England's rugby match against Australia at Twickenham last Saturday was my first visit to the home of English rugby in 42 years. During my school days, football was not only third best after rugby and cricket but frowned upon. I quickly rebelled, rejecting what I saw as the establishment sport and falling for the illicit populism of the round ball.
Since that day I estimate I have been to something like 700 football matches, principally at West Ham where I’ve had season tickets for most of the last 30 seasons.
So what is it like to be a football fan at the rugby? First off, Twickenham’s transport links make Wembley look like Piccadilly Circus. Which idiot decided to site the home of British rugby next to a light industrial estate in zone 5, not even on the tube system, a long walk from the tiny overground station hopelessly ill-equipped for tens of thousands arriving at once? And don’t even think about trying to park nearby.
Once inside, it's the bars that are the single, biggest point of difference. At football there is no drinking permitted within the arena itself which means either missing great chunks of play to queue for and consume beer – or going dry. Whereas here there was beer everywhere; it was sloshing all around me: Twickenham was a sea of Guinness. And there was a constant procession of fans setting off for and returning from refills, coolly carrying eight pints of the stuff at a time. For many the match itself seemed to be merely an excuse for a quite serious drinking session.
Among the crowds there was a little more tweed, a lot less Cockney and no Stone Island at all but they weren’t otherwise that different to the fans at West Ham.
The reason for the reluctance to permit free-flowing booze at football of course relates to that sport’s grim history of crowd violence, my own club being one of the worst offenders. There was a more relaxed and convivial atmosphere here: people wore Australia shirts in our midst and were slapped on the back for it rather than fearing a punch in the face.
When there was a dodgy high tackle on one of our boys, the giant video monitor didn’t shy away from showing the incident up close for fear of inciting the crowd, quite the contrary: they zoomed in and played it on repeat, over and over in violent, head-jolting slo-mo. There were boos in response to this forensic dissection of a foul, yes, but they weren’t the cue for files of stewards to move in to keep the peace as I’m more used to when things hot up in Premier League game.
And perhaps one of the reasons for the calmer atmosphere was the absence of any real singing. Yes there’d be a half-hearted ‘Swing Low’ each time England put points on the board but that was it; as we’d say at the London Stadium: 'You’ve only got one song'. There was certainly no mass taunting, commonplace in football.
Nor did I miss the absence of the amateur manager – those spectators unable to watch any passage of play without audibly sharing their insights into how it might be improved, seemingly oblivious to the fact that not only can the players not hear them but that their neighbours who can simply don’t care. At the football, practically everyone does this; I do it myself, if involuntarily. It’s part of going: 'Play him in...close him down…push up for f***sake.'
We had a chap behind us for several seasons in the nineties who was known to one and all as ‘Options’ because of his trademark despairing cry: 'Options! Options! Where’s his options?!'
At Twickenham I didn’t see or hear a single soul do this. Instead they sensibly left this coaching to Eddie Jones, which seemed to work as England pulled away from the tenacious Aussies and eventually won fairly comfortably.
After my 1980 trip to Twickenham, England won the Grand Slam. Perhaps my very occasional trips are auspicious. Either way I look forward to my next visit, some time around the year 2062.