Shocking Stockings

 Times Column 9/10/04

This season, the well-dressed Zurich Premiership player will mostly be wearing – white socks.  Already four clubs, Sale, Bath, Newcastle and Leeds, have sent out teams in the latest rugby fashion, and the country hasn’t seen so many men in white stockings since the court of Charles I.

This surprising new fad is unlikely to be a coded welcome to Prince Harry. So what can be the reasoning behind the decision of four separate Premiership Clubs to choose socks for away-day matches in a colour which might fairly be considered junior schoolish? If not downright netballish.  

Ever since professionalism, kit in rugby has been an issue.  This is partly because as an amateur sport rugby had become so backward that ten years ago teams were still running out in heavy-guage cotton jerseys and shorts with buttons and pockets. Pockets! Of course pockets, or where were the backs supposed to put their hands?  As for the socks, hi-tech meant a cotton tie sewn into the wool, which then stuck out nattily beneath the rollover like a crisp snake’s tongue.

Rugby kit had nowhere to go but forward, and so far its most radical incarnation is the synthetic superhero range revealed for last years’ World Cup.  For once, professional sports-shirt manufacturers couldn’t be accused of marketing cynicism, and trying to shift as many units as possible.  To wear one of these replicas, and not care what your belly looked like, you had to be a true England supporter.  If you could wear one and look good, buffed and chiselled, then you were probably already in the England squad.

It was only a matter of time before someone turned their attention to socks, and this really could be a cynical marketing ploy. Not many fans can wear the shirts or the shorts, but everyone can carry off lycra socks. As at the court of Charles I, even Trevor Woodman and Andy Beattie probably think their calves look shapely in white.

There may also be a valid playing reason.  At some stage in the early nineties, for a match at Cardiff against France, Wales decided to change their socks from red to green. This was to avoid any clash with the French, who also wear red socks, and who were much more likely to be guilty of foul play at close quarters (this was in the days of the innocent Quinnells).  The change didn’t seem to make much difference to the result, but the point had been made.

A clash of sock-colour in rugby can be significant in a way it isn’t in most other team sports.  In the final stages of a shambolic ruck, it may not be easy for the referee to see at a glance which boot is connected to which sock to which leg to which shorts and jersey. Clearly this can affect his decision.  A lower-leg over the ball may be an incompetent attacker delaying release, and even these days incompetence isn’t a punishable offence.  However, it might also be a canny defender getting in the way, which is.

For any coach confident of the virtue of his team, who would never knowingly delay the ball at a ruck with a stray leg, it therefore makes sense to end any possible confusion of socks at the breakdown. And if he’s that sure of their innocence, then the obvious colour to choose is white, pure as the driven snow.

A case could also be made for white socks in open play.  They’re flash, and distracting, and for a flying winger with one man to beat, the white socks can act like Curtly Ambrose’s oversized sweat-band. It’s a simple ploy, and momentarily beguiles the eye.  The defender glances at scything lower legs when he should be concentrating on thighs and hips for the tackle.

Such tiny percentages, we learn from Clive Woodward, add up to a winning combination, and in planning ahead to next summer perhaps he should be thinking socks. The Lions socks seem to have been getting darker with each tour.  They’re supposed to be navy blue, as Scotland’s contribution to the kit, but as the Scottish influence declines they increasingly resemble the English black.

This presents a clear overlap with New Zealand’s sock of choice, and Woodward might like to address the IRB on the problem this can cause both referees and the TV viewer (show them the money).  As the home team, in the courteous tradition of international rugby, New Zealand will have to make a change.

You read it here first – the All Blacks in white socks.  Now that’s a haka I’d pay to see.