FIRST things first: I’m NOT a rugby fan (at least I wasn’t), writes MARK SPENCE.

Make no bones about it, I love football way more than is probably healthy. From the first time I clapped eyes on Ian Rush’s weasel-like physique terrorising defences the length and breadth of Europe I knew this game was for me and Liverpool were my team. The noise, the rivalry, the skill and even the kits (god, remember when footy kits actually looked good?) had me hooked from a very young age.

Conversely, all the memories I had of rugby, until recently, were unrelentingly sour ones. Growing up in Belfast in the 80s-90s, rugby was an indication of class for me. It was simple: if you went to secondary school, chances were you came from a working-class background so you played, and were wholeheartedly a disciple of, football. If you went to grammar school, you were, for the most part, from a middle to upper class family so you played, and were devoted to, rugby. While we’d spend a summer kicking a battered ball up and down the street until yer ma called you in for tea, or the light faded, the grammar school types were off on a ‘rugby tour’ — whatever that meant. It was an alien world all that rugger business.

University really cemented my initial impressions. My experience of rugby back then was watching pissed up, mangle-faced brutes running around the campus with their cocks out, collars turned up, defecating in pint glasses in the Student Union bar on a Friday night (or any other night for that matter) or sitting at the back of lectures pretending to hump each other. So, the thought of going to watch these clowns continually run head first into like-minded, cauliflower-eared, thick-headed, gap-toothed cretins really wasn’t my thing.

Now, maybe I was prejudiced back then. Maybe my opinion was coloured by the actions of a few. Maybe. What I definitely didn’t do though was give the fans a chance. You couldn’t have paid me to go to a rugby match back then. Well, I have a confession to make. I went to the rugby recently and loved every bit of it. So much so, it’s coloured my view of our beautiful game. Let me explain.

A friend offered me a couple of tickets to the Six Nations in Cardiff last weekend. Wales were playing Ireland, it sounded like it could be fun, the Reds weren’t playing until the Monday night and I was up for it. More than that I was intrigued because, I have to admit, I’ve often cast an admiring glance at how rugby fans conduct themselves. Now, I’m sure there are examples of when rugby fans have let themselves down but, in my opinion, these incidents appear very few and far between. Certainly, the rugby going experience doesn’t ever seem to be regularly tempered with running any sort of gauntlet at a rival ground for example.

International Football - FIFA World Cup 2006 - Group Six - Wales v Austria

We made our way into Cardiff city centre on a balmy Saturday afternoon and it was apparent there was only one thing that mattered: the rugby. The streets were adorned with Six Nations flags, fans mixed with each other, young and old, men and women. Cliched as it may read there was a genuine sense of carnival sprinkled with respect about the place. Sure there was ‘banter’, if you like, but it was all good-natured and there was a distinct lack of poison in the air. These people were actually enjoying each other’s company. It was bizarre. Now, I know some people will disagree but you don’t get that at football. You just don’t. Let me give you a personal recent example of fans mixing on the way to a game.

I went to the Man City match at the start of the month with a friend. We parked up in our usual spec near Anfield Cemetery before making the short trip to the ground. As we walked through the cemetery itself a handful of visiting City fans were swaggering ahead of us: all cagoules and attitude. Noticing us, and our colours, one of them, beetroot-red, veins popping, eyes on stalks, turned and started a ‘conversation’ with my mate that went like this,

City fan: “How far is the stadium from here?”

Mate: “About 10 minutes away — depending on how quickly you walk, like.”

City fan: “I’m absolutely whizzing off my tits so I’ll be there in five. So you’re Liverpool are you? How did you feel then?”

Mate: “What do you mean?”

City fan: “How did you feel when Gerrard slipped over and f***ed your season? Yaya would never have done that. He’s f***ing class, Yaya. Gerrard’s f***ing shit. Mate.”

At this point the geared-up individual was told to reign it in by his mates before they all “ended up underneath a tombstone of their own”.We had no intention of engaging in any sort of physical confrontation, to be honest, but there was an assumption something was going to happen. Sadly, that attitude for me has become the norm. There wasn’t going to be any trouble, but if I’m honest, I was expecting some and they clearly were. Anyway, back to Cardiff.

It was time to hit the pub. I assumed, much like the footy, there’d be certain segregated ale houses. If there’s any hint of truth around the stereotypes about the Welsh and Irish nation’s drinking habits surely putting them together with a few bevvys is bound to be a powder keg situation? It’ll go off at least once I thought. Wrong.

Walking into the boozer the first thing that caught my eye was the wall-to-wall, shoulder to shoulder Welsh and Irish fans in facepaint, respective shirts, wigs etc side by side, laughing and joking together. Typically, I managed to spill a chap’s pint almost right away. He was a big bloke, with lashings of gold jewellery and gnarled knuckles too. His response? “No problem, mate.” Eh? I’ve, literally, seen grown men, fans of the same team no less, pulled apart over the same scenario at the football. After a pint I became increasingly curious. Maybe this place is a one off so we headed further into town where there were more fans, more flags and a lot more booze to sink before the game kicked off at 2.30pm.

By 2pm our party were, admittedly, fairly well-oiled and there still wasn’t a hint of grief in the offing. The fans went all out with the singing too and I mean actual singing. No generic, bilious, scathing, snidey jibes revelling in one nation’s social or economic difficulties. None of that. No chance. This lot were belting out near note perfect stirring renditions of traditional anthems with pride. Hearing ‘Land Of My Fathers’ sung by the Welsh in a pub applauded by the Irish really was quite something. That was when it struck me: there was no tension. It was a big game (from what I can gather) but while there was a lot of emotion or desire and no shortage of rivalry,it wasn’t spilling over into any, well, silliness.

