A funny thing occurs when I tell people I used to play rugby for my house: absolutely nobody believes me. Scoffs are heard as far off as Trafalgar Square when I recount stories of scrum-half school heroics; expletives of disbelief are muttered into pints of ale. But as “slight” a frame as I have and as “frilly” as some of my interests appear, it’s hardly a huge stretch of the imagination that I once bounded up and down soggy fields in house colours, being spear-tackled by hefty bully boys and easily sprinting away from players for whom the kindest compliment for their playing prowess was ‘convenient obesity.’
A recent conversation with friends and acquaintances turned to the subject and many a laugh was had at my expense. Of course, the image of professional rugby is that of towering warriors, with necks like tree trunks and a Neanderthal silhouette; “at school” I explained “it was very different.” We were discussing the 2011 World Cup, which is being held in New Zealand, and the misfortune that none of the games occur at hours during which drinking would be seen to be reasonable. This inspired commentary from the group on the pleasures of the pub; the loud roars, the patriotic atmosphere and, of course, the excuse of wearing a rugby shirt.
This last point caused the sort of noise-cocktail of extreme disapproval and hearty support normally experienced in the House of Commons. My ears pricked as I heard the arguments advanced.
The problem with rugby shirts, as far as the detractors could see, is that they are sport shirts which should only be worn on the sports field; got a rugby match? Wear your team shirt. Going to watch a rugby match? Dress as normal. As their argument developed I could hear that hatred of ‘lads’ sport gear culture was a central pillar; branded sport goods were not acceptable wear for grown gentlemen. Rugby shirts were, to them, only considered tolerable by the majority because of their connection to preppy, private school style; they believed they represented the disappointing decline of menswear standards.
The supporters considered virtue in their being a smarter version of sports clothing, particularly the classic hooped designs with white collars. They admitted full replica rugby shirts with numbers and sponsorship was a little too much but they admired the retro sportsman aesthetic of the design that provided gentlemen with a comfortable, casual item that was perfect for weekends; worn over shirts and ties and under cord jackets; a defiant banner of the sportsman when his body has failed him. They also differentiated the shirts from the normal sports replica shirt for sports such as football that become the army colours of an aggressive mob.
Unusually for this love/hate issue, I sit proudly on the fence. I cannot profess to intensely dislike or admire the rugby shirt; I no longer tend to wear them, but I confess to doing so at University – a cliché if ever there was one – and fondly remember their versatility and varsity aesthetic.