Times Column 18/12/04
Not so long ago, Christmas would have been easier for everyone if rugby players had hung up their boots and taken up golf. Finding a present for a golfer is easy. You can spend less than 10 pounds for the next thirty years and still not reach the second shelf of pitch-mark repairers. A rugby-player, on the other hand, needs a gum-shield. Best get that from the dentist, not Santa.
And that’s it. Until recently, there was simply nothing to buy. Rugby union was a game first, and a set of values second. And to protect those values, it was sincerely believed that rugby couldn’t survive Bill Beaumont putting his name on a book. Commercialism would wilt rugby’s soul, which ought never become a commodity for profit.
So much for a hundred years of harrumphing. The RFU now has the Rugby Store at Twickenham, and England Rugby Clotted Cream Fudge has not led directly to the downfall of the sport. It has, however, made Christmas presents for rugby-nuts that much easier to find. Take your pick from the full range of branded gifts and souvenirs – a Champions souvenir plate, England fridge magnets, a ceramic lion fly-half in the pose of Jonny Wilkinson.
The novelty of using rugby to sell product seems to have led to some confusion about what rugby as a brand might actually signify. A Christmas-shopper at the Rugby Store will find a glass decanter costing one hundred pounds. That same shopper, in the same shop, is then offered a box-set of Twickers Knickers, containing one pair of lady’s white briefs and one red thong (£3.40). For the larger supporter, these are possibly a reminder of how hard it is to get in to Twickenham.
The RFU is not alone in wondering quite where to pitch its new-era products. Christmas in Australia, for example, will this year be brightened by a special edition yellow and green George Gregan sponge-bag. Discounted merchandise is also still available from the 2003 World Cup, and every Official Licensed Product carries the IRB’s clumsy attempt to bridge the past and the future. On the back of every label, the IRB claims that the purchase of this particular key-ring or baseball cap is ‘assisting to develop and promote the game of rugby around the world.’ More like a donation, then, as if rugby was a slightly more brutal version of the World Wildlife Fund.
To avoid this daftness, and if you have a rugby player to please this Christmas, you may think clothes are a safer bet. You’d be wrong. At one end of the market, there are screen-printed XXL T-shirts with ho-ho slogans such as Beer was Invented to Keep Props from Taking Over. Or in Argentina: Rugby Players Eat Their Dead.
At the other end of the scale, looking to spend a bit more money, you could drive to an airport, fly to Paris, get a cab to the 6th arrondissement and buy a formal shirt with oval buttons from Franck Mesnel’s Eden Park boutique. Mesnel, a former French centre three-quarter, has also moved into bedspreads, but even he seems a bit confused about what values rugby as a brand can bring to the world of consumer goods. His clothes are described as élégants and sophistiqués, yet he once used Keith Wood as a model.
This contradiction of marketing messages comes from the breathless speed with which rugby has transformed itself into a fully functioning commercial entity. Before 1996, the brand known as rugby union existed, and the values it stood for were fiercely protected. However, they were never tested in the market-place, and the result has been both unexpected and revealing. The rugby brand adds value to a vast range of diverse products, from Franck Mesnel’s Collection Femme to the skimpy red thong of a Twickers Knickers two-pack.
This is rugby’s greatest strength, not as a brand but as a game. It moves freely between the earthy and the exalted. It doesn’t mean style on the boulevards of Paris, but it doesn’t mean humorous underpants at £3.99 a pair, either. It means both together, and everything in between. What an amazing, contradictory, inclusive sport it is.
So Happy Christmas to one and all, with or without the knickers.