Wednesday 21 March 2018

Poet tackles a whole different ball game

Sir John Collings Squire, by John Mansbridge, 1932-1933, from London's National Portrait Gallery
Sir John Collings Squire, by John Mansbridge, 1932-1933, from London's National Portrait Gallery

Ulick O'Connor

Autumn is here and with it comes Rugbyitis. It looks this year as if we are in with a chance in the World Cup. For a small country we have a fine record.

But there are usually huge gaps in ­between us coming home with the goods. The curious thing is that unlike cricket, boxing and soccer, poets ­haven't thought it worthwhile to write much about the delights of the oval ball game. At least that's what I thought until I came across 'The Rugger Match', a long poem by John Squire, which is a near masterpiece evoking in the reader the spirit of the game.

'Jack' Squire had a strange career; he hadn't fought in World War I owing to an eye injury.

In the post-war years he dominated Fleet Street with his wide knowledge and cunning insight of almost every subject that a journalist should know and others besides. The Squirearchy is what his set was known as.

If you read his poem out loud it can bring you on to the field and evoke the essence of rugby, the sad melancholy of a mild winter's day and as well the essential quality of this most unpredictable of games.

Squire himself played rugby well into his forties and was also the captain of a cricket side which included Evelyn Waugh and his brother Alec Waugh.

The rugger match

The ball soars, slackens, keeps upright with effort

Then floats between posts and falls ignored, to the ground,

Its grandeur gone, while the touch-judge flaps his flag,

Nothing can happen now. The attention drifts.

There's a pause; I become a separate thing again,

Almost forget the game, forget my neighbours,

And the noise fades in my ears to a dim rumour.

I watch the lines and colours of field and buildings,

So simple and soft and few in the vapoury air,

I am held by the brightening orange lights of the matches

Perpetually pricking the haze across the ground,

And the scene is tinged with quiet melancholy,

Still avenues or harbours seen from the sea.

Sudden one phantom form on the other wing

Emerges from nothingness, is singled out,

Curving in a long sweep like a flying gull.

Through the thick fog, swifter as borne by wind,

Swerves at the place where the corner-flag must be,

And runs, by Heaven he's over! and runs, and runs.

John Squire 1884-1958

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