A royal rugby lesson
October 7, 2011
England centre Mike Tindall is the latest in a long line of Royals to have had mixed rugby fortunes © Getty Images
Poor old Mike Tindall. It hasn't been a great World Cup for him so far and now he's injured and out of England's quarter-final against France.
He might blame any number of things for his misfortunes. There is the solid Scottish bone and muscle that inflicted the injury. He might cite aerodynamic dwarves, mystery blondes or even the evident fact that captaining England is bad for your health.
But that would be to miss the real villain, which is being, by marriage, a member of the royal family. History shows that rugby and the Windsors really don't mix - not happily anyway. Tindall may have been lulled into a false sense of security by joining the one branch of the family that clearly does like the game. His brother-in-law Peter Phillips played well enough to be selected for Scotland Schools. His mother-in-law Princess Anne is the one royal who appears to regard the patronage duties that go with her status as something to be enjoyed rather than endured.
Other parts of the family may have a different view. Take the chap that Mrs Tindall presumably knows as Uncle Charles - the Prince of Wales to the rest of us.
He went to school at rugby-playing Gordonstoun, which he is known to have hated, and hardly seems one of nature's rugger-buggers. Sent, as part of his preparation for investiture as Prince of Wales, to a Wales-Ireland match, he was treated to the sight of Wales captain Brian Price laying out opposing lock Noel Murphy and newspaper headlines proclaiming 'A Right Royal Punch-Up'. And that's before you even think about Will Carling. Little wonder he sent his sons to soccer-playing Eton.
Prince Charles's mum has never pretended to show much interest in any sport whose practitioners do not have a leg at each corner - and scrums clearly do not qualify. But her job does involve a certain amount of compulsory attendance at big matches, which is how she came in 1999 to have to hand the World Cup over to John Eales, who had earlier in the day voted to depose her in Australia's referendum on becoming a Republic.
The Queen at least won that part of the fixture, which is more than can be said for earlier members of the family in a trio of excruciating conversations between 1928 and 1936 that almost certainly fixed rugby in the family's collective psyche as something to be treated with extreme wariness.
The two early examples appear to derive from what must be a running problem for royals - what on earth do I say to make conversation? George V fell into this trap when attending the Calcutta Cup match in 1928. Talking to James Aikman Smith, dominant figure of the Scottish Rugby Union in its most intransigently austere era, he asked why the players were not numbered for ease of identification.
Accounts of the precise wording of Aikman Smith's response vary, but all make it clear that while George V might be constitutional monarch of the United Kingdom and Emperor of India, his preferences cut little ice here : "This sir", one account says he said 'is a game for gentlemen, not a cattle market".
Nor were George V's sons any luckier. The then Duke of York, later George VI, has re-entered fading public consciousness thanks to the film, The King's Speech. Despatched to Twickenham in 1933 he may have felt that inadequate briefing by his officials rivalled the famous speech impediment as a problem after he had flabbergasted 'Jenny' Greenwood, who as president of the RFU was high priest of the game's cult of amateurism, by asking 'Do you pay your players well?'
Three years later elder brother Edward, Prince of Wales and only a few days from the start of his short and ill-starred reign as Edward VIII, was sent in turn to Twickenham to watch England play the touring All Blacks. England had included wing Alexander Obolensky, still technically Russian.
Encountering the exotic debutant as players lined up to be introduced before the match Edward asked, with a considerable lack of warmth 'By what right do you play for England?' A less socially confident individual than Obolensky might have been shaken. But as the scion of a Russian family entitled on grounds of antiquity of line to regard the Windsors as Germanic upstarts, Obolensky was probably the only other person at Twickenham who regarded himself as, at the very least, the Prince of Wales's social equal. He responded with equal hauteur and a calculated pause 'I attend Oxford University….sir'.
It could be worse. Rugby has never claimed the life of an heir to the throne, as an abscess attributed to being struck by a cricket ball did for Frederick, Prince of Wales, in 1750. Nor has it threatened a breach of diplomatic relations with a leading member of the Commonwealth (although watch this space if New Zealanders get another chance to blame a British referee for a World Cup defeat) as cricket's bodyline crisis did in 1933.
Did Tindall, who on extremely limited acquaintance seems to be affable and unpretentious rather than regal, know any of this before he exchanged vows earlier this year? That's not remotely to suggest that he might have called it off. But perhaps a ceremony that seems simply to have ratified a happy and longstanding relationship might have been postponed until after he stopped playing, freeing him from the Royal rugby jinx that has clearly struck again in New Zealand.
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