Richard Burton Played Rugby And Lived To Write About It

April 6th, 2008at 01:40pm Posted by Eli

This is surprisingly hilarious:

…I knew people like a one-armed inside half – he’d lost an arm in the First World War – who played with murderous brilliance for Cwmavon for years when I was a boy. He was particularly adept, this one, at stopping a forward bursting through from the line-out with a shattering iron-hard thrust from his stump as he pulled him on to it with the other. He also used the misplaced sympathy of innocent visiting players who didn’t go at him with the same delivery as they would against a two-armed man, as a ploy to lure them on to concussion and other organic damage. They learned quickly, or were told after the match when they had recovered sufficiently from Jimmy’s ministrations to be able to understand the spoken word, that going easy on Jimmy-One-Arm was first cousin to stepping into a grave and waiting for the shovels to start. A great many people who played unwarily against Jimmy died unexpectedly in their early forties. They were lowered solemnly into the grave with all match honours to the slow version of Sospan Fach. They say that the conductor at these sad affairs was noticeably one-armed but that could be exaggeration again.

As I said, it’s difficult for me to know where to start so I’ll begin with the end. The last shall be first, as it is said, so I’ll tell you about the last match I ever played in.

I had played the game representatively from the age of ten until those who employed me in my profession, which is that of actor, insisted that I was a bad insurance risk against certain dread teams in dead-end valleys who would have little respect, no respect, or outright disrespect for what I was pleased to call my face….

Apart from wanting to preserve my natural beauty, it would affect continuity, they said, if my nose was straight on Friday in the medium shot and was bent towards my left ear on Monday for the close-up….  So to this day there is a clause in my contracts that forbids me from flying my own plane, skiing and playing the game of rugby football, the inference being that it would be all right to wrestle with a Bengal tiger five thousand miles away, but not to play against, shall we say, Pontypool at home.  I decided that they had some valid arguments after my last game.

It was played against a village whose name is known only to its inhabitants and crippled masochists drooling quietly in kitchen corners, a mining village with all the natural beauty of the valleys of the moon.. and just as welcoming, with a team composed almost entirely of colliers. I hadn’t played for four or five years but was fairly fit, I thought, and the opposition was bottom of the third class and reasonably beatable. Except, of course on their home ground. I should have thought of that…

…Though I was working like a dog at the Vic playing Hamlet, Coriolanus, Caliban, The Bastard in King John, and Toby Belch, it wasn’t the right kind of training for these great knotted gnarled things from the burning bowels of the earth. In my teens I had lived precariously on the lip of first-class rugby by virtue of knowing every trick in the canon, evil and otherwise, by being a bad bad loser, but chiefly, and perhaps only because I was very nippy off the mark…. Genuine class of course doesn’t need size though sometimes I forgot this. Once I played rather condescendingly against a Cambridge college and noted that my opposite number seemed to be shorter than I was and in rugby togs looked like a schoolboy… However this blond stripling gave me a terrible time. He was faster and harder and wordlessly ruthless and it was no consolation to find out his name afterwards because it meant nothing at the time…. This anonymity was called Steele-Bodger and a more onomatopoeic name for its owner would be hard to find. He was, I promise you, steel and he did, I give you my word, bodger. Say his name through clenched teeth and you’ll see what I mean….

In this match, this last match played against troglodytes, burned to the bone by the fury of their work, bow-legged and embittered because they weren’t playing for or hadn’t played for and would never play for Cardiff or Swansea or Neath or Aberavon, men who smiled seldom and when they did it was like scalpels, trained to the last ounce by slashing and hacking away neurotically at the frightened coal face for 7 ½ hours a day, stalactitic, tree-rooted, curved out or granite by a rough and ready sledge hammer and clinker, against these hard volumes of which I was the soft cover paper-back edition. I discovered some truths very soon. I discovered just after the first scrum for instance that it was time I ran for the bus and not for their outside-half. He had red hair, a blue-white face and no chin. Standing up straight his hands were loosely on a level with his calves and when the ball and I arrived exultantly together at his stock-still body, a perfect set-up you would say, and when I realized that I was supine and he was lazily kicking the ball into touch I realized that I had forgotten that trying to intimidate a feller like that was like trying a cow a mandrill, and that he had all the graceful willowy-give and sapling-bend of stressed concrete.

That was only the outside-half.

From then on I was elbowed, gouged, dug, planted, raked, hoed, kicked a great deal, sandwiched, and once humiliatingly taken from behind with nobody in front of me when I had nothing to do but run fifteen yards to score….


…After being gardened, mown and rolled a little more, I gave that up, asked the Captain of our team if he didn’t think it would be a better idea to hide me deeper in the pack. I had often, I reminded him, played right prop, my neck was strong and my right arm had held its own with most. He gave me a long look, a trifle pitying perhaps but orders were given and in I went to the maelstrom and now the real suffering began. Their prop with whom I was to share cheek and jowl for the next eternity, didn’t believe in razor blades since he grew them on his chin and shaved me thoroughly for the rest of the game taking most of my skin in the process, delicacy not being his strong point. He used his prodigious left arm to paralyze mine and pull my head within an inch or two of the earth, then rolled my head around his, first taking my ear between his fore-finger and thumb, humming “Rock of Ages” under his breath.


I drank more than my share of beer in the home team’s pub, joined in the singing and found that the enemies were curiously shy and withdrawn until the beer had hit the proper spot. Nobody mentioned my performance on the field.

There was only one moment of wild expectation on my part when a particularly grim sullen and taciturn member of the other side said suddenly with what passed shockingly for a smile splitting the slag heap of his face like an earth tremor,

“Come outside with us will ‘ew?” There was another beauty with him.

“Where to?” I asked.

“Never ‘ew mind,” he said, “you’ll be awright. Jest come with us.”


We went out into the cruel February night and made our way to the outside Gents – black-painted concrete with one black pipe for flushing, wet to the open sky. We stood side by side in silence. They began to void. So did I. There had been beer enough for all. I waited for a possible compliment on my game that afternoon – I had after all done one or two good things if only by accident. I waited. But there was nothing but the sound of wind and water. I waited and silently followed them back into the bar.

Finally I said: “What did you want to tell me?”

“Nothing,” the talkative one said.

“Well, what did you ask me out there for then?’”

“Well,” the orator said, “Well… us two is brothers and we wanted to tell our mam that we’d ‘ad a…”

…“Well, we jest wanted to tell our mam that we had passed water with Richard Burton” he said with triumphant care.

Great stuff.  I have nothing to add, really…

(h/t Cap’n Goto)

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Movies,Sports

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