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Big laughs and big hits all part of old rugby ethos

Humour, as somebody said, is emotional chaos remembered in tranquillity. And those tranquil beings emerging from the Stadio Flaminio today will be only too aware that this Six Nations affair is something a fair bit more than just 'big hits'.

And even the advent of professionalism has not dinted the laughter and the craic; obviously Dorothy Parker wasn't well acquainted with rugby when she claimed that wisecracking was simply calisthenics with words.

Clearly, unlike my good self, she never had the privilege of a chat with Jammie Clinch. It was Bill Beaumont, that highly respected captain of England, who wrote that rugby "has given me some great moments and some great laughs too, even if the joke has a few times been on me. If there was a Five Nations championship for wit, however, the Irish would do the Grand Slam every year."

Spike Milligan was a rugby enthusiast and a supporter of Ireland. When in the British Army at the end of the war, he was drafted into a rugby team by a domineering sergeant major named Griffiths. The first team they played against were described by Spike as "things" and Spike said he wouldn't play "unless I heard these 'things' talk first".

Spike closed his eyes, made a tackle and was knocked out cold. When he came to he was lying in a sort of shallow grave and play was at the other end of the field. "I just lifted my head and seen them -- all of them -- charging back towards me when Griff shouted, 'For God's sake, don't get up or you'll have us all offside'."

And then there's Dave Allen. He once told the tale of an England versus South Africa match at Twickenham "and the last unbearably exciting minutes when England were almost over the Springbok line and a demonstrator -- nude of course -- dashed on to the pitch and stopped the game. An enormous fella near me leapt to his feet and said: 'Not now, you silly twit.' You know, any other time, but not when England were poised to score."

Then there was Richard Burton, who in between Hamlet, Coriolanus and the rest at the Old Vic, played for a team in what he termed "a Welsh mining village with all the natural beauty of the valleys of the moon".

Burton was a good player and like Ireland's Richard Harris, would willingly have conceded all his acting fame for just one wearing of the national team jersey. He recalls his last match in that Welsh village. The opposition spoke Welsh but Burton did too and he survived that last game, even after hearing an opponent summing up the game plan with wondering "which is the bloody film star?"

But that's sport. That's rugby. And thank goodness, it seeps plentifully even into the sacrosanct world of the Six Nations.

Irish Independent