytails pulled through and England shirts. They all looked astonishingly… the same. None, meanwhile, looked anything like Victoria Beckham, Caprice or Chardonnay or any other inflated, teetering celebrity Footballer’s Wife with Met Bar Membership, an Atkins figure and more Versace than sense. More than merely legitimising rugger as the national sport of the moment, the Cup win heaved the Rugby Girl out of the closet, into the spotlight and back up onto a cultural register.

In The Sun pub, an airy, wood-floored joint in Clapham, South London, blonde Laura (24, something in corporate PR) and even more blonde Rose (25, legal publising) ‘went Bananas’ after Johnny Wilkinson hoofed the ball over the crossbar to seal England Victory in Sydney last year. They were wearing England shirts, but so was everyone else that day. Their boyfriends play at amateur level, though they all drink with a commitment verging on the professional.

‘I guess it’s a lot about the social side of things,’ says Laura. ‘When you meet people they come with a guarantee; you know you’ve got something in common.’ Before Christmas they trooped up to Regent street and went weak at the knee along with a further 100,000 or so women as England XV floated past on the top of a bus. Yet they can recall a time when declaring an interest in Rugby was about as cool as declaring an interest in apartheid.

‘I stopped wearing the shirt because I got fed up of the pisstaking,’ says Rose. ‘You can’t shout it from the rooftops, which is the effect of wearing colours. You don’t have to apologise for it now.’

For ages Rugby Girl has been a cultural leper, a notch or two on the index of acceptability below her close relative, the Sloane Ranger. A triumph of endurance in an age of accelerating change, Rugby girl is to the Footballer’s wife what an Aga is to a microwave. If the Footballer’s wife sole raison d’etre is to look, socialize and shop ahead of the curve, Rugby Girl wouldn’t recognise ‘the curve’ if Donatella Versace presented it to her on a big gold plate. As utterly impervious to pop-cultural froth as footballers are to GCSEs, decades of fads, fashions, trends, Next Big Things and must-haves have been lost on Rugby Girl, the march of feminism being just one of them.

Many Rugby Girls play rugger, most of them watch rugger, but all of them think Rugger. Valuing strength, stability and resilience above excitement, celebrity or glamour, their adherence to the Old Rules as played out on the pitch every Saturday – men should be men, and women should be women – doesn’t exactly mark them out as the shock troops of the new sexual politic. But as with everything else she does, it’s a question of conviction. Rugby Girl goes at life in a nature-affirming, unselfconscious sort of way, each choice, experience and attitude bolstered by the belief that life really begins with the arrival of The Little Ones, of which there will be many.

Her belief in the law of nature is total. As a romantic prospect, therefore, Rugby Girl isn’t for the fainthearted. Last year, a troupe of male strippers refused to appear at a London all-girl rugby club's New Year party after previous shows got out of hand. They complained of being grabbed and tackled by women at Wood Green Wanderers. ‘Agencies are sending wimps,’ noted a spokeswoman. ‘We'll just have a disco unless we can get some real men." (I went out with a Rugby Girl called Chloe once, a farmer’s daughter from Shropshire. She was sensible, blond, ruddy, well-bred and eardrum-shatteringly forthright. She drank ale by the yard and punched people. On her 18th the birthday, Chloe’s brothers gave her a pint - of bull’s sperm sealed in a jar. She was chuffed to bits.)

At university, meanwhile, Rugby Girls traditionally coagulated around the Rugby Boys within seconds of the fresher’s week kick off, identifying each other through a yarping idiom no-one outside the group could hope to understand. In the factional microcosm of uni life, the Rugby Club members’ right-of-centre politics, tacit nationalism, and conservative worldview cast them as proud outsiders, while the habit of wearing rugby colours at every possible juncture fixed them a thousand miles away from whichever prevailing notion of credibility of the last 30 years. No-one liked them, but they didn’t care.

Into the world of work, Rugby Girl settled in the leafy parishes of London and the home counties orbiting the truly exclusive zones - Fulham, Barnes, Richmond and Putney - journeying overground to work in publishing, law and marketing until such time as she chucks it in and get on with the real work of motherhood. Naturally, a move back to the country is envisaged as soon as Dan, Nick or Will becomes partnered in the firm.

By the time she’s married, Rugby Girl’s staunchly pre-feminist ‘Dependent woman’ worldview had ceased being a thing of shame. When Rugby-Girl-for-life Katherine met her Dallaglio-shaped future husband Paul in the SU bar, it was love at first pint. Was it the thighs that did it?

‘We’re sold images of what we should like, but your it’s good old-fashioned  man that’s gonna keep me safe appeals the most,’ she says. ‘Rugby’s a rough sport, but somehow they aren’t rough off the field. Apart from when they’re all lagered up. As they grow up they’re really gentlemen off the field, and that is very attractive. And their physique is bloody gorgeous…

‘I can see that football players like Freddie Llunberg are attractive,’ she adds, ‘but they don’t appeal to me. They’re too glitzy, too aware of themselves. They’re too perfect. Rugby players laugh it all off. A scar above the eyebrow or a broken nose adds character, and that’s attractive.

At their Somerset wedding reception several years ago, Paul’s pals – some ex-England XV players, none catwalk material – wrestled, mauled and groped each others dicks and bollocks in a breathtaking display of boorish rugger bravado on the dancefloor that delighted onlookers.

But it wasn’t always thus. ‘In the past no-one wanted to socialise with us,’ Katherine notes. ‘They guys got loads of flak. Being ‘rugby’ was very much an insult. The assumption is that if you like rugby or play it, it means you’re private school, therefore your parents are probably rich and you’re as snob. You’re dismissed straight away. What’s happened is that it’s opening up to more and more people, and it’s not just a private school thing anymore.’

She’s well aware, too, that her defiantly unfashionable sexual attitude sets her miles apart from the dominant model of ferociously independent womanhood. By the same token, you’d never dare suggest she’s the anachronistic ‘little woman’, not merely because she wouldn’t hesitate to belt you on the nose if you did.

‘It’s the feeling of being protected and secure, but on an equal basis,’ Katherine theorises. ‘With a rugby player, you might  have your own career, and much as you can take care of yourself, but at the end of the day they’re big and strong. It’s rather nice feeling protected. It’s equal with my husband. I had a fling with a cricketer once,’ she adds, ‘but it didn’t work out.’

Nevertheless, Rugby Girl embodies progress masquerading as tradition: Part relic and part pioneer, she’s the unwitting combatant against the tide of male emasculation at the hands of the fashion and beauty industry.  Because her conception of male beauty articulates an unchanging truism of human relationships, that - pay attention chaps - no woman wants a man who spends longer in front of the mirror than she does. Footballer’s wife demands a feminised man on her arm for the benefit of the paparazzi; Rugby Girl doesn’t care there her man looks like he could split rocks with his forehead as long as he’s a good egg. She’ll choose the battle scarred, safe-bet caveman over the airbrushed, overpaid centre-forward narcissi anyday. If it seems absurd to suggest the sexual politics of tomorrow are being played out on the rugby pitch today, it’s no more daft than watching the England captain swan about in a sarong.

All of which begs the question: could Darts be next?

© Kevin Braddock 2004

All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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