Sport Rugby

Thursday 14 December 2017

Neil Francis: Rugby-playing youth are, I'm afraid, a fat lot of good

Future is bleak as obesity and teenagers' apathy to sport fast becoming the norm, writes Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

It was an eventful summer, it still trips on slowly, hopefully to a balmy conclusion. The Lions tour seems like a very long time ago. Some of our boys have been busy, very busy. One of them I've heard has flown 45,000 miles this summer – that's twice around the world or once around Warren Gatland's head.

Drico gave him some during the week, and deservedly so. As Jimmy Hoffa said in his pomp, "I have many faults but being wrong isn't one of them". O'Driscoll was absolutely right to give out about Gatland's decision to drop him in the final game. There is nothing that evokes or elicits bile in sports fans more than the recognition that sentiment just does not have a place in professional sport, not even in reserve. Gatland doesn't do sentiment, neither does O'Driscoll and he should have been picked on merit. O'Driscoll knew he was good enough for the team. What happened was an injustice but there were many perpetuated on that tour – Tom Court is now a Lion and, as somebody said to me, he's as useful as a store detective in a piano shop.

It was a blessed relief that the tour ended when it did. Nobody can celebrate mediocrity more than Sky. It was a dull series watched with a single-digit-resting heart rate. The day after the final test was gloriously sunny and I went to the beach to forget. As a kid I just loved going to the seaside, simple pleasures – salt water, swimming, splashing, burying, digging, rock-pooling and crab-throwing at my sisters. My parents were intelligent, enlightened people who accepted me for what I was – a punishment from God.

A day at the beach kept me away from many activities that couldn't be supervised. On the beach they could at least see what I was getting up to. The energy expended for the eight or nine hours could have powered Fukushima for a week.

I brought my three boys to one of the many magnificent beaches on the Wicklow coastline, Magheramore. The water was cold but stopped short of that authentic Irish-gonad-shrivelling temperature. We got in for about 40 minutes. What was interesting was that although there were hundreds of people on the beach, very few of them actually ventured into the water. Why come all that way just to lie on the sand?

We went for a walk and I sat down and let the boys play. People-watching on a beach is never less than interesting but, from a sporting perspective, the demographic caught my attention. There was a wide diversity of sporting choices available: two soccer balls, one sliotar, two tennis balls, one of those daft high-vis orange balls you have to keep up in the air using two ridiculous bats, and, maybe because they all had been Stasi-style-programmed for the previous seven weeks, four rugby balls.

As an experienced people-watcher there is the certainty that these people playing sport on the beach don't engage in their chosen sport for their own enjoyment – they do it to get noticed. If that was the case all groups should have upped sticks and gone home. It is disquieting that most of the new converts to the game of rugby are clueless to what is happening on the pitch – that should not discourage them because the cognoscenti and old school are also equally clueless. It is the rugby equivalent of all men are born equal but some are more equal than others. I hope that doesn't lose anything in translation.

All of the four groups I observed were trying to make an impression either within or without their group. It would be charitable to say that the fundamentals had eluded their grasp.

These people – about 20 in total – owned a rugby ball. They had purchased it somewhere, so the very least you would expect would be that they could pass it properly. Not one could consistently pass the ball accurately, ie, into the hands of somebody not more than 10 metres away. Not one could spin-pass the ball without significant wobble. Nobody could generate pace in a pass – any attempt to pass off their left hand led to the belief that the ball was intoxicated. There seemed to be no sense of embarrassment concerning their maladroitness. At the very least, if you are going to a public beach, be able to pass the thing.

As junior rugby has died and club sides are reduced to senior seconds and an under 20, it has become painfully obvious that there are two elements in the rugby domain. The one per cent elite who play the professional game, and the 99 per cent who don't play and might never have played at all but just watch, or people who are barely capable of retaining what they learnt at school. Once they leave their alma mater at 18, that's it: cheeseburgers, beer and a warm seat.

Even the two kids who could patently play and were practising box-kicking of all things down the far end of the beach struggled. On a windless day, the ability of two reasonably athletic kids to catch a ball that went no more than 30 metres in the sky was witheringly inept and they had a bevy of dollies in tow looking on.

As a reflection of our population in general, the body shapes here were deeply disturbing. Whatever genetic deficits they may have inherited from their father – my sons have gangly, lanky arms and legs, ribs and bony shoulders staring out awkwardly at you and not a pick on them. It is significant that among the selection of salad dodgers and muffin tops on the beach that day the constant exception to the rule had eastern European accents.

We as a nation are now not far behind the trend of obesity in the UK. When I was a child you had to look for the fat kid on the beach, now it's hard to find the skinny ones. Fizzy diabetes juice, trans fats, saturated fats and a creeping trend of children opting out of the coterie of underage sporting bodies and facilities which no longer attract the mind and bodies of young children. It leaves many children – a growing number of whom do absolutely nothing – who do not even watch sport. That is becoming normal. That trend seems irreversible. What will the body shapes be like in 30 years?

I watched in horror a couple of seasons ago as a cameraman went up the line on the All Blacks during the national anthem before the game. More than half of the team had tattoos – islanders, rugby league converts and rugby union bad boys are excepted but the rest of them . . . a little bit of me died that morning.

The beach? I did talk about people-watching – I didn't know whether to watch them or read them. I don't understand tattoos – most of the people sporting them that day would have had difficulty running a mile.

Not too many Lions in waiting on the beach that day – nobody dreaming of making the grade, any grade. The magnetism of Test rugby, the thrill of the series win, the adulation, the eternal friendships, quite possibly dimmed after Australia 2013. Sometimes better to watch . . . unless it's a threesome.

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