The first day at high school was daunting. All those subjects, a different teacher for each and I got lost on the way to physics and again coming out of Latin where we were taught that our motto, “Fortiter et recte”, meant “Bravely and uprightly”. I wasn’t feeling that, not at all.
But the second day after a glance at the timetable looked like more fun: double PE immediately following lunch, wiping out the rest of the afternoon. “Where are the balls, sir?” I asked the games master we’d come to call Hammy, though never to his face. “Right there, you buffoon,” he said.
“But they’re rugby balls, Sir. We mean the footballs.”
“This is Broughton, laddie. We don’t play soccer here and over my dead body will we ever. Now, you look like a middle row to me … ”
I’d never played rugby before – none of us had. And those first few games against other Edinburgh schools were hellish. We were sensitive middle-class boys. Few of us had ever been in a fight. We were the original snowflakes.
Rugby was ruff, tuff and not in the least bit fun. We played Fettes and lost 88-0, which takes some doing in the era of just three points for a try. But then came the eureka moment.
1970 wasn’t just about Pele rolling a pass into the path of Carlos Alberto, hurtling like an express train to confirm Brazil as world champs and the most beautiful expression of the game of football there had been until that moment. Four months after the glories of the Azteca, at Gosforth Greyhound Stadium, the No 4 in the touring Fiji rugby team in their match against the Barbarians tossed the egg to No 5 and suddenly the oval ball game was beautiful, too.
No 4 didn’t simply throw it, he did this one-handed. He’d already run with the ball in one hand from well inside his own half. No 5 collected it one-handed, and moved it on one-handed for Fiji’s sixth and final try. Rugby wasn’t supposed to be played like this, at least not according to our instruction, and certainly not by lock forwards. Every member of the Broughton 2nd XV watched that incredible match on TV. Every one of us thrillingly concluded: “Hammy must have hated that!”
I fell in love with rugby that day and know I wasn’t alone. This despite the wonky camerawork, all of it from behind one set of posts, these appearing to have been hammered together with nails just before kick-off.
It must have been fantastic to have been at that weird ground, clad in a parka and able to run on to the park at the end and acclaim this demonstration of rugby as freeform jazz.
Every time Fiji return to our shores, and they play at a sold-out Murrayfield on Saturday, I think back to 1970 and the one they called Naucabalavu.
Many of the Fijians possessed many syllables but I think only Joeli Naucabalavu – pronounced Nah-oo-kah-bah-lah-voo – had a surname consisting of six. He was the telegraph-pole No 4 who slipped in the even taller Nasivi Ravouvou. Then there was Ilikimi Batibasaga, the scrum-half and top point-scorer on that tour, even though he had a strange kicking style where he almost fell backwards after a penalty or conversion attempt, as if expecting a hammock to have been strung up on palm trees behind him.
How commentator Nigel Starmer-Smith loved the Fijians, and how he loved pronouncing their names. “Rah-voh-voh! Rah-voh-voh!” he’d shout or almost chant. “Oh yes this is good! What an extraordinary man!” They all were in the Fiji team. Every player seemed capable of running with the ball – one-handed – in a bonkers, gleeful way.
You couldn’t tell who was a forward and who a back. I know that’s true of rugby in a physique sense today as backs have become so muscle-plated, but that Fiji team seemed to have been selected on the basis of which 15 players could most likely pass – in a flamboyance sense – for the Harlem Globetrotters.
The Globetrotters were a big draw for any 1970s kid where sport on TV was strictly rationed – and they were a godsend on rain-lashed Bank Holidays when one of their challenge matches against the usual bunch of Soviet goons booted Billy Smart’s Circus into the middle of next week for knockabout magic. What a disappointment it was to discover these games were rigged, that Meadowlark Lemon, pictured, & Co were scripted to win and make fools of their clunky opponents. It was like finding out there’s no Sa*ta Cl*us.
The Barbarians at Gosforth weren’t clunky. They had Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennett and JPR Williams – and two Scots, “likeable hooker, Frank Laidlaw,” in Starmer-Smith’s words who was captain for the day, and Rodger Arneil. But they really had no answer to Nah-oo-kah-bah-lah-voo and his trickshotter mates throwing the handbook of conventional rugger wisdom on the fire with one hand and throwing the ball with the other.
Now I’m not pretending that the Broughton second string were thwarted entertainers. Devotees of the pass that dare not speak its name. Thirteen-year-olds suppressed by dour coaching who were longing for a sign, lighting the way towards a flair and fun-filled future. After all, we were the second string for a reason. But at our next practice we attempted to copy Fiji and would have properly mastered their moves if only our hands had been big enough to hold on to the ball using just the one.
To our surprise, Hammy let us try. Starmer-Smith had called the Gosforth performance “the best concerted piece of interesting, exciting rugby you will have seen for many, many a day”, and while it may not have been our coach’s preferred style, he could see that Fiji had thrilled us.
I’m pretty sure he smiled when we tried to replicate our heroes at the moment of crossing the line – the salmon leaps which presumably earned them the nickname “Flying Fijians”. I’m almost certain he did when the tries were accompanied by the commentator’s hyperbole: “Oh they are playing, they are toying – what a score!”
And the next match? We only lost by 55 points. A definite improvement. Fortiter et recte.