International Football - 2010 FIFA World Cup Qualifier - Group 4 - Wales v Finland - Training

By 2.15pm it was time to head to the Millenium (been said a lot but, for my money, a far superior stadium to Wembley). Once in our seats the day’s biggest revelation reared its head. All the fans were still sitting side by side, drinking. Sports fans beside each other consuming alcohol while watching the game — what a concept. An egg-shaped ball rather than a spherical one — in the same stadium — means the Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol, etc) Act 1985 doesn’t apply. Work that one out.

When the Welsh fans started singing I thought there’d be an uneasiness amongst the Irish contingent but there wasn’t. They just sang back. The atmosphere was brilliant. It was passionate and emotional but there was no hate, no vulgarity and no violence either spoken, sung or otherwise. There were families there genuinely enjoying the spectacle unfolding in front of them.

A Welsh player went down writhing in pain at one point. There was literally not a single voice among the 70,000 or so fans raised in anger about time wasting or feigned injury. When the player was carried off both sets of fans applauded him. Both sets.

Wales went on to beat Ireland 23-16 on the day. Surely, I thought, when the fans all spill onto the streets together at the same time there’d be chaos. Nope. What about in the pub after the game? Trouble? Nope. The fans stood side by side again, with the Irish acknowledging and accepting defeat graciously while the Welsh, although thoroughly enjoying the win over their Celtic neighbours, showed restraint and humility befitting of a grand sporting occasion.

All of this really begs the question: why would I assume things should be any different? Are the people that go to the rugby really that different to the fans that regularly attend football? Now, obviously, I didn’t carry out an in-depth social or demographic investigation but from speaking to people there they were mostly all football fans and nobody could quite explain it. There’s a disconnect somewhere. Could football fans go to the game and sit side by side? Can they have a bevvy at the game without it being a bloodbath? Why are the authorities so convinced it can’t be done? (See Merseyside Police et al re the derby at Goodison). I’ve seen the proof that it can — can’t football follow suit or are we so ingrained in the idea that as fans we can’t stand side by side, watch a game, and be smart? All the football fans I know are decent, law-abiding citizens. I don’t know any hooligans.

It’s not just me either. To get a bit of background I spoke to Mark Coughlan, staff writer at Sport magazine, a regular rugby goer and also a Crystal Palace fan:

“I’ve spent years listening to rugby and football fans moan about each other, but having been to hundreds of matches of both shape of ball, I’m hopefully in a good position to judge both.

“The problem is comparisons are quite hard to make, but in modern society, everyone is obsessed with judging everything on the same level. Having said that, on a basic level, there is one thing that football fans can learn from rugby: supporting your team doesn’t have to mean hating the fan who doesn’t.”

So what makes rugby so special then? Don’t the fans ever clash? How come the atmosphere seems to be so fundamentally less vitriolic than footy?

“The major appeal of a rugby atmosphere — before, during and after — is the mixing of fans in pubs and in the stands. Yes, it’s fun to sing about and talk up your own team, but the enjoyment is in taking the mickey out of one another and singing songs back and forth. Football has a much more hardcore following, but it seems to boil down to this belief that everyone who doesn’t support your team is wrong. If football fans could learn to love their team, but appreciate that the guy wearing the wrong colour shirt nearby doesn’t actually affect the action on the pitch, then the terraces would be a much happier place.

“You’ll have seen it first hand in terms of that interaction and fun, but it’s hard to pick out much else that separates the two sports. I think the essential point is that going to the rugby is an all-day event, which involves the build-up, the game itself and the enjoyment afterwards. I very very rarely drive to a rugby event because it is a social thing, whereas at football, I am there for those 90 minutes and nothing else.”

Don’t the Welsh and Irish hate the English though? Isn’t there a whole thing about not minding who you lose to as long as it’s not the English?

“In terms of examples, I have an absolute bucketload. I think the best recent one comes from last Saturday (Wales v Ireland). After the game — before which my Welsh mate and myself stood arm in arm and sang both anthems, then shook hands and wished each other luck — myself and my mate headed to a busy sports bar in the centre of Cardiff to watch the Scotland v England game. While there, we happened across a group of three English lads, in full England regalia, who had travelled to Cardiff to watch the Wales v Ireland game, have a laugh and then watch the England game on TV. The next hour involved sing songs from Welsh, Irish and the English fans inside and outside the pub, and pretty much made us miss most of the second half of the game that was on TV because we were having such a laugh.”

What about when you go abroad following rugby?

“One other example would be the amount of French kit I always come back from when I go to see my club side (Munster rugby) play abroad. It’s always a weekend away with my dad, my brothers and a few uncles etc, which involves a few days on the piss and a game somewhere in France. At least three separate occasions have seen the night end with 15-20 of us around a table (half us, half a group of French lads) having a sing song and a few drinks, followed by swapping of jerseys. So I have about three or four different shirts of random French clubs at home, and my various Munster shirts are now dotted around random French houses.”

So there you have it. Now, don’t get me wrong, I won’t be sacrificing my devotion to the Reds and I’ll certainly take football over rugby any day of the week still but, really, there’s a lot we, as football fans, can learn from rugby. If you get the chance to go and check out a bit of egg chasing I’d advise you to give it a go. It certainly opened my eyes.


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