ADDRESS TO THE VILLAGERS RUGBY CLUB
SATURDAY 8 MARCH 2014
Below is an edited version of my address to a fine gathering of Villagers stalwarts at Brookside. I found myself among some of the club’s great characters and icons.
In order to focus on what I trust was the prime message of what I had to say, I will be omitting some of the light-hearted anecdotes and names of the Villagers giants that I referred to in the introduction to my address. I will however, include one or two additional perspectives to lend weight to what I wanted to say.
Approached by the incomparable Dennis Nick, the reason I was asked to be one of the speakers at this event was a result of an email I sent to Bossie Clarke in February of this year. Here is the email:
I trust all is well with you.
This may or may not be appropriate … I was remembering a suggestion from you at the Olympics rugby get-together some time last year that you may want me to address the Villagers team/club regarding the very bold move to remain an amateur club. This decision strikes a deep chord in me. As you know, to be an amateur club does not mean that it is non-professional … in other ways.
With the start of the season looming, I left it to the last minute to renew my season tickets as I honestly debated whether or not I wanted to endure once more some of the unimaginative stuff that I had to watch last year. Yes, there were some good games but quite frankly, I miss the poetry and intelligence of what the game is ultimately about. I do not believe in the philosophy “look at the scoreboard …” as if six or seven wins in a row, without tries, or where the losing team just happened to be worse than ours can be translated as a victory.
To me, Villagers is a club with an immense history and lest we forget … an identity to be proud of. I would be prepared to address this identity … to show how it shapes the identity of individuals and ultimately why the poetry of rugby matters … and ultimately, why Villagers matters.
All the best for this year
In 1779, in Nottingham, England a newspaper report described an event that would become part of English legend. It involved a young man by the name of Ned Ludd. It is understood, but not confirmed that in a fit of rage, he smashed two early automated knitting machines, otherwise known as stocking frames. From then, like the somewhat imaginary figure of Robin Hood – also from Nottingham – his reputation preceded him and if anyone sabotaged one of their frames, they would say “Ned Ludd did it”. The expression became part of the regional language but it became globally significant in the years 1811-1817, fifty nine years before the founding of the Villagers Rugby Club. These early nineteenth century dates involved widespread riots in Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and eventually Yorkshire when labour-saving automated spinning frames, power looms and knitting machines were introduced to the industry as labour saving devices that could be supervised by unskilled workers. Threatened with the loss, not only of their jobs, but of their traditional handcrafted skills, the artisans went on the rampage, destroying the new technology. It was a revolution against the potential human costs of the early, industrial revolution itself. To them, the move towards automation was not only a threat to the loss of jobs, but to a way of life and more … to a loss of community. They were quickly branded, in a derogatory tone, as ‘Luddites’ – people who were against progress, automation and technology … people against the flow. Elsewhere, and for the same reasons, they were branded as “romantics”.
You may well ask “What does this have to do with Villagers?”
In 2012 and for dire economic reasons, the Villagers Rugby Club decided that it would abandon the payment of salaries and bonuses to their players and return to the amateur tradition. It was a bold move … entirely against the flow of the demands of a professional system. It did not come without a cost. Fifty of the eighty five playing members of the Villagers RFC left the club. Why they left may seem obvious, but that is not my concern. And neither is it my concern today to knock or smash the professional era. Like the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, it is here to stay and that’s fine, but that does stop me from being critical of our local, over-defensive and sometimes, brainless, automated approach to the game. Winning ugly is exactly that – ugly. Perhaps, one of the reasons for this is that the game of rugby itself is so poorly evolved as a sport. I make this judgement on the grounds that no other sport that I know, has its rules changed as frequently as the rules of rugby union. I have lost count of the experimental and changed laws to rugby in the past forty years or so. If I am not mistaken, the game of soccer has had one or two minor changes in the past thirty years … for example, when a player kicks a ball to his own goalkeeper, the goalie may not handle that ball. However, he may do so if the ball is headed back to him. I don’t think tennis has had a rule change in the past fifty years. Rugby on the other hand is in the constant process of impending or legislated changes of rules. The irony of course, is that these changes are meant to speed up the game, to allow more running and less kicking – the very opposite of what has actually transpired. On a lighter note, could this be an indication of the heightened intelligence of rugby players who find all manner of ways of exploiting the rules in a way that makes it more defensive? But, I digress.
