Does rugby need mud?

What’s more important in sport, innovation or tradition? Progress or sentiment?

Today Saracens took on Exeter Chiefs in the first rugby premiership game to be played on their new plastic pitch. The Allianz arena contains a 4G surface that is designed to stand up to 30 toothless men simultaneously driving each other into the ground, as well as the British weather that has a history of turning grass pitches into abysmal quagmires.

Last weekend England travelled to Dublin to play Ireland in the 6 Nations. It rained. It rained before kick-off, it poured during the first half, it bucketed during half time and it lashed during the second half. Needless to say, this affected the pitch and therefore the standard of rugby on display (it ended 6-12 with all points coming from penalties).

David Flatman, former prop for England and Bath described the Aviva stadium in his column in Sport magazine, as “more farmland than fairway”. Yet he went on to praise the wondrous mud-lashed winter rugby for all its squelchy glory,

“Rugby at this time of year is grim. The ball is sopping wet and covered in sludge, therefore wide passes are ill-advised, the ground is ploughed up by the gorillas up front, so those who once skated across the pitch are reduced to a plod; and any aesthetically pleasing footwork or snazzy sidesteps are washed away with the rain”

“So why do we need this stodgy, rugby-by-darkness in our lives? Because it’s totally wonderful, that’s why….I am also convinced that no bloke can call himself a bloke until he’s had a good scrap in the mud”.

Designers can make plastic look like grass but they can’t recreate the mud that Flatman speaks of. Is the joy of of sliding over the line for a try, or tackling your teammate because you can’t distinguish the kits or digging molehills out of your ears for hours afterwards resigned to the good old days? Will mock pitches improve the game as the ball sound be easier to handle and ground less slippery under foot? Or will a lack of grass-stained shirts make the line-up of super toned players mean a trip to the rugby looks more like watching a crowded athletics meet? This doesn’t conjuror up images akin to man versus man were adjectivessuch as dogfight, battlefield or trenches appropriately tell the story of the game. Ex-pro Flatman is adamant, “we need mud in our game”.

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Sports Toughest Man

Over the weekend just past we saw many examples of awesome physical beings demonstrating their attributes in their chosen sporting amphitheatre.

An early instance was one that couldn’t be missed if you have got up from the sofa, left the telly buzzing, put the kettle on and whipped up your own half-time pies from scratch such is the sheer size of Everton’s Victor Anichebe. The man-mountain, who scored an equaliser against Aston Villa in the Premier league, surely must be fuelled on a diet of medium-rare prized Hereford steaks and an endless supply of spinach (although the Nigerian bears a closer resemblance to Bluto rather than Popeye!)

The 6 Nations kicked off on in Cardiff on Saturday afternoon when big men were not difficult to come by. Despite missing upwards of ten of their preferred playing squad the Welsh could still rely on front row hard man Adam Jones, who settles the scales at around 120kg. His opposite number however, Irelands Mike Ross, beat him to the pies, not the tries making the aforementioned overworked scales squeal under a daunting 127kgs.

I make no apology for pointing out that rugby players are fit. Close observation/ ogling of the Italian and French players backs up this scientific precision. Each side are a fit, strong, sculpted collection of 1st XV Erotes godliness.  And they have stamina, yes, I admire their stamina.

Then there was a whole other category of gym-moulded individuals in the form of the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens. American footballers force their physicality on the world through constant posing and very nearly tighter than skin-tight lycra. Although they wear a considerable amount of body armour so it ain’t all a precious contribution from the almighty above, even if some of them believe they are Gods gift. The Super Bowl is an over the top celebration of a game that essentially only requires one man per team to have a skill while the rest either shove people out of the way or run a lot, usually in a straight line. They love to show off and the public love to see them brag.

Tonight will see the focus shift to a sportsman with immense physical capability, the ability to endure pain and agony like no other, to keep going when he has long since been written off, to get back up when he has been knocked down, beaten, bruised and trampled. All this on a diet of jelly babies and sugary tea. Champion jump jockey Tony McCoy has suffered for his sport. He has fractured his T12 vertebrae, shattered two others, has metal strips in his spine, broken both shoulder blades, ankles, cheekbones, ribs, a wrist, a leg, collar bone, fingers and teeth.

A mud splattered A P McCoy at Worcester races

McCoy at Worcester races (Photo credit: gordon2208)

A sportsman doesn’t have to be pumped, amped and ripped like a Ken doll on steroids. He doesn’t have to flaunt his physical attributes in your face like a shirtless Ronaldo. Jockeys are usually small and they have to make certain weights to get the rides on the best horse. McCoy is 5ft 10ins and around 10 stone 4lbs (he has ridden at 10 stone), although the addition of steel plates, nuts and bolts holding his joints together might add a few pounds.

A different breed – The life of a jump jockey, is on BBC radio 5 Live tonight at 7.30pm. Listen to hear the story of a sportsman who is a physical enigma.