What does interest me about that 2012 decision is why the other thirty five players remained at Villagers. What kept them here? What is the glue … what is the chemistry … what is it about Villagers that holds them, that makes them choose to stay? In the same vein, what is it that the supporters of this club in attendance here today, have rallied to the call of its president, Bossie Clarke to reaffirm itself as an amateur club? The fact that those players who remained were largely from the under-twenty ranks, may reflect an economic dynamic different to that of the senior league, but I would like to think it was something else or, perhaps better put, it included something else. The question is, “What is that ‘something else?’ That ‘something’ I believe, is intrinsic to the identity of this club. It is about its values, its chemistry, its early beginnings in 1876 and more … the fact that it has a remarkable story to tell. The word I am looking for to describe that ‘something’ is the word, quality. And it cannot be measured. How can you measure quality? How does one measure the quality of a certain presence, of elegance or dignity? How does one measure loyalty or the depth of friendships? How can anyone measure or prescribe the essence of a free spirit? The answer is simple … you cannot measure these qualities. However, one thing is for sure – you know when it is not there, when it is lacking, when it is not up to scratch. Quality cannot be bought. Looking back on a long association with this club not only as opponents but as a club that has nurtured or embraced some South Africa’s rugby icons – Tommy Gentles, Doug Hopwood, Dave Stewart, John Gainsford, Roy McCallum, Peter Whipp, Morne Du Plessis, Nick Mallet and more. Please forgive me for this very incomplete list of Villagers giants including its other great characters.
As I speak, I am reminded of the role of Robin Williams who acts as a school master in the film, “The Dead Poets Society”. In it, he brings his class of adolescent boys to a corridor, rich in display of photographs of previous sporting teams and final year classes of the same school. He gathers them around one particular photograph of a group of boys boldly challenging the lens of the camera, all of them, long since dead. “Come closer”, Williams urges “… what can you hear?” He was asking them to listen to the legacy of their school, to the dreams of those upon whose shoulders they were standing, today.
I would urge you all to look differently into the faces and eyes of the former great and unsung heroes in the old team pictures of your club. What are they whispering? Could it be … “don’t forget the spirit and legacy of this club … don’t forget that our dreams are your dreams …”
As you know, there are already those who have criticized and will continue to challenge Villagers’ decision to remain an amateur club. Among them are those who are adamant that that the club will not survive unless it is able to compete successfully in the professional premier league. In other words, for a club to be sustainable it has to be able to compete at the highest level. And I agree. However, I do not agree with the implication that an amateur club will never be able to compete with the professionals. In its current position, the prospect of promotion to the premier league may appear rather slim but this should not stop the club from attempting to do so. Herein is the challenge – can it be done? I believe it can be done, but with certain key provisos which I will later, outline.
Meanwhile, if I come across as being serious, then please know that being an amateur is at its depths, a serious matter. If I come across as a romantic, then please know, I do not apologise for the fact. Yes, I am a romantic as well as an occasional idealist, but not in a sentimental sense. I do not believe in utopias. Instead I choose to align myself with those who expect adventure around every corner but who, in the words of the late South African poet Stephen Watson are capable of “placing oneself in that long Romantic tradition of protest against a mechanised and sometimes, heartless world”. Something in the protest of Ned Ludd has a home in me. Yes, like many in this room today, I am both optimistic and hopeful for the future of this club but we must know the difference between the two. “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism” said Vaclav Havel, the poet and first president of the Republic of Czechoslovakia, “ … it is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.” For Havel, hope resides in the faith that things have meaning. In other words, hope for this club resides in the chemistry of what makes this club meaningful in the lives of its members. This chemistry is in its core values and in the remarkable story of the club itself.
And now, with your permission, I would like to make a few suggestions some or none of which, are new. Firstly, it is in our nature to be attracted to organisations or endeavours which offer material benefits. It is in our nature to ask “What do I stand to gain by becoming a playing member of Villagers?” Well, you may not get the cash but you will get it in kind.
Fund raising is going to be critical for the survival of the club. Sustainable funding or sponsorship must be found to:
- Provide for a bursary or scholarship fund. Show the members that academic/career interests are taken seriously by the club.
- Provide adequate insurance for acute or chronic injuries or dreaded diseases in young members. Give members a sense of security
- Provide for top quality maintenance of playing fields and surroundings, including the club house. Pay attention to the image of the club.
- Provide a space in the club house for a decent ‘museum’ of photographs, former players, internationals etc. This is part of the club’s legacy … something to be proud of.
- Restore or introduce rituals of acceptance eg … the awarding of a tasselled cap for service to the club or for playing a certain number of games for the first team etc
Finally, I would like to acknowledge, with deep respect and admiration, this club’s decision to retain its amateur status … to go against the flow, even if it may have been under circumstances which offered little choice. It is in many respects a pioneering decision and I would not be surprised if other clubs, in time, follow what you have initiated. Something is already happening – the club I am told now has ninety playing members. I wonder why? The Villagers Rugby Club does not need a sales talk to attract new members. All it needs is to tell its story and to tell it in a way that the listener and future member comes away with a sense that “this club has something to do with me”.
I would like to close with the first and last verse from this wonderful poem by Robert Frost. It is called ‘The Road Not Taken” …
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry, I could not travel both
And be one traveller … long I stood
And looked down as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and hence
Two roads diverged in a wood. And I
… I took the one less travelled …
And that has made all the difference.